A magical mouse in miseryland: Liz Kershaw continues our series on holidays with children by making an expensive dash for Euro Disney

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The Independent Travel
WHERE would Sam like to go for his birthday? 'Mitty Mouse House.'

Me too. We had visited Mitty Mouse's Californian house and had a wonderful time. Now that Mitty had got himself a European base we could visit him for a short birthday break and Sam, aged two, would never notice the difference, even if I would. And I certainly would.

I had been introduced to Disney as part of the LA experience. My friend Stevie had the whole thing planned. I had been to her house before, but it was Sam's first time here and we were about to make our debut visit to Disneyland together. Stevie lived for cartoon characters and on every one of my visits she had tried to drag me to the theme park for the ultimate American Experience. But there was always a beach to be sprawled on, a club to hang out in or a hangover to be cured.

'We'll go when we've got kids,' I'd say, and Stevie would agree. The day I gave birth she booked tickets.

Sam and I had been up since 5.30am due to the combined effects of jet-lag and excitement. It was already hot so I sat in the shade on the old front-porch swing, squinting beyond the white picket fence at the brilliant November sunshine glinting on the vast Pacific. Stevie's friend Bill arrived and we hopped into a mighty air-conditioned 'van' and headed for 'The Happiest Place on Earth'.

First stop was the main drag and a choice of 12 drive-thrus to pick up a coffee. 'Hi. My name is Max. Welcome to Taco Bell. What will it be today?'

'Just coffee, please.'

'Special promotion. Regular coffee at 69 cents comes complete with breakfast.'

'We don't want any food.'

'Enchilada or burrito?'

Less than three dollars lighter but stuffed with free food we cruised bumper-to-bumper past hoardings of hundreds of other fast-food chains; past the low-cost housing that is home to Anaheim's army of waitresses and car- park attendants; past the plate- glass mirrored windows of the motels and hotels that aim to sell home-from-home to Anaheim's millions of visitors, and into the Fifties fantasy that changed the landscape.

From the Goofy parking-lot we were borne to Main Reception by pastel-coloured electric cart. The park was quiet, so Minnie Mouse almost threw herself into Sam's buggy as we rounded the corner into Main Street. Several photo- opportunities later we were stuffing our faces with burgers in Walt's shady outdoor eaterie (dollars 25 - or pounds 15 as the rate was then).

It was time to hit the shops. My bag bulged with bargains: dollars 14 ( pounds 9) T-shirts, dollars 28 ( pounds 17) Mickey watches. Now for the rides. We plastered the factor 15 on our burning limbs as we queued for Star Tours. We relished the over- keen air-conditioning of It's A Small World, for which there was no queue at all. Sam squealed with delight as puppets, of his height and in national costumes, trilled: 'It's a world of laughter, it's a world of fun.'

By the end I was convinced that all was well with the world.

We were still singing as we crossed the bridge above the port of Long Beach, where the sun was setting behind acres of dusty Japanese cars. 'Take a look at that,' said Bill. 'And what do we send them? A cute mouse and a duck with no pants on]'

Yes, Mickey and Donald are major exports from the United States to Japan. And now Disney was unloading its products in France. Disney's all-European dream]

I was hooked. Which is why, 12 months later, my cousin and I found ourselves shivering in the middle of a plain near Paris with Sam and Stephen, aged 10. Two free press visits to Euro Disney had given me a taste for the place, but only a vague idea of the cost. A travel agency quoted pounds 960 for two adults and two children for two nights in a mid-priced hotel, flights included. A bit steep for a half-term treat.

I sat down and did my sums: 1,300 francs for the hotel, which I worked out as pounds 130, and maybe pounds 400 for flights (a long journey by ferry and car wouldn't be much fun for children in winter). So the news from BA was a bit of a blow: nearly pounds 200 per adult and pounds 96 per child from Heathrow midweek. If we went on a Saturday it was half that, but then the hotels were full. So we booked the Hotel Cheyenne direct, justifying the expense with: 'Well, it's for the kids.'

The exchange rate at Heathrow should have served as an omen for the trip. The pound had sunk to Fr8, so already our basic accommodation costs were up by 20 per cent. By the time we joined the back of the check-in queue at the hotel reception, we could see the rate was down to Fr7.5.

At some point during the long wait my cousin went in search of drinks and came back snow white: ' pounds 12 for four Cokes: pounds 12]'

Another hour along the line and Stephen was slumped over a rail, a look of bewilderment on his face still freckled from Florida. Sam was face down on the carpet sobbing: 'I want to go to Mitty Mouse House]' A cowgirl tried to explain to him that the computer was down and other cast members handed out cheery smiles, chicken wings and orange cordial.

Three hours after arriving, we trotted down the dark streets of Cheyenne to our room. The cold drove us straight into the Red Garter Saloon for supper. Here was another lengthy queue at the barbecue buffet. Two bemused children again had to wait patiently. This line was so long because the restaurant was not exclusively for Hotel Cheyenne customers. If I'd known that when I booked I'd have stayed in a cheaper hotel and pushed in like every other Tom, Dick and Harry.

What a battle for two plates of meat, three bowls of chips, two coffees and two tiny cartons of milk. A snip at pounds 48. This was our one and only 'Wild West dining experience'.

We had particularly asked not to be on the ground floor. The window of our ground-floor room wouldn't shut properly. Back to reception. Could we swap rooms? Only after 1pm. We'd be in the park then. Could we move now? No, they were full. Could the window be repaired tonight? No: maintenance would come at 7am. No one came. But at least it got us up and dressed and ready for a crowd-beating sprint to the Disneyland Hotel.

Following advice from the bedside guest guide, I tried to book a table. Several abortive inter-hotel phone calls later (for which I was charged), I learnt that the reservations system had been scrapped. 'Just get there before eight to get a chance at a Character Breakfast.'

And what exactly is a Character Breakfast? Simply help yourselves to a buffet while jostling for a kiss from Mickey Mouse. Wave as he's whisked away by a walkie-talkie- toting bodyguard. And hand over your francs before your tables are hijacked by other eager parents. A magical way to offload 70 quid before the gates even open.

Another way to kiss your cash goodbye is to buy extra clothing to fend off frostbite. One pair of toddler's jogging pants (for under his cords) and an extra jacket saw off pounds 50. After this we decided to spend no more in the shops, and a lot of time just watching and hanging around on corners waiting for the right moments.

That night we lay in our bunks and schemed. No more of this aimless shilly-shallying. No more disappointments for the children waiting in the cold. If we were to beat our Euro neighbours in the queues-and-crowds game we needed a strategy. Studying maps and timetables, we plotted our course for the next day:

9am: Star Tours - before the park fills up.

10.00: Haunted House - most of the queue is indoors.

11.00: Petting Farm - not very popular but tell the boys it's great.

11.45: Stroll around Sleeping Beauty's Castle. It's warm.

12.30pm: Le Magique de Mickee - outdoor theatre. A bit of a botty-freezer this one.

1.30: Annette's Diner - thaw out with cheap fries.

3.00: Parade - watch from cafe. Warm fingers on mugs.

4.00: Shops - just looking, thanks. (It's warm])

5.00: Annette's Diner - more cheap chips.

6.00: Euro Disney Express train ride - alight in Fantasyland. Everyone else gets off there.

6.30: Disembark in Fantasyland. It's for smaller kids who have now gone home to bed. So . . . Peter Pan's Flight, Tea Cups, Dumbo, Carousel, Small World.

8.00: Electric Parade - watch from outside Small World. It's deserted up there at this time.

8.30: Pirates of the Caribbean - deserted by now.

8.40: Small World and Tea Cups again.

8.55: Buy hot chocolate to take back to Cheyenne.

9.00: Trek back via Hotel New York car park before they lock back gates.

10.00: Tuck happy children into bed with warm drinks.

As Linda and I sat on the side of the bath thawing our blistered feet in hot water and smugly toasting our successful strategy with hot toddies, two little boys were whispering in their bunks.

'Do you want to go home, Sam?'

'No. No.'

'I don't . . . I want to live here for ever.'

In less than three days they had seen it all, done it all and were once more satisfied Disney customers. And us? Just relieved to have some small change from pounds 1,500.

This winter we'll be off again to 'The Happiest Place on Earth'. Only this time it'll be hot and we'll take dollars. Florida, here we come]

Packages More than 200 UK tour operators sell Euro Disney packages, including British Airways Holidays (061-493 3344); Kirker Holidays (071-231 3333); Sally Holidays (0732 780440); Thomson Holidays (021-632 6282); and Travelscene (081-427 4445). Travelscene, for example, offers a two-night visit with a flight from Heathrow from about pounds 269 per person on a bed- and-breakfast basis, staying in the Hotel Santa Fe. The price includes a pass to Euro Disney. Accommodation Rooms can be booked directly with Euro Disney via a London telephone number: 071-753 2900. Rooms cost from pounds 55 (low season at the Cheyenne and Santa Fe) to more than pounds 200 per night (high season at the Disneyland) - or self-catering accommodation at the Davy Crockett campground starts at pounds 90 per cabin per night.

Admission A one-day pass costs 225 francs for adults (about pounds 29); children (between three and 11) pay 150 francs (about pounds 20), under-threes get in free.

Guides Euro Disney: The Mainstream Unofficial Guide (Mainstream, pounds 4.99) by Tania Alexander follows the style of the 'unofficial' guides to Disney in the US, offering advice on how to beat the queues (in essence, get there early) and which rides are best for different ages. Fodor's has just published Euro Disney: The Complete Guide ( pounds 8.99) which also offers a useful concise guide to the main sights of Paris.

(Photograph omitted)

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