Euro Disney: Adventures in Mouseschwitz

The Berlitz travel guide suggests spending three days at the Louvre. With a four-year-old kid, try 20 minutes. My wife and I tried to coax culture into Mikey, but there was a price to be paid. Amazing how even a four year old can embrace the concept of extortion. The only way the kid would see the world's most famous art museum was if we'd buy him a bag of M&M's.Sudden terror. While meandering through the Denon wing, looking at Etruscan pottery, Mikey dropped his M&M's. As the tiny colored pellets clicked and skidded like marbles on the 400-year-old stone floor, a phalanx of security guards charged us. I expected them to pull out .9-mm Beretta pistols, line us up between the Roman urns and Greek vases, blind-fold and shoot us.Who were we trying to fool? Kids are not impressed with 17th Century architecture. Even dressed as Barney, Mona Lisa's a loser. Paris and kids go together like Bordeaux and Cheese Whiz. What self-respecting kid would ever choose a fresh baguette over squishy Wonderbread?Enough of the adult stuff. L'affaire M&M said that we desperately needed to find kid stuff. And what better place than Euro Disney, the Mega Mouse attraction only 20 miles east of Paris? Mikey's reaction was a two-word alliteration: "Wow! When?"So off we went to Euro Disney, the most popular paid tourist attraction in Europe, now more than three years old. It was just an hour's train ride away to the planet's newest and most lavish amusement park.And there in lies the problem. Paris and Disneyland. Could any two places on earth be more different? Paris and Disneyland are oxymorons. How can a place like Euro Disney even philosophically exist in the shadow of Paris, the City of Lights, the most sophisticated city in the world?Disneyland is Kid Heaven. Kids reign supreme. And that's why Euro Disney is positively, absolutely anti-French. How can a nation antithetically opposed to indulging children get away with the biggest childhood indulgence of all?How can the average droll Parisian, who chain smokes Gitanes in a Left Bank cafe, who spoon feeds his French poodle pate, who reads Descartes on the metro, possibly enjoy - even tolerate - Mickey Mouse?The French will proudly tell you they have greater things to do with their lives than prostrate themselves to an capitalistic American mouse with floppy feet and big ears. When avant-garde Parisian theatre producer Ariane Mnouchkine once declared Euro Disney a "cultural Chernobyl," the moniker turned into a nationalistic call to arms. The 5,000-acre resort, one-fifth the size of Paris, became a poulet bone that stuck in the throats of millions of proud Frenchmen. Just hours before opening, saboteurs tried to take over the Magic Kingdom. They blew up an electrical sub station and plunged much of Mickey's mouse hole into darkness.That the French should hate Euro Disney is, of course, in perfect keeping with the French. The French have an attitude; what's nice about the French is they let everyone know it. Their love-hate relationship with everything American is as French as crepe suzettes. The French may complain about cultural genocide, yet it's not the Americans who are ordering Les Bigge Maks morning till night in the more than 250 McDonald's in France (annual sales are close to $900 million). The Gap is doing a box-office business at two chic Paris locations. The high-fat trio of Haagen-Daz, Burger King, and KFC is a Bermuda Triangle packed everyday with French kids on their way to see anti-American guerrilla theatre on the steps of the Pompidou Center. Toys R Us anchors a Parisian highway mall. From Brest to Nice, The Simpsons are beamed to millions of Homer-loving households. What better way to sum up the French love/hate affair with America than to bring up their strange French affliction of Jerry Lewis idolatry. They adore the nutty professor.Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the burden of upholding the world's intellectual and cultural values rests squarely on the shoulders of 57 million French men and women. France, in short, is the epicenter of the civilized world. In the land of St. Augustine, Voltaire, and Sartre, France is the only country in the world to require the study of philosophy in high school. The French literally invented the word, "intellectual." A couple of years ago, the French culture minister promoted a resolution that would have required 3,000 English words widely used in France be replaced by French equivalents. No more bon weekend, le cash-flow, le fast-food. French kids on the street would be encouraged to say "decontracte," instead of "cool." The measure was overruled by the nation's Constitutional Council but not before the minister, Jacques Toubon (English translation: "Jack All-Good"), waxed rhapsodic in Le Monde, calling the French language "the symbol of dignity" and "the diapason of a universal culture." Gimme a break while I get my sac d'air sickness.So, it should come as no surprise, Clouseau, that the French are ballistic about Euro Disney. "Euro Disney is the very symbol of the process by which people's cultural standards are lowered and money becomes all-conquering," said Jean-Marie Rouart, the literary critic of Le Figaro, railing against cultural imperialism. "I believe every Frenchman carries in him a notion of the dignity of France and of its past achievements. I would be ashamed to go" to Euro Disney.That's all we needed. Off we went on the RER, feeling both guilty ("You did WHAT on your vacation to Paris?") and relieved (At least, we'll be able to eat at a restaurant without a snooty maitre d' seating us at a table next to the toilet). The train left us off at Marne-la-Vallee, the Paris exurb Disney transformed to the Magic Kingdom.As soon as we walked the quarter-mile from the slick, glass and chrome train station through Disneyland's main entrance to take our places along the Electrical Parade, we realized we had arrived: The French kids were out of control. "MEE-Kay!" they screamed in prepubescent orgiastic unison as the Mouseman and his fuzzy entourage high-stepped down Main Street. The French kids were like U.S. sailors at a Tailhook convention. For repressed French tadpoles whose parents sprinkle de Beauvoir and Foucault with their pishers' morning feedings, low-brow Euro Disney is The Happiest Place on Earth.It boils down to how the French view children and childhood. Visit any Paris playground and there's an uncanny feeling that hits you as soon enter. Parisian playgrounds are deathly quiet. No screaming, no yelling, no singing. No Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, playground bullies giving purple bellies to sickly kids. The raucous boys play polite, silent games of soccer. The kids with coke-bottle glasses read Marcel Proust.French kids are raised to be proper little French men and women. But why such a problem with a five-foot-tall mouse in oversized shoes, white gloves, two huge abdominal buttons? Aren't the French taking this whole thing a little too seriously? In fifty years, the Mouseman's most controversial political statement has been, "Everybody neat and pretty? Then on with the show!" Mickey's worst offense is tweaking kids' noses, and - in a concession to the hip - giving too many high-five greetings.Maybe it's a case of nationalistic envy. If the French had been more enterprising, maybe they could have exported their own kid treasures: Tin Tin, Malou, Babar. But the only Americans who ever buy Tin Tin books for their kids are nerds who wear Birkenstocks with white socks. Try going to a Phil Gramm rally and mentioning Babar, and they'll think you're talking about the guy who last wrestled King Kong Bundy at a Texas Death Match.The Disney people built a colossal, money-making mousetrap, and the world is beating a path to get stuck in it. Disney executives knew they were sitting on some pretty potent cheese. They knew by creating 15,000 jobs in the world's second largest modern construction project (the Chunnel is the first) would put them in the hole, but they also knew they were on to something big in kid-abused France.And remember, Euro Disney's primary market, of course, is not just French kids, but the 350 million mouse-kins and their parents throughout Europe. The resort's projections are 11 million visitors a year. That's more than twice who see the Eiffel Tower (5.4 million) and the Louvre (5 million). But, voila, heading into its fourth anniversary, more than 32 million have passed through the park's turnstiles. While the Mick's shtick is pure American, Americans make up only a morsel of the rodent's prey. Forty-four percent of the visitors are French, followed by German and Dutch at 12 percent each, then the British at 10 percent, then the Spanish, Italians, Japanese and Americans.The mish-mosh of tourists makes for some weird cross-cultural experiences. McLuhan meets a Mouse on coke: All Euro Disney employees who have contact with the public are required to be bi-lingual, and many speak three or more languages. Almost all signs in the Magic Kingdom are in French and English. Les Sept Nains of Blanche-Beige (the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White, dummy) all get renamed in French. Indiana Jones is here, but lost in an archaeological dig called "le Temple du Peril." At the surround-a-screen Visionarium, you feel like a U Thant. The dialogue is in French, and you're supplied with headsets should you want to understand Gerard Depardieu playing a shlumpy baggage handler in German, English, French, Italian or Spanish. On the way out, ask for "Cap-tone Eh-o," to see Michael Jackson in his pre-Lisa Marie phase. In Que le Monde Est Petit (It's a Small World), the god-awful song that punishes worse than a Bobby Goldsboro tune, is sung in 12 languages.This is not the Tower of Babel, nor is it Paris, where Parisians routinely snarl the moment you open your mouth. In a city where it is a political statement even to acknowledge English (unless it's in the gift shop at the Hilton), at Euro Disney, when you ask sheepishly and apologetically, "Do you speak English?" the response is a hardy, "But, of course!"Should you run into Mickey, Minnie, Belle, Snow White, or Alice in Wonderland, though, none will actually talk. Way too politically incorrect. What would a German kid think if Princess Jasmine said "Bon Jour"?Still, fundamental questions loom. How can a multi-billion dollar resort appeal to the vicissitudes of international kid-dom? More importantly: How can a place like Euro Disney appeal to jaded, worldly Europeans? Disney officials have come up with some answers:* Strategy One: Make the place more tolerable to adults by giving them the ability to get drunk. A European lunch without wine is akin to a Terlingua cookout without chili. For the first year, the Disney suitors promulgated a no-booze policy at Euro Disney, like at all the other Disney kid resorts. Then they flip-flopped, reversing the no-alcohol policy, and today Euro Disney now offers sauce to any weary parent needing a shot.* Strategy Two: Make the hotels more sophisticated - and more expensive - than their Disney counterparts in the States. At the Hotel New York, there is a mini Rockefeller Center skating rink, a 57th Street Cafe, and a basement Jazz Club. There are lots of pictures of (Big) apples everywhere, and the poor porters are dressed in monkey suits. It's Gotham chic without the homeless, the crime or Nigerian taxi drivers.The privilege to stay close to the Magic Kingdom does not come cheap. In high season, one of Disney's more ordinary 5,700 rooms can go as high as 2,000 francs, or $400 - expensive, but down the road in Paris, anything under $150 is a closet.To be sure, Disney executives spend lots of time the pondering great issues that lie at the heart of a multi-billion resort that thrives on kid fantasy and adult money. Does Goofy looks too swishy in his silver cape? Is the Little Mermaid showing too much cleavage? Or, as the Unofficial Guide to Euro Disneyland puts it, "At a time when the whole world is concerned about the drug problem, can we afford to have a dwarf named Dopey?"For the show to go on without a hitch, Disney must control everything. Employees - Opps, they're called cast members! - must not smoke, chew gum, or dye their hair "an unusual color." They must use deodorant and wear "proper underwear." They can't have any facial hair. That eliminates beards, mustaches, long sideburns (even if the wearer "role" is to spend the whole days in a furry Goofy costume). The women (and men) can't wear any noticeable eye-liner or eye shadow; long fingernails are prohibited. Nor are they allowed to wear sunglasses, even when the rays are beating down like golden shards of glass. Disney officials sunglasses "inhibit interpersonal contact."No wonder tout Paris, the home of haute couture, is steamed. Americans, who'll walk down the Champs-Elysees in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, telling the French what to wear! The American arrogance got so much one day that scores of disgruntled Euro Disney cast members took to calling the Magic Kingdom "Mouseschwitz." They were summarily fired, and sent back to Paris on packed RER trains.The Disney crowd-control machinery is all-American, which means that sometimes the operation works well, and at other times, you might as well pitch a tent, unroll your sleeping bag, and pull out a copy of Kahil Gibran.For us, the madness starts right away. Disney people must have been on Richard Feynman's Ph.D. dissertation committee. Lines curl, wind and twist throughout the Newport Beach Resort, a spanking clean knockoff of a Rhode Island oceanfront hotel. It takes 50 minutes to check in.You've waited in line almost an hour, and by god, you want to make sure your room is stocked with Henekin and Black Label, overlooking the man-made lagoon, not next to the family of six kids each armed with a Supersoaker. Angry, harried families from Spain, Germany, France spew an assortment of polyglot insults to the hotel clerks. It is chaos theory at work, which could easily turn into Big Bang reality. But the Mouse cast-members behind the check-in desk handle the mobs with grace and toothy grins.Does Disney supply these drones with Prozac?Finally you make your way to the Magic Kingdom. It's a mind and body game. You try weaving and bobbing, running zig-zag patterns. And because Euro Disney is so expensive - the more rides and attractions you go on, the cheaper the admissions price becomes - you begin feeling like someone with 15 minutes in a shopping sweepstakes. This is Filene's basement, but without the bargains.Even though you subscribe to the Utne Reader and meditate twice a week, this is no place to be a peacenik. Don't think you can wander around the theater of war and just "discover" things. There is no serendipity in Euro Disney.A basic plan of attack: Forget Indiana Jones (billed as the first corkscrew-looping roller coaster in the world). Don't waste time at Alice's Labyrinth, Snow White, Pinnochio, or Peter Pan unless the kid you're with throws a shit fit; the attractions are the same on either side of the Atlantic. Don't look for the Hall of Presidents, Carousel of Progress, Enchanted Tiki Birds, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, the Skyway. They never made the trip across the Atlantic. Neither did Country Bear Jamboree, but if you want to see this attraction again, book an appointment with a psychiatrist.What stands out most at Euro Disney, actually, is outside the Magic Kingdom, in an adjacent money pit called Festival Disney, an assortment of restaurants, boutiques and bars, located in the DMZ between the Magic Kingdom and the Disney hotel complex. The crown jewel of the entire Euro Disney experience is Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, known in these parts just as "Boofalo Beel."It's John Wayne, Gary Copper, Dale Evans, Wyatt Erp, Chuck Conners, and all the rest of the images Europeans conjure when they picture the American West. Here's the come-on: "See a herd of stampeding buffalo, longhorn steer and as many Cowboys and Indians whooping and hollering right before your very eyes!" What could be more quintessentially American? It's an all-you-can-eat affair: sausage, ribs, chicken, corn on the cob, black beans, cornbread, and chili (which in Spanish translates to "Chili del Cowboy"). And the food ain't bad, if you like your grub served in a bent tin billy bucket. As the epitome of bad American manners, diners are instructed to bang their spoon on their plates and scream.The audience is split into four teams and everyone gets to pass a medicine ball. But that's not all folks! There are Cowboys and Indians, and bulls and cows, a fake stampede, rodeo clowns, lassos, and Annie Oakley, who is as sharp a shot as any Wild West cowgirl ought to be. The show ends with a herd of live buffalo - not mechanical! - grazing in front of you, and then disappearing into the western sunset, as mist drops over the set.It isn't what Uma Thurman would call rip-roaring fun, but more than a few Europeans seem to get behind the idea.The whole experience of Euro Disney is dished up in a hermetically sealed world. It's exhausting, hokey, ungodly expensive, and full of some of the worse values you'd want children to embrace.You want sophistication? Go 20 miles down the railroad tracks to sit with the beautiful people at Cafe de Flore in St.-German-des-Pres. Which we did, tired and spent, sipping citrons presse and nibbling petits fours, decompressing from our 48-hour spree of cultural annihilation.Not all was lost. Funny how this extortion thing works. Four-year-old Mikey didn't protest in the least when we told him we were going to spend the afternoon at the Musee d'Orsay.

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