The cynics among you can mock all you like but, for all its fakery, Disneyland Paris has a real happy ending
NORMALLY, if someone dressed as Goofy tried to chat me up in a restaurant, I might bat him away with whatever cutlery came to hand and complain to the management. But in Disneyland Paris, I’m quite enjoying it. In fact, I even let Goofy kiss my hand in a gentlemanly fashion before he wanders off.
This is all part of the Disney enchantment. You can’t help it. Like agreeing to take your seven-year-old son on the same rollercoaster five times, despite the fact your head is spinning. When in Disneyland, you can’t say no.
Apparently Walt Disney himself created his theme parks to let parents and children have fun together in a magical way. And that’s just what Tom and I found when we visited Disneyland Paris for a three-day mum-and-son trip.
There was a touch of nostalgia. I first visited in its opening summer, way back in the EuroDisney years, when it was not much more than a few rides and a princess castle. Now, in true Hollywood style, Disneyland Paris is celebrating its 20th year with an explosion of light and colour and new parades and shows. So I was fascinated to see if it lived up to its current reputation as one of the best family holiday destinations in Europe.
There’s nowhere quite as likely to provoke a love-it or hate-it response as telling people you’re going on a Disney holiday. They either sneer, pointedly telling you about their plans to give their kids a ‘real’ holiday experience, camping in rural Poitou-Charentes, or they go all misty-eyed and give you a run-down of the best Disney hotels.
On arrival, it’s easy to see why there’s such a divide. Yes, over the last two decades the resort has seen a transformation, into a truly magical kingdom. But for all that it is now Europe’s most popular theme park, it all conforms rigidly to a corporate theme, right down to the yellow popcorn and rosy red toffee apples, sold at eye-watering prices.
We visited in early July, flying from Edinburgh to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport and staying at a non-Disney hotel, the Explorers, on the outskirts of the park, spending three days at the attractions. We booked our trip through Expedia, which meant we could organise flights, transfers and accommodation at the same time. Disneyland is 20 miles from Paris, so the journey does need to be thought through. We used SuperShuttle, a shared minibus system that really cuts travel costs while guaranteeing a door-to-door service.
The three-star Explorers Hotel is a ten-minute ride from the main attractions, with a fantastic child-friendly pirate ship theme and is less pricey than some others. We spent our mornings in the Secret Lagoon pool, splashing around in the aquaplay area before heading off to the parks. Free buses run continually, so getting there was surprisingly easy, saving our energies to take in the grand scale of the attractions.
Our room was a themed two-bedroomed suite – decorated in candy-factory style, complete with free jelly bean dispensers. While this would probably have given a dentist nightmares, it was heaven to us. I slept in a bed surrounded by loveheart mottos, while Tom was in a bunk bed decorated with rockets and stars, probably secretly munching on jelly beans long into the night.
Disneyland is divided into three sections – the main Disneyland Park, Walt Disney Studios Park and Disney Village. Park-hopper tickets let guests travel freely between them, while there is no ticket needed for Disney Village – a promenade of memorabilia shops and restaurants.
While Minnie and Mickey ears are almost compulsory headgear for a visit, my son, bless him, did it in his own style – wearing his favourite purple and pink Rapunzel dress. Once through the magical gates into Disneyland Park, guests are transported to nostalgic Main Street USA, towards the iconic and breathtaking Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
In four areas, Discoveryland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Adventureland, there are star attractions such as the big rollercoasters – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, as well as dozens of others. Our favourite was Fantasyland, where we went twice round the hedge maze, Alice’s Curious Labyrinth (the patience of a saint is needed here if you’re a control freak, like me) and twice round our favourite boat ride, It’s a Small World.
Aside from our five-time favourite Big Thunder Mountain, a runaway-train-themed ride in Frontierland, we also loved Pirates of the Caribbean, a dark log flume ride, and the Mad Hatter’s Teacups.
Over at Walt Disney Studios Park the theme is more Hollywood style and geared towards cinema and TV, but it also hosts a number of big rides. We loved Toy Story Playland, with its giant-sized toys and rides, and watched a showing of the Animagique musical for some very welcome downtime.
After dark, the Disney Dreams 20th anniversary show is currently taking place at park closing time – it’s a spectacular laser display projected on to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, with firework and water special effects.
Three days is a reasonable length of time to set aside to see all the attractions Disney has to offer. However, queues can be very long – you can stand for up to an hour at some of the more popular attractions – not to mention being prone to serious queue-jumpers. For some rides, a Fastpass system is in operation that allows visitors to take a ticket and wait later in a reduced queue, which we found saved a lot of time. But if you want to see something special, you just have to grin and bear it, with plenty of snacks and drinks to keep the kids amused.
Food can be bought, depending on your budget, for a few pounds or for much, much more. I found that after a hotel buffet breakfast we didn’t need much of a lunch and opted for a late salad, baguette or hot dog. We also loved Café Mickey in Disney Village, where an array of characters say hello over hot dogs and pasta dishes. And if your child decides on an untimely toilet trip, you may find one of them joining you for dinner.
Other events to mark the 20th anniversary include extended hours, with attractions staying open into the night, and character meets with Mickey Mouse and the princesses. The daily parades also feature a colourful cavalcade of characters.
Here, watching the parade in Main Street USA, I find myself face to face with Goofy again, and doing something else I probably would never do back home – waving. And singing. Oh, it’s easy to sneer at Disney, the clichéd songs and fakery, the pink castles and girls in nylon princess dresses believing in fairy tales. The fact it’s not a ‘real’ holiday. The fact it’s not real.
But as I stood there, waving at someone in a dog costume, surrounded by children all as excited as my thrilled seven-year-old boy in his Rapunzel dress, I just couldn’t sneer. And I wouldn’t have swapped that moment for all the rural camping holidays in the world. It was just too magical. n
• The 20th anniversary celebrations continue until early next year at Disneyland Paris (www.disneylandparis.co.uk), with deals available on hotels and tickets. A three-day, two-park tickets start at £141 for adults and £123 for children if booked online.
• Travel can be booked through Expedia (www.expedia.co.uk).
• A double room, with breakfast, costs from £82 to £126 per night, depending on season, at Explorers Hotel (www.explorershotels.com).
• Airport transfers cost around £87 through Supershuttle (www.supershuttle.fr).
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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