Doing Disney in France

by David.Churchill

With loads to see and do, Disneyland Resort Paris makes a fun short family break at any time - and when times are tough, its magical appeal is even more attractive than ever

Only Disney could have the nerve to let a dancing rat entertain diners in a posh restaurant. But since last summer, Chef Remy, the rodent from the Parisian sewers who somewhat improbably became the chef de cuisine at a top French restaurant in the animated Disney film Ratatouille, has been making surprise meal-time appearances at the Restaurant des Stars at the Walt Disney Studios, part of the Disneyland Resort Paris theme parks and hotels complex at Marne La Vallée, just outside Paris.

The diminutive Remy is wheeled into the restaurant on a trolley and appears from under a silver cloche wearing his chef’s toque. Another chef then jokes with Remy who appears – through the wonder of Disney’s remote audio-animatronic technology – to be actually reacting to the comments of surprised diners.

The children in our party simply adored the unexpected appearance of the Ratatouille star, even though the adult in me did rather wonder: ‘A rat? In a restaurant? In Paris?’ But this, after all, is Disney.

It is easy to be blasé about Disneyland Resort Paris, which hosts Europe’s biggest theme park and the fourth largest in the world. Disneyland Paris is no different from Disney’s other self-styled ‘happiest places on earth’ to be found in Florida and California, Hong Kong and Tokyo, in being resolutely upbeat about giving its customers - guests, as Disney prefers to call them - a good time for their money.

And why not? The French theme park and resort launched in Europe’s last major recession in the early 1990s may have had a rocky start and been dubbed a ‘cultural Chernobyl’ by a disdainful French intellectual elite. But in the current economic downturn, Disney is proving once again that when times are tough, sprinkling some magic pixie dust around can still pull them in.

The reason is simple. Disney appeals to all age groups, from giving youngsters the chance to meet pirates or princesses through to offering cool coasters for teens and Broadway-quality stage shows for adults. Where else can you get to meet your favourite characters from the Disney films, experience a heart-stopping 13-floor drop in a haunted hotel’s jinxed lift or join in with the iconic Buzz Lightyear to fight rampaging aliens with laser guns?

Disney, of course, knows how to tug the heart-strings and its latest year-long celebration, which kicked off in April 2009, is themed as ‘Mickey’s Magical Party’. This brings together new shows and entertainment deliberately focusing on popular characters - from the Big Cheese himself to a ‘super cool’ DJ called Stitch (from the Disney film Lilo & Stitch) - as well as bringing back for the summer months shows based on the High School Musical phenomenon.

How long to spend there

While the resort is not as big as Walt Disney World in Florida, it is still much larger than many people realise (about a fifth the size of Paris itself). There are two main theme parks – the traditional Disneyland Park (the one with Sleeping Beauty’s Castle) and the new Walt Disney Studios - along with seven hotels on Disney property, a shopping complex (Disney Village), multi-screen cinema, convention centres and a 27-hole golf course. The main Disneyland Park probably needs two full-days to see properly.

Where to stay

There are six associated but non-Disney operated hotels close by, including Thomas Cook’s Explorer Hotel, which has a nautical theme (such as porthole-style mirrors) aimed at children. In addition, there is a huge shopping complex at the nearby Val D’Europe centre, with retailers ranging from well-known designers to factory outlets.

My preference, though, is to stay at a Disney hotel on site, which gives faster access to the parks, including extra hours available only to Disney hotel guests. You will be paying for the privilege, but you do feel more ‘part of the magic’ staying in a Disney hotel. My favourite is the Newport Bay Club, a sprawling hotel themed along the lines of New England clapboard seaside hotels of the late 19th century. If you want to splurge, then the Disneyland Hotel, which straddles the entrance to the Disneyland Park, is the one.

The downside

Be aware that two of the cheaper on-property hotels – the Cheyenne and Santé Fe – do not have full air-conditioning and so can get rather stuffy in the humid summer months (when the parks are also most crowded).

Where to eat

There are nearly 70 themed restaurants, although Disney dining does not really reflect the best France has to offer. Alcohol is widely available throughout the resort and parks, including Disneyland Park itself – the only one of Disney’s five Magic Kingdom parks worldwide that allows alcohol.

Don’t miss

The must-do rides and attractions include Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain: Mission 2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast and, of course, It’s a Small World. Must-do attractions at the adjacent but smaller Studios, which opened in 2002, include the Aerosmith-themed Rock’n’Roll coaster, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (the one with the wonky lift) and Catastrophe Canyon (don’t ask). But the two parks have over 54 rides and attractions between them so there is plenty to see and do. If you run out of time, you can always go back!

Beating the credit crunch

Disney is backing up the party theme with special deals aimed at luring cash-strapped British families, such as free Eurostar travel and accommodation for children under seven until early November 2009. Its worth shopping around for Dineyland Paris tickets. Most short-break operators have special child-friendly offers this summer, so it can pay to shop around. While the direct daily Eurostar service from St Pancras to Marne La Vallée/Chessy is by far the simplest and quickest way to get there from the UK, Marne La Vallée remains easily accessible by Eurotunnel, ferry and flying. There are coach transfers available from Paris airports and the RER local train service from Paris only takes about 30 minutes.