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Cynthia Wisehart on Sanrio Puroland

Yeah, you can’t go home again. Especially if home is Tokyo. Those of you know me, probably remember that for part of my time as a theme park designer I lived in Tokyo from 1998-91 working for Landmark Entertainment Group and helping to build a $700 million+ indoor theme park for Hello Kitty. I met my husband on site there—he was the project manager for our AV systems vendor Electrosonic. Many of the people we worked with in those years have gone on to top executive creative positions at Disney and Universal. It was the generation that went on to transform American theme parks. Though at the time we were 20-somethings winging it on site.

So it seemed only fitting that one day we would take our daughter there. She turned 16 this year, so off we went. It was surreal. And yet not surprising. Much of the space was still remarkably the same. The brilliant work of the scenic artists and the lighting designers was still gorgeous—still world class actually. (The fixtures were all still incandescent). Much of the ambient soundtrack was still intact and sounded good.

But the theaters—well that’s where it got strange. Many of the beautifully designed animatronic characters had long since lost part of their mechanical function–so they moved in interesting ways if they moved at all. The live shows that filled the common space had evolved to be even more Japanese— one of the shows for little kids had a great gimmick where each child was given a glowing wireless heart that lit up on cue along with the music. A little harder to understand was the show’s cast of costumed characters, which paired large fluffy animal suits with saucy French maids.

By far the strangest of all was a theater that had been built and designed as Discovery Theater. All the spaceship/ science guy theming was still intact. But the show had been turned over to one of Sanrio’s currently beloved characters— Gutedama, the depressed egg yolk. I’m not kidding, it’s literally a depressed egg yolk. The show—like so many I remember from my years in Japan—relied heavily on embarrassing the audience members on camera.

My daughter was dazzled by the peak weirdness of it all. The shows, the blend of artwork, and the truly one-of-a-kind retail. I came away knowing that whatever we had set out to build, we had succeeded in at least one way—there was still no place on earth like Sanrio Puroland. It remained utterly unique 30 years on.

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