Wednesday 29 January 2020

Bryony Gordon: How I rediscovered my childhood on my return pilgrimage to Disneyland Paris

If the shoe fits: Cinderella's Castle is one of the many spectacular family attractions at Disneyland Paris
If the shoe fits: Cinderella's Castle is one of the many spectacular family attractions at Disneyland Paris

MON dieu! On Main Street USA, gateway to such magical destinations as Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland, the workers of Disney are striking. In the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, cast members – as the staff are referred to here – are blowing whistles and waving flags, protesting about pay rises.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” booms a sprightly all-American voice from the PA system. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Disney Parade has been cancelled this afternoon.” Boo-hiss, evil protesters! But what is this? Do I detect a hint of relief etched upon the faces of parents dragging their children away to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups – relief that the woman delivering a sermon about wages over a megaphone has drowned out the ever-present Disney tunes emanating from the theme park’s sound system? Whistle while you work? Not today, thank you.

The striking cast members, who this afternoon have replaced their Mickey Mouse costumes with neon bibs, are surrounded by park security staff in what can only be described as a Disney version of kettling. What a world we live in, when even the Magic Kingdom has been affected by cuts.

This is not how I remember Disneyland Paris, or Eurodisney as it was called when it opened 20 years ago this week. I was 11 then, and desperate for my parents to take me and my siblings to this newly constructed behemoth of capitalism, located practically a stone’s throw away (when compared to Walt Disney World in Florida, a magical land I’d heard about from friends but had never had the privilege of visiting). “It’s like going to America… without having to go all the way to America!” I squealed at my parents.

“But it’s like going to America, in France,” sighed my father. “I’m not sure what’s worse.”

They caved in, eventually. And so it was that on a cold October morning in 1992, my parents embarked on a potentially marriage-ending trip to Eurodisney with me, my nine-year-old sister and six-month-old brother.

I couldn’t understand why they hardly smiled throughout the “character breakfast”, where, for a small fee, we got to stuff our faces with chocolate waffles in the company of men in duck costumes, whose autographs we gathered in books purchased from one of the many shops that lined Main Street USA (high on sugar, we also begged our parents to buy us the Minnie Mouse ears, the Mickey Mouse hands, and the Goofy backpacks). Neither did I really get their lack of enthusiasm to queue for another hour as we went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (the film series of the same name was based on the ride, not the other way around) for the fifth time that day. And just what was wrong with the Wild West-themed hotel we were staying in? Couldn’t they see that this place was heaven on earth?

Fast-forward to 2012 and I have made a return pilgrimage with my brother, Rufus, to mark this major anniversary of our beloved resort. But my Disney dream is crumbling around the Minnie Mouse ears that I’ve just bought for 12 euros. Rufus, now 20, surveys the protesters, announces he is bored, mentions yet again that he wants a Coca-Cola, and demands that we go on the Space Mountain roller coaster – again. I relent, and off we go via an ice-cream parlour, where another five euros disappear into the Disney ether.

Returning to the Magic Kingdom as an adult is a funny old thing, at first every bit as crushing as finding out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. Though Disney has always attracted protesters (even Walt himself was hit by an animators’ strike in 1941, which he accused of being a communist plot to destroy Hollywood; while, in America, unionised cast members seem to kick up a fuss every time their contracts come up), I never noticed them as a child. Nor was I aware that the theme park we seemed to visit every other year spent much of the Nineties struggling financially, propped up by a Saudi prince as newspapers busily prepared its obituary. It was just wonderful to me, a candy-coloured haven of happiness.

The day after the mini-strike, the protesters are replaced by a succession of Disney floats ridden by Buzz Lightyear, Mary Poppins and every character in between. The small child standing next to me has a look on her face of such pleasure that it melts my heart. She hasn’t noticed the security guards in black suits who speak into their sleeves and go ahead to gee up the crowds as the floats approach, though her father undoubtedly has. “Jesus,” he says to his wife. “This is what it must be like to live in North Korea.”

“Shut up!” snaps his beloved. “You’re going to ruin it for her.”

My normally cool brother, meanwhile, has gone into a trance-like state. “It’s so beautiful,” he notes, as Cinderella passes by and blows a kiss in his direction. He is a child of Disney, the same age as this park. Is it possible that some sort of hypnotic switch is flicked in his brain every time they play the special song that has been commissioned to commemorate “20 years of magic”? I think it might be.

And they play it a lot. In the Disney hotels, where different scents are pumped into the air depending on the theme (the main hotel, which looks a bit like a wedding cake, smells of potpourri), the song is played in the lifts. There is no escaping it, not even when you go outside for a cigarette, where music seems to be piped out of the ashtrays. At first this seems to me like a more effective form of torture than waterboarding, but it gets worse. We go on a musical boat ride called It’s a Small World, which features hundreds of brightly coloured robot children wearing costumes from around the globe, singing a song so saccharine I wonder if I might throw up over the side of the boat.

“Isn’t it lovely?” says my brother, making moon eyes at some robots doing the cancan.

“Hmmm,” I say, wondering when to tell our mother that her son has somehow suffered a lobotomy while in my care.

I have been at the park for about 36 hours when an odd thing happens. I start to enjoy myself. Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a combination of saturated fat, sugar and adrenalin from being thrown around on roller coasters? I don’t know, but it feels good, and I want more. We go on It’s a Small World again. We sing along to the songs. At night, we watch as Disney cartoons are projected on to the magic castle, complete with fireworks and music (obviously). I see a tear roll down the cheek of a grown man. I realise it is Jonathan Ross, who is here with his family. I want to tell him it’s OK, that I feel emotional too. But I can’t. Like my brother, I have gone into a catatonic state.

When it is time to get on the Disney Express back to London (aka the Eurostar), I feel terribly low, like a heroin addict who has gone cold turkey. Everybody on the train seems to slump into a post-Disney coma. I ring my mother, who asks me if we enjoyed it. “Do you know what?” I say, a little surprised. “I really did.”

“That figures,” she says. “Secretly,” and now she laughs, “I always loved it.”

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