Your pet's new way around town
Theme park rides are usually a child’s play. You go on them for a bit of escapism, not to use your brain. So imagine our surprise when we weren’t sure what to do as we stepped into the newest ride at Disneyland Paris, which promised to let us spin webs like Spider-Man.
There was no light gun to shoot at the screen, which was filled with cute robot spiders. We weren’t wearing any special gloves or high-tech bracelets, just a pair of 3D glasses. Almost instinctively we reached out and flicked our wrists just like Spidey does. Mystifyingly, strands of webbing shot forward on the screen in the direction we were pointing and snagged some pesky Spider Bots. We soon got into the swing of things.
As the ride car rolled on to the next scene we tried to work out how it pulls off this trick but got no hints. Web slinging seems so intuitive that we started firing strands at sharp angles to put our new powers to the test. We covered the futuristic landscape in webs and nearly whacked each other but didn’t catch many Spider Bots.
Clearly, we aren’t the only ones who didn’t go to superhero school. We found out after our ride that Disney sells gauntlets, which upgrade your virtual web shooter so you can mess around and still feel like a hero.
The queue for the ride weaves through an artificial laboratory and culminates in a briefing from Spidey (voiced by his on-screen alter-ego Tom Holland) who is projected onto an invisible screen, so he seems to be standing right in front of you.
The web head explains that his Spider Bots have gone rogue and the guests have been gathered to round them up. He explains that the high-tech ride will let them spin webs but it’s easy to think this is fantasy as he also says that the automated arachnids are self-replicating, which is just part of the story.
The ride’s secret formula is called gesture recognition. Hidden in the ceiling of the ride car is a series of infra-red cameras, which scan visitors’ bodies, arms and eyes 60 times every second to ensure that the webs on screen seem to come from their wrists and head in exactly the direction they are pointing. That’s just the start.
It’s even possible to snag scenery like boxes and levers, which alter the futuristic landscapes filled with the rogue robots. They have different colours and guests get different points, depending on which ones they hit. Each rider’s results are shown on a screen at the end of the attraction, which gets your competitive juices flowing and gives you a good workout.
The Spider-Man ride is the star attraction of the new Avengers Campus land in the Walt Disney Studios, which is one of the two parks at Disney’s French outpost. The land looks like an avant-garde science park and was supposedly built on the site of old factories. No stone has been left unturned in pursuit of perfection. Fake crumbling brickwork, complete with faded paint on it, can be seen behind the futuristic facades. Even the restaurants fit the theme.
The Pym Test Kitchen is meant to be run by Hank Pym, the costumed crimefighter Ant-Man, and, in-keeping with his power to shrink and grow objects, it serves micro Oreos and burgers the size of dinner plates, which are cut into slices like cakes. No expense has been spared here either as a screen above the counter shows food going into an oven and being expanded or shrunk.
Fitting the science theme, the staff wear lab coats and their service is anything but Mickey Mouse. Just as I was about to dig into a blue jelly served inside a tiny test tube, I realised that my spoon was too big. I wasn’t the only one who noticed as a staff member whisked over a smaller one within seconds.
The land feels like less of a theme park area and more of a stage where you can act out your superhero fantasies. Costumed characters even do battle with each other on the roofs of the elaborate buildings, which seems like a more natural location than the stages that usually stand on the ground in theme parks.
The magic of Disney is that there is a story behind all the attractions. You rarely see the roller coaster rails or the machinery operating the rides as it’s cleverly integrated into the theme. Perhaps the best example of this is the Tower of Terror, which is themed to the 1960s sci-fi series Twilight Zone.
The ride is a full-scale mock-up of a faded Hollywood hotel which, according to the spooky video at the beginning of the attraction, has been uninhabited since lightning struck it in the 1930s.
You enter through the cobweb-covered lobby complete with luggage still standing at reception. The queue winds through the boiler room before you get strapped into seats in a cage-like lift which rockets up a shaft in total darkness. An impressive effect then makes it appear as if stars surround the lift before giant windows open up to reveal a view of the park down below. You then hurtle down faster than gravity.
The first drop is the worst and although it lasts just seconds, the only thought running through your head will be ‘when is it over?’ As the lift hits the floor, your stomach will still feel like it’s high in the sky above. Then it rockets back up to repeat the ordeal. By that time we were screaming along with the kids around us and had almost got used to the experience. As the third drop began, we were lapping it up in a strange state where our brains told us we should be afraid but we couldn’t stop grinning.
The Studios park isn’t the only place which puts you in the middle of movie action. If teenagers are in tow, then head to the fairytale-themed Disneyland Paris park which is home to Star Tours, a simulator themed to the Star Wars movies. It’s actually only a cabin which moves in time to a giant screen at the front but it seems scarily real when it’s in full swing.
The ride uses every trick in the book to immerse you in a space adventure. Donning a pair of 3D glasses you see pin-sharp spaceships and laser blasts that appear to whizz past your head in time with actual flashes from hidden lights in the cabin. The ship is meant to be flown by Star Wars celebrity C-3PO and a model of the golden robot sits in front of the screen reacting to the action. It changes almost every time, thanks to a random selection of scenes which is a cunning ploy to get you queuing again.
In just a few rides we had raced down the iconic trenches of the Death Star and been licked by a giant sea creature which will have you checking your 3D glasses to see if the water that seems to be running down them is real.
No trip to a Disney park would be complete without riding Pirates of the Caribbean. Although it isn’t one for thrill-seekers it can still make you jump, thanks to some eerily-lifelike moving models of the actors from the films. One looks uncannily like Australian actor Geoffrey Rush and in the blink of an eye, through some clever lighting and paintwork, it appears to turn into a skeleton just like in the movies.
There’s a happy ending every day, thanks to a spectacular son et lumière show. An emotional tour de force, it involves lasers, fireworks and flame-throwers timed to scenes from Disney blockbusters which are projected onto the centrepiece castle. Through some technical wizardry, the projections appear to be flat despite being beamed on to protrusions, balustrades and turrets. Multi-coloured fountains at the foot of the castle even dance in time to the tunes. That is just the half of it.
Disneyland Paris turned 30 in April and to celebrate its big day it became home to the first drone show in Disney park. As the lights go down around the plaza in front of the castle at the start of the show, there is no hint of what’s to come. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a troupe of 150 drones suddenly lights up the night sky in the shape of a number 30 which ingeniously looks like a giant outline of Mickey Mouse’s famous ears peering round the castle. It is a moment made for Instagram and is such a spellbinding effect that a wave of gasps ripples through the crowd.
The drones then form an arc behind the castle which mimics the introduction to Disney’s famous films as they light up one by one to make it look like the path of a shooting star. Cleverly the lights on the drones dim before they form different shapes so it seems as if they move by magic. At one point they spread out across the sky and flash on and off rapidly to replicate bursts of fireworks.
The mesmerising crescendo of the nearly seven-minute show comes when the drones form a smaller silhouette of Mickey’s ears which spins inside an orb of tiny twinkling stars.
Just when you think it’s all over, the fireworks show begins. Remarkably the drone display is only the warm-up act though explosions in the sky seem mundane once you’ve seen this whole new world.
With more than 50 attractions in the two parks you need three days to see it all. After spending all day on your feet you’ll be thankful for a hotel which is only a few minutes walk away. The best of the bunch is Disney’s Hotel New York — The Art of Marvel. It tells the story behind the Marvel Comics characters who inhabit the Avengers Campus land next door.
The lobby of the plush hotel has the air of the atrium of an Art Deco American railway station. There are brushed steel floors, stone walls and mahogany display cabinets containing replicas of Captain America’s red white and blue shield as well as an Iron Man suit of armour designed specially for the hotel by Ryan Meinerding, head of visual development of Marvels’ movies.
The Marvel theme is integrated into the period style as ten of its most famous heroes are etched into five metre aluminum columns set into the walls. Very Art Deco. Other backlit panels tell a story specifically for the hotel of Iron Man calling his fellow Avengers to action. It doesn’t stop there.
Different areas of the hotel showcase the heroes in unexpected design styles from street art to giant murals made from the bricks in Rubik’s Cubes. Exploring the hotel to look for artwork of your favourite heroes feels like a treasure hunt and keeps kids and adults busy as more than 350 pieces have been designed just for the property. You can even find drafts of classic comic pages complete with original markings and corrections from the editors.
The hotel is designed to the same standard as a Disney ride but never feels like it is missing thrills as the building itself is the star attraction. The corridors are decked out in Marvel’s bold black, red and white colour scheme whilst the sleek rooms have cream leather headboards, deep red rugs, silvery wallpaper, matching bedsheets and of course high-end Marvel artwork on the walls. Iron Man’s billionaire alter ego Tony Stark would feel right at home here.
The hotel’s bar features a pin-sharp screen set into a window frame which shows an ever-changing view of the New York skyline from the Marvel movies. The chandelier of the hotels’ upscale Manhattan restaurant resembles the spires of super hero Thor’s home world of Asgard. Even the music in the background sounds familiar because it’s actually a jazz rendition of the stirring themes from the movies. This all comes across as being classy to adults whilst Marvel fans will go ga-ga over the Easter Eggs.
There’s an elaborate meet and greet area where young ‘uns can get selfies with super heroes and step into replicas of their rooms. Another photo opp allows kids to be the star of their own comic by standing inside a huge model of a magazine cover.
On stepping into the brightly-coloured classroom we realised that the ceiling was much closer to our heads than in the corridor outside. “It creates an environment that kids feel comfortable in,” the host tells us. That’s when we realised that Disney really has thought of everything.
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