For Americans, Disneyland Paris can be equal parts comforting and frightening. All the familiar Disney stuff is there: the castle, a main street, and of course Mickey, but it's still a foreign experience. Don your beret and come sample the pixie dust in Paris.
Not a guidebook, An American in Disneyland Paris is a story, a "theme park encounter" told by former newspaper reporter Chuck Schmidt, who for decades covered the "Disney beat" for the Staten Island Advance. Chuck's insight into the park and the tale of its creation is first-hand, the result of his connections and interviews with such Disneyland Paris "fathers" as Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter.
The story doesn't end at the gates of Sleeping Beauty Castle. The second act of Chuck's book is given over to his return home, aboard the Disney Magic. Once more, his press credentials give him access to areas of the ship and "backstage crew" not shared by other passengers. Chuck's interviews with costume technicians, lighting designers, show performers, and even a creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering provide unique perspective on what it's like to work on a Disney cruise ship, and how Disney keeps passengers busy and happy during the long ocean crossing.
From Disney magic to Disney Magic, this is one "vacation" you'll never forget!
Chapter 1: Our Land-and-Sea Adventure Begins
Chapter 2: A First Taste of Disneyland Paris
Chapter 3: More Paris, Disneyland Paris, and Galloping into America's Wild West
Chapter 4: Making the Most of Our Last Two Days at Disneyland Paris
Chapter 5: The Magic and Wonder of an 11-Night Atlantic Ocean Crossing
The title of this tome may be a bit misleading. An American in Paris, starring the incomparable Gene Kelly, has always been one of my favorite movies. It seemed only natural when it came time to attach a title to this book—detailing our first visit to Paris, France, as well as Disneyland Paris and a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the Disney Magic—that the title should reflect the film classic, despite the fact that I was far from alone on this grand adventure.
My wife, Janet, a closet travel professional, deserves all the credit for meticulously planning, preparing, and pulling off an amazing 20-day odyssey on two continents and one very large ocean. She worked for months ironing out all the details of our trip, which began at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on September 10, 2015, and finished there on September 30. Me? I was just along for the ride, notepad and pen in hand.
So, even though An American in (Disneyland) Paris implies there was just one person involved, that’s the furthest from the truth. Merci beaucoup, my love.
In addition to Janet’s stellar planning and scheduling skills, she helped enlist two other wonderful people who also were instrumental in the trip’s success—Gail and Julian Robinson. When the Robinsons (who live in Canada when they’re not “snow-birding” in Florida) found out Janet and I were planning to visit France and would be on board the Disney Magic during its trans-Atlantic voyage from Barcelona, Spain, to Miami, Florida, they wanted to be part of the fun.
Julian was born in England and has visited Paris on several occasions. His presence ensured that we would see the City of Lights from the perspective of a seasoned visitor, avoiding the tourist traps and finding some hidden gems along the way. And since both Gail, a retired teacher, and Julian have visited Disneyland Paris in the past, they were able to guide us to some pretty amazing places in the parks, like a classy restaurant named Walt’s along Main Street U.S.A. and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the Disney Village. We are eternally grateful to the Robinsons for their expertise and companionship during our amazing adventure. And thanks, as well, for the photos they took, many of which adorn this book.
Our original plans called for us to visit London first, then take the high-speed Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel to Paris. We would take in as many of the fabled Parisian sites as we could before spending several days in Disneyland Paris. A short flight to Barcelona, Spain, would allow us to hook up with the Disney Magic for its return to the United States after the ship had spent most of the summer plying the waters of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. But after much thought, we scaled back our plans a bit, saving London for another trip.
The following is a day-by-day account of our 20-day excursion, which included stops in Paris; the Disneyland Paris resort in Marne la Vallee; Barcelona to board the Disney Magic; the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira; Castaway Cay, the Disney Cruise Line’s private island; and finally, Miami.
It was an often exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, but always exciting trip…with memories that will surely last a lifetime.
Chuck Schmidt was bitten by the Disney bug at an early age. He remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for the Staten Island Advance, writing a number of features and covering a variety of events involving the expansive world created by Walt Disney, which he detailed in On The Disney Beat (Theme Park Press, 2015).
Since 2009, he has shared his passion for all things Disney in his weekly Goofy About Disney blog on SILive.com and currently writes a blog for AllEars.net called Still Goofy About Disney.
Chuck resides in Beachwood, New Jersey, with his wife, Janet. They have three grown children and five grandchildren.
We've all heard that the French love Jerry Lewis, but apparently they love the American Wild West, too. And they have history with Buffalo Bill. Who knew!
From here, we headed over to Big Thunder Mountain which, as the ride’s creator, Imagineer Tony Baxter, alluded to, is a completely different from the versions in Disneyland and WDW. When Baxter and his team were designing Disneyland Paris, many popular Disney parks elements were included in the initial design phase—among them, a Tom Sawyer Island was planned.
But there was one big problem. “The stories of Mark Twain weren’t as well embedded into the society over there, so losing a Tom Sawyer Island was not such a big deal,” he said. So Baxter had the rare opportunity to “re-imagine” Big Thunder Mountain for Disneyland Paris. The space to be occupied by Tom Sawyer Island became the focal point of Big Thunder’s track. The runaway train begins its journey in a familiar station setting, but instead of heading upward to begin your journey, the train hurtles down into a long and winding pitch-black tunnel. That tunnel takes the train under the Rivers of the Far West and out onto the island. The train speeds up and down and all around the island before heading back to the station.
“You literally tear down to the bottom of the river level at a speed that’s the fastest we’ve ever done on any of our roller coaster rides and it’s pitch black and—POW!—you’re back at the station,” Baxter said.
If the attraction has one flaw, it comes about halfway through your trip around the island. The train climbs to its highest point and just as you’re about to plummet downward, you see off in the distance the imposing Twilight Zone Tower of Terror building in the adjacent Walt Disney Studios. When Walt Disney created Disneyland, he wanted his guests to be insulated from the outside world. He took great pains to ensure that all you saw while inside Disneyland was Disneyland. He surrounded the park with earthen berms, buildings, trees, shrubs, and billboards to accomplish that. And for the most part, all of the Disney theme parks that have followed adhere to this same philosophy.
To say that the sight of the Hollywood Tower Hotel while on board Big Thunder Mountain is jarring would be an understatement.
The setting for Big Thunder Mountain—a western town in America during the late 1800s—was the perfect lead-in to what was on tap for us during the evening: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Located in the Disney Village between the World of Disney retail store and Annette’s restaurant, the venue that houses the Wild West Show is large and, as you might expect, the entrance is themed to appear as if you’re walking into an 1880s saloon, with plenty of wood accents. And it’s surprising how quickly you get over the smell of live animals after you enter. The main show space is shaped like a hockey arena. Your seat is actually a wooden bench with a long table bolted in front of you.
It was obvious to us during our visits to Disneyland Paris that Europeans are fascinated with America’s Wild West, in general, and cowboys and Indians in particular. It was fabled American cowboy and showman William (Buffalo Bill) Cody who organized a traveling Western-themed show, known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which toured Europe extensively in the late 1880s and early 1890s, no doubt helping to fuel this fascination. In May of 1889, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West played at the Exposition Universelle in Paris (when the Eiffel Tower opened) and later that year they performed in Rome, where the Wild West troupe was received by Pope Leo XIII. Buffalo Bill was reportedly disappointed when he couldn’t perform for the pope in the run-down Colosseum. The 1889 tour also visited Spain and Germany and obviously left a deep and lasting impression on Europeans.
The present-day reincarnation of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which lasts 90 minutes, features trick riding, roping, target shooting, stunts, horses, buffalo, and cattle, as well as appearances by Little Annie Oakley, plenty of cowboys and Indians, Buffalo Bill himself, and of course, Mickey, Minnie, and friends.
During the show, you’re served a family-style full meal—cornbread, chili, roasted chicken, ribs, sausage, potato wedges, beer, wine, soda, and desert. The show is unique to a Disney resort and definitely worth checking out during a visit to Disneyland Paris.
Continued in "An American in Disneyland Paris"!
For the Disney Cruise Line, it all started with a napkin. Kinda.
Jeff Morris, a creative director with Walt Disney Imagineering, has been with The Walt Disney Company for 24 years. He got his first taste of Disney while working for Tishman Construction, which designed and built the Swan and Dolphin resorts on Walt Disney World property. He left Tishman for a position with Disney as a designer in the graphics group. He reported to Wing Chao, one of the Imagineers tasked with bringing the new Disney Cruise Line to life back in the mid-1990s. One of the first things the fledgling cruise line needed was a distinctive logo.
“Actually, that was a real struggle,” Morris said. “They had already rejected more than 600 designs for the logo when I was asked to do one.” One day, he began doodling on a napkin when he came up with the now distinctive Disney Cruise Line logo, with Mickey Mouse ears in the center surrounded by three swirling lines that look like a flag waving. “It actually was pretty easy,” he said with a laugh. “Getting to see the other 600 or so rejected logos helped. That napkin drawing became the logo of the Disney Cruise Line.” (To me, it brought back memories of the now-famous story of Walt Disney sketching his vision for Walt Disney World on a napkin.)
Morris grew up in Kansas—a far cry from the high seas he’s now accustomed to sailing on—and admitted that he doesn’t have an official degree in design. And, while he said that education is important, he says he looks for other attributes in hiring new designers. “I’ve hired over 300 designers over the years and I never once looked at school credentials. I’m looking for people with talent, a high skill level, and a willingness to be part of a team. When I interview someone, it’s over lunch. And I tell them the only thing I want them to bring to the interview is their sketchbook.”
Morris was aboard the Magic during its two-week dry dock in Cadiz and there was still plenty of work to be done during the trans-Atlantic crossing. “I walk the ship with the staff and anything we see that needs fixing, we fix. We have an upholstery shop on the ship, a machine shop,” which aides in remedying any problems while the ship is at sea. Although the Magic was in dry dock in early September, Morris warned us that we’d “still see things that aren’t quite complete. Disney Cruise Line is one of the few cruise lines that maintains its older ships. We want to make sure things are nice and presentable for our guests.”
A few days before dry dock was over and the ship was brought to Barcelona, Morris noticed that the Jacuzzis had deteriorated significantly. “The condition of the steel in the Jacuzzis was not very good. We made the decision to tear them apart and rebuild them,” which meant that Morris had to wing it. “We had to run out to Cadiz and find a tile store that could give us the style and color we needed.”
“Dry docks are tough,” Morris added. “The Magic had a major overhaul two years ago when the majority of work was done—new adult lounges, new children’s spaces, the ‘tween’ spaces. A lot of energy was spent on refurbishing the engines, as well as the steel underneath the ship. Time is always an issue during a dry dock. Money’s an issue. Dealing with companies in Europe who all speak different languages. An older ship’s plumbing is always an issue. I give a lot of credit to the ship’s staff; they were always helpful during this recent dry dock.
“A lot of what we do during a dry dock doesn’t make money. It’s just a matter of doing it right for our guests. Other cruise lines are cheaper, but we have the opposite philosophy. It makes a big difference.”
Continued in "An American in Disneyland Paris"!