Tuesday, 7 April 2009

France's own little bit of Americana - Disneyland, Paris

Here are a couple of questions for you.

What do you get when you put a 13-year-old German boy intent on enjoying himself together with his 40-something (grumpy) Godfather equally resolved to relax on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Paris?

A) A visit around a museum for a dose of culture?
B) A stroll through one of the capital's beautiful parks to soak up the Spring sun?
C) A trip along the Seine on a bateau mouche
D) None of the above.

The answer of course is D) as His Grumpiness made the mistake of asking his Godson what he would like to do, and there was sadly only one answer.....DISNEYLAND.

Ah yes, Disneyland, Paris - that bastion of US culture planted just 32 kilometres from the French capital and a place that has been packing 'em in for over a decade and a half now.

Just the job for really getting to grips with what makes the younger generation tick.

So join me as I leave planet Earth for a couple of hours and transport myself (plus 13-year-old Godson) to what for all intents and purposes is another world.

First up here's a really good tip.

If, like me you have a rather "delicate" tummy, a fear of heights and a dislike of anything other than being on terra firma, twist the arm (ie bribe) a couple of gullible friends to join you, with the promise that it'll be a "wonderful day out" and you'll treat them to a meal in a posh restaurant later in the month.

It works wonders.

You can insist that "you're doing a photo reportage for posterity" (oh yes, my Godson has to have something in "hard copy"to remember his trip by) and your "friends" can let their locks down and behave like the teenagers they've always wanted to be.

Plus of course you have the added (cowardly) benefit of remaining aloof and superior and decidedly "above" all that nonsense.

Now I could try to give the trip a gloss of the "significant" by pretending it was a pilgrimage of sorts to check out the place where at the end of 2007 the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, first "went public" about his whirlwind romance with the now first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, when the couple chose Disneyland as their first "spontaneous" photo op.

But that's old news, and besides, I've already rather admitted that the visit was far from treading on hallowed ground.

There's something decidedly odd about making the drive east from Paris to see rising in the distance the form of what appears to be a fluffy pink castle.

It requires something of a double take to say the least. Can this manufactured chocolate box fantasy image really be perched so close to arguably one of the world's most beautiful capitals?

And in the same country which is stuffed to bursting point with the real thing - chateaux galore?

Ah but this is Disney, where anything is allowed.

The world is just one big dream - or nightmare depending on your perspective - and you kind of know that you've left planet Earth, any semblance of sanity and above all France - not necessarily in that order - once you arrive at the Disneyland toll booth if you're arriving by car.

As you pay you'll receive that gushingly hearty "ENJOY YOUR STAY AT DISNEY. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY."

Yes the welcome really was that loud

"Onkel Johnny," a voice piped up from behind me. "Why was that man grinning so much and shouting?" it asked.

"And what did he say?"

Ah yes. Only children would dare to utter the thoughts adults might politely keep to themselves.

"He has just been told to be extra polite," I replied, deciding that it was probably better to refrain from adding that it had been something of a shock to my own sensibilities to hear a French person bellowing away such platitudes in an obviously unnatural way.

Once through the admission turnstile (€51 for each adult - "fun" doesn't come cheap - and children over the age of 12 are grown-ups according to Disney) it was off to the first attraction "A ride through Hell in the Dark" otherwise known as Space Mountain 2.

Queues - or standing in line - are very much part of the Disney experience and to avoid too much waiting around twiddling your thumbs, the best advice is to get hold of some Fast Pass tickets which will give you an allotted time for returning and in the meantime you can try out some of the other attractions.

But don't be fooled by the helpful signs that tell you how long you can expect to wait. They're not always entirely accurate.

As we sought refuge at Automania for example, while we awaited our allocated trip to Hell and Back, we sailed past the "75 minutes from this point" marker to join the back of the queue.

An hour later and we still hadn't made it anywhere near the front and Space Mountain was beckoning.

So the party of three (other) adults and one teenager made their way over to where they had started, while the "photographer" was left to snap away at some rather grotesquely dressed dancers.

Similarly as we hotfooted our way afterwards to another area of the park we passed Star Tours with the sign happily announcing "zero waiting minutes".

"Cool, let's check this one out," I enthused, and of course it was only 40 minutes later that we finally boarded the ride with the maniac first-time pilot.

It's rather like being in a flight simulator (I know because I tried one out during a course to overcome my fear of flying) only in outer space.

And here's where I have to admit (in the smallest of letters) that a certain grumpy geezer actually spent the whole time belly laughing madly. A hoot.

Talking of tummies (love the segue) it was time to top up the fuel tank and find some food.

Once again it's a case of Disneyland Paris leaving the visitor somewhat aghast. Remember this is France, a country with a rich gastronomic palate and a culinary tradition of which it is rightly proud

So what did we end up eating at Toad Hall restaurant? Fish and chips! No comment.

Replete and feeling more than slightly bilious, I claimed "photographic reportage" yet again as my excuse for sitting out Indiana Jones, but I managed to record the screams of delight (?) as the rest of the party did a full circle on the Temple of Peril ride.

There were some distinctly paler than white faces that emerged a couple of minutes later, apart from one who wanted to "do it all again."

By this time of course even the other adults had had more than enough of the thrills and spills of Disneyland, and somehow I knew that I owed them big time.

Still there was one final, slightly more sedate ride left, and of course the inevitably long queue for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Even though the warning signs are there that "maybe you'll get wet" that wasn't enough for one still over-excited teenager who ensured that an extra helping of water was flicked over those sitting behind him.

There are of course many more rides and delights to experience at Disneyland, Paris, but as that well worn phrase goes "all good things have to come to an end" (bad ones too).

Back to the car and home.

Oh yes, Disneyland, Paris allows the (European) visitor to feel culturally superior and terribly snooty about the whole experience.

And of course the music is tacky, the parades completely over the top and the dancing ridiculous.

But when all is said and done, what the heck. It's just a bit of fun.

Actually, no, let's correct that - it's not just a bit of fun.

It's clearly a serious business making equally serious bucks - or should that be euros?

Disneyland, Paris is a major employer in the area and a whole infrastructure has developed over the years to support it. There are hotels, cinemas, towns and commercial centres that have been built alongside it.

There's a rail link for both the highspeed TGV service and the local RER.

And in 2002 a second theme park opened - Walt Disney Studios.

Sure there were the initial teething problems when Disneyland first opened its doors on French soil; the workforce issues (this is France after all) political opposition and low attendances. But that all seems to have been turned around.

It's essential for the local economy and there's the added bonus that like it or loathe it, the thing is bringing pleasure to millions.

But perhaps the lyrics of the song "One God" from the British group the Beautiful South best sum up for this particular visitor his feeling of a trip to Disneyland, Paris.

"The world is turning Disney and there's nothing you can do
You're trying to walk like giants
but you're wearing Pluto's shoes."

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