Ever since I visited Disneyland in California in 1991, I've loved the Disney parks, but I'd always seen them through adult eyes. We've just come back from Disneyland Paris, having taken our six and four year old boys for the very first time.
Now my favourite rides have always been the immersive ones, not as intense as the full-on coasters but potentially intimidating for young children. So it was a completely new experience to plan a trip that bypassed most of those rides, and focused on the tamer ones, mainly in Fantasyland, and hence based on the classic cartoons.
Growing up in Britain in the 1970's and 80's, Disney cartoons dominated our lives rather less than those of modern children. Full-length movies were rarely screened on TV, and the chance to catch a classic in its entirety was limited to an occasional re-release into cinemas. Beyond a 'Disney's Greatest Hits' record in the rack next to my folks' Abba and Carpenters albums, and a Disneyland Annual every Christmas, my experience of the animated features was limited to Disney Time, a clip show which aired in the UK every public holiday, hosted by the latest family-friendly celebrity of the day. So all we Brits got to see were snippets of DIsney movies, at best. Since the advent of home video, and more recently DVD, my sons have seen many of the greats from start to finish (and over and over…), and are particularly enamoured with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, both of which are brought to life particularly well at the French park. So my wife and I decided to head to Paris to give them a treat in the park's 20th anniversary year.
What amazed me, though, was that they weren't initially blown away. I think the arrival in Main Street is rather a lot to take in for young children. We started gently, with It's A Small World. My wife, in particular, had always found the ride rather nauseating, but with children in tow, it was clear what the attraction's role was – to provide children with an uplifting, non-intimidating experience, and certainly, by the end of the three-day trip, the six year old named it as his favourite ride. I could appreciate It's A Small World in a whole new way.
As they often do, our second child took much more in his stride; despite just turning four, he named Pirates of the Caribbean as his favourite, wanted to ride the surprisingly dark and scary Pinnochio ride three times, and visit the roaring, animatronic dragon under the castle just as frequently. We didn’t risk Phantom Manor (the Haunted Mansion), though, for obvious reasons!
As a result of visiting with the children, we experienced attractions we wouldn't normally have bothered with. Peter Pan's Flight, though short, was enchanting; the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse was romantic and inspiring (all our garden needs now is a tree…); the Sleeping Beauty story told in the castle through the media of stained glass and tapestries was beautiful; Buzz Lightyear's Laser Blast was just that, a blast; and the train ride around the park's perimeter yielded hidden experiences, such as the Grand Canyon tableau and a peak inside the caverns of Pirates of the Caribbean. Having children also gave us permission to go on smaller rides we might not otherwise have tried, due to looking silly riding them without a brood, such as the Slinky Dog ride at Walt Disney Studio's Toy Story area. We focused more on enjoying parades, and the mind-blowing Disney Dreams show on the castle, featuring video projection mapping, water screen projection, dancing fountains, lasers, lighting, fireworks and fireballs, allowed all generations to enjoy it.
We also found ourselves buying things that on previous visits had been for others to purchase – the inevitable spinning lights devices for enhancing after dark parades, of course, and the giant helium balloons. You haven't visited Disneyland until you've dragged a tired toddler out of the park clutching a Mickey balloon, willing them not to let go of it!
Based on previous visits, it went against the grain to leave the park mid-afternoon to give the children a rest – I felt that I was wasting precious ride-time - but undoubtedly it worked well in giving them a second wind for the evening.
It was a pity to have to forego my usual favourites, too, but missing another flight on Star Tours was worth it to see rides and experiences that were new to me, and one of my favourite places, through my kids' eyes. I guess this is the start of a whole new relationship with the self-styled Happiest Place on Earth, but I can't wait for them to get old enough to join me on Space Mountain – as charming as it is, you can only have so much Dumbo…