In my career as a travel writer, I’ve crossed the Sahara, trekked the Himalaya and survived the traffic in downtown San Francisco. But nothing could compare to my latest assignment: an intrepid expedition to the mythical kingdom of Disneyland Paris.
OK, maybe I’m over-egging it a bit, but when I pressed ‘buy’ on the Disney website and a booked a three-day holiday, it was with a genuine shiver of apprehension. Despite 30 years of global travelling, this would be my first trip to one of the world’s most famous theme parks.
And, yes, in case you’re wondering, I was taking my kids.
I made that fateful purchase many months in advance, and was delighted to receive an early-booking discount. And our visit to Disneyland Paris (disneylandparis.co.uk) was in the depths of the European winter, when demand is low. Put the two together and I got a price that satisfied even my finely-honed carpet-haggling instincts.
Once a travel writer, always a travel writer - and the quest for good value never ends.
So the journey begins. As the name implies, Disneyland Paris is outside the French capital, reached by car on a series of uninspiring autoroutes and suburban streets. But the influence of the Magic Kingdom spreads wide, and the last few miles of our journey are on pristine roads lined with manicured grass verges and the gardens of comfortable hotels.
So before we even reach the turnstiles, we’re already in a Hollywood bubble. I’m reminded of the gigantic dome inhabited by Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show.
And when we finally enter the park itself, the Disney illusion is complete. We walk between rows of historic-style shops called ‘Main Street USA’ to reach a central plaza from which steps lead up to the pink turrets of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. From here, paths fan out to reach movie-inspired rides -- from the gentle Dumbo’s Carousel and Mad Hatter’s Teacups to the more exhilarating underground boat trip with Pirates of the Caribbean and a rocket cruise through the Star Wars galaxy.
Surrounding the rides, elaborate landscaping ensures that nothing spoils the illusion in this artificial world. Big Thunder Mountain looks like a real peak from the American badlands, while Peter Pan’s Skull Rock looks like, well, a real rock (and is big enough to go inside) – even though it’s all just skilfully constructed film-set scenery.
When it comes to the smaller stuff, the attention to detail is equally impressive. Climbing into the Swiss Family Robinson’s tree-house, we have to touch the leaves to realise it isn’t genuine foliage, while steampunks will love the 19th-century view of futuristic engineering on the submarine Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
Nothing escapes the Disney touch. As well as the performers in Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes that patrol the park and pose for photos, other members of staff (or ‘cast’ as they’re officially called) are dressed in costumes appropriate to their rides. Space suits for Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast, tropical kit for the Indiana Jones & the Temple of Peril roller coaster. You get the idea.
Sometimes the boundary between reality and illusion is unclear. On close inspection, those quaint public pay-phones under ornate booths in the wood-panelled arcade turn out to be genuine and not just part of the decor. It’s just that in the age of the smartphone nobody uses them any more. For the same reason, the shop selling cameras and offering one-hour film developing is now closed.
Towards the end of the day, other parts of the magic begin to wear thin. Discarded candy wrappers float in the fountains, empty tables at the outdoor cafes need cleaning, and there’s a definite increase in the number of crying children.
But then it gets dark, and the firework display begins, and we’re all back under the spell again.
Are you tempted by the story so far? Or just being hounded into submission by your kids? Either way, the following advice may be helpful.
- It’s perfectly feasible to travel independently to Disneyland (train or plane to Paris, local train or transfer bus to the resort, buy entry tickets on the spot, check into a nearby hotel) but a quick internet search will usually reveal package deals that cost less.
- Like so many other aspects of travel, the rates usually drop if you book long in advance. Early reservations also get ‘meals included’ or ‘kids for free’ inducements.
- Visits in the off-season (European winter) also tend to be cheaper – although the weather maybe cold and wet, so be prepared. We took more coats and hats than on that Himalayan trip.
- Get an overall grasp of the layout before you arrive. The resort consists of two parks side by side: Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios. They have separate entrance gates but most tickets and package deals include both parks. The former is mainly rides, the latter has cinemas and stage sets as well as rides. Both have cafes and restaurants, plus loads of shops selling Disney merchandise.
- Just outside the parks is another area called Disney Village – a mall of theme restaurants, plus even more shops.
- Within the entire Disneyland resort, rides are easily outnumbered by shops, most of them selling the same kind of stuff – Donald Duck dolls, Minnie Mouse coffee mugs – but that didn’t stop one outlet being ambitiously billed as “a unique shopping experience”.
- Next to the Disney Village is the public transport station, for trains to/from the centre of Paris and shuttle buses to nearby hotels.
- Surrounding the parks area is a ring of hotels. Several are Disney-owned while others are independent or chains. Most offer shuttle-buses to the park entrance; some of the Disney hotels are within walking distance.
- Demand exceeds supply at Disneyland, meaning big queues (lines) of eager fans at the most popular rides. Displays indicate how long you’ll have to wait. A free ‘fast-pass’ system lets you shortcut the queues by reserving a time slot a few hours ahead.
- Guests at Disney hotels get to enter the park earlier – a feature billed as Magic Hour – a handy head start to get ahead of the queues, although not all the rides are open at this time.
- Disneyland is not all about rides and thrills. There are lots of things to ‘just look at’ (as my children put it): the pirate ship, the lake shore, the spoof gravestones at Boot Hill, the history tableaux in the arcades. As you stroll from ride to ride, it’s worth taking the time to enjoy it.
Should I stay or should I go?
So did I enjoy my trip to Disneyland Paris? In short, I have to say ‘yes’. I went with trepidation, but an open mind. Although intensively commercialised theme parks are never going to be my favourite destination, and I’m totally aware that Disney is a byword for global consumerism, like Coke or McDonalds, overall I was impressed with the high standards of organisation and meticulous attention to detail.
But it’s not about me. It’s about my kids: they absolutely loved Disneyland. And as any parent knows, if the kids are happy, then all is right with the world – especially if it’s an artificial world.
Need a few ideas on how to keep your young explorers entertained at home or on the road? Check out our Lonely Planet Kids books and apps. Kickstart the travel bug by showing them just how amazing our planet can be.