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I’m sorry for the lack of posts this past week – real life has overtaken me but things should now be back on track. Today, I’ve decided to take the unusual step of rewriting one of my existing posts. You may have already read my existing take on the state of Disneyland Paris, but it was never quite the post I set out to write. So I started from the same point and took it in a completely different direction. (And, with the exception of the Discovery Arcade picture, all photos in today’s post were taken by your’s truly). If you like what you read, I’ll be covering some of the same ground in an interview for the Dedicated to DLP podcast next week.

Minnie Mouse balloons at Disneyland Paris

This year 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 – the park was pulling in visitors but they weren’t spending money at the attached complex of Disney-owned hotels and restaurants – 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’.

The British press, never slow to take a shot at either the Americans or the French, picked up the story and ran with it. So when I first stepped through the turnstiles, I was prepared for a disappointment.

A stained glass depiction of Maleficent in Disneyland Paris's Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant

I expected something like Alton Towers with Mickey Mouse T-shirts: a clutch of amusement park rides and fast food kiosks interspersed with some nominal set dressing and a big plastic castle. I wasn’t expecting craftsmanship or intelligence and I certainly wasn’t expecting narrative.

If you’re from the States, where Disneyland has been part of the cultural landscape for almost three generations, it’s probably hard to appreciate just what a shift in attitude Euro Disney required of most European visitors. We had simply never seen anything like it before – the all-encompassing landscapes, the layers of fine detail both inside and outside the attractions, the constant surprises and little visual treats, scattered about like rewards for those who choose to explore the park in greater depth…

And all of it conveying some form of story, albeit a simple or covert one. Take the street lamps on Main Street USA, for example. When you first enter the park beneath the railroad station, the lamps are all electric. But moving down the street towards the heart of the park, they gradually transition to gas lamps.

Main Street USA's Discovery Arcade, by gas and electric light

Why? Because the railroad represented progress to small town America – a hard-wired link to the outside world. Properties closest to stations not only had more ready access to news and goods from elsewhere, but were generally owned by the more wealthy citizens, who could afford to adopt new technologies, like electricity. Thus, the further from Disney’s railroad (and the world outside the park) we walk, the further into the past we move, exchanging modernity for nostalgia.

I came to know the park intimately in the decade following that first visit, dropping in every few years until my time at university. I was studying French and the third year of my course was to be spent abroad, practicing the language in situ. A job at the resort seemed the obvious way to go.

The university was less keen, my tutor being firmly in the ‘cultural Chernobyl’ camp. He was certain that the experience would teach me nothing about France and that the resort’s daily business would be conducted entirely in English. Or, worse still, American.

The truth is, I learned more French in my first two months at Disney than I had in my first two years at university. I lived and worked with people from all over the world – France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Algeria – and we all spoke French, all the time. I attended free lectures at a local college on my days off and the monuments and nightlife of Paris were less than an hour away. I made friends that I’m still in touch with and learned obscene expressions in at least five new languages.

Disney's first looping coaster - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril

I also learned that Disney’s theme park terminology was not simply pretentious corporate spin after all. Terms like ‘onstage’ (for those areas of the theme parks visible to guests) and ‘backstage’ (the parts behind the scenes), ‘Cast Members’ (employees) and ‘show’ (everything a guest experiences during their visit) had always made me cringe a little. But having worked there, I can attest that this is probably the most honest way of describing it – as a big piece of theatre.

The whole thing’s a performance for the enjoyment of a paying crowd, complete with costumes and music. When I worked on the Indiana Jones & the Temple of Peril roller coaster (which also marks its 20th anniversary this year), a few colleagues and I, dressed as members of the archaeological team, put on impromptu performances for guests waiting in the queue. We bought our own props. People laughed and applauded. It was a highlight of my time there.

A portrait of the artist as a young roller coaster operator

But now it seems the show may be in trouble. The crippling debt that has hung about the resort’s shoulders since its construction shows no signs of diminishing, despite the Walt Disney Company stepping in to buy the deficit from the banking consortium that previously controlled the purse strings. As part of the deal, the parent company the parent company will not be giving any further financial aid, dashing the hopes of those who, like me, were counting on the sort of high-profile expansion packages lavished on the struggling Hong Kong Disneyland and California Adventure parks.

The resort must now stand or fall on its own merits. Is it really too big to fail? Only time will tell. But even if it all comes crashing down, I’ll be there on closing day to help turn out the lights.

Don’t forget, if you want to hear more about my time at Disney, I’ll be sharing some anecdotes and experiences on the next episode of the Dedicated to DLP podcast.

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