WORDS OF THE WEEK; Taking the mickey out of France
`Everything was themed, and it came as a minor relief to note that the sparrows did not fly in wearing Dumbo outfits. Everything, that is, except the toilets. This was a disappointment.'
Saturday 12 July 1997
Once you're inside, the first thing that strikes you about Disneyland Paris is that you are no longer in France, because nowhere in France could be so pink. The mock Southern-belle-style buildings along Main Street, USA, are all a ghastly shade of sickly lobster, and even the pavements are pink. But it's clean and it's bright and it's happy because you've entered a fantasy film set where there is no litter or graffiti; where all the cast members are slim and use deodorant. The females all wear appropriate underwear (or so I'm told) and the males are clean-shaven with short hair and no visible tattoos. It is the Disney Corporation's idea of what the world ought to be like, and after just a few hours inside the compound you begin to understand why the US produces so many homicidal maniacs.
So I spent my first day in Continental Europe wandering the plastic, alcohol-free world of make-believe, forever dodging in and out of somebody's video shot, marvelling at the imitation rock formations in concrete and reinforced polystyrene, admiring the topiary animals and the larger than life Disney characters signing autographs for their spellbound junior admirers. Besides Main Street, USA, there are four other "lands", each with its own attractions, entertainment, restaurants and shops. Everything is themed, so that on Main Street, USA, the cast members were kitted out in grey capes and turn-of-the-century small-town American gear, while tan-coloured Indiana Jones outfits were standard issue in Adventureland. (Sadly, pedal-powered onion sellers were conspicuous by their absence.) Old-style riverboats plied the waters of Frontierland; you could take a trip aboard a flying galleon in Fantasyland, and be piloted through the galaxy by delinquent robots in Discoveryland.
And, of course, the renowned mouse partnership was available in appropriate settings to guide you through a bewildering variety of retail entertainment. Inside the realistic Western General Store, Trading Post and Mining Supplies outlet, Minnie modelled the latest in fetching, imitation-leather squaw gear, sporting a single feather in her headband. And then, as if by magic, there she was again in veil and harem trousers to introduce you to her Scheherazade Collection inside the Adventureland Bazaar, while Mickey looked on, counting your money from beneath a fez set at a jaunty angle.
Yes indeed, everything within Disneyland's control was themed, and it came as a minor relief to note that the sparrows did not fly in wearing Dumbo outfits. Everything, that is, except the toilets, because once you've passed the symbol of a man wearing a serape in Frontierland you could be in the same restroom as the one that lies behind the man in the fez in the Adventureland bazaar (I tell a lie; they resisted the temptation to be culturally offensive in the bazaar: there was no fez). This was a disappointment, and an opportunity missed, I thought. I wanted to be overpowered by a wall of urinal stench as I passed that serape symbol, and piss in a real Mexican toilet surrounded by flies, or squat down over an evil-smelling hole in the ground behind the bazaar next to a cardboard cut-out of a straining Middle Eastern gentleman. Fantasyland should have been equipped with bathroom fixtures shaped like the Mad Hatter's teacups, while Indiana Jones hats could have served the same purpose in Adventureland, but, like good, clean-cut Americans the Disney Imagineers had stopped at the restroom thresholds.
One thing about the toilets was clear, however. They weren't French. Most French public loos are holes in the ground that you squat over, but this wasn't the sort of behaviour that Disney encouraged. In fact, the more I saw of Euro Disney the more puzzled I became about why it was there at all. Why should the French, so proud and defensive of their national culture, allow this wholesale importation of tacky foreign influence into their hallowed national space? Admittedly, the Disneyland theme park had simply displaced 56 hectares of beetroot fields, but you wouldn't have to be the most xenophobic of Frenchmen to believe that a Gallic beetroot is culturally more valuable than Mickey Mouse and his entourage. The French have even taken the subtle step of changing the park's name, from Euro Disney to Disneyland Paris, in an effort to stamp their identity on the place.
The extraordinary mix of fantasy and reality became disorienting. I wasn't in France, I wasn't in Europe, and I wasn't even really in the US. I also wasn't sure what was real and what was make-believe. Every gust of wind or rustling leaf had me looking for the hidden motor or secreted fan. Was it a real live horse pulling that streetcar, or an automated replica? I sat down beside a grassy bank near the Lucky Nugget Saloon, twangy Country and Western music emanating from hidden loudspeakers in the flower-bed behind me, to drink a coffee. It felt hot and looked black, and even smelt like real coffee, but when I took my first sip it became clear that this was as far as the resemblance to the real thing extended.
Somehow the suspended reality became sinister and even potentially dangerous. The candyfloss-pink buildings on Main Street looked almost good enough to eat, and may well have been more nourishing than the Maggi fare served up in the Restaurant Hakuna Matata. But it struck me that if you suffered a heart attack in Frontierland, or spontaneously ignited in Adventureland, the only attention you'd receive would be from a dozen dads wielding their camcorders and their numerous children shoving Disney autograph books up your nose. I suppose at least you would expire on camera, in an instant of fame entirely in keeping with the late 20th-century theme park.
Nick Middleton. `Travels as a Brussels Scout' by Nick Middleton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 17.99) is published on 14 July. Readers of `The Independent' can buy it for pounds 15.99 (p&p free) by calling Littlehampton Book Services (01903 736736). Quote reference TB.
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