Universal Studios Japan (ユニバーサル・スタジオ・ジャパン)
Because I work for Walt Disney Imagineering, one of the necessary stops in Japan was Universal Studios Japan, near Osaka. In the past, I had not spent much (any) time visiting theme parks when traveling abroad, but since joining Imagineering, I’ve made a point of trying to visit other parks and understand how other companies approach the craft. It was interesting to see signs of how USJ may evolve in the future during my visit. Comcast, the parent company of NBC-Universal, has recently been on a shopping spree. The company now has full ownership of Universal Studios Japan, meaning the expansion and development of the theme park will be much more tightly controlled and more easily enabled.
I started my visit at Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle, or “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” It was a virtual replica in terms of look and feel and layout of the land in Florida. I’m sure that there are subtle differences between the two such as the relative position of the village, castle, and surrounding area development. There is an additional coaster in Florida and of course, a second park which contains Diagon Alley. Nevertheless, it was interesting to visit because this park was full of Japanese guests instead of Americans and I still had never waited the hours necessary to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. After the ride, I had a butter beer and left for other parts of the park.
During the day, I visited every land in the park and visited quite a few attractions. What I saw before me was a wide range of show quality and age. Some of the older areas of the park are worn and feel like they’re in a different park than the newer areas. In particular, the front section (Hollywood) where USJ is currently hosting its Cool Japan attractions looks particularly worn. This is in terms of numbers of guests (low), amount of theming (sparse and temporary), and the overall feel. There were large groups at certain attractions but others looked empty or had very short lines.
Despite this, the newer areas of the park (Harry Potter, Minion Park) show significant investment on the part of Universal and a significant commitment to new and immersive lands and attractions. As Universal is currently in the design and construction phases of their new Nintendo land, it seems that a new and renewed focus on creating amazing experiences is coming shortly.
I was lucky during my visit: one of my friends at Imagineering has USJ friends and helped me get a better experience (in terms of waiting times…) and another friend is currently at USJ Creative (former Imagineer and fellow Stanford alum) and helped me get into the park in the first place. For lunch, I was able to meet my friend in Universal Citywalk and we caught up.
Another Shinkansen Journey
When I was done at Universal, I left the park and returned to Shin Osaka station to take the train to my next destination: Himeji. As usual, the next rapid service to wherever I wanted to go in Japan was a 5-minute wait. I took the Sakura Shinkansen (JR West, JR Kyushu from Osaka to Kagoshima) and made the short journey to Himeji. After checking into my hotel and a quick dinner of Ramen (at nearly closing time), I walked briefly to Himeji Castle and took a few pictures, excited to see the structure in the daylight!