Because Oui Like You: A trip to EuroDisney

Special to the Washington Post

Ah, Paris. How the word conjures images of walks along the Seine, the Tuileries Gardens in bloom, the outdoor cafes.

On a Friday morning in May, my wife, son and I were on a jet bound for Paris -- but we were determined to skip all of the typical American tourist destinations. We were going to experience Paris as the French do. Forget the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles. We were headed for quarters rarely frequented by Yanks but well known by savvy Europeans.

We would start our tour on the main boulevard of an area known as Main Street, U.S.A. (which translates into English as "Main Street, U.S.A."). We would make a beeline for La Space Mountain. Later that evening we would dine among such film stars as Mssrs. Pluto and Goofy at the smart Cafe Mickey and turn in at our wooden bunks at the Hotel Cheyenne. The following day it would be off to La Big Thunder Mountain and Le Catastrophe Canyon.

Yes, we were vacationing at Euro Disney or, as it is now called, Disneyland Resort Paris, featuring the brand-new Walt Disney Studios.

Contrary to the comments you may have read in the early 1990s from a few Gauloise-sucking intellectuals who claimed that Mickey Mouse's invasion of France was tantamount to "cultural Chernobyl," the French (who much prefer to ruin their health with Marlboros) love Disney and Americana in all their glorious excess. In fact, they have turned what were once beet fields in the Brie country outside Paris into what is far and away the most visited tourist destination in Europe -- with no dog poop to step in, litter that is swept up before it even touches the ground and French people who smile on cue. (Well, half the time, anyway.)

It has been 10 years since Disney launched its French adventure to what at first were disastrous results. The Disney brass talked about shuttering the park, and the intelligentsia celebrated their correctness against the imperialist rodent.

But, in fact, Disney's initial problem wasn't that the French were getting too much Disney. They couldn't get enough of it. Admission fees were too high for European budgets, as were the prices at restaurants -- which shocked Europeans by not serving wine or beer. Plus, the park had a limited number of attractions, and the lines were way too long.

But Euro Disney went on an ambitious program, slashing prices, adding rides and, yes, serving wine and beer in the park. The name was also changed to drop the institutional-sounding "Euro" prefix. Disney's popularity has even spawned a string of smaller French theme parks countrywide. Management hopes the addition of Walt Disney Studios, a diminutive version of Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, will boost annual attendance from 12 million to 17 million and turn the average stay into a three-day affair.

"The park is always full. It is the fashion," said our French travel agent, Carole, who explained that she and her husband had visited the park three times. And they don't have kids. "People love to go for ze magique."

A French computer engineer I know -- a bachelor who has been to the resort several times -- recalled a "Texas-type" meal he'd had at Disney as only the French can. "Le T-bone," he said, holding his fingers to his lips and kissing them, was "superb."

I had to check this out.

Let me first say that there are two kinds of people: Disney people and the rest of the world. Disney people are easily identifiable: They actually dance to the Main Street, U.S.A. theme song, chase Mickey for photo ops and take romantic vacations at Disney destinations, making pretty souvenir videos in front of the water features.

After nearly three days at Disney in Paris, I can definitively say there are lots of Disney people in France.

Let me also say that my family is not of the Disney people, but we are open-minded travelers. Going into the weekend, the toughest customer was our son, who just turned 8 and generally considers himself way too cool for Disney and its cast of princess characters.

After just a few hours on our first day in the park, he'd found the action he was looking for -- first in the Star Tours space simulation, his favorite ride. "Can we go again?" he begged, panting. "Pleeease? It was too short."

He also enjoyed watching me (he was under the 55-inch height requirement) exit wobbly and six shades paler from the "thrill rides," such as Space Mountain and the stomach-churning Indiana Jones et le Temple de Péril -- a looping roller coaster that goes à l'envers. That means backward.

But overall, the biggest hit with the whole family was the new Walt Disney Studios.

Our first stop was the studio tram tour, narrated in videotaped presentations by film stars in six languages (Jeremy Irons does the English). The back-lot tour starts with a basic primer on studio filmmaking and set design. There is also a passing, awkward reference touting the importance of French filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut -- an obvious French kiss for the Gallic cultural purists. (Other nods to French filmmaking, including an outdoor stage set for "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg," are sprinkled throughout the park and its programs.)

The climax of the tram tour is a rollicking Hollywood special effects spectacle -- Catastrophe Canyon, simulating an earthquake, an oil refinery fire and floods in a red-rock Arizona setting.

The rest of the afternoon we immersed ourselves in special effects, from a set simulation of the film "Armageddon" to a 30-minute car stunt show called Moteurs Action. Then we took in CinéMagique, a charming, well-made tribute to 20th-century cinema.

Like the Disneyland Park next door, many of its attractions, shops and restaurants are housed in covered arcades, which provide insurance against Paris's cold, rainy clime.

Although both parks have some beautifully crafted features and are well laid out, they can't compare in size or scope with Walt Disney World in Orlando. On a scale closer to the original Disneyland in California, the Paris resort is a fraction of the size of its Florida cousin. Whereas Walt Disney Studios in Paris lists 10 attractions, Orlando has 25. Admission prices are cheaper in Europe, too -- the equivalent of about $35.50 for a one-day, one-park adult pass, compared with $48 in Florida.

One of the most stunning differences is just how all-American the Paris resort is. There is no Epcot "world showcase" here highlighting cultures around the world. We did notice some Middle Eastern baked goods -- but no takers -- in the Arabian fortress at the gates of Adventureland. But for the most part, Disney serves Europeans the diversity they want: different flavors of the U.S.A.

The more upscale hotel choices include the Disneyland Hotel at the park gates, the Hotel New York and the New England-style Newport Bay Club, a tram ride away. But by far the most popular, and popularly priced hotels, are right out of central casting for the American West, with names that speak for themselves: Sequoia Lodge, Ranch Davy Crockett, Hotel Sante Fe.

Breakfast at the Hotel Cheyenne, a massive Wild West stage set that sleeps thousands in 14 buildings, was a self-service feed at the hotel's Chuck Wagon Cafe, where industrial croissants were piled high on whiskey barrels and other cowboy props.

Disney Village, the strip of restaurants and bars just outside the park, features Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a popular dinner extravaganza, and Billy Bob's Country Western Saloon. In the middle of the plaza is a mechanical bull for all comers. There are, among other choices, a "Happy Days"-style diner, a Planet Hollywood and a Rainforest Cafe.

The French account for about 40 percent of park attendance, with other European nationalities falling in behind. For most Europeans, a trip to Disney's French park represents their only chance to experience ze magique. Whether it is worth a trip from the United States is another matter entirely. Americans make up less than 2 percent of the audience, and you have to imagine that some of that number includes vacation paybacks for the kids: "If you are good on the wine tour of Bordeaux and don't break anything at the Louvre, we'll go to Disney!"

For the most part, Disney handles the language differences well. Attractions that seem to require explanations (or warnings) tend to be in English and French, or offer subtitles in one of those languages. Others offer full translations in several languages through headsets. The multilingual setting can, at best, add another dimension to the Disney experience, such as seeing French kids in cowboy hats shouting "Eeeeeeeeeeee-haah!" Or, as we did, sitting with some fun-loving Germans who sang to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song.

On the other hand, some of Disney's international "cast members" can be pretty clueless -- in more than one language at once.

At noontime one day I watched a British woman try to return a bottle of Coke that was not cold. "It's hot," she repeated several times. In English and French. "I would like to exchange it for a cold one." The counter girl looked at her and shook her head from side to side. Finally, a supervisor arrived to explain that there were no more cold Cokes and returned her money.

We also found that asking for help at Disney can be as frustrating as in the real Paris. Having left the house in a last-minute rush and neglected to pack some basic toiletries, we decided to search for a pharmacy Saturday evening. Cast members kept insisting we go to the first aid station. No, we explained over and over in French, we didn't need first aid -- we wanted a pharmacy. They pointed us in different directions. One cast member insisted there was a pharmacy and that his fellow cast members didn't know about it because they were too new.

In fact, there is no pharmacy. But finally we found what we needed in a small store in the high-speed train station just outside of Disney's gates.

We took a table at a cafe bar in the station, bought a newspaper and ordered coffee. After two days of drinking the instant Nescafe served exclusively throughout the park, we were ready for some real coffee -- make that extra-strength espresso. It was odd just how welcome a dull train station bar could be after two days of listening to ubiquitous "there's nowhere else I'd rather be" music, being dragged by our son into countless boutiques with the same disappointing merchandise, and watching toddlers explode like land mines around mid-afternoon.

It was time to leave the Magique and visit France, even if it was with all of the other Americans.