By Brady MacDonald
11:15 AM EST, November 5, 2013
During a recent visit to Paris I made my first pilgrimage to a Disney theme park outside the United States.
For years I have been reading about the majestic beauty of the Magic Kingdom-style park at Disneyland Paris, the dysfunctional violation of all things Disney that is Walt Disney Studios next door and the promise of what the future holds for both parks.
So let's step back for a moment and take a long, hard look at what's right, wrong and next at the two theme parks serving as Disney's European outpost in France.
The 21-year-old Disneyland Paris park is bigger than the original in Anaheim, smaller than the first reproduction in Florida and contains more beautiful details than either. As a Californian, I've always been partial to the local park, finding it more intimate and charming than the sprawling and soulless Orlando copy. But whereas Disneyland was built as an elaborate movie backlot and Florida's Magic Kingdom was plus-sized to handle bigger crowds, Disneyland Paris improved on both the original and the copy.
The Paris park is neither too big (Florida) nor too small (Anaheim). It's just right.
When it comes to the little things that make a big difference, Disneyland has an attention to detail that borders on the obsessive while the Magic Kingdom tends to focus more on throughput than passion. Walking through Disneyland Paris made me realize just how much Disneyland is a movie set built for cinema-obsessed Americans while the French park has a level of architectural and decorative detail that appeals to history-obsessed Europeans. In short, Hollywood tradesmen built Disneyland while European craftsmen built Disneyland Paris.
The subtle but distinct differences in quality and execution are most evident in Fantasyland and Adventureland at Disneyland Paris.
In Fantasyland, the classic Disney stories are broken down by country. Woodworkers, tapestry makers and stained-glass artisans from England, Germany and France built all the chateaus and castles within the land.
Adventureland takes that same land-within-a-land approach with seamless transitions from temple ruin to castle fortress, pirate cove and Arabian marketplace.
Not everything works better in Paris, though. While the Jules Verne-inspired Discoveryland looks better than its Tomorrowland counterparts in the U.S., the retro-futuristic land is saddled with "classic" versions of Star Tours, "Captain EO" and Videopolis in need of an update.
In general, I found the rides at Disneyland Paris a notch or two more thrilling than your typical Disney attraction. (Big Thunder was my favorite ride in the park.) As you might expect, the food at the French park is superior to the American parks.
The well-documented story next door at Walt Disney Studios is the opposite. With the massive billion-dollar makeover now complete at Disney California Adventure, the Studios is considered the worst Disney park in the world.
In short, WDS needs a DCA-style face lift. The 11-year-old park's shortcomings have long been enumerated. The one bright spot has been Toon Studio, the themed land at the Studios that has been the focus of recent expansions.
While the abbreviated version of Cars Land in Toon Studio looks like a speed bump compared with the shiny new DCA land, the recent additions of Crush’s Coaster (2007) and Toy Story Playland (2010) are steps in the right direction.
Which brings us to the Ratatouille Kitchen Calamity dark ride and the accompanying Gusteau’s restaurant, a new mini-land scheduled to open next to Toon Studio in 2014 as part of a $200-million multiyear expansion.
On paper, the technically advanced E-Ticket ride looks like just the solid hit Walt Disney Studios desperately needs. Shrunk to the size of a rat, visitors will navigate around giant food props and towering kitchen utensils in a trackless ride vehicle as they explore Paris from the point of view of the 2007 film's rodent protagonist. In a number of scenes, riders are expected to see 3-D imagery projected on giant hemispherical screens.
Outside the attraction, it will be interesting to see how the French react to Disney's interpretation of a Parisian plaza just 25 miles from the actual city. The fine-dining restaurant will likely feature a roving cart with a miniature animatronic Ratatouille, the rat who dreams of becoming a chef.
So what's next for the Parisian parks?
Outside of Toon Studio and Tower of Terror, I think it's safe to say you could bulldoze the rest of Walt Disney Studios and nobody would shed a tear (sorry Cinemagique, that includes you). The park desperately needs a new identity, a reimagined look and a fresh infusion of Disney characters. I'd love to see WDS become home to Disney's newest family members: Pixar, Marvel, "Avatar" and "Star Wars."
The low-key Villages Nature looks intriguing. Scheduled to open in mid-2015, the hotel and water-park complex at the Disneyland Paris resort has been designed by Imagineer Joe Rohde, who shepherded the Animal Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World and Aulani hotel in Hawaii.
And then there's the persistent talk of adding Toy Story Midway Mania at the Studios, updating Star Tours in Discoveryland and finding a place for a Soarin' Over the World at either park. But only time will tell if any of those projects move off the drawing board. Until then, let's see how the rat does first. Disney has found success in the past with rodents.
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