Visitors to Tokyo Disneyland have been left deflated after the park stopped selling helium-filled balloons shaped like Mickey Mouse and other characters.
The move came because of a worldwide shortage of the lighter-than-air gas, the park's operator said yesterday.
The popular balloons were withdrawn from sale last week, a spokesman said, because the company was having difficulty securing a stable supply.
"Delivery of our orders cannot be fulfilled" because suppliers are finding it difficult to obtain the gas, said an official at Oriental Land, which operates Disneyland and the next door Disneysea park.
"We will resume sales of balloons as soon as we can secure supplies," he said. Helium comes from a relatively small number of natural gasfields, with the United States having long served as a major producer for Japanese customers.
It is a non-renewable resource. All the world's helium was produced by the radioactive decay of rock long ago. Once the gas is leaked into the atmosphere it bleeds off into space, never to return.
"We may run out of helium within 25 to 30 years because it's being consumed so freely," said Anne Marie Helmenstine, a chemistry writer for About.com.
Rising demand and the artificially low cost of the gas is combining to exacerbate dwindling supplies.
Most of the world's supply of helium is held by the US National Helium Reserve, which was mandated in 1996 to sell off all of its stockpile by 2015, regardless of price.
The US government price for "crude" helium is US$75.75 per 1,000 cubic feet (for open market sales only). That price was established as a result of a 2010 government study but the figure reflects only a 1 per cent increase from the previous $75.
In 2009, the estimated price range for private industry's Grade-A gaseous helium was $125 to $145 per 1,000 cu ft. In 2010, that increased to about $140 to $160, with some producers posting surcharges.
With increasing demand and diminished supply, these prices will continue to escalate.
The global helium shortage has been a problem among MRI scanner manufacturers, which use it as a coolant, for the past few years but has become more acute over the last few months, the Nikkei newspaper said this week.
Growing demand as well as difficulties at a production site in the US are to blame for the paucity, according to the business daily.
Unfortunately for Tokyo Disneyland visitors, the supply to the party balloon business comes some way down the list of priority customers.
John Lee, the chairman of the balloon industry body Nabas, is preparing to advise members on ways to cope without helium.
"It is serious," he said.
"It is not something that is going to rectify itself within a short space of time. People have predicted that by 2020 there will be no more helium left for the party industry."