Jan 3, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Disneyland Park

My first-ever visit to the happiest place on the Continent went by drama-free for our group of 9 and left my three-year-old amazed - and what more could we have hoped for?

I made it well into my 29th year without ever having visited any of the Disney theme parks. Though I was only eight when Disneyland Paris opened back in 1992, I already felt too old to request a visit. When we moved to North America a few years later, my cynicism increased exponentially - especially since every ABC sitcom generally involved a visit to some Disney venue or other, I considered them cliched and pedestrian destinations and silently pitied classmates who bragged about their visits to these places.

Of course, there are plenty of objectionable aspects to the Disney conglomerate - from abstract handwringing at the company's commercialization of the childhood experience to more concrete reports of worker exploitation at the theme parks. An expose I read years ago in either Zeit or Sueddeutsche about how Disney employees in character costumes were desperately fighting for the right to wear their own underwear to work (under the outfits) still makes me shudder.

But at the same time: I was obsessed with The Jungle Book in preschool (though it's far from my favorite Disney movie now); I have very fond memories of going to the latest Disney releases with my late grandmother during the first years of the Disney renaissance; I know pretty much all the dialogue to The Lion King and Tarzan; and I just recently negotiated custody of our (my!) slightly ratty 20-year-old Winnie the Pooh bath towel with sister 1 - in short, Disney was a part of my life even before my Mickey-worshipping toddler came along. (The genesis of her love for Mickey is a story for another time.)

So when sister 3 requested a family visit to Disneyland Paris as part of her birthday present (with 5 sisters, 2 parents, 1 brother-in-law [H], and 1 little niece [T]), I was on board. T, of course, played a large factor - since I get motion-sick easily and have an intense dislike of heights, I'm not exactly an amusement park person. But the older I get the more I like doing things as a family, and I wanted to see my toddler who still believes in magic explore this place.

Overall, our visit was a success. There were no temper tantrums or fights, and we came out tired but happy. There was something for all age groups (though definitely more for the kiddoes), though at 3, Lee is definitely the youngest age at which I think she can get something out of the experience. And though it's winter, the park was pretty crowded - which meant the fast track system for rides came in very handy.

Our day

Star Tours

We started off the trip by getting fast track passes for Space Mountain, and then proceeded to Star Tours to pass the wait time. Lee missed the 1.02m height requirement by less than an inch, which devastated her. However, the staff were very sweet and gave me a "babyswitch pass" for three people (this would have allowed me to cut the line in fast track style, but without a specified time frame). I can't vouch for the actual experience since we ran out of time in the end to take up the pass, but it was my dad's favorite ride.


Orbitron

After leaving Star Tours I took Lee - wailing for her Daddy and the rest of my family - to this ride instead. Despite some initial reluctance about getting in (and kvetching about the wait), Lee ended up liking the experience and I enjoyed the view of the park. However, it was faster than I expected - the seatbelts didn't seem very strong, and I had to physically restrain Lee to keep her from standing up. So I was pretty relieved when it was over.

Space Mountain: Mission 2

Despite my above-mentioned tendency towards motion sickness, I decided this ride was a must-do. Though I've ticked now it off my list, I didn't really enjoy it at the time - or got that much out of it, as the official photo (eyes squeezed shut, teeth gritted) showed. Nate says it was too dark and the seat design compressed his back (he's 6'3"), and even my father said it was too much for him. However: this was sisters 1-3's favorite ride.

I was nauseous for the next two hours.

Alice's Curious Labyrinth

My mother took Lee and sister 4 to Fantasyland while we were on Space Mountain to traverse the labyrinth. This was just the thing for Lee, who reportedly loved running around the hedges, and my baby sister (7) also enjoyed it. Ditto for the Tea Cups.

Parade

En route to reunite the family, we were caught up in a parade with various floats (Mickey and Minnie! Santa on a reindeer-drawn sleigh! Woody and Buzz!), dancing elves, a marching band, and probably a lot more that my mind suppressed in sensory overload. It was saccharine and cheesy, but my teenaged sisters and I ended up singing along - and what's the point of being a hater when you're in the middle of it all?

Meet Mickey

Lee got Minnie for her birthday and the only thing she wanted for Christmas was the matching Mickey (she got this and tons more), so it would have been exceptionally cruel to come all the way to Disney Land without meeting the mouse himself. Since there was no fast-track option, we joined the line for a 45-minute wait - despite Nate's quip that you should never meet your hero.

The wait was warm and comfortable inside a theater-style house; the line snakes around in front of a stage with a large screen playing old Disney shorts (the uncontroversial ones) in French and English. So my mother and I were happy to warm up, while Lee and sister 4 (with countless other kids) were mesmerized by the show. Brash little Lee became very shy when she actually came face to face with Mickey, and the actor was very respectful of her personal space and even managed to coax a little smile out of her at the end. They let you take your own photos with a personal camera (ones with Mickey's electronic signature can be bought for €15 upwards), which I think is a surprisingly uncapitalist touch.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Marked scary for young 'uns, this ride basically takes you through scenes of the movie brought to life by animatronics. Lee liked the animals washing clothes, thought the precious stones were rock candy, and snuggled against me when the queen turned herself into a hag. But was just right for her - she wanted to go through it again, but I objected due to the wait.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of...Peril

Nate and I are still wondering if the title was a mistranslation from English to French and back to English. I didn't go on the ride, but my sisters and Nate considered it fun (if not super-memorable).

Big Thunder Mountain

Again, I didn't go - but Nate liked it because "it seemed to last for a very long time."

Phantom Manor

This had the same "may scare young children" warning as the Snow White ride, so we decided to take in Lee (my sisters who'd been there before called it "not really scary"). This was not a good call. The experience itself is pretty fun - I loved the special effects in the beginning - but we spent all of the ride itself with our hands in front of Lee's eyes. And though she complained incessantly, I think she would have suffered nightmares otherwise. Lee also wanted to have her photo taken with Jack Skellington from Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas (the whole Disney commercialization of soft Goth makes me giggle). I initially thought he would scare her, but since she still - 4 days after our visit - talks about him, so it's on the list for visit 2.


Riverboat

Part of the disadvantage of going to an amusement park in winter is that it gets dark so early (though hey, less people). We boarded the boat at twilight, but ended the journey in the dark. Most people were huddled in the warming cabins, so standing on deck and taking in the twinkling lights was a low-key way to calm down after a day of excitement. I found the narrative track annoying and blended it out.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Though the castle dominates the park and photographs well, seeing it up close reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville's passage in Democracy in America (Chapter 11):

When I arrived for the first time at New York [...] I was surprised to perceive along the shore [...] little palaces of white marble [...]. When I went the next day to inspect more closely the building which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind.

This is part of Tocqueville's general theory about art in a democracy:

The productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished. No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant; and appearance is more attended to than reality. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former, statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modelled in plaster.

Tocqueville's interpretation may also explain why the "art" in Star Trek: The Next Generation mostly consists of technically accurate but sort of soulless paintings of the Enterprise floating in space which everyone seems to have in their offices and quarters. But I digress. I'll just add that Sleeping Beauty is definitely one of my least favorite Disney movies.


Stores / Main Street

We were lucky that the day was dry, but the windchill factor did mean that it felt a lot colder than the actual 6-10 degrees Celsius. It was a great day for business for the stores - while warming up inside, visitors loaded up on Disney-themed jackets, sweaters, hats, blankets, and all the other Disney stuff. The stores themselves were done well - it's easy to find things. However, I do wish the book store on Main Street sold more actual books.

I was a bit concerned that Lee would see the stores and have conniption upon fit about wanting everything. But she was pretty cool about not getting new stuffed animals. We did get her Mickey and Minnie key chains with 5 cm / 2 in tall figures (and then a second Mickey after she lost the first), but that was it. And rather than getting her Mickeys and Minnies in different outfits, she took up my offer of making new outfits for her existing stuffed animals. (She will regret this when she realizes I can't sew.)


What worked

Arriving early. We arrived just after the park opened at 9:30 am – and though we beat the crowd, we were far from the first to get in. My mother and sister 4 had taken the train, which is a fast connection from central Paris and actually less of a walk to the park than the parking lot.

Backpacks – no dangling purse. I carried camera, wallet, and phone in my coat pockets, and our snacks, extra layers and accessories for Lee in the backpack.

Bringing our own sandwiches and snacks. The price / quality relationship of the offerings is off (especially for the savory foods). We delayed our sit-down restaurant lunch until 3 pm, since otherwise the lines get incredibly long. Nate also snuck in an early lunch at 11, before the restaurants started filling up. Sister 1 is a vegetarian, so her options were basically salad and fries.

Wearing sneakers / flats and casual clothes. We covered a lot of ground, and this was not a day for vanity.

Cell phones. We're the sort of family that continually gets separated, so without phones we would have had a tough time finding each other.

Learnings for next time

Plan the fast track pass strategy better. I (or someone equally unable to weather the hardcore rides) should have taken everyone's tickets and gotten fast track tickets to the best rides in a pre-agreed order. Which relates to my next point:

Work out a battle plan for which rides to tackle in which order before the visit. There are so many parts of the park I would like to have seen or explored in more depth, and though it's probably impossible to do the whole park in one day I still would have liked to try to do more. At the same time though, not having a concrete plan kept the day fairly relaxed.

Bring more layers. We were all pretty cold towards the end, and even Nate (who's always warm) later said he would have worn thicker clothes had he known how windy it would be. Also, we'd taken a gamble and left our raingear at home - we were lucky, but probably should have taken some lightweight ponchos nonetheless.

Bottom line

Yes, it's cheesy, commercialized, and probably quite hollow. But sometimes it's fun to indulge in these things, and especially for the little ones it was an earnestly magical experience. Lee wants to go again, and looking at the map there are many places I'd still like to take her to (and see for myself).

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