When your four-year-old daughter turns round to you beaming from ear to ear and thanks you for “the best day ever”, you know you’ve backed a winner.
Disneyland Paris has been on the agenda for a while but we had been waiting to hit that window when Kara (four years old) was old enough to fully appreciate it and the boys (eight and six) hadn’t yet outgrown the concept of a multi-billion dollar franchise founded on a talking rodent with giant ears and similarly oversized red shorts – and his menagerie of equally unusual animal friends.
In the end, I think we picked the perfect moment to make our first family pilgrimage to the House of the Mouse. With our own little Frozen princess and two Cars-mad boys unaware of our final destination, we hopped on to a Eurotunnel train and headed for Paris.
I’ll be honest, our first impression was underwhelming. We were staying in Disney accommodation, a Davy Crockett lodge, about ten minutes drive from the parks. But there is no Disney-esque fanfare to greet your arrival – no Mickey-themed signage or gaudy primary colours, just a long road past a large construction site to an understated reception centre which feels more like the set of a spaghetti Western than the Magic Kingdom.
After that, though, things rapidly improved.
Although described as a ‘lodge’ and dressed up as such with its faux wood panelling, what we had was a static caravan. We had been warned to lower our expectations but we were pleasantly surprised. Unlike your regular static caravan, there was enough room to swing a cat (well, a small kitten, anyway). It had a kitchenette with a hob and microwave, a small dining table and a separate living area. It was well-appointed and didn’t feel like it would collapse like a house of cards at the slightest gust of wind. Not the Ritz-Carlton by any stretch of the imagination but more than adequate.
More importantly, given that it was in the mid-20s°C, it was air-conditioned and had an outside decking area with a picnic table and a barbecue. Result.
Disneyland Paris consists of two adjacent parks. Disneyland is by far the larger and is subdivided into Main Street USA, Discoveryland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Adventureland. Each has a variety of rides (from a gentle fairground carousel to full-on rollercoasters) and other attractions including the opportunity to meet some of your kids’ favourite Disney characters. Walt Disney Studios is smaller but contains many of the newer attractions relating to modern Disney/Pixar properties such as Ratatouille, Cars and Finding Nemo, a studio backlot tour and film and animation exhibits.
Over the course of 3½ days in the parks, we spent about two-thirds of our time in Disneyland Park, with the kids’ favourite rides being Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast (for Legoland veterans, this is basically Laser Raiders) and the utterly surreal It’s A Small World, each of which we did four times.
Although it’s nowhere near the size of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, the parks are still large enough that it never felt too crowded, and while the bigger rides attracted queues of over an hour during peak hours, the combination of the queue-jumping Fastpass facility (which you get automatically with each ticket) and the presence of lots of rides with short queues meant it never felt like we were frittering away our days standing in line. Our experience of Disney in mid-August was that it was an altogether more agreeable place to be than, say, Legoland.
Although we had five-day passes, we only spent 3½ days in the parks themselves. (Our first day was used up getting to Paris and we left at lunchtime on the final day.) Was that enough? I think so. We didn’t spend much time in Frontierland or Adventureland on account of their major rides being closed. (It’s Disneyland Paris’s 25th anniversary in 2017, so the maintenance programme this year is particularly intensive.) But we did pretty much everything we wanted and still had enough time for the kids to do their favourite rides more than once. I’d say four days would be plenty for anyone – not least because you will all be exhausted by the end of it.
The culmination of our stay was the Disney Dreams lasers, lights and fireworks show on our final night. We ummed and ahhed about whether to keep the kids up for it – the show started at 11pm and by the time we got back to our lodge it was nearly 12:30am – but it was totally worth it. There’s no expense spared in a spectacular show that runs the full gamut of the Disney portfolio, from Fantasia to Frozen, including a full rendition of Let It Go that was bellowed out by thousands of young children – it’s possible Kara may have been the loudest of all – and a good number of grown-ups too.
Disneyland is a bit like Las Vegas. Viewed in the cold light of day, it’s garish, over-the-top and can seem, well, a bit silly. But it’s so unashamedly excessive that it just works.
There aren’t many things in life that can capture the imaginations of a four-year-old girly princess and a pair of car-obsessed, bookworm boys – and, let’s be honest, touch the inner child of their parents too – but Disneyland does just that. Five hearts melted faster than ice cream on a hot summer’s day. It really was the experience of a lifetime.
Now we just need to plan a trip to Disney World in Florida …
10 top tips
1. Scout around for deals. The walk-up price for a one-day ticket was €90 at the time of writing and a four-day pass over €200. But the Disneyland Paris website has all kinds of offers. We travelled as a family of five on a five-day/four-night deal and our accommodation was essentially free. Bargain.
2. Download the Disneyland Paris app to your phone. It gives you all the information you need, including maps, ride details and accurate queuing times.
3. Even if your kids have outgrown them, consider taking a lightweight stroller. It’s over a mile from the car parks to the furthest rides, and while moving walkways help you part of the way you will still spend a lot of time on your feet. We took our battered old buggy and Kara (who’s four and a prolific walker) resorted to it a lot. The parks are almost completely flat, which made pushing it around a doddle.
4. Make use of Fastpass. Know which rides you want to do and book your 30-minute window as soon as you get in. You’ll get an earlier slot, which is important as you can’t book your next Fastpass ride until your previous one has been used. We queued 15 minutes for Ratatouille – the regular queue was 80 minutes, saving us over an hour of “Are we there yet?”
5. If you’re staying in Disney accommodation you can take advantage of the ‘magic hours’ between 8am and 10am. Many rides don’t open until ten but you can still get a lot done, including getting in early for a Fastpass ride.
6. Queues shorten noticeably at the end of the day, although it gets busier again later on as people return for the Disney Dreams show. As in the morning, not all rides (or restaurants) are open late, but the hour-plus queues you encounter in mid-afternoon will at least halve.
7. Set reasonable expectations. Disneyland requires a lot of walking, a lot of patient queuing and, if you’re there for several days, the fatigue soon takes its toll on kids and grown-ups alike. Our best day involved us arriving early, leaving the park after lunch for a swim and a rest and then returning for a late afternoon/evening stint.
8. If you’re travelling in summer, take sun cream and hats. Paris in August is hot, although thankfully most of the queuing areas are covered.
9. Like all theme parks, Disney is expensive when it comes to food and merchandise. There’s an emphasis on fast food – the quality is pretty decent – but we ended up taking sandwiches and lots of snacks rather than getting fleeced at every turn. (There are several large supermarkets within a few minutes’ drive where you can stock up.) There are also water fountains outside every toilet where you can top up bottles.
10. The two must-dos for a trip to Disneyland Paris are the main character parade (starting from Main Street USA at 5:45pm when we were there) and the Disney Dreams show (11pm in the height of summer). For the parade, you need to be early if you want a prime spot in the shade. For Disney Dreams, people start bagging the best spots (directly in front of the castle) two hours in advance but it’s not hard to find a reasonable view, even if you roll up just before show-time having squeezed in a last-minute ride or two. Bear in mind there is a short Frozen-themed water fountain show that takes place about 15 minutes before the main show.
Click here for my comprehensive photo review of Disneyland Paris.