Using my 40th birthday four weeks ago as the tenuous reason for celebration, I suggested to my husband that we take the boys (6 and 4) to Disneyland Paris in May half term. Once we’d navigated the many and complex options out there (Disney hotel, or off site? Meal plan? Character dining? Photo pass? Flight, ferry or Eurostar?) and found the best set-up for us, I was extremely excited.
I remember the advert for the imminent opening of ‘Eurodisney ’ which appeared at the beginning of our Little Mermaid VHS tape, in 1991. There was a hot air balloon in the shape of Mickey’s head, sailing across a wonderland of attractions, towards the shining, glittering Sleeping Beauty’s castle – the Disney trademark. (It’s here, if you fancy a trip down memory lane to an era when adverts were quite different!) Like most of my friends, my sister and I had never been on holiday abroad, never mind to America; and we were enchanted that the fairytale magic, from a land far far away, was coming to our neighbouring country.
We never made it there as a family for all sorts of reasons, and then suddenly I was an adult. Before we had our own children, we did our best to make sure our holidays were exclusive of other people’s kids, wherever possible – so Disneyland Paris, as it later became, was never on the radar, until now.
Introducing your children to the magic and wonder of the films you loved as a child has a new effect on you, though. You may not get the reaction you expected sometimes – the first time the boys experienced the comic genius of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin, they both got bored and wandered off – but as they’ve got older, and we’ve seen the light and delight in their eyes, the excitement has returned for us too. Once we’d booked, I couldn’t believe I was finally going to that nearby yet so distant magical kingdom: The Happiest Place on Earth.
And it is an incredible place – everything I always imagined. The excitement, anticipation and cost are absolutely warranted. I have never been anywhere that is so invested in being authentic, realistic and completely believable. There is so much to look at, the rides, parades and attractions are terrific, the attention to detail is astonishing, all of the staff (known as ‘Cast Members) are committed to playing their parts and making the magic completely real. They are without exception friendly, happy to help, and always in character. All other theme parks I’ve been to have paled into near-invisibility, in comparison.
The downsides are what you would expect – it is expensive (the food is eye-wateringly extortionate), and they do give you every opportunity to part with further cash in shops all over the park. Just be strong in the boutiques, and research and plan your meals if possible, and you can easily overlook these matters – the return on what you have paid is really fantastic value for money.
Harder to swallow is how your kids react. All over the park, every day and in every nationality, I witnessed the same thing we were going through with our youngest one. Parents like us, who never made it there as children, have all imagined the scene beforehand – they finally arrive at the promised Disney Land, full of excitement and expectation, with their wide-eyed, appreciative children, who are so grateful to their parents for giving them the experience they never had themselves. Didn’t happen that way.
Because of the early start to get to St Pancras for 8:30am, our youngest was tired and grumpy. He didn’t want the overpriced food we’d bought, he did want the expensive ice cream we hadn’t bought, he wanted to be carried, and he wanted everything in every shop. He wasn’t like this all the time, happily, and we definitely weren’t alone. The number of times I heard “I would have done anything to have this experience when I was your age” and “Smile for goodness’ sake, you’re at Disneyland!!” was quite astonishing. I even heard it in French a few times, and it was clear what other parents were saying whose language I didn’t get.
It’s not really the kids’ fault. They don’t know what we were missing, and how much we wanted to go as children, and never did. All they know is that they are in a queue in a theme park on a hot day, with nothing to do but wait, and with no freedom to go and play with their trains whenever they want to. Of course they are ungrateful – it’s their job. But it is certainly galling at the time. (Especially when the sulk turns into a loud tantrum, and you have to sling them under your arm to get them to move anywhere.)
Our boys did love it, though. Every ride we went on – and in spite of the queues, we went on a lot – was a brilliant experience all its own. We loved Thunder Mountain, Ratatouille, Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror, and we enjoyed Buzz’s Laser Gallery so much that we went on it twice. Pirates of the Caribbean is incredible – they have accurately and believably recreated a whole night-time Caribbean seaport to queue through at the start of the ride, followed by an immersive sail through a world of plundering, swashbuckling and rum-swigging, and Captain Jack Sparrow, of course.
There wasn’t a single ride or character meet that we regretted queuing for. Meeting characters like Buzz Lightyear, Stitch and Goofy gave us some lovely memorable interactions, and some lovely signatures for the boys’ autograph books.
The Disneyland blues are real – our oldest was in tears when it was time to go, and I was near to it myself. The whole experience is so good, so happy, so positive, so real, that it really is a wrench to be going back to everyday life. I would go back in a heartbeat, and if left to my own devices, I would have rebooked within hours of getting home.I hope, when our boys are grown up themselves, that they will want to give their children the experience they had. I’m sure their children won’t appreciate it at some of the time either, but they will all get some amazing memories, and a love of Disney for life.
Our top Disneyland advice:
- Get yourself to Primark for a great choice of Disney clothes before you go. Just wearing a Mickey Mouse top makes it all the more magical.
- Wear comfy shoes that support your feet well – it is a huge site and there is SO MUCH walking. Your feet will thank you later. And take plasters.
- Take snack food for youngsters. Carrots and apples work really well for healthier options, don’t need to be kept cool and won’t get squished in a bag. It saves loads of money in the park too. (Thanks to Alison for this top tip!)
- Join the Disneyland for Brits Facebook group. It is amazing and there is so much knowledge and information in there – helpful before, during and after your stay.
- Dress the kids up in Disney costumes – especially the boys. Dressed up boys get lots of love, as you don’t see it very often. (Thanks to Danielle for this one!)
- Use your fastpasses. At busy times, it made a huge difference, especially on the most popular rides like the Thunder Mountain rollercoaster and Ratatouille.
- If you’re in a Disney hotel, use your Extra Magic Hours. We got so much done early on in the day, before the park opened for the public.
- If you’re not on a meal plan, and don’t want to make restaurant bookings two months in advance, check which restaurants you can walk into. There are a few, and will be a welcome change from the standardised burger menu that is served at the fast food places across the park.
- Go and see Mickey and the Magician. It’s free, and it is an incredible live show with some of the classic songs and characters. It’s on until 1 September 2018.