I love adventure, nature and the outdoors, so why on earth would I want to subject myself to the hyper stimulated chaos and artificial mass produced entertainment of Disneyland Paris? I imagined it would be a place of nightmares, filled with the tears and mayhem of tired families and over excited children. So why did I enjoy it so much that I went back 3 more times?
Getting there. Driving to Paris was the first long road trip we attempted with the kids. We only tried it once. Even with the DVD player churning out Disney films, it still took the best part of a day and I was close to snapping before we had even arrived. I have seen others write gushing articles about the adventures to be had through the French Countryside en route, but all I remember was getting repeatedly kicked in the back for 10 hours with a short break to eat a plastic croissant in a grubby service station. Take the Eurostar – it’s awesome, worth the extra money and you can take your own wine and even a baguette if you fancy cultural immersion. The train goes all the way to the park entrance and you don’t need a car when you get there.
Hotels. We stayed offsite on our first visit and used the shuttle bus to get in, which was OK. The resort hotels are worth the extra if you can afford it. Magic Hours early access, half board meal plans, exclusive character access and a nice stroll around the lake into the park in the morning made things stress free. You can walk in through the Disney Village and pick up a coffee for the entry queue if you need the boost. I got so carried away on our last trip I opted for the Disneyland Hotel, situated at the main entrance to the park. There is nothing quite like it. There was an amazing all you can eat buffet with views of the castle (and fireworks), a gym and a great pool.
Taking small kids. On our first trip, I had one in nappies and one mid-potty training. In retrospect, this was quite challenging. On the first day (after the epic drive the day before) I was getting my morning coffee in the Disney Village Starbucks and for some reason I had sole control of the children. I had the nappy wearing child strapped in the buggy and had somehow got separated from the other one who was outside on the other side of the glass. She had clear directions to go to the toilet whenever she needed and I was carrying the potty everywhere in constant readiness. I watched her look around, make the face and then pull down her trousers before laying her offering in the doorway. Some quick work with a nappy bag rectified the situation and we conducted a hasty extraction and headed for the child appropriate rides in Fantasyland. I had just about recovered and we had enjoyed rides on the Carousel, the Mad Hatter Tea Cups and had a go on Dumbo the Flying Elephant. I was starting to feel pretty pleased with myself as I hoisted the smallest one onto my shoulders and headed for the Small World boat ride. We had been happily singing along to the annoying theme tune in the queue for about 20 minutes, when I had a tap on my shoulder from the people behind us who informed me that the baby bouncing on my shoulders had a full nappy which was now overflowing down my neck and into my daysack.
Ride restrictions. Some of the rides have height restrictions and these should be obeyed. I took the smallest child on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror when she was just shy of the obligatory 1.2 meters. How dangerous could it be, I thought as I encouraged her to stretch up on her tip toes just enough for them to let us in. Little did I know that the ride involved a 199ft freefall drop in a lift that has supposedly been struck by lightning. It was terrifying. The eldest one thought it was the best thing ever, but the small one was not impressed. I saw a benign looking studio tram tour as we exited the Tower and bundled my distraught child on-board for a break and dug out some high sugar distraction snacks. Things had pretty much calmed down and the sobbing had become more intermittent at which point the tram entered a simulated flood and explosion special effects area. At that point we returned to full melt down. The only other terrifying experience we had was on the Thunder Mountain Roller-coaster. As I was helping one of the girls climb out of the ride at the end, I lost my grip as she tripped on her Snow White Dress and disappeared between the train cart and the tracks. I went straight after her as the very efficient ride staff hit the emergency stop button and a catastrophe was averted.
Meeting the characters. The roller coasters and the rides are great fun, but to be honest you can get the same adrenaline kicks at Winter Wonderland in London. Disneyland is about much more than that though. It had been described to me as a park in decline, suffering with chronic debt, failing infrastructure and under-staffing. Over the last few years I have seen it go from strength to strength. It would be unreasonable not to expect a little French inefficiency and Gallic indifference, but this does not apply to the cast members who are genuinely quite amazing. The only danger comes from the crowds of over enthusiastic parents who quickly form an unruly and very un-British mob at the very sight of Tigger or one of his accomplices. I found the Disney Hotel, the Auberge de Cendrillion and Café Mickey were the best place to get exclusive character access and the best pictures. Contrary to many reviews, I never met an indifferent Cast Member or encountered overly grumpy staff. I did however, experience lots of ill-mannered visitors.
Parades and shows. There are some great shows that change every year and are usually seasonal. Highlights for us have been the Frozen Musical, Buffalo Bill’s live Wild West Show and the amazing fireworks at the Castle in the evening. We also enjoyed the Disney Performing Arts On-stage programme which allows amateur groups to perform to a large international audience. We were resting in the Videopolis theatre and having a break to warm up when a dance group from Kazakhstan came on and started to perform to some very choice rap song lyrics. There was pandemonium with parents covering their children’s ears and running for the doors. It was brilliant. If you are going to the parades, get there early to get a good spot and try not to be too British. If you leave a space in front of you, someone will stand in it.
Queues and crowds. It does seem like there is something fundamentally wrong about queuing for so long to go on a merry-go-round, that you could find at any good fairground. There is plenty of sage advice on-line about taking snacks, games and warm kit to get you through, but for expectation management, expect your kids to get tired and probably fight each other. You will queue and walk for a long way, so choose shoes based on comfort rather than fashion. A bit of planning, map recce (work out where the toilets are beforehand) and clever use of the fast pass system will also go some way to enriching your experience. Go off peak and avoid French school holidays at any cost. Download the Disneyland Paris App for maps, real time queue advice, show timings, parades, character meets, ride restrictions and closures. Other than that, you have just got to grin and bear it and be thankful for the wonderful opportunity to bond as a family. It can be quite crowded, especially in the queues, so you should have some form of large crowd protocol to stop things going wrong and for knowing what to do if you lose anyone. I lost one of mine briefly in the caves in Adventure Isle, which turned out to be deceptively disorientating.
Food and Drink. After an expensive and unfulfilling experience with a fast food outlet, we became more cunning about using our half-board meal plans and booked into the most expensive restaurants to get the best value when redeeming them. We had to book restaurants in advance and often chose to eat out of peak hours. I enjoyed a very nice Beef Fillet with a glass of Bordeaux at Bistrot Chez Remy and was blown away by the buffet at the Disney Hotel. My favourite must be the Auberge de Cendrillion where we enjoyed fine French cuisine with the exceptionally charming princesses.
Costs. Whilst I found myself haemorrhaging cash to enrich the experience, I did find ways of making savings elsewhere. We bought our Disney merchandise on-line before we went to avoid the expensive gift and dress shops on-site. We also went midweek and out of the main summer season.
Princesses and Unicorns. So why did I enjoy it so much? I think it’s because the girls had such an amazing time and we were all able to immerse ourselves and believe in the dream for a while. You can interpret the Disney message in any way you like, but I think most of the characters are excellent role models for my girls and will help them become strong women. As parents, we all work hard. We should treat ourselves every now and again. Go to Disney and live your dream. Take nappy bags and wet wipes.
If you found this interesting then please check out my other posts in the ‘101 thoughts on raising children’ series:
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