Life in the jaws of the mouse that roars: Euro Disneyland's neighbours are adapting to the noise and low pay, but fear the worst is yet to come. Julian Nundy on the fairy-tale so far

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The Independent Online
THE MONASTERY of Notre Dame de la Visitation is at the end of a bumpy little track. A converted hunting and forestry lodge near Neufmoutiers-en-Brie, its only background noises are those of the forest.

Benedictine monks opened the monastery at the request of Louis Cornet, the Bishop of Meaux, nearly two years ago. It is an ideal place to escape the stresses of the modern world - and those of Euro Disneyland. The monastery was founded specifically for Disney 'cast members' who might seek a spiritual interlude from the relentless wishing-on-a-star-type music five miles away.

At the village of Magny-le- Hongre, adjacent to the theme park, the diocese has installed a 'Peace Workshop' where crafts such as pottery, weaving and book- binding are practised. Father Roger Maksud tells how fireworks technicians from Disney brought their expertise to the village fete a few weeks ago. 'They organised a silent fireworks display,' he says, stressing the word 'silent'.

The prospect of Mickey Mouse moving into the neighbourhood - from the signature of the contract setting up Euro Disneyland five years ago to the opening of the park last April - brought hopes and fears to what was a very rural region just 30 minutes' drive from Paris. In the first three months of operation, however, the disruption has been less than feared, while the economic fallout has not approached the hopes.

'We were more disturbed during the building work when there were trucks,' says Pierre Magniez, the deputy mayor of Crecy-la-Chapelle, a town of 3,250. 'People split their houses into little studios for Disney staff and set high rents but things are getting more reasonable now.'

Mr Magniez and others, however, fear that the worst is yet to come. Work is due to begin in the next few weeks on phase two of Euro Disneyland. With that, the trucks will be back, adding to the influx of tourist traffic.

Phase two includes the construction of Disney MGM Studios-Europe, a convention centre, a water park, and another 13,000 hotel rooms to add to the 5,200 opened in April. Scheduled for completion in 2017, the whole site will occupy 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres), one-fifth the size of Paris. Phase one, which opened in April, covers slightly less than a third of the total area reserved for Disney.

Economically, locals complain that the standard Euro Disney salary, 6,000 francs a month (about pounds 7,000 a year), is too low for anyone wishing to make a career.

Famous visitors have included Stephen Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time, on Good Friday, and the Duchess of York with her children after her separation from Prince Andrew. But few bother to pass through the nearby villages, preferring to stick to the motorways or the rail links.

With poor weather during much of the past few weeks, incentives for Parisians to visit have been few, but the flow of foreign visitors has been such that staff say there have been weekends when the park has had to close its doors in the morning because the capacity of 70,000 had already been reached. Euro Disneyland needs an average of 30,000 a day, an ambitious figure, to reach its hoped-for 11 million visitors in the first year.

Many of the 12,000 cast members and 4,000 or so people working in the hotels or administration are language students who come for a few months. In Magny-le- Hongre, the original population of 300 now has 800 cast members, who include Britons, Irish, Belgians, Italians and a few French, lodged in a specially built development. 'There's some friction between the English and the French,' says Father Maksud. 'The English drink too much.'

An early complaint about Euro Disneyland touched on the fireworks display that often closes the park. In some villages, noise meters were installed. 'We were having dinner in Meaux one night,' says a Disney cast member, 'when we heard these explosions. Suddenly we realised it was Euro Disney fireworks.' Meaux is about 10 miles from the park.

Since the beginning, efforts have been made to reduce the noise. Cast members say that one solution was to fire the display from inside the park itself rather than from just outside. Locals also protested about train whistles and Mississippi steamer hooters repeatedly sounding throughout the day, and the noise was reduced.

Cast members and locals alike criticise the salaries. Of the Fr6,000 earned monthly, Fr4,800 is left after deductions. On average, the employees have to pay about Fr2,000 in rent, meaning they have little to spend on themselves. Officials of the Euro Disney company say there has been a staff turnover of 13.5 per cent.

A common complaint about Euro Disney is the shortage of information about the company. Shares in Euro Disney are now trading at Fr102, down sharply from this year's high of Fr165.20.

Father Bernard Poupard, who set up the Neufmoutiers monastery after writing a report for the Catholic Church on the likely impact of Euro Disneyland, describes the park as a 'fortress, a closed universe, a cyst'.

Father Poupard dismisses a French press report that his monastery was created as 'an antidote to frivolity'. Just a few cast members have visited so far and he says he only expects those who are already religious. 'You have to want to come here; a monastery is not an attraction.'

The 'Peace Workshop', Father Maksud says, is 'a place where people can come and sit down'. Euro Disneyland is 'a world of money, a world of imitations - even the cracks in the bridges are false - here we want everything to be real. Here everything remains to be done. Up there (in Euro Disneyland) only the shooting stand is active, and there you have to pay, everything else is passive . . . people are happy to see we are here, that there is another vision of the world.'

(Photograph omitted)