I’ve only visited Disneyland Paris once and it’s hard to believe that it was almost seven years ago this autumn. Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world. It is an ancient city that proudly preserves its architectural evolution. The French feel quite strongly about their history; they practically invented the word patriotism. And so it is no surprise that it is a French tradition to loathe anything new, especially when it smacks of American pop culture. When architect I.M. Pei began building his now famous glass pyramid outside the Louvre in the late 1980s, many Parisians were completely galled. The futuristic glass pyramid, plopped right smack in the middle of the Louvre’s main courtyard, was a jarring juxtaposition to the musuem’s rambling Baroque facade. Over time, however, as critics and tourists around the world began to flock to see the new structure and laud its design and imagination, the French people embraced the pyramid as a symbol of French avant-garde and individualism. If you were to ask a Frenchman today about the controversy surrounding the pyramid he would most likely look at you perplexedly and say, “Quelle controverse?”
When the Disney corporation took on the task of looking for a strategic site for its first European theme park, France seemed to be among the most logical choices. Its proximity to every other European nation, including the United Kingdom, and its generally temperate climate made France seem like the ideal choice. However, as history would later reflect, the decision was a near disaster for Disney and in typical French fashion the outcry was immediate. The park was called everything from American imperialism to a cultural Chernobyl. One reporter writing for the newspaper Le Figaro said, “I wish with all my heart that the rebels would set fire to Disneyland.” Yikes!
In 2011, nearly fifteen million people visited Disneyland Paris. Over fifty percent of those visitors were French. Over time the park has become a beloved landmark in France and is, without a doubt, one of Disney’s most beautiful parks. After a name change (originally the park was called Euro Disney, which many negatively associated with the currency of the same name and the new European Union) and the addition of a few new and unique attractions, the park saw a turnaround in the mid 90s. There is something about Disneyland Paris that is truly French and sets it apart from Disney’s other parks. It is a gem among Disney’s more ambitious projects and should you find yourself anywhere close, you should make a point of visiting it.
Despite the park’s name, Disneyland Paris is not actually in Paris. It is located in the town of Marne-la-Vallée about twenty miles from the center of Paris. If you purchase your tickets online in the States ahead of time your train fare is included in the ticket price. The trip is short and pleasant and the train drops passengers off right at the entrance plaza to the park.
The year I visited the park I had been in Paris for over a week. The weather had been balmy and absolutely gorgeous. I spent a lot of time hopping on and off of trains as I galavanted around the city and the metro stations were plastered with posters advertising Disney’s Halloween festivities. Even though I could spend my life browsing through Left Bank antique shops or laying in the grass on the Champs du Mars soaking up sun and munching on a French treat, I couldn’t wait to finally visit the park on my last full day in Paris.
Disneyland Paris has many of the same popular attractions that you’ll find at Disney’s other parks. However, the Paris park did some new riffs on a few of the old favorites. The Haunted Mansion (called Phantom Manor) here is themed to the Old West and tells the story of a jilted bride who haunts the old Victorian mansion in the center of Frontierland. It is a gorgeous piece of Disney imagineering and a very popular attraction.
One of the most unique things about Disneyland Paris is the park’s treatment of Tomorrowland. This area of the park has a Jules Verne flair to it making it a romantic Victorian vision of the future. I was taken by surprise by Space Mountain, which is based on Verne’s Voyage to the Moon. Unlike your grandmother’s Space Mountain this ride blasts you from a cannon and sends you soaring at breakneck speed through space. I’ve never been a fan of rollercoasters and when the harness came down over my shoulders I realized I had gotten in over my head. But I’m glad I experienced the ride. The queue is gorgeous and the Verne theme is really something unique even though I had to recover my nerves from the corkscrews and loops in the ride!
One of the park’s other unique attractions is the Queen of Hearts Maze. Based on Old English hedge mazes the walkthrough attraction is beautifully designed with a small castle at the center where you are afforded fabulous views of the surrounding gardens.
Just like Disney’s other parks, the attention to detail at Disneyland Paris is what really makes the park shine. Everywhere you look you are visually stimulated by the design and the immaculate condition of everything from the grounds to the rides themselves.
After lunch that afternoon I was sitting with my friend looking over the park map. We were deciding our plan of attack for the rest of the afternoon. Now, believe it or not, up until then I had never visited Disneyland in Anaheim (shocking, I know). One of the attractions that I had always was wanted to see was the Indiana Jones ride. Looking at the Paris map, however, it warned of being a thrill ride with steep drops. Being a Mr. Know-it-All, however, I was convinced that that was just hyperbole used to err on the side of caution. I was completely aware of what the Indiana Jones ride in Anaheim entailed and was completely sure this was the same animal. Oh how wrong I was. The title should have given it away – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Anyone with half a brain would have realized that the ride was in fact a thrill ride and was based on the movie’s most famous scene where Indy and Shortround have a hair raising ride in a runaway coal car. Good Lord. It was a beautiful ride and, as always, the queue was very well done but for a roller coaster scaredycat like myself it was quite an experience!
The one thing that I’ve always loved about Disney parks is that they have a variety of rides to suit the taste (and nerves) of just about everyone. After recovering from my two paralyzing rollercoaster forays I spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the old favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean. Paris’s version has more dips and falls than the others and it is probably my favorite Pirates ride out of all the parks.
Perhaps it was the perfect weather, or perhaps it was the gentille behavior of the European clientele but I was so taken with this park that I actually felt a lump begin to well up in my throat as we were leaving that day. I suppose this happens whenever you leave any Disney Park but I felt that my time here was definitely too short. It’s not a large park, by any means, but one day just wasn’t enough for someone who loves to soak up the atmosphere of a Disney park.
My visit to Disneyland Paris is one of my fondest Disney memories. I plan on returning in the near future and this time I will stay for more than a day. The park may have had a rocky beginning but it truly is a gem, a pilgrimage site for any ardent Disney fan.