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Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois DormantThis month marks two minor anniversaries for me. It’s 20 years since I first visited Disneyland Paris (or Euro Disneyland as it was then) and 10 years since I last started working there.

The park had been open for just 15 months on my first visit and was already in the throes of the financial crisis that still dominates its reputation. Euro Disney was a failure, the headlines claimed. An ill-conceived knock-off of its American counterparts. People weren’t coming.

While that wasn’t quite true, it all sounded like vindication to the cultural naysayers, some of whom had been rallying against the resort since its inception in the mid ’80s. It was seen as nothing less than an invasion – a contamination of French values by a vulgar, corporate anti-culture, prompting celebrated stage director Ariane Mnouchkine to condemn the project as a ‘cultural Chernobyl’.

Never mind that the French government had invited Disney to establish a resort as part of their efforts to regenerate the eastern Ile-de-France region. Many of the company’s executives had actually favoured Spain, thanks to its growing tourist economy and warmer weather, but the French authorities offered Disney CEO Michael Eisner all the land he wanted for an absolute pittance. Add to that the fact that Paris was (and still is) the most visited city in the world, as well as a transport hub for most of western Europe, and the decision became a no-brainer.

Michael Eisner rides with Mickey on the opening day of Euro DisneylandNot that Disney were given carte blanche. With an increasing amount of American media, food and language finding its way into the French lifestyle, globalisation was already a hot-button political topic. The contract between the French government and the Walt Disney Company stipulated that the latest Magic Kingdom was not to be just a carbon copy of its US and Japanese predecessors, but was to actively celebrate European history and culture.

Walt’s original vision for Disneyland was one of American post-war ideals and nostalgia, from the shared mythology of the Old West (Frontierland) to the expectation of a glittering, technological future (Tomorrowland). As he put it himself in his inaugural speech:

“Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past… and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America….”

But what worked for California in 1955 clearly wouldn’t work for Paris in 1992. The answer was to rethink the whole Disneyland concept from the ground up.

Under the leadership of famed Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, a team of designers, artists and craftsmen was dispatched on a two year fact-finding mission to the old world. Their aim was to soak up the European psyche and find the artistic cues that would evoke the same feelings of nostalgia, excitement and optimism that had cemented the original Disneyland in the hearts and minds of most Americans.

The result was a park that took Walt’s model and re-purposed it, uniquely reflecting its European context whilst remaining distinctly Disney in character.

They made many changes (some of which may become the subjects of other posts in future) but the most noticeable was the jettisoning of Tomorrowland. Nothing dates more quickly than the future and the land’s stark white futurism had always been plagued by the march of progress, requiring major updates every few years to remain relevant. Baxter’s team seized the opportunity to try something new.

DiscoverylandDiscoveryland was to represent the Future That Never Was – a sort of Universal Exposition, where the technologies of Europe’s visionary past were brought to life. Thus you’d find Jules Verne’s Nautilus submarine moored in a volcanic lagoon, overlooked by the Hyperion airship from The Island at the Top of the World and the Orbitron, a simple spinning rocket ride, fashioned after a Renaissance-era astrolabe.

The whole thing was tied together by Le Visionarium – a smart, intelligent attraction that combined live animatronics with a 360 degree movie to chart the progress of scientific thought and invention through the ages. I won’t go into further detail here but will instead point you to a post by Cory Gross at his blog, Voyages Extraordinaires – a celebration of Romanticism, Retro-Futurism and Victoriana. Well worth a visit.

While Baxter’s team set to work, Eisner opened the company purse strings, investing an unprecedented amount of capital in the project. The financial soothsayers were delivering nothing but good omens – the resort’s potential audience was vast and demand was stratospheric. Plans for a second theme park were complete before the first had even opened. This was going to be the jewel in the company’s crown.

Coincidentally, this month also marks the 20th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, the ride on which I workedSo what went wrong? Contrary to popular myth, the French did not turn their noses up at Mickey and friends. Since opening day, the majority of visitors have been French, with the British a distant second. But those mythical audience figures put forward by the business planners proved to be vastly inflated and the resort opened in the midst of a recession, with tourism at a record low. Nevertheless, the park attracted enough business to turn a modest profit. The real problem was the resort surrounding it.

When Walt Disney World opened in Florida in 1971, it had just three hotels and a handful of leisure activities to its name. But Eisner was so convinced of instant success in Paris that he had authorised the construction of six hotels (including what was, at the time, the biggest hotel in Europe), a night-time entertainment district, boating lake, golf course, camp site and dinner show. With the bright lights and cheaper hotels of the capital just half an hour away, it all stood largely empty – a financial black hole that swallowed the park’s profits and left a mountain of debt that still hangs over the project today – 1.1 billion Euros, when I last checked.

It took five years, a change of management and a radical re-branding to put the resort back on track. It is now the single most visited tourist destination in Europe, the hotels are largely full, the Walt Disney Company has bought the debt and the future is looking brighter.

The cries of cultural imperialism have also fallen silent. I take some comfort in the fact that Walt’s original park faced similar criticism when it first opened, but found a champion in no less a figure than Ray Bradbury (a name that keeps turning up on this blog). He wrote:

“The world is full of people who, for intellectual reasons, steadfastly refuse to let go and enjoy themselves. I admit I approached Disneyland with many intellectual reservations, myself, but these have been banished in my seven visits. Disney makes mistakes; what artist doesn’t? But when he flies, he really flies. I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride. The Jungle Boat ride, too, is an experience of true delight and wonder. I could go on, but why bother?”

I remember a similar moment of delight and wonder from that first trip in 1993 as I stood overlooking Frontierland. Dusk had fallen and the red rock monoliths of Big Thunder Mountain rose from the darkened waterways at my feet. The Mark Twain paddle steamer rounded a bend in the distance, its gas lamps burning. Then, on a lonely outcrop of rock, seen by nobody but me, an animatronic wolf tipped its head back and howled at the sunset. It struck me that someone had gone to extraordinary lengths to created a wholly unnecessary detail, just to please whoever happened to be standing in the right spot, at the right moment. I’m still struck by it today.

Disneyland has since become a cultural icon in America. Disneyland Paris may never settle into mainstream French identity in the same way but, for the first generation of children to grow up with the park (like me), it has been a formative experience.

Frontierland - the best themed environment in Europe?