The idea of visiting a Disney park for only one day runs contrary to everything I value about vacationing. Still, the idea of not visiting a Disney park when I'm anywhere near it is unthinkable.
That explains my marathon visit to Disneyland Paris a few years ago. At the request of one of my readers who will soon be visiting the City of Lights, I offer this advice for visiting one of Disney's loveliest parks.
[Author's note: Attractions and entertainment options may have changed at Disneyland Paris since my visit. The following advice is based on my experience there a few years ago.]
We were staying in Paris, so we simply hopped the Metro for our journey to Marne-la-Vallee. Disneyland Paris has its own Metro stop, so the entire process was very convenient. Because we only had one day, we opted to spend the entire visit at the park. We wanted very much to visit the many Disney Resort hotels, the Downtown Disney area, the Disney Studios, and the other recreational facilities, but knew that that was impossible.
I have to say that spending a Disney day without waking up in a Disney Resort, without Advance Dining Reservations, and without a clear plan for the day was initially disorienting for me. As it turned out, this sense of spontaneity added a sense of playfulness to the adventure and enhanced out enjoyment of the park.
I'd recommend arriving at the park before opening. That allows time to purchase tickets and explore the lobby of the glorious Disneyland Hotel located at the very entrance of the park. This Victorian marvel is truly breathtaking, and I've officially added a stay there to my bucket list.
Main Street is appropriately warm and inviting, although it feels more expansive than its American counterparts. The theme is also slightly different—the 1920s as opposed to the turn-of-the-century—and as a result, the woodwork and lighting fixtures have a slightly different feel.
The Emporium here is bursting with all sorts of Disney-themed goodies, but our favorite shop was Harrington China, a collectible shop named for the town from the Walt Disney film Pollyanna. We had wanted to eat at Walt's, a restaurant on Main Street themed to Walt Disney's life and his adventures in family entertainment, but we didn't understand the reservation process and missed out. My advice is to secure a reservation early in the morning if you have any interest in eating here. It looked beautiful.
Because we are so familiar with state-side Disney parks, we decided to focus on experiences in Paris that differ from those at home. Then, time willing, we thought we would visit old favorites. As it turned out, we had time for both.
The Disneyland Paris answer to Tomorrowland is stunning. Its theme takes a turn-of-the-century science fiction approach with amazing results. Familiar attractions like Space Mountain, the Astro-Orbiter, and even Star Tours sparkle in brass, warm greens, deep reds, and fantastic metallic details. The transition from a Victorian Main Street to this future is seamless, as the architecture in Discoveryland has a Victorian feel to it, despite its futuristic look.
The attractions are also wonderful. Timekeeper (or From Time to Time) originated here, and its homage to the great futurists like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells was a perfect fit. Star Tours features a full-size X-Wing at its entrance. As a result, the entire experience somehow feels more real. At Disney's Hollywood Studios, that reality factor is diminished by the "sound stage" approach to the attraction's entrance. In Paris, the feeling of "being there" is much stronger. Space Mountain is a not-to-be-missed experience, made all the more thrilling by the beautiful design of the building and the exhilarating ride through space.
The emotional highlight of this land, however, is the full-scale re-creation of Captain Nemo's wondrous Nautilus, here envisioned as an elaborate walk-through attraction. Fans of the long-lost 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rejoice, for although there is no "ride" here, the feeling of immersion into the world of Jules Verne is outstanding.
Adventureland is very exotic here and the design of the land is intriguing. There's an Indiana Jones roller coaster, an Aladdin-themed diorama attraction, and an interesting grouping of Disney favorites. The Swiss Family Treehouse is grouped with a Tom Sawyer Island like an adventure area filled with caves themed to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, complete with Ben Gunn's treasure cave. Keeping with the pirates and adventure theme, the classic Pirates of the Caribbean is included in this area of the park. In an inspirational transition to Fantasyland, Peter Pan's Flight bridges the two lands and provides a fitting entrance to a truly beautiful and elaborate Fantasyland.
Faithful retellings of Disney classics populate Fantasyland. These favorites benefit from the technological advances of recent years that serve to enhance the storytelling and look of these beloved favorites. Peter Pan's Flight, Snow White's Scary Adventures, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, and the Storybook Land Boats are all here and beautifully realized.
In this version of Storybook Land, there's a stunning Emerald City from the American classic The Wizard of Oz. There is also an American twist to "it's a small world." An entire section of this attraction is devoted to American landmarks—a farm, a covered wagon, the Statue of Liberty, and the Golden Gate Bridge—represented in the style of the Mary Blair original attraction. There's also an Alice in Wonderland-themed area, complete with the Mad Tea Party and a traditional English maze called Alice's Curious Labyrinth.
The piece de resistance of this area, however, is the castle. Sleeping Beauty Castle is a marvel of tasteful design, daring imagination, and amazing construction. The exterior is landscaped to perfection, capturing the look of the 1959 film and the unique Eyvind Earle artwork in glorious color and texture. Inside, the castle retells the famous French fairytale through traditional artwork of tapestry, stained glass, sculpture, and music. This castle has a sense of reality about it that the American versions seem to lack. This is due in great part to the ability to walk around inside of the castle, to explore the nooks and crannies, to brave the fire-breathing dragon in the dungeon, and to wonder at the Fantasyland view from atop the second-story balcony.
Europeans are fascinated with the Great American West; as a result, Frontierland is very popular and home to many new interpretations of classic Disney attractions. Phantom Manor, the Paris version of the Haunted Mansion, is reimagined here to resemble a broken-down house that is a cross between the Psycho house and the Wild West. It sits atop a lonely hill overlooking the river and Big Thunder Mountain. The interior show is vastly different from the American versions, incorporating the Wild West theme throughout.
Outside of the mansion, a riverboat plies the rivers. The construction of this riverboat seems less authentic somehow than its American counterparts, but the ride offers lovely views. Big Thunder Mountain is a very exciting ride, and the mountain sits on an island in much the way Tom Sawyer Island sits in the middle of the American Frontierland rivers.
We visited in early June, so park hours were shortened and we were disappointed not to experience the park at night. We also had very little luck on the dining front (I love the French, but they have so many rules and customs in regards to dining that our lack of planning meant we were banished to fast food locations). Still, we ended our visit by viewing a wonderful parade and enjoying our last views of the castle from the lovely gazebo located in the Town Square of Main Street.
There is a consistent misconception about Disney's first European theme park that needs to be dispelled once and for all—the idea that Disneyland Paris is a failure.
On the contrary, it is a spectacular artistic success.
There were, of course, the infamous financial woes during its first years of operation. But these were the result of overbuilding hotels, not the result of design or artistic choices. Disneyland Paris has become one of Europe's most popular vacation destinations, and rightly so. It showcases Walt Disney Imagineering at its best—innovation and consistency of design are hallmarks of this park.
To my reader who wondered if a visit here was worth her time and energy, I say a hearty and heartfelt yes. Bonjour!
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.