Disneyland Paris: Beautiful, and Flawed

2 Sep

Disneyland Park

The first thing to hit us at Disneyland Paris was the odor of horse urine.

The themeing was lovely, but I didn't want to linger quite as long as we did

The themeing was lovely, but I didn't want to linger quite as long as we did

Well, that’s not entirely true. After all, by the time we entered the Disneyland Railroad underpass that marks the start of Main Street USA, and where the horse urine stench hit us, we’d already spent about an hour in line for our admission media, so we’d had plenty of time to appreciate the excellent themeing in the ticket queues. But generally speaking, I don’t feel like I’m at Disneyland until I’ve walked right down the middle of Main Street USA. And this time, that came with an extra special je ne sais quoi.

I was baffled by it, quite frankly. I’ve never smelled such a thing at Anaheim or Lake Buena Vista, even on a hot day. The horses weren’t even out and about, actually; perhaps it was too hot to make them work. But nonetheless, their presence was unmistakable. I’d been in New Orleans the week prior, and even Bourbon Street at 8:00am didn’t smell as strongly as Main Street USA.

Things improved substantially from there, of course. After all, how could they get much worse? But indeed, Disneyland Paris is a distinctly different experience than its US counterparts, and sometimes does fall short of the US Guest’s expectations.

Watching sunset behind the castle, from the Phantom Manor queue

Watching sunset behind the castle, from the Phantom Manor queue

In some  cases it’s as simple as culture clash. One can’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — expect the same sort of homogenous ever-smiling Magic from Cast Members in France as one does in the United States. Can you imagine trying to ensure that a largely-Parisian workforce would act like the Cast Members you’re accustomed to in Orlando? (I’m not even going to mention how far beyond the pale the Tokyo Cast Members go in their niceness and attention to customer service details!)

I’d argue, though, that this cultural conflict doesn’t have to be a problem if you’re willing to remember that you’re essentially out of your element and in someone else’s country, where their own customs prevail. Besides, plenty of the Cast Members are super-friendly and welcoming, especially if you approach them with a smile yourself. French culture does not expect the always-on happy face that United States culture assumes, and perhaps this is not a bad thing. After spending the past two weeks in France, I must say there’s something refreshing (and feels more authentic) about knowing that if somebody’s smiling, they really mean it.

But it seems to me that the more significant issue, horse urine aside, was that the processes and systems at Disneyland Paris are essentially replicated from the US Disney parks, without the significant re-engineering necessary for a whole different set of social norms and behaviors.

Strolling through Alice's Curious Labyrinth

Alice's Curious Labyrinth is one of the most relaxing attractions in any Disney park

A case in point: While queued up to enter Alice’s Curious Labyrinth, one of my son’s favorite attractions, a Guest some ten places in front of us in the line had a question or problem to discuss with the Cast Member on duty. Now, in one of the US parks, the Cast Member would have asked the Guest to move out of the queue while the question was discussed, so that those lined up behind her could continue to enter the attraction. But instead, the line stood still for at least five minutes as the discussion took place. I saw many similar events during the three days I spent at Disneyland Paris this August, and have come to believe there may be a cultural norm that wouldn’t permit for the Cast Member to ask the Guest to step aside to let others pass. Certainly I did notice during my time in France that when a service worker was assisting me in some way, I was given their complete attention until our interaction was completed.

But the queue was not designed to easily flow around this sort of situation; it was not possible for another Cast Member to simply redirect the rest of us through another turnstyle (and I wonder, would it have been rude to do so if it had been possible? The Guest with the question had, after all, been in line before us, so would it have been expected that we should have to wait for her to enter first?).

I did enjoy the Pinocchio ride....

I did enjoy the Pinocchio ride....

Another case in point: While smoking is forbidden in the indoor queues and on attractions, it’s permitted in the Parks, and one does see plenty of smoking everywhere. However, there don’t seem to be adequate ash trays/cans throughout the Parks. I remember watching one Guest drop a cigarette butt on top of a wet drain in Fantasyland, and scoffing at her….then later realized that I didn’t see anywhere else for her to put out her cigarette. If smoking is permitted, one must make allowances for where all those butts are gonna go.

...but not the rubbish in the queue area

...but not the rubbish in the queue area

Sadly, maintenance in general seems to be quite an issue, given the number of worn patches on various attractions, and the amount of litter I saw in the Pinocchio queue one evening. And yes, that certain smell on Main Street.

It’s a shame that differences in Guest behavior (and, in the case of smoking, Park policy) haven’t been accounted for in Park planning, as the attractions Imagineering at Disneyland Paris is simply top notch. Their Phantom Manor is spectacular, with themeing in the queue far beyond that of either of the Haunted Mansions in the States. Ditto for the Pirates of the Caribbean queue, though the Anaheim attraction is better. La Taniere du Dragon is spooky good fun and unlike any other Disney attraction, as is the Nautilus walkthrough (no, nothing like the Finding Nemo submarine ride). The architecture and landscaping of the Castle are spectacular and distinctive, as would be necessary to pass muster with a European Guest. The Discoveryland theme is delightfully steampunk, much less dated than the retro-future of the US Tomorrowlands. Even the Walt Disney Studios Park, while largely a failure in themeing even after recent improvements, has two rather charming shows in Animagique and Cinemagique.

Just one corner of the delightfully steakpunk Discoverly

Just one corner of the delightfully steakpunk Discoveryland

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting more photos from my trip, as well as commentary on a few of the attractions I particularly enjoyed (or didn’t). I’ll also be playing live audio from the trip, including a couple ride throughs, on the Those Darn Cats podcast in the reasonably near future.

Size does matter

Size does matter

If you’re a Disney fan (and why else would you be reading this blog?), I wouldn’t encourage you to make a trip to Paris just for Disneyland. But I would encourage you to consider substituting a trip to Paris for one of your usual jaunts to Walt Disney World, especially if you’ve never been to Paris before. Lying on the grass on a sunny day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is so much more satisfying than walking through the Epcot France pavillion. Exploring the skulls and bones in the Catacombes is spookier than the Pirates queue.

Talk about tombstones quaking!

Talk about tombstones quaking!

There’s a great exhbit of women artists right now at the Beaubourg museum, at Georges Pompideau Center. And yes, for about $160 US you can get a Francillien Annual Passport at Disneyland Paris, so you can get a little Disney fix in while you’re at it.

And no, I still really can’t explain that horse urine.

12 Responses to “Disneyland Paris: Beautiful, and Flawed”

  1. sambycat September 2, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    i think that was dragon pee

  2. George Taylor September 2, 2009 at 1:23 pm #

    So, did you ever feel like you were in the French Pavilion at Epcot?

  3. Jennifer September 2, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    I felt like I was in the French Pavillion at Epcot only once: At Walt Disney Studios, when we walked by the restaurant offering a Chef Remy Character Meal.

    I didn’t go for the meal because the restaurant has received some lousy reviews, opting instead for dinner at Walt’s: An American Restaurant. More on that later….

  4. Cory September 5, 2009 at 3:46 am #

    Interesting… I guess I wasn’t at DLP long enough to notice any problems. It was a rush job and decidedly didn’t smell of urine.

    The cast members I interacted with were great… A welcome, multilingual relief from the number of jerks I had to deal with getting to the park. However, given what I had experienced with Parisians, I can’t say I’m surprised that it would filter into DLP.

    I can second your recommendation though. WDW is a destination unto itself, but with the possible exception of the original Disneyland USA, I can’t imagine going somewhere specifically to go to a Disney park. Got o Paris because you want to go to Paris, and go to Tokyo because you want to go to Tokyo, but do take in the park while you’re there. I couldn’t get over the hump of thinking of DLP as Disneyland rather than a-version-of-Disneyland, but it is a very nice, very beutiful version of Disneyland.

  5. Jennifer September 7, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    We didn’t run into any of the fabled rude Frenchmen in Paris (or Bayeux, for that matter). True, the French are less “smiley” than Americans, but I don’t consider that rude, just different.

    The one time I’ve encountered a genuinely rude French person in my three trips there was, amusingly enough, at the Tourism Board on Champs-Elysses, in 2003.

  6. Nick September 9, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Very nice write up.

  7. Joel September 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm #

    On my trip in October 2008, I was extremely disappointed in the cleanliness condition of the parks. During the podcast you mention the Nautilus walk though. I agree it was neat, but the water was so algae laden that you couldn’t see anything when the iris in the main chamber opened revealing the surprise. Being in the park for early admission and seeing so much trash on the ground and in the flowerbeds just seemed so unacceptable for Disney standards.

    I would also agree about visiting the overseas parks. I’m surprised at the amount of push back that I’ve received from people basically saying they are totally happy with what WDW has to offer. By visiting the overseas parks you can either says Yeah, we have a good thing or why don’t we have that!?

  8. Cédric June 9, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Hi there ! I know this post is quite old now… But just to resolved the mystery i think what you smelled is the “organic” fertilizer that we use for the flowerbeds.

    Cédric, Cast Member guest relations in DLP..

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