Twenty years ago, EuroDisney opened their beautifully detailed doors to the public. Some were excited for the Walt Disney Company to finally open a European park, some were not, but most had to agree the end result was a work of art!
With all the much deserved excitement surrounding California Adventure 2.o and the development (and speculation) of Shanghai Disneyland, I started thinking about what else was going on in the world of Disney. Besides ignoring Animal Kingdom and letting my beloved Epcot fade into representing the past, it became obvious that Disneyland Paris was soon to hit twenty years. I just had to write something to commemorate the occasion for the “World’s Most Beautiful Magic Kingdom”.
Let’s start with the basics as to why this park has earned its title:
The most beautiful Disney castle is found here in Paris!
The Chateau is everything a Disney palace should be. The princesses in other kingdoms should be green with envy- and theme park fans in other places as well. It's one thing to see my photos, but go see it for yourself. The sloping hillsides set the stage for the dungeon below, while above us the castle walls contain elaborate upper rooms, stunning tapestries, and gorgeous stained glass. It is 100% first class no expense spared.
The piece de resistance in Paris’ deluxe princess home is found deep inside the basement of the dwelling, Dragon's Lair. Inside this extremely dark and neglected space, a monster resides. The appropriately scary little dungeon houses the fully and terrorizingly realized Audio-Animatronic dragon. She snarls and growls, and she threatens passers by with smoke and blazing fire! In a bit of very creative planning, this dark lower chamber has a secret passageway from one of the Fantasyland shops safely above the horrifying scene. This entire elaborate, and some would say, unnecessary effort is a reminder of what Disney Imagineering can do if they put their hearts to it! And if the budgeteers allow. Kudos to Tony Baxter and company for the end result.
Into the castle courtyard, we find an assortment of classic dark rides. Starting with the beloved Peter Pan's Flight, a reimagining of the rides has paid off handsomely. Coming to grips with its enduring popularity, the Imagineers decided to equip Peter with new double capacity vehicles. Smart move as Peter Pan’s Flight draws the same large crowds here in France as it does back at the Stateside parks. In a nod to the land behind it and making for an incredibly charming smooth thematic transition, the subtle and quiet gallery opening gives way to a first look at Adventureland and its obviously large noticeable landmark Adventure Isle.
(Speaking of which, the transitions between lands in this park are so quietly handled yet very clearly accomplished. Once you cross into a new land, it is so secluded from every other one, it is easy to forget you are in a multi-themed park. The strategic placement of focal points and carefully selected foliage make it next to impossible to see beyond the realm you are in. This is a major strength in the design of the park and its success in storytelling. The result highlights the rich detail and masterful work of the Imagineers.)
Back to Fantasyland and its dark rides. Pinocchio's Daring Journey changes little, aside from the Italian narration. In fact, every dark ride is told in the original language of its writer. It’s a brilliant choice that draws out even more enchantment as well as being a concession to the diversity of European visitors.
With Snow White soon disappearing in Florida’s Magic Kingdom, it is a treat to find her represented here. With the extra land and the design starting from scratch, the Evil Queen’s castle seems to fit more easily here than in California.
Years back, another removed attraction left a hole in the Walt Disney World line-up. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride doesn’t exist here in Paris, but the old toad can be found here.
In place of a rollicking road trip, guests will find a British restaurant inside Toad Hall! Although initially disappointing, the detail is rich, and the food is quite good. If you look around, you'll find a charming touch above the tables of the restaurant: a portrait of Mr. Toad himself sits on a wall next to diners. Look carefully- here Mr. Toad is envisioned by great European artists: Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and da Vinci. The painting magically transforms every minute or so. Another great element that was absolutely unnecessary but adds to setting this park above the ones that came before it.
The carousel and Dumbo are as to be expected. There are terrific water features, gardens, and flowers everywhere. The Mad Tea Party twirls under a gorgeous glass canopy, while a new version of the beloved Storybookland Canal Boats launches guests on a tour of miniature models of fairytale favorites- including The Wizard of Oz. In a nice touch, Casey Jr. travels here and actually feels and functions as a small roller coaster for beginners. No Go Coaster or Sky School madness here.
The Alice in Wonderland themed labyrinth is great fun for everyone! The small winding paths make for a great little family excursion while there are beautiful gardens to see. Around every corner and in the castle found toward the end of the maze, many characters from the film show up, some in unexpected places. Reminds me of some of the lesser known attractions that provide diversity and charm at Disneyland.
It's A Small World is close by. With a different clock face, new colors and a covered canal, it too has a different feel. The art direction inside is different from those attraction versions before it, and the Imagineers traded Mary Blair’s style for something just as effective. The Parisian “World” is the very first to include a United States themed area in the attraction. About time, I’d say. The recent addition of such an area to California’s original is a poor substitute for what is found here.
On to Adventureland. Here the colorful domes of Arabian tales create a smooth transition from the fantasy villages of Europe. It's a delicate balance combining fantasy with adventure, but Aladdin discreetly lives here as do other characters from books and film. The seamless look makes it all less jarring than going from Fantasyland to Frontierland at Disneyland.Adventureland is a blend of many icons: African huts, dense jungles, exotic Middle Eastern landscapes with its onion shaped domes- and Neverland! It sounds as if it wouldn’t fit together, especially with the Swiss Family Treehouse sharing space next to Skull Rock, but the execution is masterfully done.
Yet the centerpiece of the entire place is not Adventure Isle, a Tom Sawyer Island meets the jungle play land with its caverns and tunnels, bridges, and waterfalls. Instead, it is the classic Pirates of the Caribbean. The very best version of it to date.
Sorry, Anaheim. I know it is a Disneyland original and the last attraction Walt himself worked on, but Anaheim's version is not quite as good as the latest one.
Captain Jack Sparrow himself would like to set sail from this Caribbean isle port. Doing so just seems perfect. The weathered white stoned fortress that houses the attraction has the extended and powerful queue of Florida's version. The cruise itself contains many twists over the original. First time ever we have some long overdue sword fighting. Add in an entirely new first scene and a reorder of old favorites, a few new pirates, and an explosive finale. The end result is the ultimate Magic Kingdom adventure reimagined for a new generation. Pre-Johnny Depp, of course! No need for video screens or motion simulators, just good old fashioned staging, engaging characters, and spectacular sets. You know, the thing Disney used to do so well.
Oh, Frontierland! What can I say? It's my favorite land in the entire park. With Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and its peaks found on the island in the middle of the Rivers of the West, the panoramic views pull you into this piece of uniquely American history. The creepy Phantom Manor found deliberately outside of the town high on a bluff only adds to the drama.
When guests first approach Fort Comstock from the hub, they only get a small taste of what is found beyond the walls of the fort. There are a few Indian teepees along the small stream, and the buttes of Big Thunder rise just beyond immediate view.
As with the castle, Fort Comstock is also an attraction. You can walk the upper levels, enjoying terrific views across the frontier. The sights and sounds of the Old West capture your attention, catapulting you into the story.
Every guest heads for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It’s a family favorite on every continent. The trains round the track and surprise riders by heading directly under the river to begin the journey. The design choice of putting Big Thunder front and center gives the land much kinetic energy, creating a very different feel from the somewhat sleepy versions found in the American parks. The town of Thunder Mesa, fills out the land surrounding Fort Comstock. Its named as a tribute to the great Imagineer Marc Davis and his never built Western River Expedition.
There are still the expected steamboats and the Disneyland Railroad trains. The Shooting Gallery lets its place be known as guests fire away at target practice. 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, the story of what lies behind Phantom Manor reveals a dark and sinister undertone to the activity. Getting ready to argue as to which Mansion is best!
Whatever side of the debate you land on, it is certain that the haunting symphonic score will make you a fan of the differences. The attraction is darker, the graveyard scarier, and the whole experience just plain different. There’s enough of a story here to fuel the entire land- and it does- but the Imagineers have left room for each guest to create their own tales to tell once they return home.
I’m going to quote my own trip report here, as I said it so well before:
“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.”
There’s not much else to say about it! Except go to Paris and see it! It is the standout themed land in an entire park of those perfectly executed.
Walking into Discoveryland, there is so much to see, and the whimsical world of Jules Verne comes to life in a very different way than Mysterious Island at Tokyo Disney Sea. There’s a touch of Tony Baxter’s Discovery Bay here as well, much to the delight of die-hard Imagineering fans.
Just as each land points to one singular icon, this French Tomorrowland is no exception. Space Mountain beckons powerfully with its delicate yet strong steampunk look and thrilling, looping, adventure inside. Although the original version was better, it still is quite the adrenaline pumper!
Originally planned as Discovery Mountain, the attraction is as different from its cousins inside as its exteriors are from one another. The open air, banner covered loading station sends streamlined rockets (and their pilots!) plunging into a smoke-spewing cannon only to blast out up the side of the mountain before heading into total darkness. There’s another lush and majestic musical score to serenade you as you go through the nighttime sky. The building is beautiful by day but spectacular at night. As bewitching as the Eiffel Tower itself!
Off to the side lies a fully developed, beautifully sculpted Nautilus submarine. It is another of those smaller attractions that has to be experienced. Lavish detail that does great justice to the book. How often does anyone get to sail with Captain Nemo after all?
Lastly, as we exit the park through one of its covered arcades, let’s look at Main Street, U.S.A., the many entry point. It is equally impressive as all the other areas, elegant but also very understated in appropriate contrast to the castle at the end of the street.
Another quote here from my trip report: “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 lovely work of Eddie Sotto and team elevates the land to something befitting landscapes from a dream.”
Walt's: An American Restaurant is the perfect way to end the day. A gorgeous restaurant stuffed with concept art for the park and lovely details. Linger in each shop and discover the unique differences. Lots of detail to be found here. My favorite was the beautiful Main Street Motors, a love letter of sorts to the American automobile.
Although Main Street is relatively short on attractions, there is a depth and richness to the place. From beginning to end, it sets a perfect stage for everything else to come.
In an interview from 1995, Head Imagineer Tony Baxter 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, they must be mentioned and given credit for their fine work: Eddie Sotto, Main Street U.S.A; Tim Delaney, Discoveryland; Tom Morris, Fantasyland; Chris Tietz, Adventureland; and lastly Pat Burke, Frontierland. Congratulations to each of them for creating the most beautiful of all Disney kingdoms.
The results clearly speak for themselves. Let me bluntly say this: Disneyland Paris is the ultimate Magic Kingdom styled park. Happy 20th!
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)