Nara Dreamland: Japan’s Failed Attempt At Challenging Disneyland

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: Jordy Meow / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

There are few theme parks as magical as Disneyland. In the mid-1900s, a Japanese businessman sought to bring that magic across the Pacific Ocean, resulting in the construction of Nara Dreamland. While a successful tourist attraction at first, the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983 led to its decline and eventual closure.

Creation of Nara Dreamland

Following its recovery after World War II, Japan saw a spike in the popularity of American culture. Businessman Kunizo Matsuo, president of Matsuo Entertainment Company, decided to capitalize on this after a visit to Disneyland in the mid-1950s, and approached Walt Disney about opening a similar park in Nara, Japan.

Aerial view of Nara Dreamland

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Matsuo teamed up with WED Enterprises, a subsidiary of Disney behind the construction of Disneyland and Walt Disney Imagineering, to construct the park. It was built under the name Japanese Dream Sightseeing Company.

Statue of the Queen's guard standing in front of a pink castle

Photo Credit: Ivan Lucas / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

As construction on the park progressed, Matsuo decided he didn’t want to pay the exorbitant licensing fees for use of Disney‘s iconic characters. Instead of abandoning the project, he paid WED Enterprises for its work and created a new concept: Nara Dreamland.

Aerial view of the Nara Dreamland parking lot

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Nara Dreamland opened on July 1, 1961, to massive fanfare. At its peak, it averaged a total of 1.7 million visitors per year.

A Disney-like design

Nara Dreamland was designed to look nearly identical to Disneyland. This included its entrance, which featured its own versions of Main Street, U.S.A.; the train depot; and Sleeping Beauty Castle. One of the main attractions was its Matterhorn-style mountain and Skyway, which featured the Bobsleigh ride. Visitors also enjoyed riding the iconic Figure-8 monorail.

View of Nara Dreamland through tree branches

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Nara Dreamland featured copies of themed areas at Disneyland, including Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. Within could be found an Autopia ride, a Jungle Cruise-style ride, and a Mad Tea Party-style ride, among others.

Nara Dreamland train depot

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There were a few differences between Disneyland and Nara Dreamland. Matsuo invented his own theme park mascots, Ran-chan and Dori-chan, two children dressed as bearskin guards.

Sign written in Japanese

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There were also quite a few rides visitors wouldn’t see at Disneyland. This included the Aska, a wooden rollercoaster loosely based on Coney Island‘s The Cyclone, and the Screw Coaster, a double-corkscrew steel roller coaster. Other attractions included double-decker omnibuses, a log flume, go-karts, and a carousel.

Decline and closure

In 1979, the Oriental Land Company approached the Walt Disney Company with interest in bringing a Disney theme park to Tokyo, Japan. Four years later, Tokyo Disneyland opened, causing Nara Dreamland’s annual number of visitors to decline to around one million. People were more interested in visiting an actual Disney park, as opposed to a knock-off.

View of Nara Dreamland from the parking lot

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Supermarket chain Daiei purchased Matsuo Entertainment Company, obtaining ownership of Nara Dreamland in the process. However, it failed to make any real investments in the property.

The inside of a telephone booth

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Tokyo DisneySea opened beside Tokyo Disneyland in 2001. That same year, Universal Studios Japan opened in Osaka, approximately 40 kilometers from Nara Dreamland. Both saw immediate success, with Universal Studios attracting 11 million guests during its first year. Unfortunately for Nara Dreamland, its visitors dipped to 400,000, an all-time low.

Aerial view of the Nara Dreamland parking lot and a large building

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Nara Dreamland began to fall into disrepair in 2004, with stores closing and attractions beginning to rust. The park officially closed on August 31, 2006.

Sale of Nara Dreamland and its demolition

Nara’s government soon gained ownership of Nara Dreamland after the park’s owner fell behind on their property taxes. The site was put up for auction in 2013, but failed to generate any offers. It was once again put up for sale in 2015, this time selling to Osaka-based real estate company SK Housing for 730 million Yen, or $6 million USD.

Telephone booth along an abandoned road

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Wikimedia Commons

After its closure, the theme park became popular with urban explorers, who regularly navigated past security guards tasked with patrolling the site. Once inside, they found the attractions and buildings covered in rust, but largely still intact. There was also evidence that nature was reclaiming the land, with bushes and trees growing into the once-mighty roller coasters.

View of Nara City from the rooftop

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The site also piqued the interest of paranormal investigators, drawn there by reports of strange noises coming from the park’s boats. However, experts speculated the sounds were the result of bullfrogs or a water pump.

View of a rollercoaster at Nara Dreamland

Photo Credit: JP Haikyo / Wikimedia Commons

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In October 2016, a Japanese newspaper reported that Nara Dreamland was undergoing demolition, a claim confirmed by regular visitors to the park. The demolition process took 14 months, ending in December 2017.