Disneyland Paris turns 25 this year. Dad and junior’s verdict: Among mice, ducks and monsters, age is irrelevant.
People spend 374 days of their lives waiting. It’s insane! For over a year, we are forced to simply be. We, the supposed crown of creation, reduced to a state of nervous apathy. We stare. We scratch. We consult our cellphones by the second. But in Disneyland, Paris, in the catacombs of Frontierland’s Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster, there is no WiFi. So I spend the time musing on waiting itself – and on what it means to be young. My son Theo stands beside me, eight years old, a shock of blond hair beneath his green baseball cap – calmness personified. Leaning casually against the metal fence, he is unaware of the crowds around us as he works his way through a comic book. Where on earth does he get his patience from, not to mention the assurance in his eyes? Maybe he knows that deliverance awaits at the end of the line, a sled on rails that will take us hurtling around bends and through tunnels, over papier-mâché mountains and through illuminated caves. We’ll whoop and laugh, tremble and scream, and inhale the fragrance of the summer night in the air rushing past. The ride will end, but our grin will remain glued in place.
None of this interests Theo. He is a fan. I gave him this trip, a visit to his gods, as a Christmas present. Theo’s holy scriptures are his paperback doorstoppers full of garishly colored stories in which a mouse with white gloves hunts down felons and a miserly drake bathes in gold coins. Once he gets his hands on one of these comic books, you hear nothing from him for two hours at a stretch. He is in Duckburg. I know exactly what it’s like. When I was his age, I read the same stories. I shared the excitement of the chase with Mickey Mouse, the rodent detective. I laughed at Goofy, Mickey’s clumsy dog friend, always hoping that together they would catch Peg-Leg Pete, that mean, nasty, fat old gangster tomcat!
“Look Dad, the fairy-tale castle!” Theo presses his nose against the window of the shuttle bus. We are 32 kilometers east of Paris. One after the next, theme hotels rise from the green landscape, their revolving doors spitting out tourists. These high-rise hostelries are dwarfed only by Dream Castle, the American version of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Disneyland Paris, consisting of Disneyland Park and the younger Walt Disney Studios Park, is a world-class attraction boasting roughly 14 million visitors a year. In fact, the walk-in cartoon pulls in more people than the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower together. The Grande Nation is far from universally impressed by this fact. Let’s face it, Mickey and Donald, Minnie and Daisy are all – mon dieu! – U.S. imports. But the park has poured some 68 billion euros into the French economy since it first opened, so its popular occupiers are borne with forbearance.
Disneyland Paris attracts more visitors than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower together
Disneyland Paris is huge: It covers nearly 2000 hectares and its website lists 54 official attractions. Theo and I have just two days, so we dive straight in. On a studio tour, we learn that Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1928 in the animated short film Steamboat Willie. Cartoonists tell us how they develop characters for the big screen; during a stunt show, tough guys in fast cars lay down a thrilling chase – in reverse! Then we climb the Hollywood Tower, a hulking haunted hotel, only to plummet back down through 13 floors in the elevator shaft – 50 meters of free fall. Theo giggles, I scream to save my life, clinging to my safety belt. Bravery is not a question of age.
My son was born in 2008 whereas I am vintage 1978. A year before my birth, in 1977, director George Lucas’ very first Star Wars movie was released. In 2012, Disney acquired the rights to the interstellar film series. And in 2017? The boys in Theo’s class are all crazy about Star Wars, build Lego models of the starships and wave broom handles around like light sabers. What fires their imagination is more than 40 years old. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Good versus evil. Forever and ever, amen?
Maybe therein lies the secret of Disney’s success. Times change, we grow up. But the heroes of our youth even inspire our children. And so the Disney bosses are effectively our modern-day Brothers Grimm: They have the copyright to our dreams, hold the rights to The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and the cute fish Nemo and Dorie. Today, there are six Disney parks spread across the world, three of them in Asia. The corporation even has liners cruising the Caribbean. This year, Disneyland Paris is celebrating its 25th anniversary. That’s another reason for the length of the line at Big Thunder Mountain today.
We are staying at the Disneyland Hotel right at the entrance to the park – a building framed by fountains and flowerbeds. With its white facade, bay windows, spires and pink roof, it looks like a Victorian train station whose architect was taking LSD. The carpets in the lobby are puddle-deep and the souvenir shop sells crystal Mickey figurines for 2000 euros. Hunger drives us to the buffet restaurant, where a surprise awaits us: Life-size Disney figures pad from table to table: Mickey, Pluto, Goofy – they’re all here. Fathers’ hands are shaken, wives are embraced, kids take selfies with extra-large ducks and mice.
Walt Disney Parks worldwide
Theo rushes over to Donald. Scrooge McDuck’s hapless nephew is his all-time hero. Everything always goes wrong in Donald’s little life; he is always stone broke, according to my son: “I like him, he never gives up. When he falls down, he gets back up. And he has a big heart.” I am a little bit proud of Theo’s admiration for Donald. I take a cellphone photo of the two of them. My son doesn’t want to let go of the man inside the duck costume, who speaks only French, but Donald has to go, his shift will probably end soon. Theo and I eat pizza and fries.
When I was a kid, I rarely went to theme parks. Only California and Florida had a Disney park; and my mom preferred the Canary Islands, so I have some catching up to do. The next day, I try to see the place through Theo’s eyes, from the perspective of an inquisitive child. I notice that many of the women are wearing mouse ears. In fact, a lot of people are in costumes and caps. Boys often go as Spider-Man or Captain America, while girls tend more toward Pocahontas or Snow White. Gender roles are clearly assigned at Disney.
Theo and I wander across the park, get lost in the Alice in Wonderland maze, fire laser guns with Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear. The figures from the restaurant return, ready to give hugs. Theo backs away as Pluto approaches. “He doesn’t have a brain, does he, Dad?” Oh, they grow up so fast!
We make the most of our visit. At 10 pm, we are still tumbling out of roller coasters and racing through the park, parts of which are almost deserted at this hour. Theo and I, father and son, but now more of a duo infernale, two pals on an equal footing – if his mother only knew. The fireworks are just starting up over by the Dream Castle. Jets of water shoot into the sky, laser beams and video projections shimmer through the night. Theo stands speechless, his eyes on the spectacle. How I would love to be inside his head. My own is full of joy. I lay my hand on his shoulder. The wait was worth it.