November 25, 2015

Karen Carpenter's Thanksgiving Song

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and this beautiful song by the Carpenters is the closest thing we have to then singing a song befitting the holiday. It was written by Felice Mancini, the daughter of celebrated composer Henry Mancini

Live version. Just beautiful!

Karen and Richard Carpenter recorded it for the beautiful, Grammy award winning Tan Album, (officially known as "Carpenters"), and the song became an instant classic. Today, I dedicate this song to my wife and especially my children:

Sometimes not often enough
We reflect upon the good things
And those thoughts always center 
around those we love
And I think about those people 
who mean so much to me
And for so many years have made me so very happy
And I count the times I have forgotten
 to say "thank you"
And just how much I love them

November 24, 2015

Vintage Disneyland Autopia

The Autopia. An original attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim and one that has been duplicated in various forms at Magic Kingdom parks the world over. A Tomorrowland classic.

As you can see from the piece of concept art above, the attraction originally was with our rails. But of course, once it became evident the cars were getting battered by inexperienced drivers, the maintenance or Imagineering team decided it was time for that to change! These sweet machines were far too expensive even back then to be getting a thrashing all day long.

It won't exist at Shanghai Disneyland but Hong Kong Disneyland's is all electric; Disneyland Paris has gone hybrid; and in Tokyo Disneyland's (gasp!) it is being removed for the largest expansion ever in the history of the park. Even It's a Small World is moving to ensure the New Fantasyland puts Florida's version to shame. 

Although it covers quite a bit of space in Walt's original kingdom, opinions are divided as to whether it ever really could or should be removed. The sponsorship of the attraction will soon change again, making it an opening day attraction that for the time being will continue on into the future. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Everyday Beauty

It's not what I've expected either. You see, I've been trying to grow in thankfulness- and it's not as easy a task as you might think. But I am guessing God is doing a work in me. Driving to an appointment on the other side of town, I came across this view. The mountains were so beautiful and the sky so blue. Peeking in my rear view mirror, there wasn't a car in sight. So, I opened up my phone camera and snapped this picture. Yes, winter's begun, and yes, most of the trees have lost their leaves, but I saw beauty today. And grew a bit in thankfulness.

November 23, 2015

Rare Countdown to Extinction Art

Attention all you lovers of Disney's Animal Kingdom! As you've probably noticed, the park is in the middle of a renaissance of sorts. New construction everywhere, refurbishments abound, and the future looks very, very bright. With the Rivers of Light nighttime show, the World of Avatar, and more on the way, Disney's Animal Kingdom will become an amazing theme park after dark as well.

Before all that opens, let me encourage you to take a look at the park as its stands now. It's still a pretty incredible place!

Countdown to Extinction aka Dinosaur, (Can we please go back to the original compelling name versus this generic one?), is truly an "E Ticket" attraction big on thrills, a centerpiece opening day attraction that drew guests to the park along with its iconic Kilimanjaro Safaris. This piece of fairly rare concept art by the Disney Imagineers presents a slightly different opening sequence than the final result. The Carnotaurus beast stands right in front of guests as the enter the primeval forest. It's not a warm welcome!

As things stand now, it seems this attraction has had some love and care but is still not up to opening day show standards. I would bet that things will change as the Disney suits will have a chance to relaunch the park beginning in the Spring. One thing is certain- guests come to see the beasts, mythical, extinct, or real. So now is the time to fix Disco Yeti on Expedition: Everest!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Staying Positive in Polynesia

OK, I'll admit it- the previous post detailed a piece of news that really pissed me off! But I'm going to stay positive, and I'm reflecting on not The Good Dinosaur, but Disney/ Pixar's next November release Moana. I almost don't care how good the film is (not really!), but I love most things Polynesia. Now I want to head off to Walt Disney World and book at stay at the very beautiful but very pricey Polynesian Village

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Is This Extortion?

This story about the 14 year old who bought a clock to school that looked like a bomb continues to get stranger and stranger. Now, he and his family are demanding $15 Million in damages because the school district and the city did their job making sure the school was safe. 

Yeah, this looks like a clock...

Not only this, but this kid is considered a hero and invited to the White House. Wow. Would he have gotten an invitation from President Obama if he were a Jew? Probably not. Full story here.

November 22, 2015

Sunday Special: Disneyland Monorail and Submarine Art

From deep within my Imagineering concept art files comes this piece circa 1957 or so. The artist is unknown.

Walt Disney was very serious when he said Disneyland would never be completed. The park opened with 22 attractions and within four years, the number had increased to almost 50, including the Submarine Voyage, the Disneyland Alweg Monorial, and the iconic Matterhorn Bobsleds

From the Disney Parks blog.

This growth pattern would continue for many years until work on Walt Disney World would overtake the interests of the company businessmen and therefore the designers of the park. 

Under Michael Eisner, the company began to reinvest in its resort properties, beginning an expansion in Florida that has never been repeated. Disney-MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, and Disney's Animal Kingdom all came into existence during his tenure. The Florida resort thrived under his leadership.

When Robert Iger came on board, he took on a "been there, done that" attitude toward the beloved theme parks, and they suffered by lack of investment and additions. They were profitable as never before, so they were viewed as a money printing machine. That is until Universal Orlando upped their game with the Harry Potter expansion, and Florida visitors began to take one or two of their vacation days to see the Studios and Islands of Adventure parks, leaving the Mouse behind. This was the wake up call that got his attention. Things have begun to change with Star Wars and Avatar coming into the Florida parks and the earlier almost total re-Imagineering of Disney California Adventure. 

Nothing like a little competition to make a company go back to its business foundations for success! Guess Walt knew what he was doing, after all!
Note: I just realized this article was my 2,000th one on the Insights blog. Just incredible...

(Art and photograph copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

November 21, 2015

An American in Paris: A Tribute (Day Four)

I have so enjoyed reading my own trip reports! It sounds funny to say this, but as I have been reading, a flood of memories returned- also making me want to once again visit the gorgeous city! Or at least look at the thousands of photographs I took. 

Let me encourage you to journey to this amazing city! I know that the terror of the last week will not stop the people of Paris, nor will it stop me from returning. The only question now is when.

Please enjoy the last piece of the series. May God Bless the people of Paris!

Alright, I'll admit it: I cheated with this first photo, since I took it on Day Two, when we visited Notre Dame. Given it is written in the Disney font, I couldn't resist. It perfectly captures how I feel about this city with a special Disney flair.

It was a long but glorious Day Three spent at Disneyland Paris. I absolutely love the place and always depart with a mixture of thankfulness and sadness. Sadness as I know it could always be my last visit, but thankfulness that I could spend another day there due to God's goodness to me. 

We slept in until the very last minute, rushing to shower and check out. Walked to the shopping center at Val d'Europe for a quick late breakfast bite and some strong French coffee. Then it was back on the RER train to our motel by the airport- and back to the City of Lights for our last day.

Our top priority was the Musee d'Orsay, the old train station filled to the brim with amazing sculpture and the incredible work from the Impressionists. My favorite works of art are found here, and every visit to Paris must include a stop.

To call the museum building a converted train station is to do it a severe injustice. It is a work of art unto itself! At about the 5th floor, guests find a nice little cafe with a cracked glass mirror that elegantly and artistically reflects the gorgeous and large clock found on the back wall.

On Sundays, entrance to most of the museums is free. Easy on the budget but difficult as crowds are packed- absolutely packed, making leisurely touring next to impossible. No matter, we were not going to miss a visit.

Following our tour, we took a rest and ate at this little cafe shown above. The service was fine but the diners were a bit rushed mentally. We had places to go, but the elegant surroundings and the delicious quiche were both meant to be savored. 

Exiting the museum, it was starting to get dark, but this didn't stop us from going a bit of exploring. Our last destination would be Monmarte, a most beautiful section of town. The artists colony of Paris.

We were not disappointed! The decorations, the beautiful blue lights that sparkled in the night sky, the festive spirit of Christmas everywhere we looked. Lovely. Just lovely.

Are these too may photos? I think not! But then, I am the photographer, and it was our little getaway- an unexpected, totally surprising little gift from God in the midst of a business trip. Who would have guessed?

Sneaking into a little chocolate shop for our last Parisian treat of the evening, we stumbled upon a glorious chocolate version of the Eiffel Tower

Of course, we walked out with a few tiny morsels to share. The perfect way to reward ourselves for walking all evening.

It was getting later and later, but we chose to avoid the obvious. It was time to go back to our hotel, as we were departing tomorrow for the business portion of my trip. One last look behind us for a quick shot of Sacre Couer

We did not stop to see my favorite landmark as we had on each previous night. I now regret it. But this photo is a perfect way to end my four day trip report. The memories I have of this trip are among my most treasured. It was an anniversary trip to remember.

(All photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

November 20, 2015

An American in Paris: A Tribute (Part Three)

Continuing my tribute to this beautiful city, I present a report of Disneyland Paris at Christmas. Part Four, the last in the series, continues tomorrow. Please search the blog for other trip reports and over 200 articles which tie into this most gorgeous of cities.
Time for Day Three of my "An American in Paris" posts and probably the most highly anticipated piece of this series for many of you: Disneyland Paris

Truth, be known, a visit to this stunning parc is always one of the excursions I look forward to when I visit Paris. And why not? It is the most beautiful Magic Kingdom styled Disney park ever built. Under the lead of ex Imagineer Tony Baxter, this place is the best of the best. It's not full of cloned buildings and attractions like Tokyo Disneyland but instead brings in brand new design elements both inside and outside all the attractions, shops and restaurants, making each individual land fresh and unique from others built before it. Everything is re-Imagineered. The end result is nothing short of brilliant. (My detailed look at the artistic approach behind Disneyland Paris is found here. Well worth your time.) In fact, I think it is the park Walt Disney himself would have built if money were no object.

Kudos must be given to both Tony's design team and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner for having the vision for this place. Even a cursory glance tells the guest this was one expensive park to build. Other glances scream this is one expensive park to maintain, but we will get to that as well.

As I mentioned at the start of this series, a business trip also presented a gift to my wife as we were preparing to celebrate our thirty years of marriage. The chance to stopover in Paris for four days was not something we could pass up. Graciously, God provided the finances for us to do this. January 2012 began a year of a major job and life change that meant no income for me, so when I say "God provided", I absolutely and wholeheartedly mean what I write.

A Parisian styled hotel at Val d'Europe.

Earlier in the morning, we checked in to the Hotel L'Elysee at Val d'Europe. It's one Metro / RER stop from Disneyland Paris and an easy 5 minute or so trip to get there. We'd be spending the night there after our park visit and eating at the nearby shopping center for breakfast before returning back to the city for one more day. I would highly recommend staying there as the staff is very friendly and helpful, and they took our luggage into storage for the day at no additional charge. But it was time for Disneyland, and off we went. We chose to take the hotel courtesy bus. This cost us ten additional minutes but took us right by the entrance to some of the Disney hotels.

Upon arrival, once we walked from the bus stop, past the Disney Village and the entrance to the horrid Walt Disney Studios Paris park, the public gardens of the Disneyland Paris Hotel come into view. It was very tempting to stand there and gawk, especially as the area was decorated for Christmas. We did not. I intended to return for some photographs later and never did. No matter, I have some from my previous trips. (Search the blog for many more photographs.)

We walked into the park rather easily having purchased our tickets on line (a special "one day, two parks for the price of one") and printed them out. Unfortunately that meant carrying a large piece of paper with us in order to get Fast Passes and no souvenir ticket once the day was through. I will not do that again.

Previous visits to Disneyland Paris had been in October of 1998 and June of 2007. This visit would be January 2013, resulting in three trips in three different decades and in three different seasons. It's a fairly unique perspective for an American blogger to be able to have first hand. I'll give it my best shot to compare each for you.

20 years and Christmastime decorations- It couldn't get better!

The photograph above tells a simple but important part of the story. It was just before 10:00am when I took this shot in front of the train station after passing through the turnstiles under the Disneyland Paris Hotel. As you can tell, the skies are very gray, gray enough to make the Christmas lighting clearly stand out. This would be the standard weather for this trip to Paris, and the way the dark light would play in presenting the park really had an affect on our visit. The Imagineer's choice of color styling for each element (and the landscape artists as well) had to play just as well in the bright blue skies and green leafy summers as it did in the dark skies and leafless trees of winter. And it does, but each season creates a different experience. (Let me say here that I did no photo editing other than sizing. These images represent simple point and shoot without changing any settings from the standard daylight mode- even the beautiful night shots. Left large for your viewing pleasure. Just click on them.)

Main Street U.S.A. Paris style!
Eddie Sotto and team created a gorgeous version.

The graying skies and cool air were quite a refreshing change of pace from our other visits. I was surprised that it had no impact at all on the beauty of Main Street U.S.A. In fact, this part of the park felt much the same as in different times of the year. As I would soon discover, that wouldn't be the case in each of the other lands; the change in light and color would have a very different effect on them.

On Main Street, the architecture is the star, foliage is secondary, and this may be a small part of why the street felt just as inviting as during the Fall or Summer. As you'll see in my evening photographs later, it was luxuriously decorated for Christmas. Pretty during the day but spectacular in the evening. We walked on down the street, knowing we'd return later to shop.

The most beautiful of them all.

The view of the centerpiece of the park, the gorgeous Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant draws you right to it. It's a powerful beacon for guests, even first time visitors that don't know about the wonders found within, but we temporarily avoided it other than a few photos. Here, the bright pink of the castle was really highlighted against the sky. It's breathtaking and even more impressive at nightfall. I almost didn't resist heading right to it, but last trip, Phantom Manor was closed, and I wanted that to be our first stop of the day. We continued down Main Street U.S.A. and toward the central plaza.

I had just been to Walt's original kingdom in October (as well as  the beautifully rebuilt Disney California Adventure). I had not been to Walt Disney Word in Florida since 2009, so I was mentally prepared for the small plaza and public spaces of Disneyland. What a contrast! The area here in Paris was so large and impressive. It seems much bigger and grander than that in Florida's Magic Kingdom with the entrance to Frontierland well situated quite a ways from the center of the plaza. This design choice because of the "blessing of size" gives the approach a more grand reveal. (Here in Paris, it is the first land to the left of the plaza, where Adventureland would be found in Anaheim.)

The wildest Frontierland ever built.

If you've read any of my posts about the creation of Disneyland Paris or my earlier trip reports, you know that Paris' Frontierland stands head and shoulders above those built stateside.

It's begins right at the fort. In the photo above, it is out of view, but Indian tepees are just to the right, along a small creek with a long, treed pathway that separates Frontierland from the very detailed  Arabian themed entrance to Adventureland. These appropriate and subtle Indian dwellings were originally planned for Disneyland in California at opening, but perhaps because of the smaller space and the proximity to the nearby Carnation Plaza Gardens, they were never fully realized. (Concept art found here.) 

The fort itself is an attraction, Legends of the Wild West, with paths leading upstairs past various rooms and with terrific views of the whole town of Thunder Mesa and the wilderness beyond. It was at this point, I realized something about the park I had not put together earlier. Each of the lands in the park has a walkthrough exhibit which enforces the theme.

Entrance to Legends of the Wild West

Here, it was Legends of the Wild West, but in Adventureland, you found le Passage Enchante d' Aladdin. Discoveryland had the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea themed Les Mysteres du Nautilus. Fantasyland offered self-guided tours of the castle both above ground level and down in the dungeon, while Main Street offered two of these smaller experiences with the Liberty and Discovery Arcades doing double duty. Not only does each land offer something special in this format, it also helps create a sense of charm within a very large theme park, Disney's largest kingdom to date. Something Florida's Magic Kingdom has yet to achieve. Here in Paris, charm is accomplished in several other ways as well, but the realization of this aspect of commonality surprised me.

Exploring the fort, admiring the great views.

Lest you think it's a grand reveal only from the hub, once past the fort, it's equally impressive. The expanse and scale of Frontierland seems enhanced during the winter season. Although the trees are not as thick in screening the outside world, you get a sense of space that feels more wild and menacing than you do in the freshness of Summer or the celebratory changing colors of Autumn. In the dead of winter, the overall tone feels sinister and dangerous, but the views (below) just as spectacular.

From the fort: Phantom Manor to the left, Big Thunder to the right-
and that's just the beginning of this massive Frontierland.
You've got to enlarge this photo!

Welcome to the town of Thunder Mesa
and its sinister story of greed and murder.

Just beyond the fort lies the town of Thunder Mesa, home of the western themed version of the Haunted Mansion and the island centerpiece Big Thunder Mountain and its thrilling railroad. Together, the mountain and the riverboat offer an impressive calling card. We made a direct turn left, joining the masses of people headed for an excursion through the creepy Phantom Manor.

The old weathered mansion on the edge of town drew up us its walkway almost to the front door in relatively short time. We waited. We waited even longer, and then without announcement, guests we no longer welcomed beyond the front gates, being turned away. Eventually, the entire crowd dispersed back into the streets, and the Manor attraction closed for an undisclosed amount of time.

No time to cry as we had an entire park to explore. I had a few attractions to see that I had not experienced before. A river cruise on the Molly Brown was towards the top of our list. In moments, we boarded and were on our journey.

The Mike Fink Keelboats find new life in Paris.

As Americans living in Denver, we hear a lot about Mrs. Brown and her wild life. The narration was something quite amusing to us between the French gentleman and Mrs. Brown with her very interesting almost Southern / Texan accent. The views from the riverboat provided some close up action to Big Thunder Mountain as well as a peek at an old Mike Fink Keelboat nestled around some rock work. It's a nice tribute to the original park and something only Imagineers who truly love it would consider when building a brand new one. 

Other unexpected sights greeted us, too. The lack of foliage on the trees gave of a clear view of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in next door's Studios park. Yet, that wasn't the most shocking discovery. That happened as we rounded the last bend in the river, finding the geyers in a very sorry state of disrepair. Broken plaster or concrete, no water, the entire area just falling apart if you looked at it long enough.

A view from the river. Up high on a bluff, 
you'd never guess Main Street U.S.A. was right behind this creepy mansion.

I was very disappointed in being turned away from Phantom Manor, thinking it would not reopen and that I would have visited twice within being able to experience the attraction. It was with mixed emotions when the Manor did reopen.

What a disappointment! The music was very low as it only came from the sets and not from the cars itself. There was no narration, and to make matters even worse, the lighting inside the attraction was brightened to the point the riders could see the painted flats for being just that, exposed wiring, the insides of the clear plastic animatronic characters, and other things no guest should ever see. A full on disappointment- and this was our first attraction of the day. Training of cast members is either very poor or maintenance had a very low standard of what constituted the attraction operating well enough to have it opened. Perhaps they felt they had to reopen the attraction as it was the last full day of Christmastime at the park, and the crowds were thick.

Leaving the Manor, most all the visitors took the immediate path to the main thoroughfare. We chose to investigate the graveyard and its creepy and funny tombs and crypts. This choice provided some amazing views of the area. One aspect I love about this park is that each land is huge but also visually cut off from each of the others, view of the castle aside. Creating these massive "theme parks within a theme park", there's still many pads left for expansion. They're clearly hidden between appropriate open space as well as smaller pathways and hidden areas.

Eventually, we made our way to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with a very full queue and an approximately two hour wait. This ended up being the longest wait for any attraction, making it much more popular than even Space Mountain. We grabbed our Fast Passes for a 5:30pm return.

We were put off by the Silver Spur Steakhouse high prices- initially...

Once we opened the door, the aroma drew us in.

One of the other commonalities I saw at this park had to do with dining. I realized each land, sans Discoveryland, offered a waitress service restaurant with a relatively expensive menu. One was originally planned there within the Nautilus, but the plans were scrapped when Space Mountain changed from housing several attractions to the version we see today.

In Frontierland, the Silver Spur Steakhouse provides fine dining with a western flair. Opening the door, the elegant surroundings stood in stark contrast to the weathered, rustic town outside. And the air was filled with the aroma of sizzling steak! Prices matched the rich atmosphere, yet honestly, we walked away thinking a meal purchased here would be well worth the money. We had eaten at Walt's the previous trip, so if there was another visit, we might try this place.

By this point in the day, we had been on only a couple of attractions, but exploring one single area of the park had taken up a lot of time. That's how immersive the place is- and Frontierland is my favorite land in Paris. But it was time to move on.

The transition between Frontierland and Adventureland is very subtle,
but there is no doubt when you've arrived. 
Adventure Isle, Skull Rock, and the Caribbean fortress loom ahead.

Adventureland and a cruise through the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean beckoned. I'll say it again- this is the best version of Pirates yet. Totally rethought, remaining true to the heart of the original but providing a brand new overall experience.  

There's a unique mix of Arabian, African, and tropical elements in this area of the park that somehow work pretty well together. Each entrance to the land- from Fantasyland, Frontierland, or Main Street U.S.A.- offers a different experience and feel.

The entrance to Adventureland from the left side of the castle.

Cleverly, if you enter from Fantasyland, you leave Peter Pan's Flight, and right beyond it, you spy Adventure Isle with Skull Rock and Captain Hook's Pirate Ship. From Main Street, guests pass through the domes of an Arabian oasis and into the world of Aladdin.  Just in view but at a distance, the majestic and very large Swiss Family Tree House sits on the island. This time, we came into the area from Frontierland, moving along a pathway that blended elements of both lands by clever use of lighting and trees and plantings. It's another tribute to the thoughtful approach taken by all the Imagineers assigned to this project that each element works together in harmony.

In the summer, Adventure Isle is so lush, so thick with vegetation that the caves, pirate ship, and Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse are irresistible. Mid-winter, I found I had a "been there, done that" view, and we skipped it. In hindsight, I wish we hadn't. There are some amazing views of the park from up in those limbs!

The small village surrounding Pirates of the Caribbean's fortress.

The marquee and entrance for Pirates of the Caribbean was ahead. The old white battle scarred fortress and its sandy but empty beach against a gray sky gave an air of suspense and mystery to the whole area. Adding to this, a small village became visable to guests queueing for the attraction. The Blue Lagoon Restaurant and a gift shop created an area similar to what I pictured the Imagineers will give Shanghai Disneyland. That is if budget cuts don't continue to interfere with what once were grand plans.

Once the queue took us inside the fort, there's a similar feeling to the excellent atmosphere created at the Walt Disney World version of the landmark attraction. It's also different in its own way, and the photograph below gives just a glimpse of it. You are instantly involved in the action but strangely temporarily removed from it, building a suspense as effective as the much loved Blue Bayou portion of the California version.

Looking down from the queue.
You just know you're invading someone's secret hideout!

As we were waiting in line, I realized this visit that guests were not cutting in line as in previous visits. It was a much more sedate group of visitors than what we had witnessed in the past. Could it be good manners have become the norm in this park?

Suddenly, an announcement came over the loudspeakers. the attraction was experiencing difficulties. With a group of Italians behind us and another of French in front of us, we patiently waited to see if folks would leave the queue or wait. To our pleasure, everyone stood still in line indicating it was a temporary inconvenience. With it soon moving again, the line took us to the loading dock below. Along the way, we passed several cannons and the slightly hidden remains of a not so lucky ship crashed upon shore.
The Loading Dock as viewed from the queue above it.

Once aboard, we silently glided through a darkened lagoon past the diners at the Blue Lagoon. The engulfing midnight sky and full moon giving an eerie light to the small town as we eventually made our way up into the fortress. Yes, up. In a clever twist on the original, the boats move up into the action. 

Approaching the top of the lift, the sounds of battle become evident. Villagers are defending their town, but the bloodthirsty pirates are making headway, one coming over the top of the walls and another swinging overhead. the famous jail scene is found here along with a couple of others. I won't reveal it all. I hope its just enough to make you want to come see this Parisian Pirates for yourself.

Soon enough we plunge down into the action- right into the battle scene, and our small boat unintentionally became the focal point of the cannons from both directions! We really like the fact that the pirates speak in French, English, and Spanish here. It's brings an authenticity to the surroundings.  Most of the scenes are true to the California original minus Jack Sparrow. the much celebrated sword-fighting pirates came into view, and I'm happy to report, they were working beautifully. Is it my imagination, or does the villager fighting here to defend his woman look a lot like Orlando Bloom's character Will Turner?

Stone trees inside the upper parts of the castle.
The pathway outside of those windows provide a great view of the carousel courtyard.

Without the desire to go to the other side of Adventureland for the one misstep in the park added after the initial opening- a very small coaster ever-so-lightly themed to Indiana Jones, one later cloned at Tokyo Disney Sea- we decided to wander over to rediscover the wonders of the castle. Walking on the bridge into it, we found the stone trees overhead still awe inspiring.

Merlin the magician makes his home here.

Filled with objects to explore
and a secret passageway to the dragon's lair deep below.

Merlin L'Enchanteur, a shop directly to the left upon entering the castle, is chockful of atmosphere! And it holds a secret: a winding staircase is hidden within it, leading down into the dungeon. Not just any dungeon, but one that holds a fire breathing dragon inside its cavern. The huge Audio-Animatronic dragon seems as large as Expedition Everest's yeti, and it is fully functioning. The beast sleeps for short stretches of time, occasionally awakened by the crowd gathered to stare. When combined with the galleries, stained glass windows, and tapestries above, including a snoring suit of armor, you can easily spend an hour exploring this amazing castle. It truly is an attraction worth your time.

It was time for a late afternoon lunch. Being in Fantasyland, our choices were limited. Pizzeria Bella Notte was closed, and the Pinocchio themed restaurant was not our style. We settled on Toad Hall, having a pretty decent meal. We ended up outside on the patio due to a very full restaurant, enjoying the break even with the late afternoon winter drizzle. I decided it was time to take a peek inside the park's most expensive restaurant.

A relatively unimpressive entrance for the park's most expensive restaurant.

The hostess station. Christmas trees and other decorations
were to be found in many of the park's shops and restaurants.

A meal fit for a princess?

The main dining hall- a wide open space.

Outside the restaurant, this courtyard held Cinderella's coach.

After walking into Frontierland's steakhouse, I decided to boldly but very quietly walk through the lavishly expensive and over-hyped Auberge de Cendrillon. Roughly translated as Cinderella's Inn, we were thrilled not to be eating there. Sure, it has the golden laced glass coach outside in its own courtyard, but for 66 Euros or so for adults and 40 something Euros for children, it does not come close to providing the elegance you'd expect for the gilded price. Even with its own character laden atmosphere, I was amazed how many little princesses were found eating inside.

In the midst of walking through this part of the park, I realized that surprisingly, Fantasyland was the area most negatively affected by the winter weather and lack of greenery. There are some very unique design touches found here, by the lack of vegetation removed much of the whimsical feel. It's almost the piece of the park that most looks like Disneyland, so castle and the section with the Bella Notte Restaurante aside, it feels quite familiar. By the way, close by is a large chunk of land reserved for the originally imagineered Little Mermaid attraction and the never built Beauty and the Beast Audio-Animatronic show.

Since the lines were astronomically long, we bypassed the Dark Rides (Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Snow White) and instead chose to board the Happiest Cruise of all: It's a Small World. The holiday celebration was in progress.

 The holiday layover of the inspiration for the United States addition to the attraction in California.

After all dear, this is France!

The Christmas version of the attraction was not as stuffed full of decorations as the original Disneyland incarnation, but it was still charming with the music changed ever so slightly to accomodate the holiday season. Interestingly, Imagineer Mary Blair's stylized surroundings are replaced by something different. It's a unique take on painted flats that gives the environment a more cartoonish feel. Not quite as endearing I think, but we appreciated the contrasts.

Casey Jr. rides the Parisian rails.

There was one last piece of Fantasyland we wanted to walk through, a small area comprising of both Casey Jr. Circus Train and Storybookland Canal Boats, both given names which sound much more pretty in French! At this point, the third design consistency occurred to me- aside from Main Street, each of the lands contained a roller coaster. Yes, Casey Jones is a real coaster here, the perfect starter coaster for the kids. It's not off the ground like The Barnstormer, so it doesn't have that intimidating fear factor for the littlest ones.

Buzz Lightyear- but oh, how I miss Le Visionarium!

With so many of the smaller establishments closed in Fantasyland, we decided to move on to Discoveryland. The darkness of the sky continued, getting cloudier and cloudier. It was strange to see the area's neon glow in the late afternoon, but it did make for an otherworldly experience. 

Space Mountain: Mission 2- what can I say? It was a mere 40 minute wait. My lovely wife chose to indulge me by letting me ride it twice even if it meant she had to wander the park and wait for me. Which she did without thinking about it. 

Yes, you launch out of the Columbiad cannon!
The Nautilus in the foreground.

A wider shot. The Autopia is to the right, just behind me and out of view.

The last time I ventured through Space Mountain was 2007. It was as rough as could be, and even though the line was short, I could only stomach it twice. This year, the lines were longer but the ride seemed to be very smooth. Amazingly thrilling, as my first ride this trip was in the front row. I was so in awe of the experience, I got off the rocket and excitedly told me wife, "This is what I came to Disneyland Paris for!"

By now, it was time for our Big Thunder Railroad ride. We traveled across the hub into Frontierland, taking a sharp right and walking quite a way before we reached the station. Back in California, going back and forth between lands isn't all that difficult or time consuming. Here, the park is so large, you must really make an effort to go from one side of the park to the other. But it is so stunning, it's worth the sacrifice!

It was almost entirely dark, but still light enough to see the many pieces of trash tossed on to the top of the roof of the queue. If I could see it, why couldn't custodial services do something about it? I could almost reach some of it by just extending my arm. A very sad comment on the respect of the guests and of park maintenance. Didn't they know their park was a work of art? I did, and what I saw made me think once more that the Company has moved on from the days of Walt when Disneyland was constantly in pristine condition.

After the truly "Wildest Ride in the Wilderness", under the river and back no less, it was time to text my youngest daughter back home to let her know we had just ridden her favorite Disney attraction. That has become a family tradition and an inside joke. With no question, this is the best version of Thunder yet. Afterwards, it was back to Pirates for another trip. 

Minimal lighting at night makes navigation difficult.

By this time, it was entirely dark. The winter chill was still in the air, and a walking journey around the park followed our pirate cruise. We just had to see each land under the evening sky. In contrast to the relative brightness of the neon filled Discoveryland and the lanterns of Fantasyland, the lands of adventure and the Wild West were particularly dark. Even the lighting for the headliner attractions was very dim. Whether this was an economic decision or not, I found that rather disappointing. Not that I expected a lot of light, but once we were outside the entrance to those areas, it was pretty dark and quite a challenge to walk along unlit paths. Sure, it provided atmosphere...

Looking up as we exit Adventureland going back to the hub.

A shot I really like- The Mad Tea Party.
The glass roof is gorgeous during the day, stunning at night.

Between exploring the park at dusk and taking in some smaller attractions, time passed quickly, and it was time for dinner. Not being in the mood for burgers that were served in most of the fast food locations, we decided to travel back to Frontierland once more and stop in at the Last Chance Cafe for some ribs. What a smart choice! We sat out on the patio surveying the lay of the land, enjoying absolutely delicious, reasonably priced ribs.

This break gave me time to reflect on our previous visits, what has changed in the park over the years since my first visit. And the answer is... next to nothing. Aside from two children's play areas (one in Frontierland and one in Adventureland), the loss of Le Visionarium to Buzz, and the changeover in 3D movies, nothing has really been added. The biggest changes and additions all arrived before our first visit in 1998. Perhaps it was the very justified rejection to the lame Walt Disney Studios Paris and the bleeding finances of the resort that stopped any further substantial plans. (No, we didn't use our park-hopper. Why go to McDonalds when you're busy eating steak? I'll wait for another visit and Remy's Kitchen Calamity or whatever the Ratatouille based attraction will be called. Toy Story Playland? No draw at all!)

Anyway, we had a nice relaxing dinner, planning just enough time for one more Space Mountain trip before watching the evening show Disney Dreams. So back to Discoveryland we went.

You've just got to see this photo enlarged!
Or better yet, go see it in person.

After one last race through the universe, I reluctantly consoled myself that the day was coming to an end by journeying into Captain Nemo's Nautilus. It's not just cool on the outside; it's full of great detail on the inside. (I'll save some of the photos for my next installment of "Design Detail" series, where I show the little seen aspects of the parks' composition.)

Discoveryland is even more incredible looking once the sun goes down.

Giant squid attack!

Jules Verne is my favorite fiction novelist, so a journey into the Nautilus submarine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a real treat.   
Like the walk through displays in the other lands, this one was also well conceptualized and worth the time. The wide variety in the types of attractions bring a layer of depth to the park, a small but important fact that I hope this new generation of Imagineers chooses to remember as they add attractions in the future. The team responsible for this park really gets what Walt accomplished almost sixty years ago.

From the castle to Town Square, gorgeously decorated for Christmas.

Photographs do not do these trees justice. Beautiful!

Scurrying to the hub, we realized that we may have missed the evening show! It was the 20th Anniversary nighttime spectacular that I really wanted to see, a combination of World of Color and Fantasmic! Thankfully, we were actually one hour early, giving us time to shop on Main Street before leaving for the hotel.

Was Galeries LaFayette the inspiration for this Main Street shop?

The Discovery Arcade on the Discoveryland side of the street.

As we explored Main Street U.S.A., it was clear then Imagineer Eddie Sotto and team decided to take this American original to a whole new level. The originally proposed Jazz Age / Roaring 20's version would have been an interesting take on the concept, but what was finally built is every bit as endearing and successful; warm, charming, and elegant.

Aside from a 65 Euro advertisement masquerading as a "making of" book about the park, there was nothing else that tempted us. And I passed on the book. Alain Littaye's fine volume "Disneyland Paris, From Sketch to Reality" is a much wiser purchase. 

Just before Disney Dreams is due to begin.

We snagged a table at the end of the Discovery Arcade, waiting for Disney Dreams to begin. Hopping into the small cafe nearby, we had a little snack and rested our very weary feet.  The five minutes before showtime warning came over the speakers, so we went to the hub and snared a prime viewing spot.

Disney Dreams plays really well to a French crowd. The emphasis is on animated films with a French setting, including Hunchback of Notre Dame. There's something really special about hearing "Be Our Guest" in its "native" language and setting. The show itself was a dazzling way to end the evening. The combination of fireworks, fountains, and filmed projections pleased the very happy crowd.

The day had ended with the show. We were happy, tired, and very willing to get on the RER for the quick trip home. Both arcades emptied guests at the end of Main Street, easily handling the crowds. They will make a great addition to Walt's original kingdom. Boarding the train, from end of day to reaching the hotel was a total of thirty minutes. Fantastic. It also meant we had one day left in France, and then it was off to work. Watch for Part Four coming soon...but in the meantime, search the blog under Disneyland Paris for many, many posts and trip reports.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)