"You're going to Disneyland?" my Parisian friends asked with skepticism. "I hear it's really lame," pointed out the American-born. Her French boyfriend was a bit more encouraging, though not totally enthusiastic.
I'd heard gripes about "Euro Disney," ever since I wanted to visit back in my college study abroad days. (When I didn't go because a certain American-born roommate poo-pooed it. See above.) These objections weren't exactly concrete, but usually along the lines of: "But it's not as good as in America" or "Nobody even goes there!"
Having finally visited myself, I can say that "Yes, people go there," "Yes, it is worth a trip," and that Disneyland Paris might just have a few things going for it that its American siblings don't.
Europe's Vacation Hotspot
After its opening in 1992, Euro Disney got off to a rocky start, failing to understand the local culture and unable to assimilate. As the New York Daily News points out: "A French intellectual slammed Disneyland Paris as a 'Cultural Chernobyl' 20 years ago." That's not to mention it opened during a recession.
Though it's still pretty deep in debt, a few revamps and rebrandings later, Disneyland Paris is Europe's number one tourist destination, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia.
Indeed, on a mid-March Wednesday, there was enough of a crowd to warrant hour-long lines, though not enough to result in getting side swiped by Mickey-rabid soccer moms.
The beauty here, particularly for families, is in the escapism. It takes a lot of energy for American children to behave in the subdued manner of their French counterparts. At Disneyland, they can burn off that good-old-fashioned USA energy, while giving parents a break from making sure their kids don't touch anything at The Louvre. And, at a mere 50 minutes or so by train from Paris, it's more quickly, cheaply and easily accessed than the American parks are for anyone else but the inhabitants of L.A. and Orlando.
For the older crowd, Disneyland Paris is also an excellent case study in how Europeans perceive American culture. The French seem to have a thing for the old west vibe, and this is apparent at places like the Hotel Cheyenne, which looks like an old mining town and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which, I gather, is like Medieval Times meets cowboys. In short, a place called Billy Bob's Country Western Saloon exists. How could that not be worth the mere €7 train ride?
Filling In The Gaps
Though those used to Disney World will find Disneyland Paris considerably smaller, it's not without its benefits.
The resort area is made up of Disneyland Park, Walt Disney Studios, Disney Village and the hotels. Disneyland Park, like Florida's Magic Kingdom, is modeled after the original in California with many of the same rides: Peter Pan's Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean, It's A Small World, Haunted Mansion/Phantom Manor, Thunder Mountain, etc. Walt Disney Studios, which resembles Disney's Hollywood Studios, shares The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Rollercoaster and Playhouse Disney Live, among others.
But, there are rides unique to Paris, which give the resort an edge. I've always believed that Disney World and Disneyland don't have enough rides for those guests who are too old for Dumbo but not yet ready for the Tower of Terror. For these ages, Walt Disney Studios' Toon Studios fills in that gap. "Toy Story"-themed Toy Soldier Parachute Drop and RC Racer offer some thrills, without anyone plummeting or looping upside down.
Then, there's Crush's Coaster, which is the best attraction at the resort. It combines roller coaster dips and turns with spinning and whipping thanks to a rotating turtle shell car. (Picture riding a roller coaster while inside one of the spinning teacups.) It's not too intense as to scare off young guests, but the surprising sensation of whipping around backwards while sailing down a hill -- all the while in the dark -- is still thrilling for seasoned coaster vets.
More bonus points are also awarded for Storybook Land Canal Boats and the Casey Jr. Circus Train, which are more for the littlest ones to do, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril and a beefed-up Space Mountain appeal to coaster-riding adults.
It's Not Perfect, but It's worth It
It would have been great to ride a few more of those rides mentioned above, but for some reason the park gates didn't open until 11 a.m. despite the official opening time being posted as 10 a.m. And, everything shut down incredibly early at 6 p.m. It was also strange that on my visit, only a fraction of the restaurants were open. So, before schlepping all the way out there, it might be worth it to put in a phone call to verify hours and what is and is not open.
Also, those with sensitive necks and backs be warned: Be very cautious of Space Mountain. Perhaps it was because I was seated in the back, or maybe it's because I am small, but I found myself being thrashed around so hard in that restraint that I thought my skull would crack.
Concussions aside, I'm glad I made it out to Disneyland Paris. Sure it's not 47 square miles of in-your-face Disney fun like you'd find in Florida nor Walt's original in California. It is, however, its own unique experience, whose differences and similarities to the American parks both make it worth a visit.
To enter the park, first pass under this hotel.
Disneyland is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and has launched special shows and events to commemorate this milestone.
Just like in the states. It only looks sparsely populated because the street was being cleared to make way for a parade.
Sleeping Beauty's castle
Another something fun for the adults. It even goes upside down. That's big for a Disney ride.
It's the same in any language. I have to give the French version a +1 because I was actually able to hear the song. (Though, some might count that as a negative.)
Two storybook rides for the really little ones.
This Haunted Mansion is much like the Florida version, except with a few wild west ghost town scenes at the end. There's that old west thing again.
I also have to give the scenery inside the Pirates fort props. It felt like being in a real, lush Caribbean courtyard at dusk -- kind of making me wish I had a fruity beverage.
See, people do come. This line to get into the line for the Pirates of the Caribbean proves it.
Entering the Walt Disney Studios park.
Probably my favorite ride, it's similar to the Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom -- except significantly more awesome. I would love to see one of these brought over to the U.S.
Note the two most prominent features: Planet Hollywood and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. There are also a Rainforest Cafe, Billy Bob's, New York Style Sandwiches, Sports Bar and The Steakhouse.