August 9, 2010

Disney Park Countdown- #3 Disneyland Paris

In the world's most beautiful city resides a great Disney Imagineering experiment: the theme park as a work of art. (The park is so beautiful, I left all the images very large, just click on them.)

Walt Disney World was bound to capture the masses due to its sheer size and scope. Tokyo Disneyland would win fans by appealing to the Japanese love of all things Disney and a healthy dose of most things American. The challenges were different in Europe. The originally named EuroDisneyland had to be gorgeous to compete with the abundance of man made wonders in the city and the continent at large. If this park was to be a creative and financial success, it also had to overcome the reputation of Americans and Americana as being "second class" and lacking culture. In spite of the challenges or maybe because of them, Disneyland Paris not only succeeds but is the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever created.

This was the first European park from Disney and the first Disneyland styled park entirely reimagined from the ground up. Thankfully, the principal Imagineer in charge was Tony Baxter. His love for the first Disneyland and his love of old school Imagineering, along with his well recognized eye for exquisite design, made him the perfect man to oversee the design and construction of a park that had to hold its own in a city known for its world famous art.

In an interview from 1995 (found here), Tony recalls a conversation with Marty Sklar about his plans for the park: "I would really like to have a chance to try for a perfect version of Disneyland." And he and his team did create it!

Speaking of team, just look at the group assembled for the job: Eddie Sotto, who created a stunning Main Street U.S.A.- even if it isn't the "Roaring 20's" styled one he fought for; Tim Delaney, whose work on the Jules Verne themed Discoveryland is on par with anything every built at Tokyo Disney Sea; Tom Morris, his take on Fantasyland brings it to a whole new level of beauty; Chris Tietz, no other Adventureland past or present so perfectly accomplishes the task of feeling so remote yet intimate all the while being so vast in size; and lastly Pat Burke, whose designs for Frontierland are so terrific that words are not enough to communicate his accomplishment- though I will try later!

While Tony Baxter cannot and does not take the credit for the park, his ability to draw out the best in his team cannot be overstated. The results clearly speak for themselves. Let me bluntly say this: Disneyland Paris is the ultimate Magic Kingdom styled park.

(Here's a challenge Disney park fans. Look at the photos of this park and then stop and think: the very fact the company would marginalize Tony should tell you much about its true priorities and the negative creative impact it will have on the parks!)
So, what did I see that made me wish this park was my "home Kingdom"? Our first visit was in 1998- and I was mesmerized by what I saw. (My second trip in 2007 was just as impressive.) Although the park does not have the lakeside lot similar to Florida's Magic Kingdom, the elaborate gardens at the entrance perform the task of staging quite admirably.

Walking under the stunning (but pricey!) Disneyland Hotel, the expected Main Street U.S.A. train station comes into view. It's a beautiful building, but it is not until you are in queue and view the handcrafted stained glass windows- depicting each land in the park- that you realize the Imagineers have gone far beyond the expected. It's the same everywhere you look.

For a Disneyland fan, the first sight of the centerpiece castle is one that excites. Here, in a country full of magnificent palaces and stunning structures, Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, impressively mixes fairy tale style with European true to life sensibilities. Like Florida's Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, it is huge and easily seen from most of the entire park.

In Hong Kong Disneyland, the castle is listed as an attraction to pad the numbers but really has nothing to offer. Here at our French chateau, there really is an attraction worth exploring. In fact, we spent over an hour just viewing its handcrafted tapestries, lovingly created stained glass windows, its balconies and terraces. Of course, the piece de resistance is found at the basement level Dragon's Lair. Inside the dungeon, the fully realized Audio Animatronic dragon snarls and growls, blazing fire and smoke at guests passing by! This dark lower chamber is even reached by a secret passageway from one of the Fantasyland shops above. This is Imagineering at its best!

Beyond the castle, our Parisian Fantasyland is a beautiful combination of Anaheim's (though at a much larger scope and scale) with elements all uniquely its own. There are many small gardens, water features, and plenty of discoveries around every bend.

Much is made of the Alice in Wonderland themed labyrinth and for good reason! The winding paths through manicured gardens make for a great little family excursion. Filled with characters from the film, it is more akin to the "smaller" attractions that provide charm at Walt's original park- the ones that are sorely missed in Florida. It's A Small World is nearby, being the first one to include a United States themed area in the attraction. Very nice.

Besides the Anaheim original, the only other Storybookland Canal Boats are found here. The focus seems to be mostly on the newer Disney film classics with an odd inclusion of The Wizard of Oz. Casey Jr. Circus Train appears next door. However, this one is a real coaster, blatantly ensuring the poorly designed and themed Gadget's Go Coaster will never make its way to France all the while providing thrills for little ones.

Fantasyland has its dark rides as well, with Mr. Toad's Hall being a terrific little restaurant versus the entrance for a ride to nowhere in particular. Peter Pan's Flight, with its double capacity vehicles, draws the same large crowds here as back home. Pinocchio's Daring Journey is almost a walk on just like at home as well. Snow White also has her home here. Each little dark ride is full of all the expected detail and similar storyline but with a twist: each is told in the language of its writer. A nice nod to the diversity of European cultures.

Where to go next? Let's walk by Peter Pan and go into Adventureland.

Similar to the transition between the Florida's Liberty Square from Fantasyland, there is a subtle architectural blending between both lands here in Paris. In fact, the transitions in this park are so smooth yet very distinctive. However, once you enter one land, it is so immersive and so convincingly secluded from all others, it is easy to forget you are in a multi-themed park. The placement of focal points amidst cleverly placed high points and foliage make it next to impossible to see the other lands than the one you are in. This is a strength of the design. The effect reinforces the storytelling, highlighting the brilliant detailing and masterful crafting of the park. But, I digress- back to Adventureland.

From the plaza, Adventureland beckons with a distinctive Arabian Nights theme, a nod to the European perspective of what is considered exotic. Inside the buildings are a nice walk through attraction based on Aladdin, a bazaar, and a very quiet little cafe. Entering from Fantasyland, things are different. Our first view is of Adventure Isle. This fresh take on Tom Sawyer Island, showcases Skull Rock and Captain Hook's pirate ship- a very nice blending from Peter Pans' Flight, which we just walked past in Fantasyland. There are no watercraft plying the area, instead two pedestrian bridges provide access to the island.

Up high on a hilltop is also The Swiss Family Tree House, its roots creating the perfect place for exploration with caves underground and the expected bridges and trails above. This incredible playground also consumed an hour or so of our time, as we had to cover every inch of it; the sights from almost every side of the island had to be captured by my camera. From one angle, the beautifully decaying fortress of Pirates of the Caribbean; from the other, views into an African themed section of the land or the jungle filled ruins of a temple being excavated by Indiana Jones.

Back on shore, Pirates of the Caribbean is the definitive version of this classic attraction- even outpacing the Anaheim original. Most all Disney fans have heard of the dueling pirates found in the "chase" scene, but the action at the beginning of the attraction also impresses. From the smaller marine animatronics, (such as the squid found just out of view from diners at the beautiful Blue Lagoon restaurant), to the very active pirates overthrowing the fortress before riders descend into the middle of the battle, this old standby attraction is reinvented to great effect. Here in Paris, those explosives do detonate- but you'll have to see it for yourself. It was a gutsy move to reimagine the finest of Disney attractions, but Dead Men Tell New Tales here!

Heading back to the central plaza, let's look at Frontierland. In Europe, Frontierland is found where Adventureland resides in the American parks. It's placement seems jarring at first, but when viewing the entrances to each land from the plaza, it makes good sense. Those fanciful Arabian domes seem much more in their proper place next to the equally fanciful castle than an American fort of the Wild West.

Many Europeans love the tales from the American West, its landscapes, its stories, its heroes. This Frontierland captures it all, embracing both the facts and the lore. With the "blessing of size" and the ability to create this land from scratch, the Imagineers, led by Pat Burke, have produced the most compelling landscapes and stories ever created for this piece of the Disneyland styled parks. It is the standout themed land in an entire park of them; the ultimate Frontierland, one I bet Walt Disney himself would have loved to see come to fruition.

Approaching Fort Comstock, you can see how much it looks like the original concept art for California's Disneyland. There are a few Indian teepees in the front alongside the small stream. (Just a side note: Between Adventureland and Frontierland entrances from the plaza side is a cleverly hidden gallery housing restrooms along a secluded path. The designers used a variety of vegetation to gently transition from the Middle East to the Old West of the United States. Excellently done.)

As with the castle, Fort Comstock is also an attraction. You can explore the entire complex, walking the upper levels and enjoying terrific views across the frontier. Legends of the Wild West presents famous figures from American history in full scale tableau. Everywhere you turn, the detail and historical authenticity is incredible. For you Californians that have never been to the Paris park, think Frontierland done with the same amount of care as California's New Orleans Square!

Straight beyond the fort lies Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Its trains round the track on this rocky island situated right in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West- this is after the ride begins with the trains going under the river. This aspect alone gives the attraction a spectacular beginning, setting the pace for the whole journey. Placing Big Thunder here front and center gives the land much kinetic energy, creating a very different feel from the somewhat sleepy but very mysterious feeling of Adventureland next door.

Back on shore is the town of Thunder Mesa, named as a tribute to the great Imagineer Marc Davis and his never built Western River Expedition. (In fact, this park would be a perfect fit for the never built attraction as Europeans are less politically correct than Americans when it comes to Old West stereotypes.) The expected steamboat sails by, the Disneyland Railroad trains encircle the area, and the nearby shooting gallery creates some excitement. Yet there is something very different and uniquely special about this Frontierland.

While Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is the thrilling visual center of the town of Thunder Mesa, Phantom Manor delivers thrills of a different kind, revealing a sinister undertone to the legends of the community. The debates will continue on as to whether or not this take on the Haunted Mansion is better or worse than the original. Ultimately, the attraction is just scarier and different, (its symphonic score is gorgeous), still fully advancing the stories behind Thunder Mesa while leaving enough room to create your own.

Sitting on the wooden walkways next to the shops far across from Phantom Manor, it was easy for me to suspend belief and dream of truly being back in time. There's a large chunk of land devoted to this theme, and the area is visually secluded from all others, with the layers of detail in sight and sound so rich and varied, the end result is the perfect representation of the old west mythologies. We spent several hours here taking in attractions, exploring the shops, and eating at the excellent and fairly priced Cowboy Cookout Barbecue.

After two visits to the park, I still could not uncover why this version is my favorite of all Frontierlands and perhaps my favorite land in all of Disneyland Paris. As I started to write this post, I was able to come to this conclusion: In California, Frontierland is a shadow of its former self in contrast to what was designed by the Imagineering team under Walt Disney; in Florida, the land is an excuse for the placement of cuddly characters. Only in France, thousands of miles removed from the actual geography represented, does this uniquely American story get the respect it deserves. Bottom line and bluntly stated, this Frontierland feels like the real thing and not an area found in a theme park.

In 1992, I watched the opening of the EuroDisney resort on television, and dreamed and prayed I would one day get to visit. While the banter of American hosts Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson added little to what I wanted to see, the images of Discoveryland stuck in my head. (Remember, this was even before Space Mountain was built. By the way, my very detailed look at the worldwide Space Mountains is found here.) This was what drove me to pursue a trip as I am a big fan of Jules Verne; and for those who are interested, Mysterious Island is my favorite of his writings.

When I finally did see Discoveryland with my own eyes in 1998, the small screen images didn't hold a candle to the monumental work I saw! Walking through the land, I was drawn so many different directions. But I had a single goal in mind: Space Mountain. From start to finish, it was a winner. The ride was smooth as glass, the music drew me in as it enhanced the experience, and the scenery while awaiting launch was stunning. I couldn't ride it enough, although the queue length meant only two trips this go around as there was so much to see and shortened park hours. Even my Disney jaded fourteen year old son walked off the ride with a huge smile on his face! When Space Mountain: Mission Two premiered years later, I lamented the changes I perceived would be made for the new adventure. My ride in 2007 only confirmed they were in fact for the worse.

Exploring a fully developed Nautilus submarine was one of the highlights of my day. I saw clear references to Tony Baxter's long lost Discovery Bay here as well. The place is full of eye candy and the kind of design detail I love. Yet, one of the most endearing attractions at Disneyland Paris is no longer there: Le Visionarium. This circlevision film was great fun and a wonderful introduction to French future/fantasy. However, in our second visit in 2007, this impressive little movie was replaced by the ever popular video game starring Buzz Lightyear. This was not the first of the toon invasions into the park as Toy Story's Pizza Planet restaurant was already added to Discoveryland before our first visit.

When considering the direction Disney is taking with its Tomorrowland's, Discoveryland holds a unique place as being middle ground between Anaheim's original future focused realism and Hong Kong Disneyland's character infused land. May Discoveryland hold its own as the transitions continue by remaining a tribute of visionaries come to life!

Let me take some time to discuss Main Street, U.S.A., the first land in the park. It is every bit as impressive if not moreso than the grander than the original version found in Florida's Magic Kingdom. If the Paris version of the land of the future has taken on a more fantasy bent, I would venture to say the same holds true for its Main Street. There is an idealistic, very artistic, beauty of each building, each billboard, each attraction. The beautiful work of Eddie Sotto and team elevates the land to something befitting landscapes from a dream.

Walt's: An American Restaurant is the perfect example of what I am attempting to communicate. The food is not only delicious but beautifully presented, and the atmosphere is a dream for every fan of classic Disney Imagineering. Artwork from the creation of the parks in found in the restaurant's themed rooms with appropriately styled furnishings. During our second trip (and the only one without the kids), we lunched in the Frontierland room with a window view overlooking Main Street. It was worth every bit of the $75 we spent, one highlight of many in our trip to the park.

After lunch, as with every other land, we lingered here soaking in the details. Exploring the shops one by one, we loved what we found. My favorite was Main Street Motors, a love letter of sorts to the American automobile. The Emporium and Harrington's were also stops for our destination shopping, with equal amounts of detail found in both. Although we ate at Walt's, we did stop in and peak at the Market House Deli and Casey's Corner. More great theming and layered detail.

Although Main Street is relatively short on attractions, the Liberty and Discovery Arcades are attractions all their own. In fact, we spent more time in these than we thought we would, causing a delay of our after park plans. Each arcade held a series of "mini exhibits", adding to the richness of the park. It is these small touches that bring this kingdom closest to the charm of Walt's first Disneyland while maintaining the expanded scale and scope of Florida's.

By this point in my countdown of Disney parks, any reader of this article would wonder what aspects of Disneyland Paris bring it down to Number Three versus a higher ranking. Let's talk about the plusses and minusses of the place.

Beyond its physical beauty, Disneyland Paris offers some of the most enhanced and esquisite versions of the classic Disney attractions. The choices for dining are on par with what can be found at Epcot. From snack choices to fine dining, the park has a variety of options to fit all budgets and preferences.

Readers of the discussion boards of Al Lutz's Miceage, in particular, are familiar with the ongoing complaints concerning the park. And these hold up with good reason. This beautifully designed place is saddled with very poor maintenance- probably the worst of all the Disney theme parks. It is not that the cast members are not doing their jobs. In fact, the cast members are very kind, courteous, and knowledgable. Simply said, the business planners for the park have not given enough resources to keep the park up to its opening day standards in upkeep and cleanliness.

The lovely setting from the second floor found in Walt's was offset by what I viewed from the window. Rotting wood, peeling paint, and general disrepair of the buildings found across the street took away from the experience inside. The same held true for the higher reaches of the park's castle, parts of Adventure Isle, and slices of each of the park's themed lands. There was a noticable difference in these standards between visit one and two, much to my dismay.
Item number two: downgrading the shopping experience. What are character plushes and plastic toys doing out in the open streets of Adventureland? (Or even in the shops here at all?) This is a horrible trend, one that should be reversed immediately. Our first visit held plenty of unique, even theme park exclusive, merchandise. Not on our second visit. Seems this disease is spreading from Florida!

Next, delay in bringing new theme appropriate attractions. No excuse here for stagnation. It does take money to make money. Learn from Walt here and not the corporate raiders of our day. The park should have new- not reimagined- attractions between 1998 and 2007. Replacing Le Visionarium for Buzz and rotating 3D movies is not the way to go. Nor is a new children's play area at the Adventureland beach or thowing in Woody and company into Frontierland.

Lastly, and this piece is not entirely the fault of the Walt Disney Company, but the fault of the park's management, are the guests. Far too many of the park's visitors are incredibly disrespectful of both other guests and the beautiful surroundings. I have personally witnessed public outdoor urination, widespread invasion of nonguest areas, and extremely poor manners with regards to line cutting. Is this really the same European guest that is amazingly respectful of the unprotected artistic masterpieces found in the Musee d'Orsay or the Louvre? My mind says impossible, but my mind also says probable. Either way, park security does nothing, only adding to the frustration of being in a beautiful park that at times feels out of control.

Do not let the downside to this European Disneyland stop you from visiting! From a thematic and design viewpoint, this is the finest Magic Kingdom ever created, maybe even on par with the much heralded Tokyo Disney Sea. Though outside the city limits, the park fits in perfectly with the City of Lights and is certainly worth an entire day of exploration.

Six parks down and two to go. As with this article on Disneyland Paris, there is much to say about both Epcot and Walt's beloved Disneyland in California. Keep watching for the next part in this series where I reveal my Number Two choice.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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