This is one of the last articles I wrote for WDWNT that has not been posted here. It’s a review of our honeymoon trip to Disneyland Paris, my first Disney park outside the US.
Bonjour et Bienvenue
Most of my friends had always assumed that when I finally got married, the honeymoon would take place at Disney World. This really was not too much of a stretch when you think about how much of a Disney fan I am. I have been visiting Walt Disney World since I could not even count. I even ran my first marathon at Disney World.
When the big wedding day finally came on September 15th of 2012, we surprised everyone when we did not board a plane for Orlando – rather, we headed to Europe. As much as I love Disney World, I really wanted to do something new and extra special for a honeymoon (not to mention my new husband is not quite the diehard Disney fan that I am).
So it was rather convenient that in the end, I could have my cake and eat it too. On the last full day of our trip, we headed out to the Disneyland Paris Resort (DLPR) – which has Disneyland Paris and Disney Studios parks. This was my first trip to DLPR – my first to any Disney park outside the United States for that matter.
Of all the Disney parks, Disneyland Paris may be the most notorious by reputation. For years, I had heard so much about the place – so much of it negative, often accompanied by the word “failure” – so I was very curious to see what my own feelings would be (particularly having practically grown up at Walt Disney World). What follows are my thoughts on my first all new Disney Resort in 15 years.
Est-ce que vous êtes prets? Alors, allons y! (Are you ready? Let’s go then!)
From our hotel in the center of Paris, we opted to take the train to the resort. Very early that morning, we boarded the Metro to the Auber station on the RER A line. The RER is Paris’ regional train system (for any New Yorkers reading this, think MetroNorth). The ride was pretty quick (under an hour) and the station was literally right at the gate of the resort. It is the last stop on the line, so it is hard to miss. (Be aware that the RER A has two different terminal stations. Make sure you get on the train bound for Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy.) While I found the Paris Metro extremely easy to navigate, with well placed signs in multiple languages, the RER was not as clear. Be sure to look at the TV screens on the platform to be sure you are getting on the right train as the trains had no announcements of any kind.
Returning on the train was easier, although very crowded as we left at park closing time. We had to stand the entire way back, and these trains were not designed with standing passengers in mind. Still, it was way less than the cost of a cab, and many MANY more people seemed to be heading to the parking lot than the train station after the park closed.
The first thing that struck me about the resort was that it is very beautiful. It was immediately obvious that this was a Disney resort. Right from the start, you encounter very pretty landscaping – complete with running streams and beautiful plant life.
It was a rather chilly day, despite being only the end of September. I imagine that this can be a pretty brutal place to visit when the winter month weather hits, something the U.S. parks don’t have to deal with, at least not beyond the occasional cold front.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the resort is that it is rather small. Certainly nothing can compare to Walt Disney World, but the Paris resort felt even smaller than Disneyland in California. Even looking at the map before entering, it seemed that a lot was missing. There is no Jungle Cruise, no Splash Mountain, no Peoplemover. It looked a little sparse compared with the jam-packed park maps from the U.S. parks, particularly the Magic Kingdom-style parks. Here, they are able to put both parks onto a single map.
Once inside, I did feel pretty much at home. Despite the differences, it is a Disney resort, and those of us who have spent substantial parts of our lives at other Disney resorts will instantly feel comfortable once inside the gates.
One last observation I would like to mention: Ever since the resort opened, I had heard about how the French hated the place. How they would not go. How it was only foreign tourists that you find wandering around. While that may well be true, it most certainly was not the case the day we were there. The parks were PACKED, and nearly everyone was speaking French. So for all the foot stomping and cries of “cultural Chernobyl,” it seems our French friends have also discovered the fun of a day in a Disney park.
A big question a lot of visitors, particularly from America, are likely to have, is whether you need to speak French to navigate the park. You will be glad to know that you could easily get around without speaking a word of French. All of the signage in the park contains English, and nearly all the cast members we encountered spoke it fluently, or enough to be completely understood.
Do keep in mind, however, that most of the attractions with narration are spoken only in French. This may not be a big deal, especially if you already know the English counterpart (the Phantom Mansion’s Stretching Room dialog, for example, is pretty much a direct translation from the Florida Haunted Mansion). For me, this was part of the fun. It was really cool to not only get to ride the original Star Tours again (as the adventures are not yet continuing in Paris), but also to get to hear the entire thing in French.
As far as my French skills go, I can understand the language fairly decently when spoken at a slower speed, and can speak some simple phrases, but I would hardly call myself fluent. But that little bit went a long way. My husband, on the other hand, speaks not a word, and still seemed to get along just fine (even if he was not terribly loved by the citizens of Paris).
Of course, our entire wedding was planned for this year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Disneyland Paris. Okay, that is not true, but we did luck out that it happened that way. The park was decorated for the anniversary, and a whole new nighttime show was created (more on that later) for the event. I love these celebrations (hot pink Castle cake notwithstanding), and was glad to get to see one here. The celebration was not overwhelming, but it did feel like it was a special year. And of course, this meant there was a ton of merchandise to go home with that had the “20” logo all over it, including a lot of pins (so many pins).
If you have been to a Magic Kingdom-style park before (and if you are reading this magazine I will assume that you have), then you know what to expect, at least initially, from this park. It is the typical hub and spoke design, with the castle in the middle. Adventureland and Frontierland have swapped locations here (heresy!) and there is no Tomorrowland, with Discoveryland taking its place.
Upon entering, you will, of course, see the Castle at the end of Main Street. Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle) is smaller than the Florida castle, but noticeably larger than the one in California. It is also the most unique among the Disney Park’s castles. This was done as a result of Europe having a few of the real thing sitting around. The Castle takes on a more fanciful vibe, almost like it is growing out of the landscape.
Perhaps the most radical change to an attraction from the U.S. parks is Space Mountain: Mission 2. The mountain has a more Jules Verne look to it – it was originally inspired by From the Earth to the Moon. It is closer to Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster than its siblings. It features a catapult launch into the mountain (it actually starts outside), inversions, and special effects timed to the vehicle, and overall is a more standard steel, coaster-type train. This may be one of the standout attractions of the entire resort. It is a great coaster, and the first place we went when we entered the park.
In addition to Space Mountain, there are two other roller coasters at Disneyland Park. One is Big Thunder Mountain. While the layout of this coaster is more or less a copy of the Floridian version, there is one big difference. The entire attraction, other than the loading area, is out on an island. Imagine Tom Sawyer Island being taken over by Big Thunder. The train goes under the water at the beginning and end of the ride. The part at the end was particularly thrilling, as it is entirely in the dark, and the fastest part of the entire ride.
The last coaster is…well…disappointing. If you have ever wished there was an attraction based on the mine cart sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then Indiana Jones et le Temple du Péril will make you wish you hadn’t. While notable as the first Disney coaster with an inversion, the coaster has a boring layout. It is only mildly more interesting than any Wild Mouse coaster you have ridden at any carnival. We lucked out and got there just at the time it opened, and waited in almost no line. If we had spent a significant chunk of our day waiting to ride this, we would not have been happy.
Another classic attraction that is represented here is Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction is closer to the longer Disneyland version than the Walt Disney World version, but with many of the scenes in a different order. I am not quite sure whether this helped the story along or made it more muddled. It may have been a little of both.
One of the major reasons we chose the day we did is that it was the only day of our trip that Phantom Manor was going to be open (that and the weather was very nice that day). The ride is very similar to the Disneyland version, but there are some major differences. Perhaps my favorite is the large staircase backdrop to the loading area. I thought it was stunning, and really puts to shame the dark wall we have in Florida. Once you enter the attic sequence, the ride changes from other versions and becomes much darker. The graveyard contains skeletons, rather than the playful ghosts of the U.S. versions. I could see this being more frightening to small children, but perhaps the French don’t scare as easily.
I could not pass up a trip on It’s a Small World. I love this ride (so I like the song, leave me alone). It’s a classic, it’s fun, it’s relaxing. The Paris version has a little treat too. There is an entire section of the ride for North America, including a Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and Golden Gate Bridge.
Fantasyland here is very beautiful. After visiting both California and Paris, I see why people often referred to Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland as “ugly.” I think that is going a tad too far, but I see where they are coming from. This will all change soon mind you (thank you, New Fantasyland). But the park definitely deserves kudos for making this a very nice area. I stared at Mad Tea Party for several minutes, and I didn’t even ride it. It’s really beautifully done.
One major complaint I had both about this park and the next was the Fastpass system. Those machines are terrible. I cannot tell you how many times we saw people desperately attempting to scan their park tickets, only to receive nothing for their efforts. And trust me, this is not guests being dumb. I tried it myself, and those machines are evil. Part of the issue is that there are two different types of tickets at Disneyland Paris. One is a magnetic strip (anyone who has ever had an annual pass replaced knows how flaky those can be). The other is a barcode, due to the fact that you can print your own tickets at home. One would think the barcode would work better, but if there was a right place to hold the ticket to make it work, I never found it. And all this drama led to some of the Fastpass distribution lines being painfully long. Merci Parc Disneyland, réparez le Fastpass.
Walt Disney Studios
I had previously put Disney California Adventure (DCA) at the bottom of my list of Disney Parks. That list now has a basement, and therein lies the Walt Disney Studios. With DCA improving, the Studios seems to have not only slid into DCA’s former space, but managed to be even worse in many respects.
A quick list of the problems of this park would include the small size, the terrible layout, the overall cheap feeling to it, and the small number of attractions. But maybe the biggest issue I had was the sheer congestion in this place. All of the attractions had ridiculously long lines. We ended up skipping Tower of Terror entirely as they, for some reason, were not offering Fastpass, and the wait time was over 90 minutes.
But we would end up waiting about that long for the one attraction I really did want to do, Crush’s Coaster. I actually would say this ride alone makes it worth a visit to the Studios park. It combines a dark ride and a pretty good coaster. The cars can spin independently of the ride track. It is not unlike Primeval Whirl, just less ugly (but only slightly as they really did not try to hide the show building). The coaster was great, but they NEED to get that wait line under control, or build another one to increase capacity, or something. I enjoyed it, but was not terribly happy to have blown nearly two hours of the day to get on it.
The only other attraction we went on here was Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith. Yes they still use Aerosmith here, which led to what is probably the worst preshow at any Disney park (and I am not a fan of the one in Florida). It really felt like they somehow realized that Steven Tyler didn’t speak French, so they had everyone talk over each other for a few seconds, then an unseen announcer interrupted in French, and… that’s it. Go get on the ride now. Seriously, why even bother?
Things improved after that though. The track is the same layout, but there were some differences in the lighting that I thought actually enhanced the ride. While having more light usually spoils indoor coasters, here it actually seemed to make the track feel even more twisted. The first inversions, in particular, benefited from this. It was really disorienting and felt like you were literally spinning out of control.
After that, we decided to leave the park, through the giant gift shop that is the entrance. This Studios park clearly was built during the dark times of Disney (it came only two years after DCA). While it is supposedly getting some much needed attention, it has a long way to go before it gets to a California Adventure-level of improvement, much less anything close to being a first rate park. Right now, Disney Studios feels directionless, lifeless, and almost annoying to attend. So we headed right back to Disneyland Park.
Le Spectacle Nocturne: Disney Dreams
Je t’aime Disney Dreams, je t’aime. This show was spectacular. Was it as big as the shows in the U.S.? No. But it did combine the best aspects of each of them, and did so very well. Imagine Wishes, combined with Magic, Memories, and You, plus Fantasmic, and a little World of Color thrown in.
Like so much of the park, the show is in both French and English. This made particular sense with the French characters, like Lumière and Quasimodo. It made a little less sense when characters from the same film spoke separate languages (Peter Pan spoke in English, while Wendy responded in French) but I do get the effect they were going for.
The show was very beautiful. Will and I got particularly teary-eyed when it came to the lantern sequence from Tangled. It was our honeymoon after all. Furthermore, it goes to show that the castle projections can be used for so much more. It really was the perfect end to the final night of our honeymoon.
I really enjoyed my day at Disneyland Paris. I know the park has had a difficult time over its first 20 years, but there is a lot of good here (well, let’s say more at Disneyland than the Studios).
What the resort needs now is an investment in adding some more attractions, completely overhauling the Studios Park with a DCA-style makeover, and expanding Disneyland with another land or two. This could give the resort a major boost.
If you asked me whether you should book a trip just to visit Disneyland Paris from the United States, I would probably say it would not be worth the expense. But assuming you also intend to visit Paris, then you definitely want to make a day’s pilgrimage out to Disneyland. You will most certainly have a good time.