MAIHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Disney characters who meet-and-greet in Japanese and a staff that speaks only Japanese mean that many of the attractions at Tokyo's Disney resort are lost, without translation, for non-Japanese speakers.
"The problem is the language," said Chanida Towithelertkul, a Thai tourist who said her Chinese, English and Thai-speaking tour group was frustrated by the language barrier at the resort.
As it marks its 25th anniversary on Tuesday and looks towards the next quarter century, attracting new markets such as foreign tourists, seniors and men may be crucial for the Disney resort in a country with the world's fastest ageing population. By 2055, 40 percent of Japan's population will be aged over 65.
"There is no way that the decrease of the population parameter is going to be a positive factor," said Naoshi Nema, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo.
The first Walt Disney theme park to open outside of the United States, Tokyo Disney Resort includes Disneyland and DisneySea, a water theme park, two hotels and a shopping mall.
The parks, which generated $3.2 billion last year, have about 25.8 million annual visitors, over 96 percent of them from Japan. About 84 percent of visitors are aged 39 and under.
Unless the resort can persuade regulars to visit more often or win over a new customer base, the number of guests is bound to dwindle as Japan's population declines, Nema said.
Attracting tourists from abroad would be a sharp shift for a theme park that is so focused on the domestic market that it sometimes fails to address the needs of foreigners.
Signs are in English and Japanese and maps are available in English, Chinese and Korean but that's about where it stops.
During a visit to the park on a busy spring afternoon, foreign tourists complained that the park was not user friendly as they stood in two hour queues for the rollercoaster and other rides and 30 minute queues for food.
Few seemed to know about a "fastpass" service to book rides in advance which is popular with locals.
Oriental Land Co Ltd, the Japanese company that owns and operates the resort under a license from the Walt Disney Co, says it wants to tap the potential abroad.
"This is still a small part of the total number of visitors, but I think it is an area that we can definitely grow in," Yoshiro Fukushima, president of Oriental Land Co Ltd, told Reuters in a recent interview.
Tokyo Disney promotes the resort to travel agencies in Asia where an economic boom may provide fertile markets for the park. Yet it has not mounted an aggressive campaign to attract tourists from abroad unlike smaller rival Universal Studios Japan, a theme park that opened in 2001 in western Japan.
Foreign tourists to Universal Studios' theme park rose to about 10 percent of the total visitors of 8.6 million in the 2006/2007 financial year, up from around 3 percent in 2004, as the company set up marketing offices in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
A six hour trip from Southeast Asia and about 12 hours from Europe, there are a lot of reasons why tourists who make the journey to Japan might opt to spend their limited time soaking up traditional Japanese sights or visiting Tokyo's world famous Ginza and Akihabara shopping districts instead of trekking to the theme park on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Perhaps foremost among them is the expense. A family of four can expect to spend around $1,400 on a two-day visit including hotel, food and souvenirs, while a single person is likely to spend about $160 for a day trip.
Tokyo Disney is also looking to attract seniors as Japan ages. It launched a cheaper annual pass for seniors in March and it has begun to host entertainment such as horticulture exhibitions and a circus theatre for those with more sophisticated taste.
Men are another potential market. A staggering 73 percent of visitors are female possibly due to the enormous popularity of Disney characters among Japanese females.
Finding the right mix to attract new customers, such as more men, without making radical changes that might alienate its traditional female customer base will be a challenge for Tokyo Disney but one that may pay off as Japan ages.
Another looming challenge for Disney is managing competition with other Disney parks in Asia.
So far, struggling Hong Kong Disneyland is hardly a threat. But Disney is pondering setting up a park near Shanghai. The plan is on hold due to concern it might undermine Hong Kong Disney. Yet most experts agree it is only a matter of time until Disney sets up a resort in mainland China.
Despite the challenges, Tokyo Disney is optimistic as it turns 25.
"There still are many people who have never visited the parks, so we plan to market the parks in a precise way for those people," Fukushima said. "We are starting fresh on this 25th year."
Editing by Megan Goldin