Monday, December 28, 2015

Passport to Dreams 2015 Year-End Review

Out And About In The Parks

While 2015 can hardly be said to be a banner year for changes in the parks at least in terms of the sorts of things Disney heavily promotes - new rides, expansion areas, etc - sometimes it's the minor changes that say more than the major ones. I like to describe the theme parks as big clockwork mechanisms filled with tiny pieces that all need to be moving in precise synchronization. Yes, the clock will stop if a major piece gets broken, say when the monorail to Magic Kingdom goes down. But all of those little pieces are just as important too, and if they get all rusty and wonky then even if the clock is still running then you'll know that it isn't keeping good time, that something isn't quite right.

Most of the Walt Disney World parks are more on this side of the equation: there's enough wonky, small pieces that you can tell things aren't quite right, even if it's hard to say exactly what or why. Conversely, 2015 saw a lot of those tiny pieces get improved, and the benefits may not command extensive celebration through the official sources, but once enough small things get improved you can feel the whole park, the whole system, elevated like a boat gently lifted by the tide.

This is a year to applaud small but worthwhile victories.

Remember the Maliboomer at California Adventure? It was the huge, basically unthemed launch tower of the west side of Paradise Pier? As part of the overhaul of the park, it was removed and not replaced. It was a rare case of enhancement by omission; California Adventure was stronger with nothing in its place. Well, 2015 saw one of the biggest things go the way of the Maliboomer of all time.

This was the grossly inappropriate Sorcerer's Hat at the end of Hollywood Boulevard at Disney Hollywood Studios. And while this is a design oriented blog, I'm sure I don't need to launch into a long description of why the hat was a poor choice. It speaks for itself, absurdly perched as it was at the end of the nicest stretch of themed architecture in that park. What I'd like to point out is how unexpectedly refreshed I was to see it gone.

It had been long enough - 15 years - that I had forgotten how that particular piece of forced perspective illusion was supposed to work, and once the hat (and the stage after it) was taken down, I was frankly dazzled by the view, and it's been a long time since anything in that park actually dazzled me. I was totally unprepared for how effective that view was, how correct and symmetrical the Chinese Theater looked at the end of the street. I had forgotten how effective the tiny corridor opening up to a huge central courtyard actually was, and how near the Theater looked from the end of the street, only to seem suddenly twice as far away from you as it really was once you passed the shops. It's a really nifty optical illusion, and by simply being revealed again it elevates the entire experience of walking into that park from mildly impressive to really engaging.

But moreover it was really exciting to stop and listen to guests walking into the park and hear things I hadn't heard in 15 years: "really cool!", or, "what's in there?". The simple fact of removing the hat means that suddenly the entrance to Hollywood Studios is a place of glamour and intrigue instead of an art deco sidewalk leading to a giant blue metal cone. It gives that park back one of its signature subtleties, imparts meaning and intrigue, and is no less important than the castle at the end of Main Street for making guests feel like they paid for something special.

Hollywood Studios is in the midst of an identity crisis. Very soon, basically the entire back half of the place is going to be leveled, and turned into one of those modern day Imagineering extravaganzas modeled on the success of that wizard boy next door. Being a romantic at heart I wish the entire park could be skinned into some sort of Golden Age of Hollywood fantasy, but I know that millennium falcons outsell films noir by a hundred to one. Disney-MGM Studios was once a place of great promise that ended before it ever really got started: Dick Tracey's Crimestoppers, Red Car Cafe, The South Seas Club from The Rocketeer, a Who Framed Roger Rabbit Toontown; all of these things came very close to being. And while at this point any change is better than none, those of us who find the romance of alien world and lightsabers cold comfort compared to the fantasy of the past will have to keep looking.

Speaking of Imagineering extravaganzas, the vaguely anticipated opening of The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom draws nearer, and from what can be seen by peeking over construction walls, the place looks bananas. Comparable to the astonishing desert landscape created for Cars Land at California Adventure, nothing short of seeing it with your eyes can properly describe just how large this thing is.

But even better than the future home of blue cat individuals has been the change evident at Animal Kingdom over the past year. Disney's clearly cashing in the whole donut for Avatar, and in the meantime Joe Rohde has been using the extra money swimming around to improve almost everything that was already in place in the park. As a result, Animal Kingdom has quietly elevated itself from an ambitious effort to the best themed attraction in the United States.

Some areas required nothing but a doubling down and removal of tacky elements, like the brightly painted safari animals covering the buildings in the center of the park. Others, like the already excellent Harambe, have been tripled in size in a manner consistent with the excellent standards already in place. The new Harambe, with its repurposed British colonial fort, new port, railway line, and expanded neighborhood out back, now can fit comfortably alongside Disneyland's New Orleans Square and Universal's Diagon Alley as one of the best things of its type that can be experienced anywhere. Once you factor in the remarkable accomplishment represented by the Kilimanjaro Safaris back in 1998 as part of the "land", it becomes even more impressive.

Out at the front of the park, the central area in front of the Tree of Life has been smartly rebuilt. Animal Kingdom canceled its' parade, which at first may strike one as a loss, but the gain was that WDI took the initiative to replant the open area in front of the tree into a tree-shaded courtyard with whimsical touches and in the bargain exposed a waterfall off to the right of the tree that had been there since 1998 but had been impossible to see from its intended angle. Again, these are tiny fixes, but they make Animal Kingdom a delight to visit, which isn't something I ever thought I'd say.

Speaking of making places inhabitable, as Downtown Disney became Disney Springs this year, what I previously thought was impossible finally happened and that area actually became a pleasant, even pretty walk. The changes here are too numerous to encapsulate and aren't even complete, but the walk from West Side into the Marketplace (finally after many years renamed the Village Marketplace; hooray for history) is now full of rich textures, unique architecture, and most importantly a sensation of relaxation. While the West Side will likely never be perfect, new tenants and a new look has returned to this property a sense of relaxation and charm that went away in the 90s.

One of the best things to do is free, and it's to walk through the new Boathouse restaurant to the dock bar out back, then walk down to the water where two dozen or so beautifully maintained vintage boats are there just for you to look at. It feels like old Disney, when Magic Kingdom and EPCOT had things out to see just because they were cool and weird.

 The Boathouse Restaurant is owned by the same CEO who made his fortune through Rainforest Cafe and the similar T-Rex next door, but the Boathouse is as personal and charming as Rainforest Cafe is unfortunate and tacky. He built the place and put the boats out on display because he thought it would be cool, and the difference is like night and day. Frankly it reminds me of the fact that 90% of Disneyland, and by extension the Magic Kingdom, is the way it is just by virtue of the fact that one guy with the financial clout to back his ideas wanted to build stuff he thought would be cool. We need more of that these days.

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto

I will never get over the removal of the Polynesian waterfall. Never. And while I'm in agreement that the Polynesian needed a refurbishment and that most of the hotel now has a fresh feeling it hasn't had in years, none of those factors stack up nearly as much as the fact that the lobby is now a charmless, dead place. So while gaining an excellent bar does not exactly "make up" for gutting the most distinctive thing about the Polynesian, it is a darn good bar, and deserves a bit of celebration outside the scope of my indefinitely extended waterfall mopery. Walk clear past the charmless tiki state and indifferent pile of rocks; head directly for some liquor, because Trader Sam's Grog Grotto is pretty darn good.

An excellent addition in 2015, at least for those of us who enjoy strong drinks in dark places, was the opening of the east coast outpost of Trader Sam's, the popular tiki bar which began life at the Disneyland Hotel in 2011. I quite liked the original incarnation in California, and I like the version at the Polynesian as well. On nights when business isn't too strong and the wait staff aren't constantly shouting, it's even near the Tiki Bar ideal of dark, strange, and contemplative.

Most of us who enjoy the trappings of faux-exotica got the itch from the Enchanted Tiki Room, so it's interesting that the imitation has swung back around to be a legitimate source for an imitation of an imitation. Of course, the original tiki kitsch was itself an imitation of the real thing, spiced up with foods that imitated oriental dishes and drinks the imitated caribbean punches, so what previously was a direct line between inspiration and imitation has turned into a mobius strip. That's part of what's awesome about Tiki: it's simultaneously absurdly convoluted and unreasonably dedicated to casualness.

I wish the east coast drinks were poured heavier in the way they are out west, but overall I think the Grog Grotto is an all-around improvement on the original model. I love that the entrance to the place is an inconspicuous door with a small sign that opens up into another world, and I find the bar bites to be far better than the fast food served in Disneyland. But the real win is the outdoor patio. At Disneyland, if you sit outside you're missing all the fun, but that's at Disneyland where you're in the middle of a hotel from the 60s in the middle of Anaheim. At Walt Disney World you're on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon with the Magic Kingdom glittering across the water and, later on, a personal elevated view of the Electrical Water Pageant. That mean you're in one of the finest man made environments ever constructed, never surpassed. Best of all, tables are almost always open outside. When it comes to a few fortifying drinks before heading into the human jungle of the Magic Kingdom, Trader Sam's isn't just an improvement, it's a new tradition, and they don't mint those every year.

Sailing the River of Time

It's time to be honest here guys: El Rio del Tiempo wasn't very good. I loved it deeply and I miss it, but it just wasn't very good. There was a condescending attitude throughout El Rio which no amount of interpretive dance retellings of Mayan and Incan civilizations could disguise; its Mexico was a Mexico of charmingly foreign shopkeepers selling worthless trinkets and mariachi serenading white tourists in hot tubs. It all climaxed with a gloriously ghoulish finale where Mexicans became weird marionettes endlessly circling under artificial fireworks.

With the exception of the lovely, mysterious atmosphere created by the opening tunnel tableau with the mysterious Mayan priest materializing out of a tomb, Gran Fiesta Tour takes most of what was good in El Rio (the sets) and improves it with more color, more action, and more variety. It better presents views of modern Mexico and adds a sense of fun and color that the mostly mysterioso, dour El Rio never attempted. The trouble was, it really didn't have an ending. Nearly ten years later, all of that was fixed with the return of the Three Caballeros figures from Mickey Mouse Revue.

In some ways it's actually strange to have something in the center of that room that you really, really want to look at. There never was anything wrong with the Marionettes in El Rio, but they always were upstaged by the fiberoptic fireworks and Mexico City mural. The initial climax of Gran Fiesta Tour was just another screen in the back of a stage, and I always found the animation on that final screen to be less inspired than the rest of the animation in the attraction, and especially weak compared to Ward Kimball's masterpiece song sequence from the 1946 film.

There's now something that neither El Rio nor Gran Fiesta Tour had in that space: a real sense of payoff, that you rode the boat and reached a goal for a darn good reason. I always felt that El Rio climaxed with the appearance of the Mayan priest and basically coasted, evenly but unremarkably, until it ended. Had the team behind Gran Fiesta Tour found a way to retain the sense of shrouded mystery in that opening tunnel and then transitioned into the steady build of the rest of the ride, with this addition I'd be comfortable saying that Fiesta is a better ride than El Rio. As it stands, the new finale puts them on about equal footing in my mind.

Mind you, my heightened esteem for the ride is a reflection of my admiration for the Three Caballeros figures. These fellows aren't just historically relevant, they're awesome. Mickey Mouse Revue was long gone by the time I first stepped foot in Magic Kingdom, so my exposure to Mickey Mouse Revue was limited to pictures and video. It was not only hard to guess the size of the actual figures, but how they would look in motion. These guys have that elusive X factor that seemingly everything that WED and MAPO would turn out at the height of their powers had. They're cute and they look incredibly alive. And they move so well that many people have been led to believe that they  have entirely new interior functions, which isn't true. MAPO was just darn good at building these things and Tokyo Disneyland was darn good at maintaining them.

Kudos are also due to WDI East for the figure finish on the existing animatronics, of course, which have never looked better, and a snappy new animated performance. But really, this is the sort of enhancement that we shouldn't have to wait ten years for at Walt Disney World.

There's hundreds of areas around the resort that could use improvements that aren't demanded, but still needed, still meaningful. It takes all of the thousands of tiny excellences moving in harmony to build the sense of remarkable show and quality product that Disney once excelled at. Small, meaningful passion projects with dedicated teams striving for excellence needs to be the rule, not the exception.

Captain EO Returns To His Home Planet

Let's take a moment here to appreciate that for a little over five years, Disney has been inflicting Captain EO on otherwise unassuming tourists. Bigger, tackier, and yet somehow more heartfelt than anything our modern age would be likely to try to pawn off as a normal piece of entertainment, Captain EO has been consistently pulling good attendance numbers but also has been consistently scored low on polls. That's not surprising, because the very nature of such a film is that it must resonate strongly with a statistically small portion of the audience. Bringing back Captain EO in the first place may have been a strange choice for 2010, but since then it has grown into a cult film, fiercely loved by a small subsection of its audience.

It's funny that Disney has a cult film to begin with, Disney being as wholly dedicated to the most palatable, most widely popular manifestations of popular culture as any entertainment company on earth. it's doubly funny that it's Captain EO, which in 1986 was something of a distillation of the most middle of the road taste possible: a music video produced by the creator of the most successful motion picture series of all time, starring the biggest pop star on the planet. A 2015 equivalent would be a YouTube reaction video directed by Peter Jackson starring Lady Gaga and lots of explosions. Yet the world turned, and this gigantic expensive glazed ham somehow aged into the finest cheese possible. It was ludicrous, bereft of taste or tact, and I loved every deranged minute of it.

So rather than mourn the passage of Captain EO or opine on its replacement, I'd like to celebrate that it was here at all again to begin with. and that it resonated with the few it did. Indeed, it's impossible to claim that it's anything less than supremely irresponsible to be presenting such a strange film to 2015 audiences at all. Sometimes, popular taste moves on and things which once seemed like a normal, logical part of everyday life are revealed later to be batshit insane. That was Captain EO. It was too weird to die. In a world where artisanal kale salads are the norm, Captain EO was a tuna lime gelatin loaf, an antique of a time long since passed. Now that the Second Age of EO has passed, I salute it passing here while recognizing that it was a bizarre aberration to begin with. I was delighted to enjoy it for the five years that I did.

Farewell, Hooter, Commander Mog, the Supreme Leader, Idy and Odie, and Fuzzball. May you repose peacefully beneath a fried egg, a chain of sausage links, and a marshmallow until the end of days.

Magic Kingdom's Minor Changes

It's been a long time since I've really had to fuss too much over the condition of the main park of my interest. Yes, it wasn't that way even ten years ago, but I think it's safe to say that the era when we have to be constantly concerned that WDW is going to shutter our favorite attractions at any moment has passed. The ones that survived the 90s survived and the rest seem sufficiently popular enough to be bulletproof. Meanwhile the Studios and Epcot share less and less of the pie of visitors every year, and Disney seems more and more reluctant to present visitors with anything out of place in their keystone park.

In other words: this park is slammed, and every year it seems to get worse. Don't expect anything to change, at least in the next five to seven years, as Animal Kingdom, Studios, and eventually Epcot's re-expansion efforts go online. As pleasant as New Fantasyland is aesthetically, it's increasingly clear that only the Dwarfs Mine Train is actually pulling its weight in the numbers department. What Magic Kingdom needs is a couple of brand new huge attractions, probably one on each side of the park, to start sopping up demand. The park was designed back in the 70s to accommodate around 35,000 people daily. Fastpass and the declining popularity of former attendance drawers, combined with the fact that twice that number regularly descend on the park, means that Disney's window to be proactive with this park passed about six years ago.

The good news is that it's now easier to count the attractions that have not received some kind of major cosmetic upgrade than it is to count those that have. In the realm of those that opened when the park was young, it's pretty much down to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Tom Sawyer Island, Peter Pan's Flight, and Carousel of Progress. Big Thunder has needed a gigantic facelift for going on ten years now, on the scale of the work done at the attraction in Disneyland recently. It's been on and off the schedule for next year, but the park may be trying to delay it until after Avatar opens at Animal Kingdom in a year and change.

But frankly overall, the place has been looking really sharp for a very long time. While I don't care for the current shortened version of the show, on the technical level Country Bear Jamboree looks terrific, and even the neglected old Carousel of Progress - which I was on a boycott of for about five years due to Disney's refusal to do anything with it - as recently as three weeks ago was looking surprisingly bright and smooth. Even the long-forgotten show scenes along the back stretch of the Rivers of America have gotten upgrades and refurbishments recently, for probably the first time in over twenty years.

In early 2015, the Sunshine Tree Terrace and Aloha Isle swapped locations and menus, meaning that Dole Whips are now dispensed by the exit of the Tiki Room and Citrus Swirls may be purchased near the front of Adventureland. As a historically minded type I'm supposed to be angry about this, but I'm not really - it makes good sense. Sunshine Tree Terrace has always had an unusually huge counter and a short line. The Dole Whip, meanwhile, despite having been scientifically proved to be vastly inferior to the Citrus Swirl, has always had more of a following. It can be chalked up to a bigger social media presence or perhaps just the American sweet tooth at work, but it is what it is. And while  it seems unfortunate to cut off the Sunshine Tree Terrace from the Sunshine Pavilion, there's some compensatory developments.

To begin with, I like the new sign for Sunshine Tree Terrace better than either the Aloha Isle sign or the 2012 version of the Terrace sign. Aloha Isle's new sign also retains the 1960's lettering reintroduced for the Orange Bird roll out in 2012, so I've got no problem with that.

But besides relocating the historic Orange Bird figure to the new Terrace location and giving him an awesome sign, the move did accomplish one thing which has long been on my wish list for Magic Kingdom: put up some decor in the juice bar. It's long been little but a bare room with some bamboo wallpaper, and once the bird was relocated on a new shelf he was joined by shelves of vintage citrus juicers, plastic fruit, and even a new chalkboard showing which fruits have recently arrived in stock. Many of these props seem to have been leftovers from Disney Springs' expanded margarita bar, but I don't mind. Some theming is better than no theming, and that's just one more original Magic Kingdom interior that's been tastefully embellished to be more in line with our modern conception of a "theme park".

In the department of "things only I care about", earlier this year there was general online consternation about the closure of the "Island Supply" shop in Adventureland in favor of a third party vaguely themed Sunglass Hut outfit. It's as lightly themed as the previous shop in its space was, and as lightly themed as the shop before that was, and so the changeover resulted in little more than a disinterested shrug in Passport HQ.

And then they went and changed something which had long been a bone of contention with me, which was that every store in this spot since at least 1972 has used a banner for a shop sign. I've never liked the look of it and like it even less with the covered patio that was added to the front of the store in the 90s:

And just as annoying to me was the missing light fixture on the side of the adjacent facade which has been missing for literally as long as I could remember. I used to call it in back when I worked at Magic Kingdom (in the previous decade!) only to be told that there was no such missing lamp!

So, here's the happy ending: the renovation of the facade included not only a permanent sign not on a tarp (!) but a replacement, appropriate lamp on both sides of the facade! You can call that a hollow victory that appeals to people who do things like take pictures of every light fixture in the park, but it's something that no longer needs to annoy me when I enter the park and walk through Adventureland.

Pirates of the Sunken Boats

Pirates at Magic Kingdom has really lost its way. In 2006, the nonsensical movie overlay imposed a narrative on the ride that makes no sense, and did worse aesthetic damage to the ride by removing various details that made the Florida Pirates the Florida Pirates.  Then, in 2012, even more random stuff was added to tie into the release of the On Stranger Tides movie, including mermaid projections in the water and a mermaid skeleton on Marc Davis' otherwise perfect "Dead Man's Cove" scene. Meanwhile, 2006-era Jack Sparrow figures sat unnaturally cheek to jowl with Pirates constructed in 1973 and still chugging along by the grace of quality, if fifty year old, engineering.

Pirates finally got its shot in the arm this year. Long outdated technology was finally upgraded, from digital sound with new speakers, to LED lights, and fully upgraded animatronics. It's actually startling to remember that at one point this ride's illusions were considered to be wildly impressive and lifelike. As part of the refurbishment, all of the pirates figures were removed and rebuilt and many of the sets refurbished. Everyone came back with new costumes, new hair, new skin, many with new insides, standing in completely refreshed sets. Some of the pirates and townspeople now have dark complexions more appropriate for what one could expect to see in the Caribbean.

All of the faces and hands of the pirates are painted with techniques that were first introduced at the Hall of Presidents in 2009 to give their faces the impression of actual skin instead of painted rubber. The Auctioneer was replaced with a new(ish) figure entirely, and has a new look closer to Marc Davis' concept art and the most impressive animation I've seen in a version of this ride yet. Even minor touches like the lighthouses in Bombardment Bay and the torches in the queue have new, improved fire effects. The result is startling: the ride looks and feels like it was built yesterday. It's all great, great news.

Old-Timey People Warn: YOU WILL GET WET!

Now for the bad news: a few years ago Magic Kingdom decided to buy a new fleet of boats for the attraction, made of a lighter weight plastic instead of the old fiberglass and metal. The reason for this, besides the age of the fleet introduced in the 90s, was to try to combat the increasing weight the boats are required to carry. As you may know, Pirates of the Caribbean's ride system is designed to accommodate boats of five rows a piece. Back in the 90s, the load area was redesigned and new six row boats were introduced to improve capacity at the attraction. Operations still wants to fit as many people in the boats as possible, but with people being much bigger than they were in 1973 when the attraction was designed, it's a delicate task to balance the new boats with the old ride infrastructure and still end up a ride that works as intended.

To be blunt: they did not succeed. The new boats drag too low in the water to begin with, and if balanced just right make a terrific splash when they go down the ramp into the lower floor of the ride. And to make things worse, they take on water.

The result, combined with the inappropriate introduction of Fastpass to the ride as part of the troubled MyMagic+ rollout, means that Pirates almost always has a slow moving line and breaks constantly. I've read elsewhere that Magic Kingdom is currently trying a "back-up" plan to help the boats, and I've been in one of the new boats which was bone dry and went down the drop as smooth as glass. Being a former Pirates ride operator, that impressed the hell out of me. But I've also been in a boat that dragged far too low in the water, barely made it over the drop, got stuck twice in the ride, and was flooded with almost eight inches of water when the boat behind mine, empty and floating at normal draft, pushed a wave of ice cold chemically Pirates water into the row by bumping us from behind.

Furthermore, the damage done in 2006 still has not been undone. The cannons on the fort facade no longer fire, which is integral to setting up the story inside. The "soldiers in the fort" dialogue in the queue still plays too low, and is drowned out by the inappropriate use of the "Pirates Overture" music instead of the music selected by the designers of the ride in 1973. The music which was selected in 1973 is known as "Pirate's Arcade" and is only meant to play in the queue's entrance tunnel. The parrot on the facade has been M.O.A. since 2006 and really needs to be brought back. The talking skull before the down ramp was removed for no good reason, and his wiring and speaker is still in place behind the wall. The skull is a key character in every other version of the ride, and his absence at Magic Kingdom makes an already somewhat weak ride even weaker.

The mermaid projection effect seems to have gone away with the new refurbishment, which is perhaps for the better, but there's still a mermaid skeleton and wrecked boat cluttering up Dead Man's Cove. The mermaid skeleton was re-staged in the refurbishment and looks better, but still weirdly out of place. The middle pirate skeleton in the same scene, with the sword in his back, was replaced in 2005 with a new figure whose head is weirdly raised. This is fallout from a plan to have this pirate skeleton talk, which was abandoned. It looks silly and really ought to be changed.

"I'm not dead yet!"

The same year, Disneyland restaged their Cove scene to more closely resemble Marc's concept art, which is just more evidence how disorganized and rushed the Jack Sparrow project was. Also introduced in 2006 was a new piece of music for the Cove scene, obviously written for Disneyland's grotto sequence in mind, where the atmosphere always has been melancholy and mysterious. The trouble is, Marc redesigned the caves in Florida and intended it to be dark, and scary - that's why there's a low ceiling and used to be very dim lighting. The "Grotto" music from 2006 never quite fit right in Florida, and I think WDI knew this. They replaced it with the sound of singing mermaids in 2012, which is closer to spooky, but still needlessly distracting.

Here's the bottom line: Pirates in Florida is not Pirates in California. There's no time travel in the Florida ride, and never has been. You see a fort being attacked. You enter the fort and hear the soldiers discussing the fact that the pirates are attacking. You load into a boat to evacuate through the secret back entrance to the fort, which happens to be through a cave where we learn pirates buried treasure long ago and are perhaps returning to claim it. As we load into the boats we can see the boat filled with pirates out there on the ocean, coming to attack the fort! We slip through the caves and when we emerge outside there's that ship we saw when we got on the ride, and it's right there attacking the town. There's no way to turn this sequence of events into the Disneyland ride, not even by closing our eyes and stomping our feet. Pirates in Florida needs to be its own thing, and it was, from 1973 to 2006, when it was made into an even paler reflection of what's out in California.

Enough. Let's do right by this ride. Bring all of the weird unique stuff back, and we can even keep Jack Sparrow in the bargain. The ride currently looks better than it ever has, but it makes no sense and I think audiences respond to that fact on some deep, unspoken level.

Lounging on the Veranda

The Twenty-tens may prove to be some sort of renaissance for unanticipated Disney World resuscitations, with the Orange Bird of course at the top of that list. Arguably a physically bigger deal is the return of the Adventureland Veranda, a marvelously atmospheric counter service location at Magic Kingdom which was shuttered in... July 1994. It's back, now called Skipper Canteen, weirdly enough themed to the Jungle Cruise, and I think it looks terrific. The sign outside is a bit excessive, but once you get inside, it's all beautifully textured work, with a great deal of Dorothea Redmond's interior designs still intact.

The only lost opportunity here seems to be losing use of the actual verandas for which the restaurant is named, on the east side of the facility facing the hub. The furthest-flung veranda was actually demolished for the project, and turned into a new set of indoor bathrooms to service the Canteen. They were wrapped in a new facade which appropriately mirrors the 1971 architecture, and so this strikes me as an acceptable loss. But the other two verandas, one directly off the main pedestrian pathway, remain. It strikes me that they could be filled with tables and returned to use as expanded seating for the relocated Sunshine Tree Terrace. If this is indeed the plan then I would be comfortable saying that there truly was nothing lost in the changeover.

The Hub On The Park Goes Round And Round

The Hub is the heart of Magic Kingdom, in the sense that it's the geographic center. It was, once upon a time, incredibly photogenic.

The way the Hub used to work is that there was a curtain of trees screening off the castle from Main Street. This makes good sense because the castle was part of Fantasyland, and such was "elsewhere". The effect was dreamily evocative: a tall castle floating out from behind a curtain of trees, nearby yet emotionally far away, real but somehow inaccessible.

The trees served a real purpose besides looking nice. What I think happened is that the designers of Magic Kingdom noticed that from a distance, the bottom of Cinderella Castle looks flat as a board:

But the minute you shift off to the left or right, the forced perspective of the towers kicks in, and you end up with an incredibly dynamic looking structure:

Basically by planting the trees where they did, WED was forcing you to approach the castle to get the closer view from the best possible angle. When you're climbing the ramps to walk through the castle, the way the towers shift and seem to grow and loom over you almost induces vertigo. It's a really remarkable effect that too few are allowed to see today.

As I've covered extensively on this site before, the trees came down, and while I'm not willing to call the sight lines necessarily better or worse, they are different, and they changed the way the Hub felt. The Hub had previously been open lawn with a forest in the center, and it was now open lawn and a lot of concrete. It was unbearably hot nearly all the time, and almost never pleasant. And worse, it became a gridlock constantly, especially at night during fireworks. Experienced Magic Kingdom goers knew very well to just sit down in Liberty Square or something and wait.

Starting early last year and lasting for what felt like forever, the Hub was rebuilt into a double-Hub arrangement. What was once open lawn and a meandering moat was re-graded into extra wide walkways. Fountains, new railings and street lights, directional signs, and fireworks viewing areas were added. A new, somewhat themed bypass by added on the East side of Main Street, open almost every night and allowing an accelerated escape from the park during gridlock conditions. Extra wide walkways and paths are clearly and carefully divided up into "standing" and "walking" zones, allowing traffic to flow around fireworks or parade spectators.

What can be said about the new hub? To begin with: it works. In my experience traffic has flowed so smoothly through this operational machine that I no longer need to worry about when I'm set to arrive at Magic Kingdom or when it will be possible to leave: you can escape, or even cross the park during the worst of conditions, which I'm sure will be relief this holiday season.

As for the aesthetics, this is another place where I expected the worst and got a good compromise instead. The new Hub is really not like the old Hub in any way, and this is a case where I think that's okay. During the day, the fireworks viewing corral appears to be a carefully manicured Versailles-like garden; at night, the gates swing closed and traffic is kept tightly controlled. Brand new, surprisingly impressive fountains bubble alongside new walkways, giving the whole area a somewhat Tivoli-esque atmosphere.

Imagineering has seemingly combated the fact that the middle of the Hub seems doomed to remain an open concrete circle by placing huge trees everywhere else. It's actually kind of startling: you can look across the hub now and not see any of the buildings in the individual lands now because there are simply so many trees in the way. Many of these are outfitted once again with the traditional twinkle lights, giving the new area just the right level of nostalgia. Lawns have been retained, but now studded with trees and rambling flower beds, giving certain areas a pastoral feel. The illusion of the castle rising from behind a forest has returned - now viewed from the outside of the Hub looking in. Even the original directional signs on the West side of the Hub have been retained, and given new graphics and paint.

Not everything is perfect. There's half a dozen absurd utility poles poking up around the hub outfitted with bright lights to illuminate the sidewalks before parades begin; these were there before but look less appropriate than ever. Areas which once were expansive lawns are now tiny slivers of grass.

But really this is the sort of thing which had to be done, and you can only hope will be done tastefully. I think it looks very good, and unique. And whatever the aesthetic qualities, it's a huge improvement operationally. What was previously a rather pale imitation of Disneyland's Hub now feels like its own animal, with its own sense of grandeur and odd little details. To my eyes, having grown up with the Magic Kingdom, it sometimes slips into absurd overkill. Someone else seeing it for the first time could see it and think it's an incredibly bold, inviting open space. I'm willing to bet that both interpretations are correct in their own way.

In Summary

2014 was a bad year for Disney theme parks folks, and frankly out at Disneyland the bad news continued with the revelation that the back half of their Frontierland was going the way of the Rocket Rod for Star Wars. In Florida, it felt like things that have finally been rolling down the pike for a long time started to happen, and it's all, in my mind, for the sum better. Epcot still needs a reason to exist, but Animal Kingdom has quietly gone from my least favorite of the Florida parks to my second favorite since about 2007. Disney seems committed to keeping the only parts of the Studios worth saving - the atmospheric front - and gutting the rest for new stuff, which really should have happened twenty years ago. And Magic Kingdom has finally started to retain, or even bring back, its unique charm.

I give the bulk of all this year's work a hearty approval. You earned a solid A, everyone. And Santa, if it isn't too much to ask, could we please begin work on next year's wish list?

Passport to Dreams Magic Kingdom Hit List:
 - Remove Magic Carpets of Aladdin and restore Adventureland
 - Demolish Keel Boat Landing & Mansion Fastpass Structure...
      - rebuild that section of riverfront, remove clutter, add trees
 - Gut Main Street Confectionery and restore vintage theme
 - Refurbish and Replace attraction posters at Entrance
 - New Decor and Layout for Pecos Bill Cafe
 - Plant more trees in Town Square
 - Reopen the Diamond Horseshoe with Live Entertainment
 - Restore and create a new show for Carousel of Progress

And finally, three personal requests:

 - Bring back the hands on the final door in the Haunted Mansion Corridor of Doors
 - Return of the 1980 Liberty Square music year-round
 - Please, please, the return of this:

Passport to Dreams Old & New Year End Essays
Report Cards: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Disneyland Paris For Nerds (A Guide)

Impressions de France

This summer I finally got an opportunity to head out to Disneyland Paris, and it had been a long time in coming. I started to become interested in the France park sometime in the late 1990s. Having more or less missed the boat on all of the initial publicity (or anti-publicity), it wasn't really until it became possible to view images in reasonable quality on the internet that I began to see photos of the place and realized that it was something radically different from the parks I was accustomed to. But this was also the same time that I became aware that there was a lot waiting for me out at Disneyland too, and at the time the possibility of taking the trek across the country seemed impossibly remote, never mind across the Atlantic.

In many ways I'm glad that I waited, but there was a disadvantage to having waited, as well. Having gotten myself acquainted with Walt Disney World and Disneyland to a degree that few ever do, and having written this blog for nine years before setting foot in Paris, I found my opinions on certain components of the park had ossified into assumptions, and Paris' park is the worst park to have assumptions about, because it chucks the rule book of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom out the window entirely. It took some getting used to. I found myself cool on things I expected to like and very warm on things I previously had no real opinion about.

Upon returning home I realized that perhaps my perspective and experiences could help other park fans plan similar trips. I’m going to be coming at this from the perspective of a fan of the stateside Disney theme parks who is more or less familiar with one (or both) of them, looking for specific details about the Disneyland Paris experience. I’m not going to be covering getting there, getting back, what I did, or my specific opinions about everything to be found within. I will cover common complaints about the experience that I’ve heard online to help set expectations about it.

As American Disney Parks goers, we're quite used to the "feel" of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom being a certain way. Buildings are cute and usually not too ornate. Theming is very elaborate in some places and, in others such as Space Mountain, a little utilitarian. These parks are places of historical interest and relevance. And they're old. Pretty old. They have a unique character and we like it that way.

Disneyland Paris is one of those Disneyland-style parks, but it doesn't "feel" like Disneyland or Magic Kingdom at all. It's actually closer to something like Animal Kingdom in many ways. The details, theming, and texture is much more sophisticated. Decor is carried into places where Disneyland or Magic Kingdom would not demand it. Coming at the experience from the perspective of a stateside fan, Paris is like the "extra fancy" version of Magic Kingdom, or sometimes a bit more like Disneyland executed on the scale of Magic Kingdom. European park fans who grew up with Disneyland Paris, conversely, could be forgiven for taking the trip to the states and finding our theme parks to be almost crude.

So here we go. What I should start off with is the key question most of you will have…

Should I Go?
Yes you should. If you have bothered to come all this way through the internet to find these specific words written by an author of no repute, then you already care enough about Disney that you should go. If you care at all about Walt Disney World, or Disneyland, then you should try, if at all possible, to see them all, because you owe it to yourself.

If you have only been to Walt Disney World, then I consider Disneyland in California to be a far more important destination than Disneyland Paris. Disneyland is one of those places that changes the way for think – not just about theme parks, but all public spaces. On the other hand, if you’ve been to Disneyland but not Walt Disney World you may find Disneyland Paris to be a much more equivalent, enjoyable experience than Walt Disney World.

That's sort of an odd thing to say, because in other areas, DLP is nearer to going to WDW than the other resorts are. It's got the dining district, the hotels around the lake, the park with huge open spaces. But since it has never upgraded its infrastructure, visiting DLP is nearer to what visiting WDW was like in the early 90s - paper tickets, weird breakfast buffets, and the characters aren't being forced on you around every bend. To some that makes the experience "less Disney". To me that makes it more enjoyable.

Do I Need to Speak French?
A little! You will find that nearly everybody who works for Disneyland Paris can speak multiple languages and this almost always includes anywhere from a little to a lot of English. In most cases you’ll need nothing more than to be able to say hello, goodbye, excuse me, please and thank you. I noticed that those working at counter service restaurants tended to be less English proficient than those working tickets, attractions, and table service restaurants. At the counter serve restaurants be prepared to speak slowly, do some pointing, and not make any complex requests.

Outside of Disneyland Paris you’ll need to know a bit more. In France there are very definite etiquette forms you should know for your trip there and for venturing out into Paris. You cannot go right up to somebody and start speaking; you must first say “Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur”, followed by a request to speak English. In America we tend to smile a lot to try to seem approachable and to soften social interactions; this is meaningless in Europe and will probably irritate those you speak to. Often, the French don’t like those who raise their voice or make jokes. Wit is more appreciated than jokes, and you likely don’t speak enough French for this to be helpful.

You’ll find if you stick to these guidelines you’re more likely to be warmly received by the French. Despite the fact that we think of the French as being rude, often they are rude because they are offended by the casual attitude of Americans. Be on your guard, especially if you are an extrovert personality, because your usual method of smoothing out social interactions is seen as rude here. I'm an introvert and I prefer the European method of doing things and I had no trouble at all.

Which brings us to:

Dealing With Who’s There
While I was at Disneyland Paris I was visiting with quite a lot of very large families from the Mediterranean countries and Middle East, a handful of those from the UK and very rarely any Americans.

Generally with these visitors you’re going to see them being led by the oldest male in the group. These family units tend to be large and very loosely organized. Any children with them are likely to be running to and fro. These children will climb on things, slam into you, brush against you, etc. Be aware that for most of these people, personal space is about half what it is in the United States; about one foot compared to our roughly two feet.

All bets are off in crowd situations, they will dash in front of you and around you. In these cases you’ll find yourself pushing your way through a crowd that does not observe the standard American etiquette of trying to “make way”. You will find yourself saying “pardon” a lot. If somebody blows past you and says “pardon” brusquely, they’re probably mad at you.

In queue lines expect these visitors to be right up against you at all times, often twisting about and gesturing a lot. They’re not trying to be rude, it’s just the way they behave. Still, this can take some getting accustomed to.

If you’re offended by smoking, understand that smoking will occur everywhere you are, and constantly. It will be happening in the walkways and queues, and often people will walk and smoke at the same time, which is something almost nobody in the States does anymore. I never saw anybody try to take a lit cigarette into an attraction, but Europeans often aren’t too circumspect about disposing of the cigarettes, either, and I didn’t see many ash trays. They often just throw it aside and step on it.

That said although there certainly were often a few in view I did not find the walkways to be strewn with cigarette butts the way you sometimes see in stateside smoking areas. I’m personally not offended by smoking but if you are then this may be a significant consideration for you.

I Heard It Was Dirty
There’s two big things everybody says about Disneyland Paris, and we’re going to deal with them in order now. The first is the extremely common claim that the park is in very poor maintenance condition. I heard this from everybody. I heard it from locals, visitors, annual pass holders, and even cast members who began apologizing for this before I even left. I half expected to have to fend off cast members leaping out of the bushes as I approached the park begging me not to enter.

In short: I saw some issues, but overall this claim is overblown.

All theme parks have maintenance issues. It's the danger of being a place where the public is invited to come. Some issues take a long time to resolve, others wrap up rather quickly. Disneyland Paris has a poorer reputation than most parks in this area, and I see three basic groups of issues that contribute to this perception - all unique to Disneyland Paris.

The first has to do with the fact that the place opened in the middle of a bad European economy, and as soon as it began to stabilize in terms of profit, Disney rushed a cheap, poorly done theme park in – Walt Disney Studios – and it was, frankly, a bomb. They’ve spent the past thirteen years trying to upgrade WDS, and in that time Disneyland Park has clearly not been getting the attention it deserves.

Stateside we went through a similar issue out in Disneyland where DCA opened and simply was not pulling its weight. Disneyland then spent nearly a decade monkeying with DCA trying to turn it into a draw, while Disneyland got very little attention. Paris was in a similar situation, yet through all of it Disneyland remained profitable where Paris really was just threading water. The condition of the park is an all too obvious reflection of this reality.

I did see some buildings that clearly had not been repainted lately, and some rides did have wonky animatronics. From a strict maintenance perspective, I’d say that Disneyland Paris is currently in an equivalent position that Walt Disney World was in in the late 90s and early 2000s. Remember when 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was sitting there empty with cargo nets flung over the rocks? Remember when Crystal Palace was closed for two years because all of the exterior wood was rotting? Nobody talks about these anymore because the turn around has been remarkable, but they happened.

To their credit, Disneyland Paris is currently engaging in a huge rolling refurbishment of the whole park. I saw resurfacing work proceeding every day all day. Repainting was happening constantly, especially at the front of the park. The whole of the Lucky Nugget in Frontierland was being re-clad in new siding, and that was probably the building I saw that needed work the most.

The second grade of issue is due to the climate. I saw a lot of things made out of stucco at Disneyland Paris, and obviously that will shrink and expand as the seasons change. I saw a lot of hairline cracks as well as hairline cracks that were being patched and repainted. They have to use different kinds of paint and different shades of paint due to the weather. At Disneyland and Walt Disney World we don’t have this issue due to the temperate and tropical climate, but it’s clear that the weather does take its toll in France.

Another item of note is the fact that Europe doesn’t use air conditioning to the extent that the stateside parks do. Europeans tend to view air conditioning as wasteful, where we simply expect it in the States (of course it's also hotter in the US than it is in most of Europe). That's just my guess, but I'd wager that's the case given how offended I've seen some Europeans get over the typical "open door, air conditioning on full blast" setup we have at Walt Disney World. Air conditioning helps keep air circulating and collects dust and debris in air filters. The upshot is that there’s a lot of dust and cobwebs that have settled in many parts of the park. It’s A Small World was especially dusty, but many queue areas had dust everywhere overhead as well.

Obviously this needs nothing more complex than a Swiffer on a pole to resolve, and I saw dusting underway, especially in the hotels. For all I know this level of dust is seen as normal and acceptable in Europe, but in the States we get squeamish about it. Take that for what you will. It didn't bother me.

The final issue is entirely on their guests. I’ve been going to Walt Disney World forever and I’ve worked there in the past, so I thought I was pretty well informed about guest behavior, but what I saw in Disneyland Paris was another thing entirely. Practically every surface below knee height was covered with scuffs and hand rails and other objects had been totally stripped of paint. I saw more people sitting up on the handrails, or any other available surface, than I’ve ever seen at a Disney park. Europe’s motto appears to be “place your butt on any attractive surface”.

This meant that handrails in particular were stripped absolutely clean. This sort of maintenance issue is tough to stay on top of because any work that’s done can be undone in hours by guests behaving this way. I also saw some cracked window panes that rather looked as though somebody had tried to put their fist through them. I’ve never seen this in Walt Disney World.

So this is clearly a combination of factors, ranging from the simple to fix (Swiffer on a pole) to complex (glass punching). I’d also be lying if I said that any of these impacted my enjoyment of the vacation. Everything in Disneyland Paris is conceived and executed on a remarkable scale and the park is very visually complex, much moreso than Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. I’m inclined to give the park the benefit of the doubt and be happy I saw it in what I considered to be good shape. Honestly, unless you are an Annual Passholder at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, I doubt you will see even as much as I did. If you’re still concerned, hold off to visit until 2017, when the parkwide refresh should be complete.

I Heard the Food Was Bad

Obviously this one is very open to interpretation and expectations are changeable. I considered the counter service food to be not as good as it is at Disneyland but better than at Magic Kingdom. That said, there are many pitfalls to consider, and I’ll get into them one at a time.

In considering where to eat, I read many reviews of the restaurants online. Horror stories abounded about mediocre quality food, restaurants closing early, and more. After reading Tom Bricker’s reviews, I set myself a rule: no eating at a place that puts a burger on the sign outside. Since the restaurants tend to close early, narrowing to just two open in the last two hours, I decided I would eat early, and often, to avoid being hungry when the park was closing.

The restaurants in the hotels and Disney Village are often open until midnight or 1 am, thanks to the region's preference for a late dinner. These are almost always better options than rushing around attempting to fight crowds in the last two hours trying to get food.

I called a week before I left and got a dinner reservation for each night I would be there, intending to eat lunch at counter service restaurants when the widest variety of them would be open. I received meal vouchers for a continental breakfast at Sequoia Lodge for each morning I was at the hotel, which took care of breakfast. Honestly, given the mild price difference and hassle involved in eating at the DLP counter serve restaurants, I’d be willing to eat table service for every meal on a future trip.

Depending on the day of the week you’re visiting, you’ll find that different restaurants will be open. With relatively little effort you’ll find that this schedule is announced in advance and can be found online. It’s a good idea to decide in advance where you will eat counter service and stick to your plan. I ate counter service every day for lunch and table service every day for dinner and did not have any food I would consider bad. Not everything was great but most of it was quite good.

At the counter service restaurants, service is slow enough that they can in no way be called "quick service". Multiple times I had to wait twenty minutes before I could approach the cash register and place my order when I was the second person in a line of two. Certain tourists who book at Davy Crockett Campground receive meal vouchers that are only good for specific things, and this invariably means a great deal of shouting, managers coming over, wild gesturing, etc. It's all very Gallic. If you see any kind of delay consider getting in another line immediately.

Disneyland Paris’ food places have their food organized according to “Menu”. The “tourist menu” is also something you may encounter out in Paris. It doesn’t actually save you any money, it simply groups items into two or three course meals including drink in a way that’s easy to communicate in limited French. Some of the sit down restaurants have three or four menus at various price points. If you want anything off the a ‘la carte menu, you must specifically say “a ‘la carte” or the counter service cast members may get confused.

At counter service, with each item ordered off the menu you will receive a small cellophane packet containing a fork, knife, napkin, and usually a packet of ketchup and a packet of mayonnaise. The only restaurant I saw that also included mustard was Casey’s Corner. If you need more ketchup you’ll need to approach the counter and ask.

A note on the ketchup because, especially for Americans, this is one of those things for many people. The ketchup is not Heinz 57 – in fact, I didn’t see Heinz 57 available anywhere I went in Europe, although I’m sure it is. The ketchup is generally not quite as smooth and a bit sweeter, more like Hunt’s. I liked it quite a lot, but it definitely wasn’t our standby American ketchup. The French definitely believe that a condiment is just that – a small accompaniment – and nobody is going to mistake you for a Canadian with your six tubes of ketchup. I suggest trying to get along without it. Despite the above, I’d also be lying if I didn’t point out that I jumped up and down and squealed like a little girl when I found a restaurant with a public pump bottle of ketchup – Toad Hall in Fantasyland, by the way.

You may find getting snacks between restaurants to be more of a challenge than at the American parks. There are fewer overall ice cream and snack bars. My general policy for snacks was to return to Main Street, where Cable Car Bake Shop and the Market Street Deli had good food and drinks with mild crowds.

When it’s open, Toad Hall Restaurant behind Peter Pan’s Flight was by far the best counter service meal I had. The fish and chips were better than many I had in England and the atmosphere was top notch. Behind that I suggest Restaurant Hakuna Matata, which had amazing special French fries, or Fuente D’Oro across from Big Thunder Mountain. I didn’t eat at Fuente, but the food comes out of the same kitchen as Hakuna Matata and I’d sooner take my chances on lousy tex-mex than a lousy hamburger or hot dog.

If counter service came out slightly ahead of Walt Disney World, I found table service to be slightly behind, although the prices were certainly more in line with what you got than they are in Florida. I ate at The Steakhouse in Disney Village, Walt’s, and Blue Lagoon and found only Blue Lagoon to be below expectations. The place, frankly, was a zoo and the wait staff was clearly outmatched by their tables. The difference between quality and price was not so extreme as it is at the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, but it still wasn’t very good.

At the table service restaurants I’ve read about Americans running into trouble when asking for tap water. In France in particular this seems to be viewed as especially insulting cheapness, which is ironic because I found at the tap water in Marne-la-Vallée to be of excellent quality and drank a lot of it in the hotel room. However I prefer mineral water if at all possible and so I always ordered that with the meals. If you are determined to have tap water, be aware that it may cause some friction. Personally, I wish I could buy bottles of Perrier everywhere I go at Walt Disney World and Disneyland as I could in Paris, but there it is.

I had also read that meals are more leisurely on the continent. I was prepared to have long dinners but found the chief difference was that you were given a nice long time after sitting down before the server approached. In the States its customary to get drinks put on the table immediately after sitting down, here expect to wait about 15 minutes before you can even order. They’re not being rude, it’s just the way they do it. And be prepared to order everything at once; they will give you plenty of time to finish your course before the next one arrives.

A few tips if, like me, you rely on caffeine to push through a long day at the park.

If you rely on sugar, ie soda, then you’ll have a tough time. The number of places which dispense fountain soda are limited, and the sizes are not quite what they are in America. Generally you’re going to see this in counter service restaurants, where lines simply to order one thing have been described in detail above and are best avoided if you can.

Elsewhere, you’ll find that soda comes in glass bottles. The glass bottles are about 66% the size of the familiar plastic bottles we get in the United States, and about twice as expensive. On the up side the soda is sweetened with genuine sugar instead of the corn extract we get in the US, so if you are corn sugar adverse, as I am, then the soda is a much nicer experience.

Coffee drinkers should not be too thrown by the choices in Paris. As can be expected, if you order European-style espresso drinks, you’ll be right at home. Most table service and some counter service places offer espresso machines and the terminology is of course identical.

Counter services places that do sell coffee generally offer one type, dispensed out of a machine. It comes with or without milk, and as you may have guessed, it has more to do with Americano than our stateside coffee. It isn’t bad – it has a nice crema on it – but it isn’t a lot of coffee for the money and I found myself missing the rich smoothness of American-style coffee.

There is a Starbucks in Disney Village, and I found that on most days they only offered American-style coffee in the morning. You have to specifically request “filter coffee” and probably to point at the vat behind the counter because nobody ever orders it. They will sell you an Americano if you want it, but the value isn’t much better than it is in the parks. On the plus side the Starbucks is open until 1 am, making it perfect for after-park pick me ups.

Those Darn Hotels
For a place with only two parks and a shopping area, Disneyland Paris has a shocking overabundance of hotels. The Disneyland Hotel sits right above the entrance to Disneyland Park and is basically their version of the Grand Floridian. It has the nicest themeing and the nicest rooms, and is centrally located to enjoy the parks. I had neither the DVC points nor the money to stay here, but perhaps one day.

Hotel New York is located near the Sequoia Lodge and Newport Bay Club on Lake Disney, and is the second nicest hotel on property. It’s designed by Michael Graves and is something like Paris’ version of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. I rather liked this hotel from an architectural standpoint, although part of my pleasure came from the absurdly dated décor. The rooms look nice – there’s more chairs, a sofa, a good bathroom, and upgraded bedding, but I’m not convinced that for the price and given the distance from the parks that it’s a better deal than the next step down in the hotels – Sequoia Lodge – or the next step up – Disneyland Hotel. It’s about a 12 minute walk to the parks.

I stayed at Sequoia Lodge and liked it fine. In terms of décor it’s like a less elaborately realized version of Wilderness Lodge combined with a few touches of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s large but not unreasonably so with spacious grounds filled with trees, peaceful music, and artificial nature sounds. The bar and restaurants on premises were uniformly pleasurable to relax in. It’s roughly equivalent to something like Port Orleans at Walt Disney World in terms of theming and price.

I was not very fond of the rooms. They’re somewhat Spartan in décor and the main overhead lighting scheme is ugly. The beds were hard and the pillows not very comfortable. The bathrooms came equipped with tiny little bathtubs that I found difficult to sit in, which was a strike for me since I prefer to bathe instead of shower.

That said the rooms were clean, functional, and pleasant enough. I've been told the rooms in the main building are a bit better than those out in "the sticks", where I was. Maid service was daily and quite through. I spent the bare minimum of time in the room each day. I found the walk to and from the park to the rooms ponderous and so only went back there when absolutely necessary. There is a shuttle to and from the hotel to the theme parks.

While I was visiting, Newport Bay Club was being rebuilt. This is another “moderate” hotel for Disneyland Paris. It’s most comparable to the Yacht Club at Walt Disney World in terms of décor. I am not a fan of the Yacht and Beach Club at all, but I like this hotel. The lobby is spacious, well appointed, and airy instead of stuffy. The downside is that it makes the rambling Yacht Club look compact. It’s a multi-story behemoth, rambling out to the furthest guest rooms for what feels like miles. It’s also the most distant of the moderate hotels, located all the way down at the far end of Lake Disney. If I were to stay here I’d take the park shuttle instead of trying to make the walk. I did not see the Hotel Santa Fe, Hotel Cheyenne, or Davy Crockett Campgrounds.

If I were heading back given my experiences and could not afford the Disneyland Hotel, I’d flip a coin on Sequoia Lodge or Newport Bay Club. I’d also consider using more DVC points to split the stay between Disneyland Hotel and one or the other. And I’d use the park shuttle instead of walking. Disney Village is fine when it’s early in the morning and uncrowded, but I find the architecture hideous and when it and the train station at the end of it are busy, it’s like swimming upstream. Disneyland Paris is a huge park - bigger than you think - and steps saved are steps saved.

That Other Park
Oh, and then there’s the Disney Studios Paris. How much time you’ll spend in here largely depends on your priorities. It has the large thrill rides, the brand new super headliner Ratatouille dark ride, some smaller family oriented rides, and practically nothing in the way of atmosphere. The theming is my top priority and I don’t care about thrills, so I spent less than two hours in here over the course of four days. It had some nicely done areas. The Ratatouiile ride is similar to the sort of projection-based dark ride Universal excels at, and it isn’t terribly accomplished in that field, but its area is very well realized and the most compelling thing in the park. I can’t imagine anybody who’s been to Walt Disney World will find much else of interest in the rest of the park unless they’re big fans of the Rock N Roller Coaster.

Be sure to stop and enjoy the areas that are well executed. There’s a very nice entrance plaza which leads into an indoor “Hollywood Boulevard” that’ll look familiar to anybody who saw the original version of California Adventure. There’s a wonderfully accurate 30s American diner across from Lights, Motors Action and some okay Twilight Zone theming around the Tower of Terror. Cinemagique is a terrific theater show with a stronger appreciation for actual cinema than what you’ll find in many stateside theme parks.

Maybe it isn’t too fair to pick on this park – in terms of pure attraction force, it’s still way ahead of Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida despite being half as old. But this is by far the last compelling Disney theme park I’ve ever been inside, and I saw DCA when it was brand new. It’s even more absurd sitting next to one of Disney’s most compelling theme parks. If there’s something you must see in here, try to be there for the park’s opening then head back over to the “main” park for the rest of the day.

Disneyland Paris Highlights
It’s generally understood by stateside Disney fans that Disneyland and Magic Kingdom are themed to “fantasy”. That is, admittedly, an odd distinction given the fact that one of them sits 50 feet away from a theme park where the main draw is an area populated with living, talking cars. In reality, Disneyland and Magic Kingdom offer one area dedicated to fantasy: Fantasyland, and a variety of areas that draw on historical periods in whimsical ways to various degrees.

However, a certain level of historical verisimilitude underlies these parks, because they are intended in some degree to be educational. Main Street may be a romanticized version of what a turn of the century town looked like, but it many ways it’s also pretty accurate. Disneyland’s dedication speaks of “hard facts which have created America”, Magic Kingdom’s of “age relives fond memories of the past”.

Okay, so, we’ve established that, and what you have to realize about Disneyland Paris is that it totally throws out that part of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom and goes for full fantasy in every area. Its Main Street USA is the Fantasyland of all Main Street USAs. Its Frontierland is the Fantasyland of all Frontierlands. Everything from size and scale to color palettes and detail level is magnified and embellished.

To me, that’s the best that I can do in terms of setting expectations. You’ll just have to go and experience it yourself. For theming nerds, the park is paradise. Every corner has unique, crazily complex little details. Sculpting, rockwork and landscaping is uniformly excellent throughout. This is the EPCOT Center of castle parks: full of daring, unique concepts and strikingly accomplished details. Every element of the park bolsters and supports every other element, unlike at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom where Tomorrowland has always felt like dead weight. Unlike EPCOT Center it’s gone 25 years without too much of what made it special being stripped out. The park has hardly expanded but it really didn’t need to be: it opened very satisfying and complete.

It’s also a huge park. Don’t be fooled by what people say, crossing this park repeatedly is exhausting. Walking from Pirates of the Caribbean in the top-left corner to Phantom Manor in the bottom-left feels about the equivalent of walking from Thunder Mountain to the Peoplemover at Magic Kingdom. The walkways are deceptively twisty and rambling.

With that in mind I’d like to close with a short list of what I consider to be the best experiences in the park. Please note that Space Mountain and the Nautilus walkthrough were not open while I was there. These come highly recommended by everyone, so go ahead and mentally add those to the list.

Lunch at Walt’s on Main Street – once upon a time a guy named Walt Disney opened a fancy restaurant called Club 33 at Disneyland. It was a series of intimate, charming dining rooms in the nicest area of the park. Over the years the Club became so popular and famous it was expanded, and all of Walt Disney’s tasteful interior décor was replaced.

Guess what? Walt’s on Main Street is what Club 33 used to be, and it does not require a membership to get in. A series of intimate dining rooms tastefully themed to the lands of the park, it’s lush with details and offers good food for a fair price. Now that Club 33 is effectively gone, Walt’s is the last real taste of what that place was supposed to be.

Le Pays de Contes de Fées – Disneyland Paris was the only castle park besides Disneyland to get this attraction, which alone makes it essential. Disneyland fans know how great and essential Storybookland is, and the Parisian counterpart is excellent as well. There’s no live narrator, if that matters to you, and the scenes are a bit less intricate and less carefully maintained. But it has unique scene selections that would never fly at Disneyland – like Night on Bald Mountain – and, thanks to a cable tow system and oddball location, it never has a line.

Casey Jr Circus Train is present as well, behind a simple but beautiful queue which rambles through a forest. Unlike at Disneyland, where Casey is basically a tractor, here it’s a charming kiddie coaster. For historical value again it’s not so hot compared to Disneyland’s version, but again it never has a line so unlike at Disneyland you can ride it six times in a half hour. For my money that means Paris wins.

Phantom Manor – Paris’ imaginative version of the Haunted Mansion is unique, and given the fact that again it nearly never has a line, you’ll be seeing it a lot. Much ink has been spilled talking about how, “unlike the Haunted Mansion”, this one has a clear story you can follow. This is nonsense. The story of Phantom Manor is intentionally opaque. You can spend time arguing about it over drinks. This makes it fun, but you’ll never figure it out because the ride designers never did, either.

The Haunted Mansion has a clear, concise story. It is the story of you, played by yourself, deciding to enter an old house and discovering that it is indeed haunted. That’s it. Nothing else needed. Phantom Manor strips its gears tying to get an impressionistic story of a mysterious bride and evil Phantom into the same ride format. There’s really no tension because there isn’t the same threat that things could go south for you at any moment. Instead, it’s best to think of Phantom Manor as a ride past evocative, inexplicable images. It’s colorful, fun, grotesque, and has a commanding soundtrack. You’ll love it.

La Tanière du Dragon – I don’t like this business of comparing theme park castles. To me they’re each appropriate to the park that they are in, and I refuse to choose. I’m not actually crazy strictly about the look of the Paris castle, but if there’s any sort of objective criteria for “best castle”, for me it would be the castle with the “most stuff”, and here the Paris castle is the hands down winner. It has an upstairs walkthrough and two gorgeous, intricate shops. It has a castle stage but it’s off to the side, so your view of the castle is never interrupted by tomfoolery. It has a wide, gorgeous moat with meandering paths and a landscaped hill with a waterfall. As you know, waterfalls improve everything. And it has a dragon.

La Tanière du Dragon put the lie to the current theme park trend of more is more is more. Everything about the execution is dead simple and maximized for pure, uncluttered effect. The dragon figure itself could no be simpler – its head moves, eyes open and close, mouth opens, one hand moves a little, a wing moves a little, that’s all you need. This economy is no doubt carried over from the original incarnation of the dragon designed by the great Claude Coats for the defunct Tokyo Disneyland Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour.

The setting here makes all the difference. Housed inside a dripping network of caves, it’s the sort of thing you could spend all day watching. Guests stand around and gape at the thing, time after time. The dragon under the castle is one of those inevitable images, so strong, simple and clear you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it. It’s like the giant pile of treasure in Pirates of the Caribbean or the mysterious bride lurking in the dark corner of a moldering attic – it throws deep seated switches in our brains, things we can’t quite control. At their best, Disney theme parks repeatedly serve up these sorts of images, challenging us to think of our lives differently.

Adventure Isle – my favorite attraction at Disneyland Paris, Adventure Isle is something like if you combined Tom Sawyer Island, Adventureland and some of the feel of Animal Kingdom into one super-attraction. The island is accessed via bridges instead of rafts and so also functions as a pedestrian flow area.

The south side of the island is castaway themed, featuring a shipwreck, waterfalls, and the Swiss Family Treehouse. The treehouse is similar to the Walt Disney World treehouse with the flow of scenes reversed. The area around it features gorgeous waterfalls and the sound of the Swisskapolka. Don’t miss the caves in the base of the hill that the treehouse sits on; they’re dark and tight and if you go in far enough you will find yourself walking through the root system of the giant tree and listening to the Swisskapolka eerily echoing through there cavern. At one point you stand stand in the cellar and look all the way up through a hole in the ground into the branches of the tree. It's basically the coolest thing in the park.

The north side of the island faces Pirates of the Caribbean and is pirate-themed; here you’ll find Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship and Skull Rock, the suspension bridge, and caverns with lost pirate gold. Forget Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, A Pirate’s Adventure, or The Pirate’s League – this is the real deal, this is what you want. Without so much as a costume or an upcharge you will feel like you are starring in your own lost treasure adventure. I haven’t felt this way in a theme park since I was a child – the caves are scary and full of awesome surprises, the foliage lush and romantic, the beaches are all white sand the scenery immaculate. Despite the fact that it was a sometimes-chilly early summer in Europe when I was there, standing on the Pirate ship I could feel the warm tropical ocean breeze in my hair. Adventure Isle is the best designed attraction in the park, and is worth the trip alone to see.

Pirates of the Caribbean – much like at Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean is the crown jewel of this park. It isn’t actually better than the Disneyland incarnation, but it’s different. It’s probably best to think of it as the Walt Disney World Pirates of your fondest imaginings. It begins in a Spanish fort, destroyed long ago in a huge battle. The boats wind their way through a tropical jungle, past a sailor’s tavern, a shipwreck, and suddenly we’re back in time and the attack on the fort has begun. The walls are coming down around you as you see the pirate ship in the distance…

Pirates was my biggest surprise. I more or less liked everything I expected to like at Disneyland Paris. It isn’t that I expected to dislike Pirates, but it’s definitely one of those attractions that works far better in person than in photos or videos. It’s got everything that Imagineering was excelling at in the 1990s – an elaborate queue, brilliant façade, wonderful scenery and effects, full host of audio-animatronics and a really remarkable finale. I realize this could describe any of the other versions of Pirates about equally well, but this one has the full package, no excuses given or needed. It’s an incredibly exciting dimensional entertainment experience.

Disneyland Paris gets a bad rap stateside, and I don’t think it’s warranted.  My guess is that it’s just the right combination of distaste for the French, distance, and an infamously rough start that’s to blame. I don’t think anyone who loves theme parks and who goes in with open eyes and an open mind could possibly be disappointed.