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{I spent most of June 2004 in Europe, visiting people and places associated with Walt Disney. I also spent a couple of days at the animation festival at Annecy, France. I'm writing about that trip, which took me to Switzerland, Denmark, and England as well as France, in several installments. MB]

European Journal

I. Disneyland Paris

People who knew Walt Disney say that two subjects they learned to avoid in his presence were sex and death. How odd, then, that two Disney theme-park rides that bear his mark—"Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion"—are so heavily seasoned with sex and death.

That thought occurred to me during the "Haunted Mansion" ride at Disneyland Paris, when I noticed that one of the "Audio-Animatronic" figures was a virtuoso display of rotting flesh that would have done an EC comic book of the fifties proud. That ride is packed with skeletons and many other representations of death. Sex—or if you prefer, rape—is what "Pirates of the Caribbean" is most about, especially in the celebrated "auction" scene, unless maybe you believe that the pirates are enthusiastic about the beautiful redhead because they've heard she's a good cook.

Disneyland ParisAnd yet it requires an exercise of the will to be disturbed or offended by either ride. There are too many distractions—too many jokes, too many intriguing details, and, above all, too many reminders of the ride designers' sheer pleasure in their own technical ingenuity. In other words, there's no morbid preoccupation with sex and death; the subject matter was merely convenient, and it's no doubt for that reason that Walt Disney himself wasn't bothered by it. He knew that both rides were really about something else.

The Paris versions of both rides have been modified from their American originals—for example, a Western "ghost town" has been added at the end of the "Mansion" ride, whose Paris version is located in the park's Frontierland—but they're largely identical. The same is true of Disneyland Paris itself, which looks and feels very much like the "Magic Kingdoms" in California and Florida, only with familiar attractions rearranged and substitutions made, including the name "Discoveryland" for "Tomorrowland." Didier Ghez's lavish book Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality lays out in impressive detail the careful planning that went into all the departures from the U.S. templates.

As Phyllis and I made our way from one ride to another, I was struck—as I had not been when I visited Walt Disney World in Florida a few months earlier—by how few descendants "Mansion" and "Pirates" have among the Disney parks' attractions. A ride like "Star Tours" is fun, certainly, but the two older rides were shaped by a kind of ambition that is lacking elsewhere in the parks.

The parks have come to rely increasingly on "thrill rides" whose thrills are often pretty crude. Imagination is notably lacking in many of these rides, so that there's nothing much to distinguish the "Indiana Jones" ride at Disneyland Paris from hundreds of other roller coasters—except that this one goes backward. "Space Mountain" is perhaps the most intense roller coaster I've ever experienced, but you can make a roller coaster only so intense without inducing nausea and concussions, and the Paris version rushes right up to that edge.

Demographics are no doubt largely to blame for this shift. A park conceived for an audience dominated by families with small children, like the original Disneyland, could not rely on the same attractions to draw young adults without children in tow. But I think the changes in the parks involve more than a move from one kind of ride to another.

When I visited Walt Disney World, as I've written elsewhere on the site, some of the rides seemed to me equivalent to animated displays in department-store windows. At Paris, I realized that Walt Disney's original Disneyland, when it opened almost fifty years ago, was itself reminiscent of a department store of the classic kind. Those stores provided amenities—think of the recitals on the huge organ at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia—that didn't contribute directly to profit but made visiting a store more enjoyable and encouraged customers to come back, as well as spend more while they were there. Disneyland's landscaping, its profusion of flowers and trees, served much the same purpose, as did the exotic dress that Disney gave to what were often very ordinary rides, like some of those in Fantasyland.

Visiting Disneyland was supposed to be an enjoyable experience in itself, distinct from whatever pleasure might be found in the rides. Perhaps that was the rationale for paying separately for admission and for each ride, the system that prevailed when Disneyland opened in 1955 (and that was soon modified through the sale of letter-coded ticket books, with "E" tickets reserved for the best rides, like "Pirates").

I wonder if the shift in 1982 to a single pricey ticket, for a theme park and all the attractions in it, has not had the perverse effect, over time, of downgrading the importance of the park itself and increasing the pressure to come up with hard-edged thrill rides—and, beyond that, to use the rides as conduits into adjacent stores packed with Disney merchandise. The feeling I've had, in my recent visits to Disney parks, is that the people running them are preoccupied with "profit centers" but aren't sure where they are.

The people running Disneyland Paris certainly haven't found them. The park was busy when I was there, but not all that busy for a sunny Sunday afternoon in June—and it closed at 8 p.m., long before daylight was gone. The even earlier closing time at the adjacent Walt Disney Studios park—6 p.m.—was like a white flag of surrender. There were no lines at any of the rides, except for "Big Thunder Railroad," the most child-friendly of Disneyland's roller coasters. It occurred to me that many of the people at the park might be there on annual passes, which could be bought for little more than the price of two daily admissions.

Thanks in large part to the requirements of French law, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios are emphatically French parks, with only a little English in their signs and very little evidence of other languages. Sometimes the insistence on French leads to absurd results: at the Walt Disney Studios, Roy Disney and his uncle Walt spoke perfect dubbed French, with English subtitles, in a filmed introduction to a noisy how-we-do-it animation show.

Any sort of "European" flavor is otherwise lacking at Disneyland Paris, though, apart from the ready availability of wine and beer, an un-American tolerance for cigarette smoke, and the cool demeanor of the park employees. (I learned later that employees were trained initially to be as bright and cheerful as their American counterparts but Europeans found all those smiling faces too spooky.)

The park's efforts to strike a balance—preserving Disneyland's American character while accommodating European preferences—has not succeeded, at least not yet. A few days after my visit, the Walt Disney Co. and three French banks rescued Euro Disney SCA, Disneyland Paris's owner, for the second time in a decade, saving it from defaulting on $2.9 billion in debt.

Perhaps as a reflection of its financial strains, Disneyland Paris was fraying around the edges—chipped paint, dirty toilets, litter —when I saw it. Walt Disney would have tolerated none of it. The original Disneyland was terribly important to Walt himself—it was the best outlet he could find in the fifties and early sixties for his enormous energies—and he was always pushing toward an ever-receding goal of perfection at his park.

Walt Disney died almost thirty-eight years ago, but thanks to the force of his personality, the original Disneyland and the parks modeled on it, like the one in Paris, still make sense only when they seem to be perfect, or at least are clearly striving to be. All lapses from Walt's conception, whether they're dumb rides, indifferent employees, or dirty restrooms, loom larger than they might in a more relaxed atmosphere. My fundamental criticism of the Disney parks is not that they're frivolous or childish, but that they're entirely too serious. Underneath the jolly surface, they're stretched tight as a drumhead.

I encountered a park with a much more relaxed atmosphere—a park that Walt Disney visited often and used as a model for his own—later in my trip, and I'll write about it in another installment of this journal.

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[Click here to read the second installment in this journal, about the Annecy festival, the third installment, on the Swiss village of Zermatt, or the fourth installment, on Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Click here to go to the official site for Disneyland Resort Paris.]

[Posted July 17, 2004; updated December 2, 2004]

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