Because Oui Like You

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 14, 2002

Ah, Paris. How the word conjures images of walks along the Seine, the Tuileries Gardens in bloom, the outdoor cafes.

On a Friday morning in May, my wife, son and I were on a jet bound for Paris -- but we were determined to skip all of the typical American tourist destinations. We were going to experience Paris as the French do. Forget the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles. We were headed for quarters rarely frequented by Yanks but well known by savvy Europeans.

We would start our tour on the main boulevard of an area known as Main Street, U.S.A. (which translates into English as "Main Street, U.S.A."). We would make a beeline for La Space Mountain. Later that evening we would dine among such film stars as Mssrs. Pluto and Goofy at the smart Cafe Mickey and turn in at our wooden bunks at the Hotel Cheyenne. The following day it would be off to La Big Thunder Mountain and Le Catastrophe Canyon.

Yes, we were vacationing at Euro Disney or, as it is now called, Disneyland Resort Paris, featuring the brand-new Walt Disney Studios.

Contrary to the comments you may have read in the early 1990s from a few Gauloise-sucking intellectuals who claimed that Mickey Mouse's invasion of France was tantamount to "cultural Chernobyl," the French (who much prefer to ruin their health with Marlboros) love Disney and Americana in all their glorious excess. In fact, they have turned what were once beet fields in the Brie country outside Paris into what is far and away the most visited tourist destination in Europe -- with no dog poop to step in, litter that is swept up before it even touches the ground and French people who smile on cue. (Well, half the time, anyway.)

It has been 10 years since Disney launched its French adventure to what at first were disastrous results. The Disney brass talked about shuttering the park, and the intelligentsia celebrated their correctness against the imperialist rodent.

But, in fact, Disney's initial problem wasn't that the French were getting too much Disney. They couldn't get enough of it. Admission fees were too high for European budgets, as were the prices at restaurants -- which shocked Europeans by not serving wine or beer. Plus, the park had a limited number of attractions, and the lines were way too long.

But Euro Disney went on an ambitious program, slashing prices, adding rides and, yes, serving wine and beer in the park. The name was also changed to drop the institutional-sounding "Euro" prefix. Disney's popularity has even spawned a string of smaller French theme parks countrywide. Management hopes the addition of Walt Disney Studios, a diminutive version of Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, will boost annual attendance from 12 million to 17 million and turn the average stay into a three-day affair.

"The park is always full. It is the fashion," said our French travel agent, Carole, who explained that she and her husband had visited the park three times. And they don't have kids. "People love to go for ze magique."

A French computer engineer I know -- a bachelor who has been to the resort several times -- recalled a "Texas-type" meal he'd had at Disney as only the French can. "Le T-bone," he said, holding his fingers to his lips and kissing them, was "superb."

I had to check this out.

Let me first say that there are two kinds of people: Disney people and the rest of the world. Disney people are easily identifiable: They actually dance to the Main Street, U.S.A. theme song, chase Mickey for photo ops and take romantic vacations at Disney destinations, making pretty souvenir videos in front of the water features.

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