Edward Gentalen -- August 1998 -- Disneyland Paris (Offsite)
In August 1998 my wife, two children and I spent ten days on vacation in Paris. The city was as beautiful as ever, and we had a spectacular trip.
Although it seemed we barely had enough time to touch on everything there was to see in Paris proper, I had promised the kids (ages 8 and 11) that we would put one day aside and go to Disneyland. This despite the fact we live in Orange County, California, and visit Disneyland USA about once a year. As a teen, in the 1970s, I was a cast member at the "Happiest Place on Earth" for three years. I have also been to WDW a couple of times, again back in the 70s. Today Im a design professional, so I have to admit I was curious about how the Walt Disney Company had transplanted the American theme park experience to the middle of France.
So, toward the end of our European stay, we went to see Disney. My wife declined to accompany us, staying behind on the Left Bank. (She had a lovely day without us.)
We had wanted to get any early start, attempting to arrive at the park for the 9 am opening. But breakfast went slowly, as does all eating in France, and it was already 8:45 before we were finally buying tickets at the Luxemburg RER station (the suburban metro). These stations sell tickets for specific destinations, with lower prices for children: just say "Disneyland." Certain metro and train stations in Paris also sell Disneyland admission tickets. It would be a good idea to buy your tickets here in advance--as we were to discover shortly.
Our route required a transfer at the Le Halles metro station, where a train headed for Marne-le-Vallee was available in about ten minutes. By 9:40 the Parisian suburbs had ended and we were nearing our destination. On final approach the railroad right-of-way was depressed below grade, so nothing was visible from the windows of the car but a big grassy berm. The train pulled into a big, nondescript modern railway station which, conveniently, was literally steps away from the entrance to the park.
As you exit the train station you are standing adjacent to the "Village Disney" shopping and entertainment complex. I imagine this is a small scale version of Downtown Disney at WDW. We would return here at the end of the day.
To the right was a gate and landscaped area leading to the ticket booths. From this vantage point, the outside world is completely screened off. I never did see the auto entrance or parking lot and barely glimpsed the surrounding countryside during the entire day.
Disney veterans in the United States will find the most striking addition to the Paris theme park to be the huge, pink Victorian style hotel which straddles the main entrance and features rooms looking straight down main street. Underneath the hotel are the ticket booths, a good strategy considering all snow, rain and cold possible in this part of the world. On this day, however, the weather was beautiful, about 75 degrees, and judging from the length of the lines waiting for entry passes, a perfect day for an outing.
Wait time for tickets was about 20 minutes, and it was clear that things were going to be busy. Although the financial problems of EuroDisney were much publicized when the complex first opened, attendance on this August day would indicate things have turned around dramatically.
A general note regarding language and employees: All signage throughout the park is in both French and English, and we never had the least problem reading or understanding anything. All casts members that I attempted to communicate with turned out to be good or fluent English speakers. On top of that, the cast members were the most enthusiastic bunch Ive ever come across at a Disney property. I had read many media stories about how French employees had been unable to adapt to the Disney style; early in 1998, in fact, performers who dressed as characters had been on strike. None of this was apparent on the day of our visit. Disneyland USA would be hard pressed to field a group of cast members with this much energy.
Tickets secured, we emerged out from under the Disneyland Hotel to a large plaza in front of the train station. The entry sequence here is similar to all the Magic Kingdoms: from the tunnel under the railroad tracks and into the town square. The kids were amused: talk about déjà vu. As we rounded the corner into Main Street proper, however, my daughter gave a little gasp at the sight of Sleeping Beautys Castle. We were definitely not in Anaheim anymore.
It quickly becomes clear that Disneyland Paris shares many good qualities with Disneyland USA. The scale of the two parks is very similar. This is not a jumbo, WDW-type Magic Kingdom. Main Street and the adjacent lands are all about the same size as in California, with much of the same richness and density in the details. The castle here must be the best of any Disney park, perfectly magical.
Our plan was to hit the E rides first, before the crowds, just like in Anaheim. The only problem was that by 10:10 am the crowds were already there. First stop was Indiana Jones, which was closed, a mechanical problem. We turned to Frontierland, where the wait for Big Thunder appeared to be a workable 40 minutes. From the queue we were able to get a good view of the surrounding area, so the time spent wasnt unpleasant.
Frontierland is nicely themed at Disneyland Paris. There is no Tom Sawyers Island, rather Big Thunder tunnels under the river from the loading area and utilizes the island in the middle of the Rivers of America for the bulk of the ride. Nearby and adjacent to the river are the Phantom Manor (read: Haunted Mansion) and a couple of popular restaurants and retail stores.
Once we had completed Big Thunder, and purchased the souvenir photo, we headed back to Adventureland. First surprise: my daughter, who at age 8 has ridden every theme park thrill ride in Orange County, was not tall enough (by at least 6") to be allowed on Indiana Jones. It turned out that the Indy ride was not comparable to the attraction at Disneyland, rather it was a roller coaster with a runaway mine train storyline. The ride features an upside down loop, and height restrictions were being carefully monitored by a cast member. Well, one less 40 minute wait.
Next we crossed over to Discoveryland to get a better feel for the layout of the entire park. This area has similarities to the recently remodeled Tomorrowland in Anaheim. We checked out Space Mountain, but once again my daughter was not tall enough to ride. She loves the Disneyland version of this attraction, but a cast member with a measuring stick told us that this ride also featured upside down loops, and height restrictions were sacrosanct.
There was nothing to do but eat lunch. We cruised into Fantasyland and, since we had not had American food in quit some time, picked an establishment serving hamburgers. Big mistake. This was not only the worst meal we had while in France, but the worst food I can ever remember eating. Im not sure what the hamburger patty was made from, but it barely resembled or tasted like meat. The burger was garnished with some sort of dressing that appeared to be a blend of mustard and mayo, but tasted unlike anything Ive ever had before. And it was lukewarm, at best. My daughter took one bite and spit it out with an "ugh!" This got some laughs from the adjacent table. We cleaned up the hamburger buns, added a gallon of ketchup, and ate our $23 inedible lunch the best we could. I would be buying snacks later in the afternoon to make up for this fiasco.
By this time the restaurant was filling up fast, and Fantasyland in general looked like a mob scene. We would not be riding Snow White, Peter Pan or any of the other C-ticket rides, it simply was not worth the wait.
One intriguing attraction unique to Paris Disneyland (and not too crowded) was a walk-through maze called Alice in Wonderland. It featured tall hedges, strange fountains and mechanical pop-up cutouts in scenes from the story; my children found it amusing.
There are two other similar attractions at this park, both apparently designed to give large crowds something to do without waiting in line.
One is "Aladdin" located in Adventureland and the other is "Sleeping Beauty" located, naturally enough, in the castle. Both are a walk-through series of dioramas with scenes from the animated films. My kids liked both of these experiences, and although they are well done, they seemed a bit low budget. In addition to Sleeping Beauty, there is a giant audioanimitronic dragon in a cave under the castle that is good for a quick look when youre in the area.
We headed back to Adventureland, grabbed some ice cream bars, and did a little exploring. There is a large Tom Sawyer-like play area with rope and pontoon bridges to scramble on, but everything was packed with people so the kids couldnt really let loose. Adjacent was a lagoon with a Captain Hook pirate ship and a skull rock waterfall. Pirates of the Caribbean had (only) a half hour wait, so we charged right in.
At this point we were beginning to experience an interesting phenomenon. Although the park is packed to capacity, waiting times were decreasing. I attributed this to the fact the people were getting down to the serious business of eating lunch, as well as preparing to watch the parades and shows scheduled for the afternoon. The mid-priced restaurants seemed very busy, even late in the day.
Pirates turned out to be a great version of the ride, better than WDW and approaching the Disneyland classic. Again cast members were very enthusiastic, cheering guests on as they entered the boats and roaming the queue acting like pirates. (Haaaargh!)
Back in Discoveryland we rode the Autopia (only a 10 minute wait) and then Timekeeper (short wait). The Timekeeper show is in French but headphones are available for translation into different languages. Judging from the European settings in the film (starring Gerard Depardieu and Jeremy Irons), I imagine that this version of Timekeeper is different from the one at WDW.
The Star Tours line was shorter than it had been in the morning, but still much too long for veterans like us. We crossed the park again to try Phantom Manor. The queue was a half hour, and turned out to be an interesting wait. We were surrounded by what seemed like an international cast of thousands all eating afternoon snacks, most of which Ive never seen before, and chatting in a dozen foreign languages. Many must have had wine with lunch, because it was a pretty happy bunch. The ride itself was similar to Haunted Mansion but with a French soundtrack. Again, excellent ride operators.
By this time we had been in the park about six hours and the crowded conditions were beginning to wear us down. We decided to make our way out and investigate the adjacent resort hotels. The Main Street shops were absolutely packed--you literally could not move in them--so we exited and carried our shopping over to Village Disney.
Compared to being inside the theme park, the adjacent resort area seemed abandoned. Village Disney was designed by renowned American architect Frank Gehry, but at 5:00 pm the place looked desolate. Im sure its livelier at night when the lights kick in and more people are dining outside. The stores were quit busy, however, but we couldnt find any T-shirts we liked.
Village Disney sits adjacent to a large lake surrounded by three resort hotels.
Immediately to the north is the Hotel New York designed by Michael Graves, the same architect who did the Swan and Dolphin hotels at WDW. This hotel is much lower key, however, more like a convention hotel. We walked through the lobby and followed a bus across the street to check on the lower priced hotels.
The most interesting of these was the Hotel Cheyenne, a cheap motel disguised, literally, like a typical 19th century American frontier town. This hotel was designed by Robert Stern, who is also responsible for the WDW boardwalk hotels. Side by side with the Hotel Cheyenne is the Hotel Santa Fe, which is a cheap motel disguised as a Pueblo Indian dwelling. This place must be amusing to the Europeans (or the price is right) because it seemed very busy. The parking lot for the Hotel Santa Fe is shaped like a drive-in movie theater, and above the entrance to the hotel is a huge billboard / movie screen with a painted scene of Clint Eastwood grimacing at the audience below.
There are two additional large resorts at Disneyland Paris, but it was 6 p.m. and time to head back to the city for dinner. We were used to walking, but a day like this is still tiring. The train departed almost immediately after we stepped on board and we were back on the Boulevard St. Michel by seven.
Recommendations: If you are an American on your first visit to Europe with, say, three or four days in Paris you should not waste a precious day at Disneyland. The park is very similar to Disneyland USA, but with many fewer attractions, and the resort experience here would be dwarfed by WDW.
If you are on an extended stay in France, or youre a Disney maniac who just has to have it, by all means indulge. The theme park is state of the art and clearly shows the Disney "Imagineers" have not lost their touch. The surrounding resort, dropped as if from space into the French countryside, is a fascinating case study of Disney corporate planning and American concepts of leisure.
gentalen @ pacbell.net