England. England would make sense–they speak English there (mostly). Spain, with all that Mediterranean sun–that could work. Ditto for Italy. Or how about Sweden? Swedes are a fun-loving people–they brought us ABBA and aren’t even embarrassed about it. And Denmark–the amusement park, in the form of Tivoli Gardens, was practically born there.
But Disneyland Resort Paris? Does this make sense?
A little research reveals that maybe it wasn’t such an off-the-wall idea. Walt Disney, it turns out, was always a big fan of France, having first seen it as a teenaged ambulance driver during WWI. He returned many times as an adult, and later borrowed many European (if not specifically French) stories for his movies, including Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and more. France also contributed in no small part to building the Disney empire, because it can be argued that without France’s Lumière brothers, there would be no movies. And what would Disney be without movies?
Not convinced? Frankly, neither were we–until we saw it. And we’re here to tell you: It works. Disney has pulled off an amazing and delicate cross-cultural feat by bringing the magic of Disney, one of the most American products there is, to France, a country fiercely proud and protective of its culture.
Disney has accomplished it by keeping the Disney product fundamentally intact, but giving it a European twist. Take the food service, for example. Throughout the parks, you’ll find fast food, which is generally anathema to the quality-conscious French. But you’ll also find alcohol widely available. This probably doesn’t surprise European visitors, but may come as a shock to any American who’s ever gone on a futile search for a beer or glass of Chardonnay stateside. (Currently the only American Disney park serving beer and wine is Anaheim’s California Adventure.)
The look of the resort is subtly European, as well. The main gates to Disneyland look something like a Swiss chateau. Inside the gate, Main Street, USA will look very familiar. But with its Teutonic city hall and charming little shops, the look is more like Main Street, Austria.
If you really want to be reminded that you’re in a foreign country, close your eyes and open your ears. You might catch snippets of conversation in a half- dozen or more languages. But don’t worry if your high-school French is a little rusty. All park employees speak at least two languages, and while you’ll
usually be addressed first in French, you’ll get by fine with just English. Park signs and maps are in French and English (at a minimum–you’ll typically see German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch as well). Announcements are given in several languages, always including English.
On attractions requiring narration, Disney has come up with a simple and elegant solution to the problem of translating longer speeches: On these rides and exhibits, you’ll be given a headset, free of charge. Be sure to take one with a Union Jack on it–that’s the Disney label for English-language materials.
You’ll hear a perfectly synchronized English translation as you go through the attraction.
Disneyland, the older of the two parks at Disneyland Resort Paris. It’s modeled closely on L.A.’s Disneyland Orlando’s Magic Kingdom. Not every American attraction made the trip across the Atlantic–there’s no Hall of Presidents at Disneyland Paris, for example. But the famous Castle, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Dumbo ride, Space Mountain, It’s a Small World these and virtually all the Disney greats can be found here.
Homesick for a taste of the U.S.? Just outside Disneyland, you’ll find Disney Village, the resort’s dining and nightlife center. Planet Hollywood, McDonalds, and the Rainforest Café all have outposts here featuring plain old, un-exotic American food. There are also several bars with live music designed to simulate the American late-night experience. Some might say it’s a shame to eat burgers in the land of escargot and fois gras, but we doubt your kids are among them.
For another slice of Americana, be sure to catch Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. You’ll eat your victuals off a tin plate, cowboy style, while watching sharpshooters and trick riders conjure the spirit of Bill Cody’s original Wild West shows.
Walt Disney Studios
This park, the newest addition to Disneyland Resort Paris, is an easy walk from Disneyland. It opened its doors on March 16, 2002, almost 10 years to the day after Disneyland made its French debut. Although some of the attractions are similar to things you may have seen at other Disney parks (the Rockin’ Roller Coaster and the Studio Tram Tour, for example), many of the rides and shows are unique to France. Here is where you’re most likely to be reminded that you’re in Europe.
The park’s flagship attraction, the MoteursAction! Stunt Show Spectacular, is probably the best example of a new attraction with that French je ne sais quoi. This show, which you won’t see in the U.S., is set in the French Riviera–your first good clue that you’re not in Anaheim anymore. From your stadium seat, you’ll watch as stunt cars and motorcycles perform a series of spectacular chases, jumps, and fiery crashes straight out of an action flick. Then, going against the cardinal rule of magic, the performers show you how many of the stunts were done. (You’ll smack your forehead when you see how the
driver pulled off that high-speed, maneuvering-in-reverse escape.) One curious aspect is that the French muscle cars look, to American eyes, impossibly small and cute. No matter–the wheels may be quaintly European, but the fast pace is pure Disney e-ticket excitement.
The Rockin’ Roller Coaster is another slightly made-over American ride. If you’ve been to the version at Disney – MGM Studios, you’ll notice that the Parisian ride has been stripped of its Los Angeles setting. You won’t miss it, though. The main premise–that you’re on a wild musical trip with the band Aerosmith–is the same. The sudden twists, turns, and that bug-eyed, 0-to-60 in milliseconds start are all there, too.
One other attraction that will look familiar to American visitors who’ve been to Disney – MGM Studios is the Studio Tram Tour. This guided tour of cinematic catastrophe includes an earthquake, a flood, and a bridge collapse that you might, just for a second, think is unscripted. Even if you’ve been to the Orlando version, this one’s worth it for the scenes of London in ruins after an attack by, believe it or not, dragons.
One ride you may think you’ve seen, but you haven’t: The Armageddon Special Effects extravaganza. The premise is based on the Hollywood blockbuster film, but the ride, which sends you through an amazingly realistic asteroid bombardment, is only found at Walt Disney Studios. That’s just part of the show, though. You’ll also get a glimpse into the world of special effects. You’ll see how many of them are done–which doesn’t make them any less amazing.
Looking for a kinder, gentler ride for smaller children? Try Aladdin’s Flying Carpets Over Agrabah (Les Tapis Volant, in French). Or try one of the park’s more unfamiliar attractions. Chances are you’ve never seen the TV show Zapping Zone. But you’ll probably still enjoy the chance to see the actual working set where the live show is taped.
The tiniest kids in your party might be a little frightened by Animagique (this one’s not for anyone afraid of the dark), but most other visitors count the show among the highlights of their visit. Using black lights and a dimly lit theater, Animagique features Donald Duck and other beloved Disney characters in a slightly psychedelic fantasy celebrating the art of animation. Puppets seeming to float in mid-air are just the beginning of this fantastic special-effects bonanza.
Another surreal but highly enjoyable experience is the Cinémagique show. A badly timed cell-phone call (you’ll never leave yours on in a theater again) sets hero Martin Short off on a funny and astounding journey through 100 years of movie magic, combining live action with film. How does the flesh-and-blood actor end up inside the movie? How does he get back out? How do the movie characters and real actors talk to each other? Here’s one place where Disney isn’t giving up any secrets. This show has to be seen to be believed.
One final exhibit not to miss is the Art of Disney Animation show. You and the kids will get a kick out of seeing how animation developed through the ages, and how it’s done today. As with many Disney tricks, seeing how it’s done doesn’t make it any less magic.
Indeed, the magic of Disney shines as brightly in Paris as anywhere, having survived a trip across the Atlantic and translation into a Babel of different languages. Which just goes to show that Uncle Walt was right–it really is a small world, after all.