As the popular amusement park begins its phased reopening, Damon Smith discovers if Mickey can still work his magic in the new normal.
After more than 100 days of isolation in the sanitised cocoon of my flat, a heady cocktail of excitement and nervousness slips down my throat as I walk through the familiar gates of Disneyland Paris.
Four months after the resort closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the two parks are welcoming back guests with an array of health and safety measures in line with guidance from the French government and health authorities.
For the initial phases, Disney's Newport Bay Club hotel, Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and the Disney Village shopping and entertainment district have also reopened their doors. Disney's Hotel Santa Fe follows on August 3 then Disneyland Hotel on September 7.
Face coverings are mandatory for visitors aged 11 and older at all times except when eating.
It feels restricting, at first, to conceal my smile behind filtered fabric. Tiny beads of sweat bedazzle my top lip in the absence of a cooling breeze. However, within 30 minutes, my breathing has slowed and I acclimatise to the sartorial new normal.
Physical distancing of at least one metre in queues is enforced using colourful bilingual stickers on the ground. There are no temperature checks like some Disney properties, but security remains tight and it's second nature to cleanse hands at more than 2,000 sanitiser and washing stations, which are conveniently dotted around the resort, especially at the entrances and exits of attractions, restaurants, shops and theatres.
Trepidation melts from my body as Mickey, Minnie and friends dance and wave from their prime vantage point on the elevated railroad platform. Crowd capacity is being limited in line with social distancing guidelines, through an online ticket system, that requires you to reserve admission for a specific date.
Die-hard Disney disciples are keen to share their thoughts with me as they return to the fold. "The park has been very vocal about what the experience is going to be, so I feel reassured," reflects 19-year-old Elliot Minto from London.
"I'm not nervous. I think it's going to be safe, but still fun," agrees 21-year-old Chloe Glenister from Bedfordshire, whose priority is an audience with her favourite character. "I haven't seen Mickey in four months, so I need to see him, then I'll go from there," she grins.
She shouldn't have to wait long. Single rider queues and the nifty Fastpass services, which allows guests to pre-book a timed slot for eight key attractions, have been suspended to aid queue management. Popular rides like Peter Pan's Flight and Star Wars: Hyperspace Mountain often command wait times in excess of an hour. Today, the longest queue is 30 minutes.
Roller-coasters including Big Thunder Mountain and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Peril keep entire rows free to ensure physical distancing between families or groups. Even with this limited capacity, falsetto screams and hollers are just as satisfyingly loud.
Nestled inside the Disney bubble, guests largely police themselves. In the gently winding queue of the Meet Mickey Mouse pavilion, a little girl with an icy glare to complement her twinkling Frozen outfit, admonishes a distracted parent fixated on the dull glow of a mobile phone screen.
"Mummy, you can't stand there!" frostily chirrups the pint-sized princess, forcibly tugging her mother off a cluster of turquoise vinyl floor stickers, ahead of their socially-distanced audience with Mickey, Pluto and Goofy.
Twice, I notice visitors pull down face coverings or remove them for a giddily grinning snapshot beneath the dreaming spires of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Each time, a cast member materialises out of the ether like a masked ninja to politely remind offenders about the rules. In another neat piece of safety enforcement, official attraction and ride photos are withheld if anyone in shot isn't fully masked.
Eating out is definitely 'in'. Restaurants have reduced seating capacity, so takeaway options are actively promoted, to encourage guests to eat al fresco around the parks' impeccably tended gardens. Buffet restaurants have adopted an all-you-can-eat table service offering instead.
Daily experiences that are likely to draw big crowds have been suspended, including the Disney Stars On Parade procession of colourful floats, and the Disney Illuminations night-time fireworks and light projection spectacular at the castle.
Getting a warm hug from a favourite character at the hugely popular meet and greets is also no longer possible. In response, the resort has introduced plentiful 'Selfie Spots' where visitors can take a few pictures on their own device with beloved figures from the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel universes.
Donald Duck is in fine-feathered form when I strike a pose at a safe distance close to the thrum of Main Street. Unbridled joy glistens in my eyes. The magic of the resort, trapped in this perfect bubble, seems to have natural immunity from the sobering reality of the outside world.
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The night is dark and the air claustrophobic as our boat glides along a river. We've gone through a rough part of town. Men stare over balefully, calling out threats, giving us the dread-eye. We pass a prison, an army barracks, a marketplace. Music plays in the distance. Someone asks, from what seems to be a pirate ship: "Are you English?"