I went . . . I sneered . . . I was conquered: Euro Disney astonished Geraldine Bedell - she actually liked it
Euro Disney shares hit an all-time low last week, and analysts were predicting a pounds 30m first-year loss. British reports, blaming poor attendance rates, carried a strong whiff of schadenfreude, as if this was no more than Euro Disney deserved. Who did this Disney Corporation think they were, plonking down a theme park in the middle of France? France is the place you go to complain about how Peter Mayle has inflated the price of a daube. It is not where you expect to find roller-skating waitresses, fast food and a lot of other English people.
The whole point of Europe is supposed to be to allow sophisticated people to identify with the chic, baguette-eating, wine-making French, rather than the vulgar, shell-suited, loutish British. So the other Brits, who were swarming all over Euro Disney, were dismaying. 'I bet half these people never even came to France before this place was built,' I thought grumpily. 'It's perfectly obvious no one with any taste could possibly enjoy something so artificial, such a vacuum-packed atmosphere.'
I had no sense of being in France. After breakfast served by pretend cowboys, we walked along an artificial river called the Rio Grande, past an artificial lake called Buena Vista, down an artificial street vaguely got up to look like Las Vegas. Inside the park we could choose to wander around Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, Futureland - but they were all basically the same: fakes.
There was, I said crossly, something rather Fascist about the way the Disney Corporation had its tentacles round every last detail: even fallen leaves were swiftly brushed away by an army of themed cleaners. There was something even more distasteful about all this marketing to children. Especially when it cost their parents pounds 750 for a weekend.
And then we saw Mickey Mouse. He was on a veranda, waving. My five- year-old son's face lit up. All our faces lit up. 'Is this where Mickey Mouse lives?' breathed my son, awed. A bit further on, both children shook - actually shook - Donald Duck's hand. They went red with pleasure. So did we. I began to feel secretly rather excited.
Gunfire spattered over our heads during lunch: cowboys were having a rooftop shoot-out. We wandered through an Arab bazaar, with views of leaping African dancers and the spires of Sleeping Beauty's castle. And it struck me that Euro Disney isn't fake or ersatz at all, because it isn't actually trying to be anything except itself.
In the end, it's just a confection, with its own distinctive charms - one of which, amazingly, is queueing. If someone had told me I'd happily spend seven hours in one weekend queueing with two children, I'd have scoffed. But there is obviously a great queueing expert at Disney, who has worked out a way to keep the queues moving, even if round in circles, and had the bright idea of putting up notices at the start of the lines that make you think you'll have to queue longer than you actually do. By the end of the weekend, I was feeling so benign about the queues, I began to think perhaps you couldn't relish Big Thunder Mountain properly if you hadn't waited 90 minutes for it.
I stopped seeing the British as vulgar and decided we were actually less culturally constrained, more fun-loving than all those other uptight Europeans who were staying away. I stopped feeling pompous about whether all this laid-on entertainment might stifle the children's imaginations: my son got into the spirit of things by himself becoming themed, spending the entire weekend as a pirate. So now we won't hear talk of Euro Disney being any kind of failure. We know it's great: we've met Mickey Mouse.
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