My wife and I recently decided to visit Paris for a week, and as you may be aware, there is a Disney resort there — so being the complete Disney dorks that we are, paying a visit to Disneyland Paris was a must-do. Of course, our daughter was staying in the Orlando area with her grandparents and we had to come back through there to get her, so we decided to pay the Mouse a quick visit at Walt Disney World while we got over our jetlag. Shortly after arriving back home, I had to head out to Southern California for work, and it presented me with an opportunity — even if only briefly — to visit my third Disney resort in just over 2 weeks. I had to take it.
So, apart from the whirlwind of travel, what is it like to experience every Disney resort in the Western Hemisphere back-to-back-to-back? The three resorts share similar layouts and several attractions, but my biggest takeaway is how much it highlighted the differences between these outwardly similar parks. So, without further ado, let me share some of the biggest stuff I noticed, and pass out a few superlatives…
Point 1: Disneyland Paris is Completely Worth Visiting If You Are Going To Be In Paris
There are actually two theme parks at Disneyland Resort Paris — Parc Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios. Parc Disneyland, simply stated, is gorgeous, and probably my favorite Disney park from an aesthetic standpoint (at least amongst those that I’ve visited — Paris, Orlando and Anaheim). Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is carved into the side of a grass-covered hill and houses a spectacular animatronic dragon beneath it. With its intricate spires and turrets, it sets the mood for a park that on the whole is like an interactive work of art. Everywhere you look at Parc Disneyland, there is something that draws your attention. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a little sampling of some of the sights…
The same cannot be said, however, for Walt Disney Studios. With the exception of the Ratatouille area, which is some of Disney’s best work, the rest of the park is pretty underwhelming from an aesthetic standpoint. Indeed, the bulk of the left side of the park (from the vantage point of someone entering) is a sea of concrete and unthemed show buildings. Moreover, several of the attractions are essentially alternative versions of attractions that have been retired in the States, like Lights, Motors, Action and the Backlot Tour. It’s not completely devoid of value, but there’s just not a lot of there, there either.
It is for that reason, among a couple others, that it would be tough to recommend going to Paris (at least for our U.S. readers) purely to go to Disneyland Paris. Anyone that has flown abroad before will confirm that it is (1) expensive, and (2) exhausting. In addition to the actual time of your flight — which, unless you happen to live in a city with direct flights, will torch 15+ hours — you can expect to have another day or two coming and going just getting caught up on sleep and adjusted to the time difference.
Once you get there, however, what you find is essentially a locals park, which is why I struggle with recommending a trip solely to go to Disneyland Paris. It’s a fantastic locals park, and we loved our time there, but at the end of the day, there’s not enough that is truly different from what you can get at home to offset the significant investment of time and money necessary to get there. While there are some cool quirks to some of the Disneyland Paris versions of attractions that I’ll discuss more below, many of the other attractions are essentially carbon copies of attractions that exist at Walt Disney World and/or Disneyland (mostly Fantasyland dark rides), so veteran park goers will likely find them skippable. Several of the truly unique and awesome attractions in Paris are walk-through attractions or don’t generate huge lines, so I would say that you could comfortably see and do everything you want to do in 3 days, max. We had two days there, took it pretty easy, and I don’t really feel like I missed out on anything. It was an incredible experience, but Paris is an awfully long trip for that short of a payoff.
With that said, as a part of a larger trip to Paris, it would be a must-do for any Disney parks fan. As I mentioned earlier, Parc Disneyland is just stunning, and Ratatouille over at Walt Disney Studios is a next-level dark ride that justifies visiting that park all by itself. Oh, and did I mention that the Disneyland Paris version of Disneyland’s ubiquitous (and delicious) churro is the Nutella-filled crepe? And I don’t mean some heat-and-serve nonsense, I mean a proper, freshly-made crepe filled with gooey, chocolately Nutella. So, soooo very good. In closing, if you’re in the area anyway, maybe add a day or two to your trip to experience Disneyland Paris — we loved it!
Point 2: Story Matters
We all know that the thing that separates Disney attractions from your garden-variety theme park thrill rides is the importance of story, and seeing all three resorts so close in time really hammered this point home. For example, all three resorts have a Haunted Mansion-style attraction, and the Walt Disney World and Disneyland versions that bear the “Haunted Mansion” name are pretty similar. There are some minor differences — for example, the haunted portraits and busts that you encounter at the beginning of the World’s version of the Mansion are part of the walk-through between the stretching room and boarding area at Disneyland, and the Disneyland version has now restored the Hatbox Ghost to the ride at the end of the Attic — but by and large, they are the same ride. The Disneyland Paris version, however — which is called Phantom Manor — is much darker and tells a radically different story despite sharing many of the same scenes with its American cousins.
The next paragraph could be considered spoiler-y if you ever plan to visit Disneyland Paris, so be forewarned. With that said, the ride’s narration is largely in French and knowing what they are saying is critical to understanding Phantom Manor’s unique story, so it may be worth reading anyway if you don’t speak French. Regardless, you’ve been warned.
With that out of the way, the thrust of the story is that a woman (Melanie Ravenswood) is set to be married, but on the day of her wedding, a phantom appeared in the house, lured her would-be husband into the attic, and hanged him. The phantom and his buddies then proceed to haunt the manor while Melanie walks its halls for eternity, waiting for her groom in her wedding dress. She shows up throughout the attraction in several familiar scenes, and knowing the backstory, it gives them a much more grim, macabre feel.
The point is, while a ride’s motion and scenes are important, all of these extra pains that Disney takes to create mood and tell a story are really critical to the finished product. By way of further example, Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland share a ride system (and use the exact same track layout), but the experiences are radically different. In the case of Phantom Manor, there are many, many substantively identical scenes in the attraction for those accustomed to the U.S. versions, but the backstory really changes the way that you’ll experience them.
Point 3: Small Changes Can Have Big Impact
When it comes to Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disneyland Paris version is the best of the three that I’ve experienced, followed closely by Disneyland’s, with Walt Disney World’s much shorter version coming in a distant third. The differences between the Anaheim and Paris versions are not enormous or even substantive — they are more process-oriented — but they have a clear positive impact, and the Paris tweaks elevate an already great attraction to an even higher level…
In terms of show scenes, the Anaheim and Paris versions have a lot of the same content. They are different, but not different enough to really be worthy of highlighting. They are, however, in a different order, and that has a surprising impact upon the story that is being told. In the Disneyland version, the meat of the attraction begins with you surrounded by pirate skeletons before seeing pirates doing their pirate thing in the (animatronic) flesh. In the Paris version, however, those scenes come at the end, with the suggestion being that there is a progression from the revelry and excess that is pirate life, to the end of days surrounded by spoils they can no longer enjoy. Not unlike the Phantom Manor example above, it’s a change that impacts the story in that it adds a bit of a cautionary tale to the celebration of pirate life.
The progression of the ride itself, however, is what really sets it apart for me. I’ve always found both the Anaheim and Orlando versions to be a bit anticlimactic, in that the ride essentially ends, but you then have to spend several more minutes in your boat, first heading up a conveyor belt and then (particularly in Anaheim) making your way around to the unloading area. In Paris, the trip up the conveyor belt is at the start of the ride, so once you reach the end of the various scenes, the attraction ends and you’re able to disembark. It’s a seemingly little thing, but I found that I greatly preferred it.
Point 4: Disney learns and adapts
Setting aside the attractions themselves for a moment, visiting these three resorts (and each of their flagship parks in particular) in quick succession really highlights the evolution of Disney’s knowledge of theme park management. As you are probably aware, Disneyland in Anaheim was built first in 1955, followed by the Magic Kingdom in 1971, followed by Parc Disneyland (then Euro Disney) in 1992. While fans affectionately refer to the original Disneyland as “cozy,” the reality is that its 85 acres can feel quite cramped as compared to the newer resorts. It’s unsurprising then that the newer Magic Kingdom is larger at 105 acres, and the even-newer Parc Disneyland is larger still at 126 acres. Interestingly, however, the number of attractions goes in the opposite direction, with Disneyland having the most, followed by the Magic Kingdom and then Parc Disneyland having the fewest. The result is that while a trip to Disneyland has you constantly ducking and dodging to get through crowds, we never felt crowded or hurried at Parc Disneyland, which was a wonderful way to experience this gorgeous park.
Disneyland Paris also has better people flow by utilizing techniques that the other resorts are now trying to retrofit into their parks. Specifically, on either side of Main Street U.S.A., there are these magnificently decorated arcades (the covered passageway kind, not the videogame kind) that allow a much wider swath of people to move in and out of the park. Walt Disney World has recently incorporated an extra path behind the east side of Main Street U.S.A. as well to help guests more quickly exit the park, although it is fairly utilitarian as compared to the gorgeous arcades in Paris, which are worth visiting on their own. The point is, you can see the lessons learned from earlier parks in the design of the more recent parks…
Point 5: The U.S. Versions of Space Mountain Are Underappreciated Feats of Imagineering
I love Space Mountain. As a Star Wars fan, the “Hyperspace Mountain” overlay Disney did at Disneyland Park in Anaheim was unbeatable, but even if you go with the “regular” Disneyland version of Space Mountain or the Ghost Galaxy version, it would still take top billing. It builds and builds and builds, and it’s all I can do as a 44-year old man to not squeal “WHEEEEE” during the ride’s final moments because it’s just an unmitigated blast. It is quite similar to its Florida sibling, except that it delivers a much smoother, faster-feeling ride. The Walt Disney World version, while not quite as smooth, is nevertheless another iconic attraction that is a must-do for most visitors.
The version of Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris, which is called Space Mountain: Mission 2, is decidedly different than the two U.S. versions. Visually, it has a steampunk aesthetic, which is very cool, plus the ride incorporates a high speed launch and multiple inversions! I was very excited when I heard about this, and as a rabid thrill ride and roller coaster fan, I was really psyched to experience this new and “better” version of Space Mountain.
Well, credit where credit is due, if Disney was wanting to create a more intense version of the Space Mountain, roller-coaster-in-the-dark concept, it technically succeeded. I should have looked askance at the non-existent line for a headliner attraction, though. Unfortunately, while I’m glad to have checked it off of the ol’ bucket list, I will not be riding it again, largely because the attraction is more punishing than fun. The ride vehicle has an over-the shoulder harness similar to what is used on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, and you can expect to vigorously slam your melon against both sides of that thing for the duration of the very, very rough ride. I usually wear a ball cap in the parks, and my normal M.O. is to just spin it backwards to keep the wind from catching the bill. Works great on literally every ride I’ve ever been on at any park. What I was not expecting was the ride to vibrate it right off of my head, so I still ended up having to catch it mid-ride. Anyway, the launch was great, and the ride had some cool elements, but the agony associated with being on the attraction really blunted any fun I was having.
Here’s the thing, though: objectively speaking, when you consider the domestic versions, there is not much to them. They are “wild mouse” coasters, which are characterized by quick turns and short drops, but they don’t go particularly fast, there are no “wow” elements like high-speech launches, gut-dropping drops, or inversions. You can find similar coasters to Space Mountain at every carnival and amusement park in the country. On the roller coaster spectrum, wild mouse coasters rank pretty low and if you strip away the Disney-added elements, they are nothing more than a midway diversion.
At Disneyland and Walt Disney World, however, this very pedestrian wild mouse coaster takes on a new identity. Between the darkness, the light effects, the music and the theming, a very basic roller coaster becomes more than the sum of its parts, so much so that it beats the tar out of Mission 2, which is a serious roller coaster that is far more technologically advanced. It brings into sharp focus the idea that bleeding edge technology, while nice to have when it works in the context of an attraction, by no means guarantees a great attraction. Instead, it is the way the Imagineers use all of the elements available to them, and bring it all together, that makes or breaks an experience. Seeing these dueling versions of the Space Mountain concept so close in time really underscored that it is what you do with technology, not the technology itself, that really makes the difference in an attraction…
So, what say all of you? Anyone else have the chance to visit different destinations in quick succession? Agree or disagree with my observations? Let me know in the comments!