Taking the mickey out of Euro Disney

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been hard not to sense a certain glee among Europeans at news of the difficulties of the Euro Disney theme park near Paris. Because of America's history of political and military intervention, the nation's cultural products have taken on a symbolic significance far beyond that of most methods of nutrition or leisure. Coca-Cola has become a message, not a beverage; the Big Mac a flag of conquest rather than a snack. A recent book about the Coca-Cola corporation has been treated by reviewers as a subliminal history of America, an indulgence unlikely to be accorded to a Briton claiming the saga of Robinson's Barley Water.

Euro Disney looks like a rare reverse. We might have had to admit McDonald's to Hampstead, but the forces of darkness have been headed off at Paris. The barbarians are at the gates, but no one is buying their tickets. Euro Disney, we are tempted to think, is America's cultural Vietnam, a punishment for the hubristic over-reach of its commercial colonisation of the globe.

For the British, the resort's financial shortfall brings further temptations of interpretation. Has the project stumbled because of the traditional American arrogance of the Disney chiefs in attempting it, or because of the standard Parisian unpleasantness of the staff they were forced to employ? Much of the British coverage has concluded that the answer is 'half and half': opportunities to feel superior simultaneously to the Americans and the French do not often come our way, so we have seized this one with both V-sign-waving hands.

Is there any justification for this Schadenfreude and cultural pride? To decide this, we need to examine the plausibility of the various explanations for Euro Disney's crisis. The park's bosses have accused some of their critics of visionary hindsight and second-hand impressions, so I should perhaps say that I visited Euro Disney shortly after its launch and expressed strong reservations then about the project's potential.

The first explanation for the park's problems is the official Disney line and a standard politician's buck-passer. Indeed, it is the exact answer that Western ministers have been giving for the past two years to any accusation of failure: global economic problems and the fluctuations of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which have made all currencies Mickey Mouse money. Accordingly, general financial recovery will put Pluto and the others back into orbit.

My view of this excuse is that the people running Euro Disney have spent too long imagining fantasy worlds. Perhaps they should add to Space Mountain, Critter Country and the other attractions at their sites an area called Fiscal Farm, where politicians and businessmen can go to count their chickens before they hatch, and voters can be taken for a ride again and again. External economic circumstances may have blighted Euro Disney's birth, but there is another financial difficulty for which the park's bosses are responsible and which is unlikely to be resolved by reliance on economic cycles.

The transatlantic airline price war and the American tradition of cheap motels with family rooms mean that for a British family to visit Euro Disney has generally been only marginally cheaper, if at all, than to visit the American parks. Recovery, being likely to apply to all travel markets, is unlikely to reduce this inequity. Nor will Disney be able to do much about the French weather. When I was there, Euro Disney's loving re-creation of the sands of New Mexico had more or less become cement after four days of rain.

The second explanation - and always tempting for the British - is to blame the French. At the risk of recklessly encouraging stereotypes, there is some support for this view. The work ethic and service tradition of the Japanese - the only previous un-Americans permitted to host a Disney spin-off, in Tokyo - happened to coincide across cultures with US attitudes. The European experiment was a skin graft that stitched rough to smooth.

Although the Disneyland concept has always been relentlessly sentimental, there is nothing inherently tacky or cheap about it: the rides are planned, engineered and ordered like a military manoeuvre rather than a cultural one. The trick depends, however, on being enacted with total conviction. The emblem of the Disney Corporation ought properly to be Tinkerbell, who could be kept alive only by general belief. Disney acknowledges the crucial theatricality of the enterprise - the suspension of disbelief on which it depends - by referring to guides and other staff as 'cast-members'.

It is apparently a sackable offence for an employee in animal rig to acknowledge to a visitor, under whatever verbal duress, that they are human underneath. Successful fantasy requires absolute inner conviction, and Euro Disney lacks it. There is an air of uncertainty and apathy among the staff, a fear of embarrassment, which is more a part of the European heritage than the American.

Some would also argue that visitors ideally need to be American as well, the national psyche being famously attuned to fantasy in numerous ways of which the eight years of the Reagan presidency are merely one example. But huge numbers of Europeans troop through the turnstiles at the US sites. Maybe the attitude of the British to Disney theme parks is that of the English upper classes of the past towards adultery - an acceptable pleasure unless attempted too close to home.

The third, more pan-European, theory is that Euro Disney was too American in design: that it made no concession to its change of location. This is the most unfair charge. The problem is probably more that the Disney parks require the context of America (or, in Tokyo, a wannabe-American culture). To the European visiting the US, the entire nation seems some gaudy, remorselessly jaunty fantasy land, peopled by bizarre 'cast-members', of which the Disney theme parks are merely a logical continuation.

Euro Disney's critics have accused it of being a simple copy of the American models, arrogantly imposed on a quite different culture. But this is untrue. The difference between Paris and Florida or California is that the first has a whole extra layer of exhibits apparently calculated to make spectators believe they are in America. Each of the theme park's hotels recreates a different region of the US: the Hotel New York sells genuine imported Manhattan souvenirs under a simulacrum of the Hudson River skyline, the Hotel Santa Fe has the desert (sadly, made of cement) mentioned above. This was clearly an acknowledgement by Euro Disney's planners of the need for the parks to be rooted in the US. Perhaps they should have followed through the logic of this perception and stayed away from France.

But if the troubles of Euro Disney seem to some Europeans to represent a success in preventing the away team from scoring, we should look, before smugness sets in, at the quality of the goals we have put away at the other end. European cultural triumphalists might reflect that the main artistic export from the cradle of civilisation in recent years has been the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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