Adam Bird

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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Magic of Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris

It’s been a while since my last post, three months in fact since I wrote about leaving London and starting a new job. Much has happened in that intervening time, most of it work related, some of it home improvement, but mostly stuff too insignificant to warrant writing about. However, last weekend we spent valuable time together, the four of us for the first time on foreign shores as guests of Walt Disney in Paris - a place which for Stephanie and I holds such fond memories.

In recent years our breaks, holidays and time away have been spontaneous, unplanned affairs. Either we’ve been rewarded for work done for others or we’ve earned the right by winning inter-family competitions and our weekend this time around was equally the same. In return for our trip to Paris, Stephanie and I are looking after my parents foster children whilst they are away at Christmas, ironically to Florida, another home of Disney and all the magic it provides.

Which is exactly what we were looking forward to this time around. A blend of Disney magic that was ever more enticing sat at the docking bay at Dover port. The day previously events in Woolwich had cast a dark shadow over the country giving us an extra incentive in wanting to leave.

Much has changed since Stephanie and I last went to Disneyland Paris, Oliver of course is a whole five years older and we were now joined by Phoebe who was a distant wish come true. Oliver’s enthusiasm was typical of a boy his age, matched equally by his fathers. In the build up to the week ahead whenever Stephanie and I mentioned the holiday and what we’d be visiting his response was always ‘don’t tell me about it Daddy, I want it to be a surprise’, which was in stark contrast to my own approach. I’d borrowed a planning book from my sister and reread it from cover to cover making notes and printing out itineraries and researching meal plans which ultimately proved to be so useful. Phoebe even joined in, identifying ‘Minnie’ whenever she appeared on the television or cropped up on the back of a rucksack or item of clothing.

Disneyland Paris

Our ferry trip across the channel, was the first of Oliver’s new experiences and although it takes longer than the channel tunnel is much more of an occasion. Watching the lorries load onto the ship and the stream of cyclists was serious business for a six year old boy and waving goodbye to England gave more significance to our trip that the shuttle affords.

Despite the wind and rain the sailing was pretty calm - much to mine and Stephanie’s relief. Although the drive to Paris once we had disembarked wasn’t nearly as pleasant. On route we experienced varying changes of weather, light rain, torrential rain, hail stones, bright sunshine followed by varying degrees of rain again which didn’t exactly fill us with confidence for the days ahead.

Other than the weather, the drive to Paris was actually a rather pleasant affair. The French drivers seemed a lot more considerate on the road than their British counterparts. There was no middle lane hogging and the use of the indicator is excessive to the extreme. The only downside was the amount of HGV traffic and their sudden passing maneuvers which verged on the edge of lunacy most of the time.

Stephanie managed to get us lost as we approached the resort. You know you are going the wrong way when you can see the Sleeping Beauty Castle in your rear-view mirror getting smaller as opposed to looming into view. But after a few cross words, fueled by tiredness and a sharp u-turn we arrived at our destination and was hurriedly looking for the itinerary I’d drawn up as to where we were going first.

When we originally booked the holiday over the internet back in January for some reason I thought we had booked the Disney Hotel Cheyenne. I’d even done a months research finding out all about it before I carefully re-read my booking confirmation email for the fortieth time. Much to my concern I realised that somehow we had booked the Hotel Santa Fe instead - which caused me all sorts of distress as I hurriedly tried to forget everything I’d learnt and meant finding out everything important all over again about our new hotel. To be honest, there was absolutely no preference either way, both hotels carry the same star rating, are equal distance from the park and have the same amenities. Looking back now and seeing how our time was spent we could have stayed in the five star hotel and had exactly the same experience. We spent so little time within the hotel that it really didn’t matter where we slept.

After a brief check-in process where we were given our all important park tickets, meal vouchers and a small ream of paper allowing us this, that and the other we were off and on our search for magic!

I was a little torn at first as to which park to visit on our first day. I’d been to the Disneyland Park twice before and was desperate to visit the studios which were at that point unchartered territory. Common sense reminded me that we had more than enough time to do everything at a snails pace and unlike on our last visit I could relax, unwind and enjoy it for exactly what it is.

Disneyland Paris

With the studio visit postponed for another day we head up Main Street USA with overcast skies and the threat of rain doing nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. Oliver wasn’t exactly skipping around deliriously wanting to know which way to turn next, but as Stephanie and I ‘ooohhh’d’ and ‘aaaarrred’ at the castle and the memory of our ‘moment’ Oliver was growing ever more impatient and wanted ‘rides right now Daddy!’ - which is what the whole thing was about really... wasn’t it?

Of all of the things that I enjoyed over our five day stay, the one enduring thing for me was the experience that Oliver had. Everything was new, everything was unexpected and every emotion that he felt over the whole five days was drawn all over his face. Every ride that we queued up for that was inside and behind closed doors was met with the same enquiring mind, ‘what does this one do Daddy, is it a roller coaster?’.

Our first ride was the Buzz Lightyear Lazer Blast, a ride that he went on previously but was of course far too young to remember. The look of joy on his face as we walked past Buzz Lightyear barking instructions at him and the look of uncertainty in Phoebe’s eyes as the little character on the television came bursting into life right before her.

(I’d like to add at this point that my score on this ride was nothing short of awesome and I don’t think it will ever be beaten so nur!)

Being a Thursday, in May, during school time, whilst raining did have its benefits - queue times. We were literally walking straight on to most things which was a stark difference to our last visit. But it also meant that our leisurely snails pace exploration was going a lot quicker than anticipated. After a few more Discoveryland attractions and photographic opportunities the heavens opened and we ran for cover. It must be second nature for Stephanie and I, but the closest place we ran to was a burger joint and the first use of our pre-purchased meal vouchers.

The basic idea of a meal voucher is that we pay for everything upfront and exhange hard earned cash for pieces of paper that enable you to eat off a set menu for both lunch and dinner for the duration of your stay. The lunch menus we found were rather all very much the same, a choice of burger, sandwich or pizza with a side salad or fries, a soft drink and a desert, but it did mean we didn’t have to worry about watching what we were spending so that in itself outweighed the lack of choice.

After we were all fed and watered and suitably refreshed it was back to ‘more rides Daddy’ and the search for new things for Oliver to experience. Stephanie went off in search of a baby change area, whilst Oliver and I head towards a galaxy far, far away. Whilst queuing for Star Tours Oliver asked me once again what the ride was and feeling that the term ‘a multi-sensory simulator ride’ might be a term too advanced for a six year old mind I informed him quite correctly that we were going on a spaceship and taking a flight around the moon.

I was slightly concerned when we boarded our ‘shuttle’ and realised that as there were no more adjoining seats we were to ride apart. He was sat in the seat in front of me so there was no way that I could offer any reassurances if he got afraid or didn’t like the ride for any reason. I soon realised that my worries had been entirely in vain as the ride finished and he turned around saying ‘again Daddy, again!’ with a face like a thousand Christmas’s - oh for those moments we all wish for!

Having no real urgency for anything other than pleasing the little man, Oliver got his wish and re-rode Star Tours - this time with Stephanie who had returned with a fresh bottomed Phoebe. Needless to say his second time around was just as exciting as the first and had we allowed him to he would have gone on and on repeatedly for the duration of our stay.

Disneyland Paris

As time was of our leisure we made the most of the reduced queue’s. We rode everything we wanted to and took advantage of the open spaces by exploring the attraction free areas of the park. Two of the themed lands, Frontierland and Adventureland carry more visual appeal than white knuckle thrills. Adventureland has caves to explore, elevated walkways above the treetops and skulls made of rocks that you can peep out of and spent hours getting lost in.

It is in those areas, that as adults you can appreciate what the grand vision of Walt Disney was really all about. To create immersive areas for the entire family that people can get lost in and escape, where age doesn’t matter and everyone gets to be children again.

If Oliver’s earlier ride aboard Star Tours proved to be an early personal highlight for him, Phoebe achieved one of her own later that day. It’s a Small World is a ride system that is found all over the world and in the main is nothing remarkable at all. A boat carrying x amount of people travelling slowly around a circuit with models to look at and watch. The thing with Disney and most of their rides is that they take what is ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary by supplying a dose of fairydust. It’s all in the minute detail and use of every available space. It’s a Small World takes you around the globe through animated scenes of animated puppets dressed to identify a specific country. Phoebe was engrossed the whole way around and ‘ooohhh’d’ and ‘aaaarrred’ just as Stephanie and I had earlier at the castle. Her head and eyes were moving all over the place as she tried to take it all in. When the ride came to a stop, just as Oliver had early she said ‘again, again’ and so off we went once more, swapping positions so that she could see better the scenes on the opposite side of the boat.

It just goes to show - it doesn’t matter what age you are, there is something for everyone!

According to my expertly written itinerary our first day was to be short and sweet. We’d spend a couple of hours in the park before heading to bed at a reasonable hour after the very early morning and fatigue caused by driving. I have no idea then how we managed to crawl in at midnight with a still excitable Oliver and a wide awake Phoebe - although I suspect the lure of fireworks was too much for us to miss.

Disneyland Paris are celebrating their 20 year anniversary this year, or should that be, have extended it into this year based upon last years success. Part of the celebrations is a daily firework display entitled ‘Disney Dreams’, which consists of a twenty minute show just as the park closes for the evening. As with anything, the term’ firework display’ is used rather loosely. What it should actually be described as is a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional, technologically advanced water and laser extravaganza with a side helping of fireworks.

The iconic centerpiece; Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty castle is turned into a projection screen as a film is played out against it turning it into a blank canvas for whatever the Disney imagineers can conceive of next. An audio visual spectacular that can be seen on YouTube for a shadow of it’s real entertainment value and the best excuse for keeping the kids up late we’ve ever had.

Despite the rain and onset of a drop in temperature that sent us all shivering we still managed to watch in awe. The only blemish to spoil the entertainment was the lack of manners displayed by our cousins from across the channel. You spend twenty minutes finding the ideal location for you to stand and watch the performance, wait patiently for another twenty for the performance to start only for someone to stand in front of your child ten seconds before the first rocket goes bang. Stand in front of me if you really have to, but don’t block my child’s view!

In fact, that kind of behaviour was the only thing to spoil what was an amazing five days. Oliver would be waiting in line quite patiently for his turn at something only for someone else to either push in or take his place in the queue. It became quite difficult at certain times to keep a civil tongue, not at other children but at pushy parents whose only goal was to ensure that their own child was the first and only beneficiary of whatever it was everyone was waiting for.

After such a late night it was only inevitable that the following morning would require our attendance at the 7.30 am breakfast slot. Upon check-in at the hotel you are given times to arrive for breakfast each morning which may vary depending upon what slots are available. It just so happened that ours on our first morning was the early one. Needless to say we never made it!

It wasn’t by accident, Stephanie and I were rather good for a change! We set our alarm clock and when we woke up both children were fast asleep and not waking for anybody. We decided to forego our slot, let the kids rest as they’d be miserable all day otherwise. In the end it didn’t matter, breakfast ran until eleven, we strolled in at five minutes too and grabbed whatever was left available.

Disneyland Paris

One added surprise at breakfast was a meet and greet session with Mickey Mouse in the hotel foyer as we made our way to the restaurant. Phoebe had been pointing at pictures the whole day previously but this was the first chance of an upfront encounter. We queued as politely as us English do despite the ‘me first’ mentality around us. Phoebe was waving quite merrily in the queue line and blowing kisses right up until it was her turn to go forward where she turned into a shaking, screaming petrified wreck in Stephanie’s arms. Poor Phoebe was absolutely terrified of the poor Mouse who took it all in his stride, waving politely and hugging Oliver who proudly stood smiling at the camera.

With the parks being bigger, busier and probably due to a lack of manners from the locals, chance meet and greet encounters were not as frequent as Stephanie and I found them to be in Hong Kong. We had a couple of random encounters but most of them were at pre-arranged times and places which was no real hardship as the so called queues were perfectly reasonable.

After breakfast and after Phoebe had forgotten the horrors of Mickey in the flesh we head towards the Studios where I had a date with a long lost friend - the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! I first rode this when I was fourteen in Florida and however much I recounted the experience to Stephanie I could not convince her to ride along with me. She sat outside sipping a coffee under a canopy sheltering from the rain whilst Oliver and I went on ahead. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a drop ride with added Disney sparkle. A pre-show telling the back story and special effects really give the sensation that something supernatural is occurring and adds another dimension to the gut wrenching feeling of falling quite suddenly.

Oliver once again knew nothing about what to expect, but at least this time we were sat together so he was able to grab onto me if he wanted to and boy did he he want to! With not knowing what to expect you have no idea of what is happening next, or when something terrible is about to be over. When you are six years old time is immeasurable so whilst I was laughing and having a grand old time Oliver had his eyes closed and his head on my shoulders as we boing boinged up and down the innards of the faux Hollywood Tower. When we came off and I asked Oliver if he had enjoyed himself, for once he had no words. Just a shake of his head was all I needed to know and a stern look back when I laughed and said “we’ll go again then shall we?’

Disneyland Paris

It wasn’t all terror and fear, far from it in fact. Oliver and Stephanie queued up for Crush’s Coaster. A ride based on a character from the film Finding Nemo. Phoebe was asleep in her pushchair and the rain was holding off so I stood patiently watching the cars come out of the building so I could catch Stephanie and Oliver on film for the archive. I didn’t bank on them queuing for forty minutes which was the longest wait of our stay. True to form as they come hurtling out my reaction was too slow, but I have got the best picture of the back of Oliver and Stephanie's head I’ve seen!

Crush’s Coaster ended up being Olivers favourite ride in the whole wide world - ever and was our most repeated ride despite the longer than average queue. The studios park is a lot smaller than the Florida version but it still packs a punch with a collection of great shows and some impressive rides. Stephanie and I took advantage of the baby swap to ride the Aerosmith Rollercoaster, which had Oliver been a centimeter taller he’d have been a passenger too.

Of the whole break that second day was probably the worst for the weather. It didn’t help that we left Phoebe’s pushchair outside whilst we watched one of the shows and returned to an absolutely drenched stroller. The weather was that bad we all ended up buying the dreaded plastic poncho’s with an extra one for Phoebe to sit on so she didn’t soak through.

Overall though the day was a great success, we had one more highlight ahead of us, a booking at the Buffalo Bill Wild West show - or so we thought. We left the park early in order to make our reservation. We queued up patiently and gave our tickets to the checkout operator who paused for a moment ‘I’ll be right back Sir’, excellent, I thought, we’ve been upgraded or something. But no, we’d turned up twenty-four hours too early, our reservation was for Saturday not Friday!

My well formed itinerary was worthless now and had been pretty much since we arrived. One thing I’ve learnt, you cannot plan everything - there is absolutely no point!

Despite not knowing how our booking was changed, or how we got mixed up we decided to head back to Santa Fe, use a meal voucher and have an all you can eat buffet and a beer in the bar instead. Buffallo Bill could wait! If the lunchtime menus left little to chose from we didn’t find the same experience with the evening choices. We could choose from an a la carte restaurant, or a buffet. It proved to be a lot easier for us to let Oliver choose what he wanted to eat rather than select off a pre-defined menu, even if he did choose items from all the same food groups, chips, bread and tortilla chips being the main staple of his diet. I did subtly try to encourage him onto more adventurous things. Our first nights buffet theme was ‘International Cuisine’, one of the choices was snails. I’d never eaten snails before so I thought now would be as good a time as any. But as I sat down I had a better idea, put it onto Oliver’s plate whilst he wasn’t looking. He didn’t notice at first, playing with some chips and ketchup, but when he did he picked it up with a rather bemused look on his face. As if to say, ‘this should be in the garden, why is it on my plate?’ I told him to eat it knowing full well that he wouldn’t. I had every intention of taking it from him, removing the snail from the shell and eating it, but my fork got stuck and couldn’t get the slippery little sucker out. I took a big sniff and it didn’t smell too great so I didn’t make any effort to hunt down the correct utensil in which to extract it from its shell. My cruel trick was paid back by Oliver later in the week when he accused me of being 'man vs food' whenever we sat down at the buffet which I thought was rather unfair!

With such a great time had by all the previous day and our over familiarisation with the main Disneyland Park we decided to spend a the following day back at the studios. We wanted to re-ride our new found favourites and catch everything we missed the day before. Stephanie mentioned that we hadn’t seen a parade yet so that was high on our list of things to do.

A Disney parade is one of those things that I paid no attention to when we were in Florida, I was fourteen and wanted rides, rides, rides, but as I’ve mellowed slightly I’ve found the parades to be good wholesome fun. ‘It’s for the children’ I’m always told and it certainly didn’t disapoint Oliver. All his favourite characters driving by on a stream of cars waving wildly at him really made his day. Sadly Phoebe chose parade time to be her nap time so she missed out on all the fun!

One of the rides that we hadn’t made it to yet was the Armageddon special effects stage. Basically you are briefed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, as extras on a special effects shoot. We were to be actors on a set and pretend to be scared when a meteorite hits the space station that we were going to be standing on. Oliver would have won an oscar for his performance had it been properly recorded, the boy was absolutely terrified! Explosions, eruptions and collapsing scenery isn’t something he wishes to see again anytime soon! ‘It’s all pretend’ I said, but it didn’t wash!

With everything done and dusted we made our way once again to the the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where we queued patiently once again, gave our tickets once again and were waved through gladly to pick up our complimentary cowboy hats and order some wine if we wanted (we did want!).

I’d never seen a dinner show before so it was a new experience for all of us. I’d highly recommend it. We were fortunate in that we had such great seats. We were sat in the front row right in the middle so had a perfect view of the whole proceedings. What made our seats even better was the interaction we had with the cast of the show and our team jester who arm wrestled with Oliver and messed up Stephanie’s hair. As we dived into Cowboy Chilli, Ribs and Chicken drumsticks a series of equestrian shows and cowboy games was going on in front of us. The audience are encouraged to make as much noise and be as raucous as possible which went against everything we have ever tried teaching the kids about dinner time, but it was well worth the wait and a great nights entertainment.

One of the things that Stephanie and I spoke of beforehand was the possibility of taking a short trip into Paris and visiting the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t want to make any commitments beforehand as we didn’t know how much we’d get done in the parks or if the weather would be suitable.

When we woke up on Sunday morning the weather was quite promising and so we decided that after our character breakfast we’d catch the RER into Paris, take a trip up the Eiffel Tower and show Oliver and Phoebe something a little bit different. I went to buy some tickets online but you can only buy tickets two days in advance from the Internet, so we had to make a choice. Go into Paris, see the Eiffel Tower and not go up because the queue was too long, or go into Paris and queue for however long it might take. Before that though we had another date with Mickey and Friends.

Breakfast is part of the package when you stay at the Disneyland Resort, but there are little extras you can pay for to make the most of your stay. We choose to pay extra for a character breakfast which everyone recommended beforehand. It was one of those things that I expected to be a chaotic free for all, but it actually went rather smoothly. Phoebe was sat in her highchair getting on with breakfast when the first character introduced himself to our table. One half of Chip and Dale (don’t ask me which one!) popped a paw on her highchair and that was it, the poor girl burst into a fit of tears and the terrified, shaking Phoebe resurfaced much to our amusement! Oliver was in his element having photographs with Mickey, Pluto, Chip and Dale and Eeyore to name a few. It might have cost a few extra pounds on top of the budget but it was well worth every penny.

After breakfast and a few tentative enquiries in broken French at the tourist information box we secured train tickets and directions towards Paris for our first steps into the outside world since the beginning of our stay. Travelwise getting into Paris couldn’t be any simpler. Jump onto the train at the station within the resort and twenty minutes later you are in central Paris. We had to make a couple of changes to arrive at the Trocadero which was the station we were recommended, but from door-to-door our travel time was less than an hour.

Having seen a million and one images of the iconic Eiffel Tower I pretty much knew what to expect, but your eyes do take some adjustment when you view the tower for the first time. With the Trocadero being an elevated open platform the view of the tower is probably second to none from our that particular vantage point. We stopped, took photographs and discreetly changed Phoebe in the corner away from the madness that surrounded us. With no real plan and no real rush we took a leisurely walk towards the tower, crossing over the River Seine ever closer to the amazing piece of architecture ahead of us. What must the local Parisians have thought in the 1800's as Mr Eiffel started putting this thing together?

Disneyland Paris

As it was a Sunday the tourist scene was out in full crowd, which meant the queue for tickets was as long as we hoped it wouldn’t be. Ultimately we gave Oliver the choice, queue here for an hour or so, go to the top of the tower or go back to the parks and do some more rides. He wanted to head back so that was where we went. We were only in central Paris for just under two hours, but the impressive first view of the Eiffel Tower was well worth the journey and another experience Oliver added to his every growing list.

We only had twenty four hours left before we were due to leave, we had done everything we had set out to do so it was a case of filling in any blanks and covering the bits we loved the most. We also hadn’t seen the main Disney parade so we made sure we did that. Phoebe was awake this time and she joined in with the waving and clapping. She was a safe enough distance away from those wicked people who scared her so much so she was able to have as much fun as everyone else.

On our way back down the parade route Stephanie witnessed a little girl sitting atop her fathers shoulders. The little girl was in fits of tears, overjoyed with happiness at what she had just witnessed, it even made Stephanie choke up a little bit. We didn’t quite get that response from Oliver or Phoebe but what we got was enough to fill a hundred treasure boxes of memories. Ask Oliver now what Disneyland Paris was like and his face lights up with his recollections, ask Stephanie and she too will have a hundred stories to tell.

It may be gross commercialisation to some people, exploitation for the tourist dollar, but I still believe in the magic. All the time that there all places for escapism, where children can be children and adults can be children all over again the magic will always live on. Like our memories of the place and all the dreams we have, most of which come true.
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