Magic of Disneyland Paris casts its spell on Brits

The recovering UK economy has seen thousands of families flocking across the Channel to visit Mickey & Co, reports Gideon Spanier

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The Independent Online

If visitors to Disneyland Paris are a bellwether of Europe’s economy, then Britain is doing much better than most of its eurozone counterparts.

“The UK economy has been coming back for us,” says Joe Schott, chief operating officer of parent Euro Disney.

Britons made up 14 per cent of all visitors to the theme-park complex, Europe’s most-popular tourist destination, last year, up from 13 per cent a year earlier. It means about 2.1 million of Disneyland Paris’s 14.9 million annual visitors came from the UK, which has long been the resort’s most-important market for customers after France itself.

This year’s peak period begins in earnest this weekend with the start of the school Easter holidays as the park adopts a “Swing into Spring” theme, including a daily Disney spring promenade parade full of film and cartoon characters. Thousands of Britons will try nearly 60 attractions from Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, spread out over two adjacent parks, the Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios, and many will also stay at one of the resort’s seven hotels.

Mr Schott is grateful for the British because attendance numbers from other countries have been falling. The French (responsible for half of all visitors), the Spanish and the Dutch were all down, according to Euro Disney’s latest quarterly results, which blamed “continued economic softness in Europe”.

It is no coincidence that Germany, the strongest eurozone economy, was the only other major European country apart from Britain to send a higher proportion of visitors last year. However, the Germans made up only 3 per cent or around 450,000  – barely one fifth of the Brits. Big-spending Middle Eastern and Russian visitors have been on the rise but they are a small minority.

Mr Schott, an American and Disney veteran of almost  30 years, who moved to Paris in 2009, cannot do much about the woes of the eurozone, which was part of the reason why group revenues last year fell 1 per cent to €1.3bn  (£1.1bn). However, he is more optimistic about Euro Disney’s own finances.

The Paris-listed company, which is 40 per cent owned by Walt Disney, suffered for years from high interest payments on its €1.7bn of borrowings – a legacy of the theme park’s costly launch in 1992.

“In order to make a change [even] to the merchandise shop, we’d have to petition the banks and convince them that it would be the right decision – we’d have to go through layers and layers of explanation,” recalls Mr Schott.

A refinancing and an easing of loan covenants in September 2012 was a watershed as it gave Mr Schott and his colleagues greater freedom to reinvest, even though the company is still loss-making. “Instead of making short-term decisions, we’re able to focus on the long term,” he says.

One of the biggest investments is a much-anticipated Ratatouille ride, based on the 2007 Pixar film about a rat who becomes a chef in Paris, which is set to open this summer.

“There will be no other ride like it in the world – it is by far the most technologically advanced,” promises Mr Schott, who describes it as a “dark” ride that uses digital technology to immerse guests. “It will reduce you to the size of a rat. Everything around you is huge.”

Mr Schott will not put a price on building the Ratatouille attraction. But an investment in a single ride can range from “a few million to above €100m”, he says, giving an indication of the ongoing financial challenges involved in refreshing a park that is  22 years old.

There are less capital-intensive ways of devising new attractions such as a glittering, night-time light-and-music show, Disney Dreams, which was introduced to mark the park’s 20th anniversary.

Some still carp that this slice of Americana looks out of place on the outskirts  of Paris.

Mr Schott concedes that it is important to feature local “places that people know and have an affinity with”, so it has encouraged a greater focus on European characters from the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Scottish cartoon Brave

A more serious criticism has been about the supposedly inferior quality and high price of some of the food, which last year prompted an online protest that won the support of thousands of people.

Mr Schott maintains his team has worked hard to improve standards, describing it as “an insane obsession” across the resort. Cutting prices is unlikely as “we’re positioned all over the world as a premium experience”.

Daily entry to the park is about £54 for an adult and £49 for a child, although some deals and hotel packages make it cheaper.

Mr Schott is convinced Disneyland Paris has a promising future in the internet age because people still want a live, communal experience “where the magic comes alive”.

“Why they come to the park is to live out that experience as closely as possible,” he says. “People want to escape the things they do on a daily basis. Fantasy has always been a part of our lives.

“That curiosity that you had as a child you hope you never lose and that’s what drives people to theme parks.”

Having Walt Disney as a shareholder has benefits, adds Mr Schott, as it means Euro Disney can wait for the American giant’s other parks to invest in new technology such as the My Magic+ digital wristband, which makes payments easier and cuts queue times. If the technology works well, then Disneyland Paris can consider it.

Analysts have long wondered if Disney, which wholly owns most of its theme parks, will buy all of Disneyland Paris – a move that would end its financial pressures. Mr Schott won’t comment but points out: “It’s in Disney’s interests for this place to succeed.”