I am writing this sitting on the Eurostar train, whizzing my way through the French countryside, direct from Disneyland Paris back to London. I have just completed a three-day long-weekend there, with Linda and our three young children.
I have been to Disneyland Paris once before, almost two decades ago. I was with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. We were on the final leg of our grand post-university tour around Asia and Europe (see my various posts Travels in India from our time in India; and The Siberut Bonfire, from our time in Indonesia). We had scrimped and saved on our tight backpacker budget to allow us a single day visit to the park.
When we visited way back then, Disneyland Paris was known as Euro Disney, and the park had only recently opened, in early 1992 (my just completed stay there was courtesy of a special 20th Anniversary package deal).
Back then, Euro Disney, about 50 kilometres from the centre of Paris, consisted of only one theme park, Disneyland. Today it is two parks; the second is known as Walt Disney Studios and opened in 2002; the whole being surrounded by an astonishing array of Disney-owned and themed hotels and the Disney Village, a collection of yet more themed stores and restaurants to keep you occupied, if the parks are not enough.
At the time of my first visit in the early 1990’s, Euro Disney was suffering financially, with early visitor numbers coming in well below initial expectations. This was possibly because of the massive controversy that surrounded the park in its early years, where the prospect of Le Mickey setting up permanent residence in France was considered to be a form of American cultural imperialism, and a complete affront to Gallic national pride.
There was some speculation that the park might be forced to close, to the delight of France’s intellectuals, for whom it had become almost de rigueur to criticise the presence of a Disney park on French soil. The most famous one-liner came from French film director Ariane Mnouchkine, who declared Euro Disney to be a “cultural Chernobyl”.
During the park’s construction phase, the project was beset with labour union protests and strikes. In June 1992, shortly after Euro Disney opened, French farmers blockaded the park, as a means of protesting American agricultural policies at the time. A popular Le Figaro journalist wrote: “I wish with all my heart that the rebels would set fire to [Euro] Disneyland.”
It didn’t help matters much that Euro Disney had sought to implement policies and procedures adopted from its US parent company. English was specified as the national language of the park, and Disney’s infamous Appearance Standards was applied to their new French employees. This code, or as Disney refers to it, the “Disney Look”, is designed to ensure the uniformity of the Disney product. It mandates that employees must smile at all time, imposes limitations on facial hair and jewellery and make-up that can be worn, forbids visible tattoos, and perhaps of especial concern to the French, requires employees to wear deodorant. The French were outraged at what was considered to be an American attack on their time-honoured ideals of liberte, egalite, et fraternite. In France, the right of an individual to smell bad is evidently trés importante.
I remember reading at the time a quote attributed to Euro Disney’s then CEO, who said: “We didn’t come in and say O.K., we’re going to put a beret and a baguette on Mickey Mouse. We are who we are”. And I remember thinking to myself at the time that the poor, misguided Europeans didn’t stand a chance. Eventually, slick US mass-market consumerism would prove to be irresistible. Or as one French philosopher so aptly put it: “It is not America that is invading us. It is we who adore it, who adopt its fashions and above all, its words.”
Too right. Today, Disneyland Paris is part and parcel of the European entertainment landscape, and there isn’t even a hint of the controversy that surrounded its opening twenty years ago, when most of the current visitor base was little more than a glint in their parents’ eyes.
La Machine du Disney has become an economic juggernaut, contributing an estimated 50 billion Euros to the French economy since it opened, and, like a powerful black hole in the centre of Europe, it sucks in visitors from all over the continent. It is now so popular that the combined parks attract over 15 million visitors per annum – that is, on average, more than 40,000 people walking through the gates, every single day of the year.
To put this quite staggering figure into perspective, this means that twice more people visit Disneyland Paris each year than visit the whole of Israel and Australia, combined. Or consider the following icons of French tourism, all of which attract fewer visitors each year – the Louvre (8.4 million visitors per annum), the Eiffel Tower (6.6 million), or even the grandmother of them all, Notre Dame (13.2 million).
And, before you start chuckling and saying “serves the frogs right”, it is not just a French phenomenon: Disneyland Paris is more popular than the most popular attractions in Britain (The British Museum, 5 million annual visitors) or Greece (the Acropolis, 6 million) or Italy (the Colosseum, 4 million; the Sistine Chapel, 5 million). Some individual rides in Disneyland Paris, like It’s a Small World and Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast, boast annual visit numbers north of 6 million, meaning that more people would rather see a group of singing semi-animated dolls, or shoot a fictitious space ranger laser gun, than would visit some of the great places of history. God help us.
The simple fact is that for better or worse, like it or not, Disneyland Paris is now the most visited attraction in all of Europe. So much for European cultural pride, then: Mickey Mouse has led an American onslaught that, with the passage of time, has conquered what twenty centuries of war could not.
Coming back to the present, my kids could not possibly imagine that Disneyland Paris is controversial, or a cultural eye-sore, or in fact anything other than a fun-filled fantasy land that just happens to be in France. And for our daughters, Tali and Orli, this visit to Disneyland Paris also comprised a hat-trick of sorts: in their short lives, they have now visited Disney parks in Anaheim, California (the original Disneyland), Hong Kong, China and now France. I am not sure how many youngsters can claim this particular trifecta: call it one of the perks of being part of a globally dispersed family.
Now, it should come as no surprise that Disneyland, wherever you go, is a standardised, commoditised product. Wherever you are in the wonderful wide world of Disney, you will find the same Mickey and Goofy autograph signing sessions; the same Orbitron and Autotopia rides; the same Space Mountain rollercoaster, the same daily parade down Main Street USA and the same nightly fireworks, lighting up the sky over the spires of Cinderella’s Castle.
Given this, it did strike me as pretty bizarre to hear a pair of under-10s comparing Disney parks around the globe, and identifying those things that are unique, as opposed to the same, at each. So courtesy of my daughters and Linda, with some help from me and our son Rafi (us boys didn’t make it to Hong Kong Disney, but we did manage the other two), here is a list of some important differences between Disney parks around the world:
What We Only Found in Disneyland California:
Huge People in Golf Carts: Americans are, by and large, fat. The country has the highest obesity rate in the world. One-third of all adults and one in five children are considered obese; two in three Americans are classified as overweight. California Disneyland was at times a grotesque parade of the large and larger: whole families of fatties, waddling down Main Street in loose-fitting tracksuits. Many of the rides at Disneyland’s US parks have been “resized” to accommodate those of greater girth (bigger seats, wider turnstiles, seat belt extensions, etc), and it was only in Disneyland California that we saw little golf carts available for rent. They exist so that those park visitors too overweight to ambulate themselves around, can nonetheless still enjoy a day out at Disney.
Over-sized Everythings: In Disneyland California, sugary snacks are sold in huge packets, French fries come as small mountains, and soft-drinks are sold by the litre. Park patrons have the ability to upsize just about everything from large to extra-large and from extra-large to downright ridiculous. In Disneyland Paris, the “Texas-style ribs platter” consisted of four ribs dabbed in a smoky, hickory sauce. In California, the same thing consisted of two full racks of ribs, drowned in a small ocean of gloop. Only in America is it considered good value, as opposed to grossly wasteful, when portions are sized such that no normal human being could ever possibly consume it all in one sitting.
What We Only Found in Disneyland Hong Kong:
Mulan, the Most Famous Disney Character Ever: There is a Chinese legend about Hua Mulan, a young girl who dresses as a man to take her father’s place in the army. In 1994, Disney made Mulan, its 36th Animated Classic (out of 53) based on the story. Timing was highly suspicious: Mulan came out only a short time after Kundun, a Disney financed biography of the Dalai Lama that had completely pissed off the Chinese Government, and who had threatened to cut Disney out of China in response. Anyway, Mulan is now almost an afterthought in the broader Disney pantheon, apparently the 2nd least favourite of all Disney princesses (the least favourite, in case you care, is Pocahontas; God knows who compiles these statistics…). But, when you only have one genuine Chinese heroine in your repertoire, popular or not you milk her for all she’s worth at your one and only Chinese theme park. So whilst in California and Paris, Mulan doesn’t feature, in Hong Kong Disneyland you could be forgiven for thinking that Walt’s first sketch was of a Chinese girl, not an American mouse. Her image is everywhere; girls queue up to take photos with Mulan alongside Cinderella and Snow White; there is a Mulan show, and a Mulan doll even pops up in the Hong Kong version of Its A Small World.
Grown-Ups Wearing Mouse Ears: In all Disneyland parks you will see hordes of children wearing princess costumes, wielding pirate swords and light sabres, and wearing tiaras shaped like Mickey Mouse ears. But only in Disney Hong Kong will you see grown-ups doing the same thing, in alarming numbers. Often, the offending adults, if a couple, will be wearing matching his and hers outfits as well. I have heard this is common at Disneyland Tokyo, too. Please. What is it about Asian adults, that they don’t understand which bits of Disneyland are for the kids, and which are for them?
What We Only Found in Disneyland Paris:
Mickey Talking Funny: In Disney Hong Kong, they stick to English and, where possible, rely on Chinese sub-titles. Not so in Disneyland Paris. The Disney classic “under the sea” becomes a slightly less catchy: “sous l’ocean”. Instead of “Hi, kids”, Mickey rather pompously says: “Bonjour, les enfants”. Goofy’s voice is that of a mid-Western US yokel and Lightening McQueen’s is of an enthusiastic American teenager: neither seemed to work especially well when converted into the rhythms of the language of love. And it is absolutely impossible to convert Donald Duck’s spluttering noises into another language. Call me culturally myopic, but it is just plain old wrong to hear Mickey and friends speaking in French.
Cigarette smoke: It is France, after all, and despite the fact that much of the Western world seems to have moved on in the last twenty years, the local rules apply at Disneyland Paris. Being that if you don’t like my cigarette smoke blowing in your face, well, you can just fuck off then. Smoking is not allowed indoors at Disneyland Paris, but anywhere outdoors in the park is considered fair game. Which is not much fun when you and your kids are standing in a queue for an hour, behind a chain-smoking couple from Marseilles, say.
Snails in the Buffet: It is France, after all, so the quality and variety of food on offer, whilst still utter crap, is a clear cut above that of other Disneyland parks. We visited one of the park’s buffet restaurants for lunch one day, where there was a full cheese board; fine Burgundy was available by the carafe; and the spread included fresh-baked baguette, a pot of mussels steamed in a white wine broth, and much to the horror of the children, lightly simmered sea-snails. I suspect that in America an emergency call would be placed to the health inspector if sea-snails appeared on the buffet.
Rude Staff: It is France, after all, and whilst Disney rules might require employees to smile at all times, the staff at Disneyland Paris have mastered the art of being able to smile and at the same time still project an air of arrogant, pissed-off contempt.
What You will find at all Disney parks:
Crowds: It should come as no surprise that Disneyland is crowded – of the Top 20 tourist attractions in the world, five are Disney parks. But the extent of the crowding is quite hard to believe. People seem perfectly content to stand in a queue for two hours simply to gain access to a ride that lasts for under three minutes. I calculated that on our last day in Disneyland Paris, what with the queue to get into breakfast and lunch, the rides queues, the shop queues and even the queue to get onto the train when we left, around 70% of our day was spent standing in line. And, we paid for the privilege. Shmucks.
“Disney Rock”: You have to hand it to Disney: their parks are the best. Everything is picture perfect. When Disney creates a replica of a Wild West town, for example, the attention to detail is mind-boggling: horse shoe prints are pressed into the dirt, the wood of the saloon doors appears aged and weathered; the Disney employees wear period costumes that are accurate down to the bootstraps. Even the rocks are perfectly formed yellow-red sandstone slabs that look like they have been airlifted in from the Arizona desert. Until the rock suddenly lights up and starts shooting out a fountain of water, at which point you realise that every last thing in Disneyland, down to the individual pieces of Disney Rock, is fake. Perfect, accurate and incredibly detailed, but utterly and completely fake.
Poverty: The $70 per head of park entry fees is just the tip of a very expensive iceberg. The cheapest thing to eat in Disneyland Paris was a seven Euro hot dog, and it just went up from there. Want a drink to go with that? Ka-ching. Fancy the convenience of staying close by at a Disney-owned hotel? Ka-ching, ka-ching. Innocently promise your children some souvenirs from one of the Disney retail emporiums that conveniently appear at the end of each ride? Call your bank manager and apply for a second mortgage. One thing is universally true of all Disneyland parks: you will leave a lot poorer than when you arrived.
It hasn’t escaped me that the cost of a single day in Disneyland is equivalent to three month’s wages for many people in less fortunate parts of the world. It also hasn’t escaped me that Disneyland – be it in the USA, France or Hong Kong – is almost sickening in its Truman Show-like sugary perfection, rampant consumerism, and its salute to a bygone American era, where Dads worked and Mums baked apple-pie in the kitchens of their suburban homes, safely behind white picket fences.
Despite all this, I have a confession to make. I love Disneyland. I think it is fantastic, a place where for a day or two, you are allowed a fairytale escape from the realities of everyday life. You are invited to step into a world where everyone is perpetually happy, where there are no cars or pollution or graffiti, where no one works and you are expected to have fun, all of the time. I regard myself as incredibly fortunate to be part of our planet’s upper ten percentile, one of the lucky few that are able to provide the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of a Disney experience to their children.
The proof is in the pudding. I am on a train that is half-filled with little people under the age of twelve. Ordinarily, this would be an unmitigated nightmare – a cacophony of screaming babies and whining toddlers and bored tweens.
But not tonight. Each carriage of the train back to London is a collection of Disney character balloons, bags filled with Disney merchandise and souvenirs, laughing children, and worn out, exhausted parents. Tali and Rafi are playing with a box of Toy Story soldiers, and Orli is dressing and undressing a Rapunzel doll. The three children, like every other child on the train, are happy and content and, for a short time, completely transfixed.
That’s the real magic of Disney for you.