When we think about a Disney theme park, most Americans conjure up images of Orlando or Anaheim. When you live in Europe, there’s an additional option to add to the list, Disneyland Paris (often referred to as Euro Disney).
We visited Paris Disney over New Year’s weekend to celebrate our son’s 8th birthday. After living in Switzerland for 5 months, we all wanted a dose of something familiar. Admittedly, I don’t associate a Disney visit with coats and scarves, but I have to say, it’s a good winter activity. Freezing rain would have been a different story and we needed thaw-out breaks, but the chilly conditions did not detract from our fun.
I didn’t know what to expect. Would we be disappointed that a park in Europe is not a “real” Disney experience? Would we leave wanting to hit Florida or California to feel that our dose of Disney was complete?
In retrospect, we experienced no Disney authenticity disappointment. The park is pure Disney in look and feel — the primary difference is that practically every man, woman, and child around you is speaking a different language. This phenomenon enhanced the experience for me as the proud American emerged to witness families from around Europe appreciating Mickey and his long list of friends and activities.
A testament to just how much Europeans love Disney is the following fact (90% of all Paris Disney visitors are from European countries):
With 15.4 million visits in 2009, Disneyland Paris is the most visited tourist destination in Europe and the top tour operator in France in terms of the number of customers.
I know. What?!
We spent two days at Disneyland Paris and Disney Hollywood Studios (next door) and got a good glimpse of what makes it so popular with people from all around Europe.
I love the size! Maybe it was the cold weather that made us walk quickly, but this park felt manageable and intimate (it’s 1/5th the size of Paris). We literally walked from one side of the park to the other in a 20 minutes (part of this is due to the walk-friendly layout). No waiting for transportation to take us to a ride far away — we accessed everything on foot.
Euro Disney feels like a “best of” theme park where you have all the bits you want and expect — Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, It’s a Small World to name a few — plus character parades, and shows.
The park is well-organized and a happy place in true Disney form. I laughed when at one point we were going the absolute wrong way and I’ve never had a more joyful guard tell me we didn’t know what were doing. Paris can get a bad rap for service — not here!
The Fastpass program is a huge benefit and way to avoid waiting in long lines for very popular rides. You can get one Fastpass per person per day in their standard program but you’d still end up waiting in lines as the use is limited. We used a VIP Fastpass (available as a Suites or Castle Club guest at certain Disney hotels) which gives you immediate and unlimited access to the Fastpass line. This is an incredible perk if the applicable hotel package works for your budget.
Perhaps it was luck and timing, but we had a poor food experience. In concept there is a wide variety of meal offerings in the park, but everywhere we turned we seemed to be faced with a sea of burgers, hot dogs, and fries. Not that I have anything against any of those American delicacies, but this combination is appealing for one meal, not six, and the quality was mediocre at best. I admit, when in France I have higher-than-usual expectations, but so be it, excellent food should be available.
You can access greater variety by going to one of the sit-down restaurants. The problem is that we didn’t have a reservation and waits were long. An important tip is to make reservations at your top choice by calling +33 (0) 1 60 30 40 50. A list of restaurants is available on the park website.
We enjoyed the tropical, cozy ambiance at The Blue Lagoon within the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
Where to Stay
Disney runs a number of hotels around the park, including the Disneyland Hotel at the entrance. Because we were visiting over a holiday weekend, the pricing at their resorts was very high so we opted for the Radisson Blu down the road. Pricing at this hotel is value-oriented (although you don’t access Disney hotel perks this route); they do run a free shuttle to the park (10-minute drive). Rooms are adequate, not special, but it is a decent option if you want easy access to the park without spending a fortune on rooms.
When to Go
Disneyland Paris is open year-round. Many of our readers are American and want to know if it is makes sense for them to fit Disney into a European itinerary. As Nancy discovered on her recent experience on the Disney Dream, the fact is that young kids adore Disney and it is an activity just for them. If you are spending time in Paris, it’s amazingly easy to get to the park for a day trip (the train station at the park entrance) or a 1-2 night stay. The average American family doesn’t get much vacation time given our corporate work schedules, so adding Disney Paris to an itinerary allows you to combine two different trips into one (particularly if you are a flight away from the US resorts).
A Disney Paris visit is a fantastic activity for expat families that want and need something culturally familiar, particularly if they don’t travel back to the States often. The park is also a terrific family vacation for Europeans wanting something to do for long weekends or half-term breaks — clearly, given the park stats, these families already know the resort is a blast with kids of all ages.
Disney provided is with free tickets to the park. They did not request that we express a particular opinion about the experience.
Ciao Bambino recommended family-friendly hotels in Paris