Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983, is recognized as Japan’s first Disney park. A second Disney park wouldn’t be seen in the country until 2001 with the opening of Tokyo DisneySea. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea now encompass the greater Tokyo Disney Resort, a world-renowned destination home to two Disney theme parks, multiple hotels, and more. In 2018, Tokyo Disney Resort’s parks welcomed over 30 million visitors combined. The two Disney parks are well-regarded by visitors for their immersive theming and groundbreaking attractions, so it comes as no surprise that the resort is a massive success. But did you know that there was a “Disney” park in Japan that came before Tokyo Disney? The first “Disney” park actually opened about 22 years before Tokyo Disneyland, but there’s a catch: the park wasn’t officially owned or licensed by Disney. The so-called “Disney” park was branded as Nara Dreamland, and it was initially intended to be Disney branded.

Image: Orange County Archives

The Original Concept

Nara Dreamland’s story must first start with the story of Disneyland in California. Unlike a traditional amusement park, Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland to be a theme park fun for the whole family, featuring themed lands and attractions designed to immerse guests into some of their favorite stories. Walt’s dream finally became a reality when Disneyland opened in July 1955. However, its first day of operation was a disaster. Rides were breaking down, refreshment stands ran out of drinks, there was a gas leak, and heels were sinking into the asphalt.


Despite Disneyland’s initial complications, corrections were made to the park, and by the time the year was coming to an end, the park welcomed nearly four million guests. Disneyland was a success—and for good reasons.

Not long after Disneyland’s opening, Kunizo Matsuo, a Japanese businessman, visited the park during a trip to the United States. Matsuo saw the potential for the park to perform well in Japan, so he arranged a meeting with Walt Disney himself to discuss plans.

Matsuo was hopeful Disney would agree to allow his park to use Disney properties, so plans for the first international Disney park were laid out, and it was decided that the park would be located in Nara, Japan due to its historic importance for the nation. The park would be similar to that of the original Disneyland park, modeled with a hub and spoke layout and housing recognizable landmarks, some of the same attractions, and similarly themed lands. Like Disneyland in California, Matsuo’s park would consist of a Main Street, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. Unlike Disneyland, however, Matsuo’s park would not have a Frontierland but rather a land themed to ancient Japan.

Construction of the Japan park was well underway, but before the park’s opening, Matsuo was unable to reach a deal with Disney regarding licensing fees; therefore, the park could not use Disney properties as originally intended. Because the park was already near completion, rather than axing the project, the park was simply rebranded to Nara Dreamland and featured new, original mascots.

Nara Dreamland entrance

Early Beginnings

Nara Dreamland officially opened its gates in July 1961, six years after Walt Disney opened Disneyland. It was essentially a knock-off Disney park, still featuring many of the original concepts.

Upon arriving at the park, guests were greeted by a train station just like at Disneyland. Once past the station, guests would walk down a near carbon copy of Main Street, U.S.A., complete with a functional train, a City Hall, a fire station, omnibuses, a horse-drawn trolley, and a recreation of Sleeping Beauty Castle at the end of the road. Beyond Nara Dreamland’s adaptation of Disneyland’s Main Street, the originally planned themed lands of Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Ancestor Land remained.

Nara Dreamland’s Main Street

Also strikingly similar to Disneyland were Nara Dreamland’s attractions, which included variations of Autopia, the Skyway gondola ride, the monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Peter Pan’s Flight, the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Jungle Cruise, and more.

At a time when Japan’s leisure industry was beginning to recover from the impacts the nation suffered due to World War II, Nara Dreamland was a welcome addition. At its peak, the park received 1.6 million guests a year.

Throughout the years, Nara Dreamland saw the addition of new attractions, including kid-friendly carnival-style rides, the Screw Coaster, a wooden roller coaster called Aska, as well as a kids’ coaster. The park’s Ancestor Land was eventually demolished to make way for a new water park.

Nara Dreamland’s castle (Image: Lonely Planet)

An Unfortunate Fate

Nara Dreamland’s rather fair success wouldn’t last. In April 1983, the Oriental Land Company opened its very own park, and the company did what Matsuo failed to do: reach a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. The Oriental Land Company’s park was an official Disney park called Tokyo Disneyland. It had the Disney branding, Disney characters, and the immersive theming Disney’s parks were known for—it was authentically Disney. Tokyo Disneyland was a hit, welcoming over 10 million guests in its first year of operation, far exceeding Nara Dreamland. Tokyo Disneyland’s massive success resulted in the early fall of Nara Dreamland.

In 1993, Nara Dreamland was sold to the Japanese supermarket chain Daiei; however, no significant investments were made in the park under new ownership.

Nara Dreamland’s attendance levels worsened with the opening of a new theme park—Universal Studios Japan—in 2001 just 27 miles (44 km) away in the city of Osaka. Moreover, later that year, the Oriental Land Company opened Tokyo DisneySea just next door to Tokyo Disneyland. These new parks provided better-themed entertainment that Nara Dreamland simply could not offer. Fewer guests visited the Dreamland park, leading to less revenue and the park’s disrepair. With many of the park’s rides shut down and deteriorating, Nara Dreamland ultimately closed in 2006, seeing a low of about 400,000 visitors before its closure.

Image: Lonely Planet

Nara Dreamland’s closure, however, was not quite the end of the park as it remained abandoned. Even years after closing, Nara Dreamland became a popular spot for explorers to visit and document their trip to the well-known Disney knock-off park, showcasing the eerie streets, graffiti-covered walls, overgrown landscaping, and decaying structures.

According to Japan Property Central, the property Nara Dreamland sat on was foreclosed by Nara City in 2013 after the previous owner failed to pay property taxes. Not long after, the city put the property for auction but failed to attract any bids. In 2015, the city once again held an auction for the property, selling it to the only bidder—SK Housing.

Today, Nara Dreamland is no more as the site was completely demolished by the end of 2017. Though the park may be a remnant of the past, it will be remembered for being the greatest Disney knock-off theme park.


John is an avid theme park fan who has a passion for journalism, photography, videography, digital art, and website designing. His goal is to provide in-depth information about topics that universally matter in entertainment and travel.


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