Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Why I went to Disneyland Paris for my 50th birthday

It was so hard to think of my 50th birthday as a celebration. It felt like the end of a life. The girl who did all those things is gone, leaving behind a middle aged woman who walks with a limp and works part time at a local library. It's hard to be me when the things that I used to define me have faded after 50 years in the light. So still trying to learn what might be appropriate for this stranger, this 50-year-old, I had to decide how to mark her arrival.

A late December birthday scatters friends and drastically thins out big music events and festivals. And I wanted something I'd never done before. Something exciting, exotic, way out of my cultural comfort zone. Something fun.

The longsuffering Lovely Paul arrived at Disneyland Paris looking like a man who had accidentally booked a holiday to a theme park called World of Spiders. He was quickly cheered up by the hotel (rather outdated decor, but nice and clean, the service was excellent and the lobby smelled lovely). I immediately felt, not like a grown-up on a kid's holiday, but like a guest. In fact all through our time there, I never felt out of place, awkward, or as if I needed to have children to validate my presence, in a welcome change from non-Disney land.

My castle.
The park itself is laid out to create maximum awe. Walking up Main Street, I caught my first glimpse of Aurora's castle, lit up and glittering for Christmas. I realised I was really here, the magic was real, and it was (at least partly) for me, and I burst into tears. The next day, overlooking Main Street during lunch at Walt's, I was able to watch a more or less continuous stream of other visitors reach the same point, stop, and shuffle off sniffling. Once you reach the castle balcony, you can see the whole park, and imagine you are Princess of the entire realm, but at ground level, the visitor is constantly turning to see something new, exploring, and coming upon surprises. One minute you may be lost in a cave, the next following a trail of animal prints round a corner to find yourself face to face with Baloo and King Louie. On a Disney property, your disbelief is suspended, and you are given permission to be delighted. As a rational adult, I know that the dragon under the castle is animatronic, but another, older part of my brain tells me that the dragon is real, and that I need to jump smartly out of the way when she blasts smoke at me.

For our first night, I had, with some trepidation, planned dinner at Inventions, a buffet featuring roaming Disney characters. The idea was to get us immersed in the magic as quickly as possible, like jumping into a cold pool of mice. I was half expecting one of us to take badly to being "bothered" when eating dinner, and feared the evening may end in being escorted from the building for threatening Donald Duck with a jug of orange sauce. In fact, the characters are extremely good at judging when they will be welcome, and do everything they can to enhance the meal rather than distracting from it. Special mention to a brilliantly sarcastic Pluto, who, on being informed that Paul had mixed him up with Goofy, carefully showed him the name tag on his collar.

Magic booze.

The food, for what it's worth, was pretty good - it suffered a little from the apparent belief that vegetarians don't eat protein of any kind, but then it's France; French chefs in general seem to cling to the old-fashioned belief that vegetarians are people who are not interested in food. The flagship California Grill was offering fish as its "vegetarian" main course, which caused us to cancel our reservation altogether.  That said, although I had some rather dull meals at Disneyland Paris (Walt's, I am looking at you with your 50 euros for mushroom ravioli in cream and a plain undressed salad) there was always plenty of fresh fruit and veg on offer, our meal plan came with vouchers for a free midafternoon hot drink with fruit or cake, and every restaurant was exquisitely themed and an attraction in itself. There is certainly no need to live on fast food, as many theme park visitors seem to expect. There was no tea or coffee maker in our hotel room, but there was a nice bar downstairs with insane light-up cocktails and substantial bar snacks, and Disney Village just across the road with bars, restaurants, and a Starbucks.

Theming in a Frontierland restaurant

I had thought that four nights and five days (the result of my legendary enthusiasm for a special offer) might be a bit much. I had thought that by day two we would have been on all the rides, seen all the shows and met all the characters. I had thought we might have a day in Paris as respite from all the relentless magic. Fast-forward to day 3, and we're already planning a second trip. That fourth ride on Phantom Manor was just not enough. We never did manage to go on everything (to be fair, I was ill and felt Tower of Terror or Crush's Coaster might have been just asking for trouble), and in any case, many rides are due to be refurbished for the 25th anniversary in 2017 and we'd like to see the difference.

I get it now. I get why adults come here, and come back again and again. It's that part of your brain that makes you jump out of the way of the dragon. In the same way that music and stories are necessary, maybe so are human-sized mice and floating through pirate battles and being turned upside down at high speed while listening to Aerosmith. Those who know me know that I was brought up to believe that I didn't matter, that I couldn't do anything and the dreams are for other people. The very antithesis of the Disney way, which tells us that anyone, regardless of aptitude or training, is special and important enough to do anything if they just dream hard enough. Of course, that gets you your dinner cooked by a rat, but it was a good dinner, so maybe it's Disney who are right here.

The Ratatouille ride and Bistrot Chez Remy area