Disney’s Winter Wonderland


Disney’s Winter Wonderland

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to step inside a scene straight from a Christmas card, this would be the perfect time to visit Disneyland Paris

By Christian Sylt

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Published: Fri 19 Dec 2014, 2:58 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:55 PM

Mickey Mouse at the Christmas parade

Mickey Mouse at the Christmas parade

Disneyland Paris doesn’t do things by halves in winter. Once you step through the turnstiles at the entrance to its fairytale-inspired flagship park, you’re guaranteed to get a festive atmosphere.

A three-storey Christmas tree sets the stage and sits at the foot of the park’s Main Street, which is themed to early 1900s America and leads to the centrepiece Sleeping Beauty castle. Tinsel and candy canes hang from the ornate shop fronts lining the street and snowy scenes with models of Disney characters fill the windows.

A brass band wrapped in bright red winter woolies plays classic Disney tunes from the bandstand and the smell of popcorn wafts through the air. Just when I think it couldn’t get any more Christmassy, snow begins to fall.

A few swipes at the white stuff falling from above reveals that it is actually soap suds that are sprinkled down from hidden jets on the shop roofs. It stops everyone in their tracks and a wave of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ ripple down the packed street.

Once the pointing and gaping is over, the illusion of being transported back to turn-of-the-century America is abruptly shattered. The French comprise around half of the visitors to Disneyland Paris with more than seven other nationalities making up the remainder. It means that wherever you turn you hear a different language spoken and, with more than 14 million visitors this year, you will have plenty of time to earwig whilst waiting in the queues.

Quite surprisingly, one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland Paris isn’t a show or a rollercoaster but an opportunity to have your photo taken with Elsa and Anna, stars of the hit movie Frozen. Even if you arrive early in the morning, the wait can be more than two hours — and if you’ve got young girls in tow, it can’t be avoided. However, there is a clever way to minimise the standing around.

Most of the attractions have a system called Fastpass, which gives you a time to return and short-cut the longer lines. There’s no cost and all you have to do is insert your entry ticket into a box at the entrance to the ride. The catch is that you can only have one Fastpass at a time so it’s best suited to anyone who sticks to strict schedules.

One thing you can’t avoid is the walking. With a total of 60 rides across two sprawling theme parks, the most important tip is to bring a well-worn pair of shoes.

Some of Disney’s classic attractions are given festive updates with the most charming being ‘It’s A Small World’. This is one for the whole family as it is a peaceful boat journey past hundreds of animated dolls dressed in clothing to represent different countries. In winter, their outfits are replaced with ones that are traditionally worn during the holiday season. Dragon outfits dominate the celebration of New Year in China whilst the dolls in America wear Santa beards and red velvet.

It is this kind of attention to detail that is Disney’s hallmark and it keeps adults’ attention whilst kids go ga-ga over the colourful characters and saccharine-sweet songs.

The real 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 since it’s cleverly integrated into the theme. Perhaps the best example of this is the Tower of Terror in the Studios Park next to Disneyland Paris. The ride is a full-scale mock-up of a faded Grande Dame hotel which, according to the spooky video at the beginning of the attraction, has been uninhabited since a lightning bolt struck it in the 1930s. It’s a full-size building and you enter through the cobweb-covered lobby — complete with luggage still standing at the reception.

You’re soon queuing in the boiler room before being strapped into seats in a cage-like lift that rockets up a shaft in pitch darkness. An impressive effect then makes it appear as if stars surround the lift before the big shock: 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 my head is “when will it be over?”. But as the lift hits the floor, with my stomach still in the sky above, it rockets back up to repeat the ordeal. By that time, I’m screaming along with the kids around me and almost get used to the experience. As the third drop begins, I’m lapping it up in a strange state where my brain tells me I should be afraid whilst my mouth can’t help but grin.

It isn’t an experience for anyone who has vertigo, claustrophobia or is afraid of the dark and it certainly isn’t a ride recommended straight after lunch.

The Studios Park is home to more thrilling rides than its neighbour but you don’t have to get thrown around in the dark to experience them all.

Its newest attraction is themed to Ratatouille, the Oscar-winning movie about a rat called Remy who has a flair for cooking. The ride features cutting-edge trackless simulators that move through giant indoor sets designed to make riders feel like they have been shrunk down to the size of a rat.

It is eerily convincing, as huge 3D screens are integrated into the sets and the images on them are so sharp that it is genuinely tough to tell the difference between what is real and virtual. Adding to the effect, the simulators move in time to the action on the screens whilst riders are bombarded with physical effects like water, heat and smells.

Droplets of water rain down to simulate a bottle of juice bursting open and there’s a pungent odour of orange as the ratmobiles glide through a pantry. It’s a sensory assault with so much crammed in that you can’t see it all in a single ride. To keep you coming back, different effects play each time, such as scents and the route the car takes.

Of course, there’s a happy ending as Remy eventually guides guests to his underground restaurant where rats sit on corks and use cocktail umbrellas as parasols. It plays out on a giant screen but a real-life recreation of it is right in front of guests as they get off the ride. The ceiling is covered with giant geranium leaves, tables appear to be jam jar lids and each is lit by oversized Christmas tree lights.

The menu couldn’t be more different to those typically found in theme parks. Steak is the recommended dish and it is followed by a huge portion of cheese with chocolate mousse for dessert. It feels a little formal for a theme park restaurant, but nicely complements a ride themed to food and is the perfect place to relax after hours on your feet.

The best way to end the day is back in Disneyland Park where a ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree will take place at dusk until January 7. It is more than just a flicking of a switch as the tree lights trigger the illumination of Mickey Mouse-shaped garlands hung across Main Street followed by yet more fake snow.

It is a prelude to the real climax, the Disney Dreams of Christmas son-
et-lumière show. This is an emotional tour de force involving fireworks and flame-throwers timed to scenes from Frozen that are projected onto the castle. Through technical wizardry, the projections appear to be flat despite being beamed onto protrusions, balustrades and turrets. Movie scenes are even beamed onto mist screens formed from fine fountains that fan out from the foot of the castle. It leaves adults wondering how Disney pulls it off whilst kids are busy humming the catchy tunes.

At least a day in each park is the best way to take it all in, and with all the hotfooting around the parks, you’ll be thankful that the hotels are within striking distance. One option is to stay in Disney’s two hotels that are closest to the parks and are themed to regions of America. Otherwise, there are cheaper hotels a short bus ride away.

The best of the bunch is the Dream Castle, which is run by Austrian chain Vienna International and gives Disney a run for its money with its heraldic theming.

Tapestries and flags hang on the walls and the room doors are marked with fleur-de-lis. Some of the rooms even have wooden chandeliers but you won’t find a single Disney character in sight. It helps to ease you back into the real world, because when you’re a guest of Disney, it’s easy to forget about that.

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