There’s a reason Disneyland calls itself “the happiest place on earth”. Whether you’re a theme park snob or you adore the multiple franchises, you will be forced to check your cynicism at the massive front gates as no one does a theme park like Disney. It’s European offering may mean you sacrifice multiple days in France’s most romantic city in favour of bone-jolting rides and giant animal costumes, but when you see the look on your kids’ faces the first time you take them, it’s all worthwhile doing a family vacation dedicated to Disneyland Paris.
Yes, amusement parks are extremely commercial places full of expensive parental traps called merchandise stores and over-priced photographs. But, somehow, Disney manages to pull it all together in such a magical manner that no matter how resistant, ultimately you will be charmed.
The park formerly known as Euro Disney has its own share of tackiness – heavily madeup princesses with rock hard hair and that fairy floss-pink castle. But it is also a delightful walk down a memory lane you may not even remember you had. There are seamless transitions between the old rides and names such as Dumbo and Pinocchio into the more modern characters from movies such as Brave and Cars. And in every corner, nook and cranny there is a pumpkin carriage to sit in, a submarine to explore, a ball gown to try on – all constructed with such perfection that you really will believe you are in Alice’s Wonderland.
[For more on what makes Disney theme parks so special, see the suitcases&strollers story Why Disneyland?]
For children – no matter how old – this is a superb, sugar-fuelled indulgence of catchy tunes, fun rides and a rare chance to meet characters normally trapped behind a screen. For parents this is a return to a familiar, comforting childhood feeling that you will enjoy far more than you expect (or maybe want to admit).
If you are looking for a way to travel with your kids that they will remember forever after, Disneyland Paris is it.
Disneyland Paris is composed of two parts – Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park.
Disneyland Park is more like Disneyland in Anaheim, California. You enter through Main Street, U.S.A. and head straight towards the Sleeping Beauty Castle (a useful compass navigation point whenever you get lost. If you want to go anywhere head straight for the castle). The Park is divided into different lands all very similar in feel to the American ones such as Frontierland (country and Western themed), Discoveryland (futuristic, space themed) and Fantasyland (good for younger children with simpler, more character-driven rides). Each land is very true to its theme so the shops, restaurants, staff and rides all marry for an experience that will make you feel like you really are on (for instance) a pirates’ island.
Many of the traditional Disney rides are here including “It’s A Small World”, “Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups”, “Phantom Manor” and “Big Thunder Mountain”, with some minor alterations that only Disney fanatics will notice.
But in addition to these old favourites, there are a few impressive, more contemporary offerings. “Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast” is part ride, part laser gunfight where riders and Buzz battle it out against the evil Zurg. “Space Mountain” has been re-envisioned as “Space Mountain: Mission 2”, a much scarier, faster version of the Californian original that includes 3 different inversions. (Not for the faint-hearted.)
Disneyland Paris has also invested significant money into the “Disney Dreams!” “nighttime spectacular” – a light, laser and pyrotechnics show that projects on to the castle as the park closes.
Overall, Disneyland Park is generally more suitable for younger children than the Studios Park. While there are enough big rollercoasters to keep older kids more than occupied, there is where the bulk of the entertainment for the little ones is at its best. Just walking the streets here is a lively experience and many of the rides are so family-friendly you can easily take infants and fit an entire family in one ride car.
Walt Disney Studios Park is something like a Universal Studios, but Disney-based. The Park itself has a distinct lack of window dressing – instead it feels, well, like walking through a studio lot. Each section of the Park is based around a movie (or multiple similar franchises) – rather than a theme – and comes with rides to match. Some will be very familiar to Disneyland fans – such as “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” also at Tokyo DisneySea.
Along with the rides, the Studios has multiple shows throughout the day that are conspicuously absent from Disneyland Park. These range from shows even adults will enjoy such as “Moteurs…Action! Stunt Show Spectacular Featuring Lightning McQueen” to more child-centric offerings like “Animagique”.
Rides here are distinctly for older children and adults – there are very few rides for extremely small children. Toon Studio, for instance, has a super cool Toy Story Playland that is beautifully constructed but only one of the rides does not have a height restriction. Similarly, the space dedicated to tiny tots is tiny – when it’s crowded it’s difficult to navigate strollers and you need to hold little hands very tightly. Even the show targeting pre-schoolers – “Playhouse Disney Live on Stage!” – requires the audience to sit on the floor, an uncomfortable experience for parents and one that also makes it difficult for kids in the back half of the theatre to see.
Given their differences – depending on your family’s tastes – it’s worthwhile dedicating at least 30% of your time (more if your kids are over 6) to Walt Disney Studios Park particularly for the live performances.
Apart from rides, shows and street parades, the other major attraction at any Disneyland is, of course, the character meet and greets. Sadly, these days there are very few characters walking freely around the Parisian grounds. When once you only had to turn a corner to bump into a giant chipmunk or duck, now most character-guest interactions are in controlled pre-arranged areas and you will have to queue for your happy snap.
The only place you will see plenty of characters and get a chance to really interact is if you book a meal at Café Mickey which isn’t even inside Disneyland proper. Here you are guaranteed to see the likes of Goofy, Mickey, Minnie and Pluto and have a more personal interaction while you eat your American diner-style meal. But you must reserve a table – dinner, in particular, books out days in advance.
Eating at Disneyland Paris needs to be a very organised affair. Unlike its American counterparts, there are almost no savoury food stands or trucks where you can grab a bite on the go. No potato crisps, corn dogs or giant pretzels. All the food carts focus mainly on sweet popcorn, ice creams and drinks so if you need snacks, bring them with you. (If you are staying very close to the Park, it is best to do your supermarket visit before you get there. Some of the hotels do not have shops for food supplies.) Most of the food retail (including the restaurants) does not open before 11am (or later) so if you are planning to come early, you need to keep that in mind.
Similarly, there are very few water fountains so unless you want to pay for water, fill your bottle before you enter.
Because of the lack of eat-and-go food, visitors to Disneyland Paris become (annoyingly) reliant on the restaurants inside. There are some fast food-type outlets and these get extremely crowded during peak season so be prepared to queue and wait.
Table service restaurants book out well in advance – some are full 10 days ahead of time so it pays to do some planning on the Disneyland Paris website.
Do not miss Café Mickey for casual diner meals and, more importantly, character interactions that are really quite special.
Blue Lagoon serves (what they describe as) “exotic” food but, more interestingly, is housed inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride.
Buzz Lightyear’s Pizza Planet Restaurant looks exactly like the diner where Andy picked up his green, three-eyed aliens and operates as a buffet-style eatery.
Outside in the Disney Village, Rainforest Café has a fun concept. Set inside a pretend rainforest, there are life-sized elephants and gorillas that move and periodically the lights flicker during an indoor rainforest shower.
There are plenty of accommodation choices across a range of budgets from self-contained woodland cabins to the luxurious Disneyland Hotel (located on top of the front gates of Disneyland Park) on the official website. The next closest to the Park after Disneyland Hotel is Disney’s Hotel New York which is about a 10 minute walk through Disney Village to the Parks. Some of the other hotels will require a commute via shuttle bus or even your own car.
Despite the exorbitant prices, it is definitely a worthwhile investment to stay in one of the hotels within proximity of the Park. Particularly with small children, it gives the flexibility to be able to come home for rests and naps and also gives you access to Extra Magic Hours (see The Practicalities below). Just be aware that what you are paying for is convenience – many of the properties look tired and sometimes feel like a massive tourism conveyor belt.
It is no exaggeration to say you will need at least 3 days to cover the entirety of the two parks – and this doesn’t include going on every ride and into every show. If you are planning long days or your kids aren’t good walkers, take a stroller or hire one from the Park itself.
Despite its vast space, Disneyland Paris can also get extremely crowded during peak times (long weekends, school holidays, summer). Keep a tight reign on little ones and be prepared to wait for everything. It’s worthwhile doing a lap of each area you are in before you commit to a line. Some rides have Fast Passes, others have relatively short queues and some queues can be two hours long. For instance, when it is particularly busy all the Disneyland Railroad stations close except the one in Main Street, U.S.A.
As soon as you arrive, pick up a couple of the free maps so you can plan. They also have helpful icons to indicate which rides have height limitations and are not suitable for pregnant women.
If you are staying at a Disney-affiliated hotel your ticket comes with Extra Magic Hours – typically two hours of additional time in the morning to get on some of the rides before the gates open to the public. This is a great chance to get to the attractions that usually have ridiculously long wait times, so take advantage of it.
To find out about Walt Disney World in Florida, read the suitcases&strollers story here
To find out about other theme parks, read the suitcases&strollers interview with The Theme Park Guy here
To find out about amusement parks in Asia, read the suitcases&strollers story here