“Bonjour!” pipes the big black mouse to a theater of rapt families. “Je m’appelle Mickey!”
Well, this might take some getting used to.
Millions of Americans visit Paris every year and, especially if they have kids, most of them face the burning question: Does it make sense to devote a day in Europe to a theme park that is, deep in its DNA, quintessentially American?
I was in Paris for two weeks and, even without children in tow, decided to give Disneyland Paris a chance, silently daring the European offshoot to make the 40-minute train trip from Gare de Lyon something more than a simulated trip to Anaheim or Orlando.
The start wasn’t promising: Main Street, Disneyland Paris’s opening “scene” is as American as a mid-century apple pie, a cookie-cutter copy of what Disneyland and Walt Disney World have offered for more than 50 years. The signs are in English, the music a mix of greatest barbershop quartet hits like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”
I was disappointed, but then again, what did I expect? While Disney is a global brand, it’s also an incurably American animal—and this, in all likelihood, is the precise Uncle Sam-and-John Philip Sousa vibe European visitors hope to experience.
Fair enough, but that’s not what I was here for. If Disneyland Paris was going to be little more than a transatlantic Mouse transplant, I told myself, my day would have been better spent sailing the Seine on a Bateaux Mouche.
Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle)
Then, as I walked along Main Street, an unexpected sense of discovery began to stir in me. I’ve made a combined 50 visits or so to the two U.S. parks, and I’ve taken that stroll along Main Street, toward that iconic castle, more times than I can count. But now, as I approached Disneyland Paris’s version of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, something seemed marvelously different.
Finally, it dawned on me: All of Disney’s theme park palaces were inspired by Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, just a few hundred miles to the east of where I stood. Reconstructed in the U.S., those copies never seemed much at home — more kitschy than cool. But in the heart of Europe, even clad in a fantasia of pastel colors and gold leaf, Disney’s castle earns its presence in a pleasingly organic way. (In a weird twist, thanks to the 10 million people who visit Disneyland Paris each year, Sleeping Beauty’s is now the most-visited castle in Europe.)
Pirates des Caraïbes (Pirates of the Caribbean)
From this point, things got better. Unexpectedly, it is on some of the park’s most iconically “Disneyesque” rides that the place becomes most emphatically French. The soundtrack for Paris’s Pirates of the Caribbean still rings with “Yo-ho, Yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me!” But as the robot buccaneers and city folk bark out their lines in French, the ride morphs from being an over-the-top Errol Flynn adventure into a fanciful retelling of the legend of Jean Lafitte, the French pirate who alternately terrorized Caribbean merchant ships and fought the British on behalf of the fledgling United States. It’s a uniquely Francophile take on a familiar ride, somehow more exotic and more culturally engaging than the original. (This is true even when the robotic Johnny Depp starts speaking French to his parrot.)
Phantom Manor (The Haunted Mansion)
As much as I’ve loved Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion for 50 years, I’ve always cringed a bit at its “Don’t be scared — we’re just a silly bunch of goofy ghosts” attitude. As home to the grisliest fairy tales of all time, Europe was never going to go for that. Disneyland Paris’s Phantom Manor is strikingly dark and consistently eerie from the moment you first hear the fearsome voice of Vincent Price, who recorded his narration 30 years ago exclusively for this version of the attraction.
Unlike other Haunted Mansion iterations, which basically consist of a smooth ride past a bunch of ghostly but humorous vignettes, the Paris version comes with a tragic storyline about a bride whose four would-be grooms were all savagely murdered by her jealous father. In the final room, when the spirit bride plaintively asks riders, “Will YOU marry me…?” you almost want to jump out of your Omnimover.
Tour de Terreur de la Zone Crépusculaire (The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror)
Okay, I’ve Google translated the name of this ride — even in France, it bears the English title of its U.S. counterparts.
Still, even though it is explicitly tied to a classic American TV series, the ride proclaims its Continental creds from the start. A black-and-white Rod Serling — speaking dubbed French yet maintaining those unmistakable “For-Your-Consideration” cadences — lays out the ride’s creepy premise: In the 1930s, a bolt of lightning struck the hotel, sending a small group of elevator passengers hurtling into a kind of time warp.
The Paris version differs from the U.S. ones in that one of the passengers, a ghostly little girl, now gets a starring role. She flits about before us as our car travels through the hotel’s hallways, chirping away in French. She’s très adorable.
Back in 2017, Disneyland in Anaheim made the sad decision to abandon Rod and his elevator to oblivion and convert the ride to a Marvel adventure. But I’m not having it. The Paris Tower of Terror is the best of them all, and besides, when that elevator goes into free-fall, everyone screams in the same language.
it’s a small world
For Disney’s most arguably famous ride — and certainly its most globally conscious one — the French folks decided not to mess with a good thing: The ride’s name remains defiantly untranslated, and the first time you hear that ear worm of a song, it’s in English. But there is one unique twist: The final vignette of singing dolls presents American children embodying the things Europeans associate most with this country: Hollywood, football, and the Wild West.
“Wait,” I thought, “there’s more to us than that!” But then I remembered all I wanted to do in France was drink wine and eat croissants, and decided to keep my mouth shut.
Elsewhere in the park, careful observation rewarded me with lots of lovely French flourishes, especially in Discoveryland, the Paris version of Tomorrowland, designed in a steampunk style and featuring retro-futuristic machinery and devices meant to evoke the writings of Jules Verne, the creator of modern science fiction.
But global culture is, alas, chipping away at that decidedly French identity. Boarding Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain — a classic ride repurposed to cash in on Disney’s Star Wars franchises — I mourned the fact that I’d missed this attraction in its early days, when it re-created Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, in all its low-tech splendor.
Main Street is the only way out of Paris Disneyland, which means the cumulative European vibe takes an inevitable hit as you leave. Besides all that vintage gingerbread woodwork, you have to listen to more Golden Oldies like “Daisy” and “Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet.”
Nevertheless, I’m happy to report that my day at Paris Disneyland turned out to be a pleasing multicultural experience: Not only a glimpse at the Disneyfied fantasies of our friends across the ocean, but also a window on how those very same people see us.
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