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Travel: Theme Parks - 'Disneyland Paris is my favourite country!'

It might once have been the mighty empire's biggest embarrassment, but the marketing machine has won through. By Tania Alexander
IF YOU really want to see a child's face light up, tell them you're taking them to Disneyland Paris. Disney marketing is so powerful, and children so immersed in Disney cartoons and characters, that this is the theme park that most under-10s will choose.

My excitable pair (aged five and four) get hyped up even at the mention of a weekend away in England, so we didn't disclose our destination until we stepped off the Eurostar train at the gates of Disneyland Paris, three hours and 10 minutes after we'd left Waterloo. "Wow. Mum!" shrieked my five-year-old, almost beside himself. "Disneyland Paris is my favourite country!"

If you live in London or the South-East, taking the Eurostar really is the best way to travel. The daily train leaves Waterloo at 9.10am which means that even allowing for the hour's time difference, you can be strolling merrily down Main Street (the first of five "lands" in the Park) by 1.30pm. The Disney Express service transports your bags straight from the railway station to your Disney hotel. If budget permits, I'd recommend staying at the luxurious Disneyland Paris hotel which is right at the entrance to the park and looks like a pretty pink fairy hotel.

The Cheyenne Hotel is a 15-minute walk away - only a two star but excellent fun as it's styled like a wild west town and a great place for mock cowboy games.

When we visited at the beginning of May, the park was the busiest I've seen it in all our half-a-dozen visits. After an exciting afternoon in the park, we returned to Sequoia Lodge where we were staying, to find queues for everything from collecting our luggage to booking breakfast the next day. Guests are now advised to reserve all meals, including breakfast - when we tried to do this at 5.30pm the only breakfast slots left were at 7am or 9.30am, neither convenient if you want to get a good night's sleep and be in the park by 9am when it opens. We also failed to get a reservation for the 6.30pm Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show which was disappointing as out of the main summer weeks, there is not much alternative evening entertainment. (In July and August, when the park stays open until 11pm, there's an electric light parade followed by a firework display.) As our children were in a Wild West mood, we took the next best option of walking over to the Hotel Cheyenne where they played on the cowboy wagons in the Chuckwagon Cafe and we all had a reasonably priced, filling meal in this self-service restaurant.

If you're touring with small children, don't be too ambitious about how many rides you get on. Hiring a stroller at Fr30 (pounds 3.20) per day is a good idea for the under-fives but as there is no lock on these, we had two stolen by the end of the first afternoon (it's worth tying a ribbon or a piece of clothing around them for instant identification and to deter other parents walking off with them).

We found our two could only cope with three or four big queues in a day - waiting 45 minutes for the one-minute Dumbo ride was frustrating for all and not something you want to keep on repeating. Must tries for this age group include the Casey Junior mini roller-coasters (whoops of delight from all the young passengers), the Fairy Tale Boat Ride, A Small World (adults cringe at the dancing dolls from around the world but small kids love it), Pirates of the Caribbean (exciting for all ages) and Peter Pan's Flight (always huge queues, so head here first).

The weekend didn't disappoint and by the time we had to leave, both kids were declaring that they wanted to live there forever. Surprisingly the biggest hit for our kids was not the sophisticated animatronic rides, or the truly spectacular Disney Parade, but the characters. We witnessed the first signs of "groupieism" when we took them to a Character Breakfast.

If you're going to buy the kids a souvenir, buy an autograph book when you arrive - they cost Fr39 and are a must-have when your children are chasing after the Disney "stars". A character breakfast costs Fr160 (adults) or a small supplement if you're a guest at a Disney hotel, but is well worth the money as the smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and substantial buffet food is very good and keeps the adults fuelled up until dinner. The kids were too excited to eat more than a few mouthfuls but they were enthralled by following their favourite characters around the restaurant.

This brings us to the appearance of Mickey Mouse. Throughout the trip our kids had anxiously asked us when they'd see "Mickey". Although you can always see him from a distance in the Parade and in the superb Disney Classics show, you have to be at the peak at opening time if you want a face-to-face Mickey encounter. Booking a Character Breakfast is pot luck - there is usually a rotation of 10 characters in each venue.

We had Minnie among our famous guests, but alas, no Mickey. Until the end, that is, when Mickey strolled in to join in the birthday celebrations of one of the young diners. I was alerted to his arrival by my four-year- old jumping up and down shrieking: "Mickey's here!" at the top of her voice and nearly wetting her knickers with excitement. Evidently the entrance of Mickey Mouse was just as enthralling for her and all the other young children there as Mick Jagger's would have been for my generation.

With all its hype, Disneyland Paris would not have been my first choice for a European theme park, but there is no denying that for kids this remains a trip of a lifetime.

disneyland paris fact file

General information

Open all year; 10am-6pm low season, 9am-8pm high season. pounds 17.50-pounds 25 admission (pounds 14-pounds 17.50 children). Further details: Disneyland Paris Direct 0990 030303. Cost for a family of four (two adults, two children) to travel to France by ferry or Le Shuttle, stay at the Hotel Cheyenne for one night with breakfast and have two days in the park - from pounds 278. For the same family to travel by Eurostar, stay at the Disneyland Hotel for one night with breakfast and two days in the park from pounds 864. Eurostar has daily services through the summer and during school holidays (weekends only in winter). Call 0870 6000 782.