For the longest time, we were Walt Disney World snobs. Although we regularly vacationed elsewhere, we couldn’t fathom “betraying” our home Disney resort and going to those “other” Disney theme parks. More importantly, since we only visited Walt Disney World one or two times per year, we couldn’t imagine skipping Walt Disney World for a year and visiting Disneyland instead. Then, in 2010, we visited Disneyland for the first time because we were out in California anyway. We absolutely loved it, and immediately began eyeing the international parks, trying to figure out when we might be able to first visit one of those parks. (If you’re reading this trip report and have no plans to ever stray from Walt Disney World, we strongly encourage you to learn from our pre-2010 mistake and visit at least Disneyland if you can. If you are using it to plan a trip to Disneyland Paris, you might first want to read our Disneyland Paris Trip Planning Guide.)
Tokyo Disney Resort was the top priority, and in mid-2011 after the devastating earthquake, we noticed travel to Tokyo was really cheap, so we started planning. Towards the end of 2011, we began getting serious about our Tokyo plans for 2012, going as far as to book a room at the Hilton Tokyo Bay for Thanksgiving 2012. Alas, the plans would not come to fruition, as airfare prices skyrocketed from the $500 roundtrip low we saw in mid-2011 to well above $1,500 when it was time to finalize our plans in early Fall 2012. However, at the same time we were canceling that trip, we noticed airfare to/from Paris and London was reasonably priced, so we decided to call an audible and price out a trip to Europe that wouldn’t include London, Paris, and of course, Disneyland Paris. The trip was about the same price we’d pay for trip of comparable length to Walt Disney World at a Deluxe Resort, so we pulled the trigger.
Much like Japan, Europe does not celebrate American Thanksgiving. This came as somewhat of a surprise at first, since Thanksgiving is an excellent holiday that should be celebrated regardless of national relevance. Not celebrating Thanksgiving is like not celebrating the Fourth of July (wait…bad example). It’s just absurd! Joking aside, it ended up working out wonderfully to travel internationally over Thanksgiving: we had two weekday days off built into the trip, and there were no crowds anywhere due to the lack of a holiday in Europe.
The trip started with a flight from Indianapolis to Toronto. I know what you’re thinking, and I was just as shocked that Canada has airports as you are. I was also to find plumbing, and I was constantly on the lookout for stray moose in the airport, but didn’t see a single one. From Toronto, we were off to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris via Lufthansa. I am not an airplane expert, so I don’t know the model of the plane, but it was great. The longest flights I had previously flown were Detroit to Honolulu and Detroit to Montego Bay, both of which were pretty uncomfortable flights. This flight was long, but it was completely bearable. Probably more pleasant than a (shorter) flight to California, actually! Sarah watched The Dark Knight Rises on her in-seat LCD screen during the flight; my screen was on the fritz, which was aggravating at first, but in retrospect, I’m glad it didn’t work. I slept pretty much the entire flight, which definitely would have happened if I could have watched movies.
When we landed, CDG lived up to its reputation as a zoo, and I was pretty glad we wouldn’t be flying out of there later. We made our way to the train station within the airport and were quickly out of the madness. Here’s where some better planning on our part probably would’ve been advisable. Prior to the trip, we had read about renting phones or renting international cards for phones. Having iPhones, this wasn’t really a possibility, unless we purchased phones. Instead, we planned on going without phones and only using WiFi when we could hop on a free network. This was an awful plan, and after our first bit of confusion at CDG, we bought a 120 MB international data plan from AT&T for ~$30. We would end up going over this, and paying $60. We could have purchased unlocked phones and international data much more economically.
We knew we’d be taking the RER rail a lot in Paris, and it probably would have been wise to plan the Paris leg of the trip, in its entirety, before the Disneyland Paris leg. That way, we could have purchased a multi-day RER pass, used it on consecutive days, then had no pass while in Disneyland Paris. Instead, we were doing a day in Paris (while staying in Val d’Europe near Disneyland Paris) then a few days in Disneyland Paris, then Paris, then London. This coupled with the location of our hotel out by Disneyland Paris made things doubly inconvenient the first day; CDG is in the same general direction outside of Paris as Disneyland Paris, but to get from CDG to Disneyland Paris via the RER, you need to go through Paris. The alternative is to take a direct airport shuttle that takes about a third of the amount of the time as taking the RER, but we needed an unlimited one day RER pass anyway for Paris that night anyway, so we just wasted time on the train. To make a long story (that has little to do with Disneyland Paris, anyway), we should have stayed in Paris that first night or, ideally, stayed in Paris the first several nights and then done Disneyland Paris. But we didn’t, and instead wasted a few hours in commute that first day. Lesson learned.
Despite taking the extra time, it was still too early to check-in when we arrived in our hotel in Val d’Europe. They let us drop off our luggage, and we had a couple hours to kill. We were really hungry, and although a couple places in Val d’Europe looked good, Disneyland Paris one stop away was too much of a temptation to resist. We didn’t plan on heading there at all that day, and we didn’t have park tickets so we couldn’t eat anywhere besides a hotel, but we figured it would be good to scope it out a day early. In the name of research!
Seeing new Disney resort complexes for the first time as an adult is pretty cool, especially as an uber fan. Outside the parks, everything is different, and it’s like you’re an explorer discovering uncharted territory (except in this case, someone already discovered and built on it, and hundreds of thousands have seen it before you, but still…). You had this sense of excitement as you hurriedly dart around, seeing things that aren’t even remotely familiar, yet have a familiar sense to them. It is really exciting, and it’s an experience that can’t fully be put into words. To someone who doesn’t “get” Disney, the experience probably is a non-experience, and this text probably seems like making much ado about nothing. However, I’m betting most readers of this blog will “get it,” despite my incoherent rambling.
We obviously had this experience in California in 2010, and it was cool, but not nearly as impressive. Obviously, once you get off Harbor Boulevard you’re on resort property, but it’s not really until you get into the middle of the Esplanade (and beyond into Downtown Disney and the hotel area) that you feel the sense of excitement. I had never thought of this until now (and this is a random place for the tip), but the far better lead-in to Disneyland Resort is definitely entering over by Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier Hotel and walking through Downtown Disney. Not that you should take the extra time and effort to go that way, but it would definitely be a better experience and there are only so many new Disney resorts you can possibly ever see, so maybe it’s worth the extra effort to really savor it.
Anyway, back to Disneyland Paris, exiting the huge train station there and stepping right into the resort was an impressive experience. The first place we walked (more like ran!) was towards the Disneyland Hotel. Once through security (very efficient with actual bag scanners), we encountered the Fantasia Gardens, which were gorgeous. The Fantasia Gardens are, more or less, a series of winding paths, benches, trees, and flowers all around a small lake in front of Disneyland Hotel. It was a really overcast day, but the scene still popped with the fall colors of the trees in the Gardens. In retrospect, I really wish I had taken more photos, but given the overcast sky, I thought it wasn’t worth it at the time. It would have been. Lesson learned for Tokyo.
Disneyland Hotel, despite its name, reminded us a lot of the Grand Floridian. The architecture firm (Wimberly, Allison, Tony, & Goo) that co-designed the Disneyland Hotel also worked on the Grand Floridian, so this should come as no surprise. Clearly, many design elements had been shared between the two designs. Both feature Victorian architecture, Clapboard style, and octagonal red roofs. The Disneyland Hotel is more compact than the Grand Floridian, and the Disneyland Hotel is an actual gateway to Disneyland Paris through or under which guests must pass to enter the park (making it cooler, in my opinion), but both are similar. I’m not the biggest Grand Floridian fan in the world, and although I thought Disneyland Hotel in Paris was cool, it elicited about the same reaction.
After years of seeing the vaulted ceiling resorts of Walt Disney World filled with huge Christmas trees at Christmas, it was also a little disappointing to see only a slightly oversized Christmas tree and gingerbread house that wasn’t life size at Christmas in a Deluxe Resort (equivalent). To Disneyland Hotel’s credit, though, the Christmas tree was very well decorated with a candy theme and nice color palette, and the gingerbread house also looked great. We spent a while exploring this area of the hotel before wandering upstairs to the restaurants.
The restaurants are accessible via a hallway that acts as a bridge, connecting the three buildings of the Disneyland Hotel, under which guests pass to get to the turnstiles. Throughout this hallway leading to the restaurant, and in the hotel in general, there was some great art of Disneyland Paris, beautiful clocks, and all around great decor.
After our trip I came across as a little “down” on this hotel because I thought it could use some TLC to really shine (which it could), but in looking back at my photos of the hotel, it really is beautiful. A bit overpriced, in my opinion, but since there’s no other hotel overlooking Disneyland Paris, there’s really no baseline for determining whether it’s overpriced. In any case, I was a little too hard on it. It was a very pretty hotel with a great location and excellent design…I’d certainly love to stay there if cost were no issue!
Inventions (not Innoventions as I kept calling it and accidentally wrote it here before correcting myself!), California Grill, and the lounge were all right next to one another upstairs. We had already planned on dining at California Grill one night after park closing, and it would take more time than we wanted to kill, so we figured we’d save that for later. We could do a quicker meal at Inventions, but it was more than we wanted to spend on a quick meal, so after a bit of going back and forth, we decided to head to another hotel for a quick service meal.
Instead, as we walked through the Disney Village, we passed Earl of Sandwich, and just decided to stop there for a quick meal since we would soon be able to check in to our hotel. This stung a bit, and made us feel like Americans who come to Europe and only eat at McDonald’s. Our first meal wasn’t some interesting local cuisine…it was an American chain. I suppose, at least, it was a good one!
It had actually been a few years since we last dined at Earl of Sandwich. We no longer visit Downtown Disney now that Pleasure Island closed, and Earl of Sandwich wasn’t opened when we last visited Disneyland. So Earl of Sandwich, which used to be a trip “tradition,” hadn’t been visited by us since 2008. Of course it was just as good as we remember, and it had free WiFi.
Nothing much else of interest happened this day, and realizing that there won’t be many photos or much of interest in this installment if I don’t add part of the next day, I’m going to skip ahead. (Subsequent installments hopefully won’t be this long, but I want to at least even out the text-to-photo ratio here a bit.)
The only other things we did this day are check into our hotel in Val d’Europe (very trendy hotel at a great price) and went into Paris.
The next day we got up early to make it to Disneyland Paris in time for park opening. That meant getting up early enough to take the rail for Val d’Europe to Marne la Vallee (it’s a 5 minute ride) and then hauling our suitcases from there over to Sequoia Lodge. It was about a 15 minute walk to Sequoia Lodge, but luckily we each only packed a carry-on bag since we knew we’d be lugging around our bags a lot in Europe.
We were able to check into Sequoia Lodge and drop off our bags this early, and we still had some time to kill before park opening, so we decided to use one of our breakfast passes (hotel accommodations include vouchers for breakfast in Disneyland Paris). Our friends over at CharacterCentral.net, who gave us lots of tips for the trip, had told us that breakfast at Inventions in Disneyland Hotel was far better than at any other hotel, and that for a small fee, you can usually use your vouchers from other hotels there. It sounded very much like a YMMV thing, but we figured it was worth a shot. We didn’t have a ton of time, anyway, so if it didn’t work, we’d just wait and eat in the park.
Inventions wasn’t very busy at this point, and the Cast Member at the podium outside told us that it was fine to use our passes from Sequoia there (and didn’t charge us anything). Inventions was a really cool restaurant, and clearly a ton of work had gone into collecting props for display and designing graphics for the restaurant. This was our first encounter with the meticulous attention to detail that is present all throughout Disneyland Paris. Here’s a look around the restaurant:
For a “free” breakfast, the buffet at Inventions was also really good. We didn’t realize how much better it was than the breakfast at Sequoia Lodge until the next morning when we tried their breakfast. Here’s some of what they had:
It was just about time to enter the park, so we quickly finished breakfast, snapped some final photos of the hotel, and left.
It was time to experience our 7th Disney theme park, Disneyland Paris. Of course it was again an overcast day, so I didn’t capture much in the way of photos. I’d say about 95% of our time in Disneyland Paris during the day it was overcast, so I only had a few windows for photos. I didn’t even have my camera out at this point because it was drizzling. The photo at the top of the post and below is one Sarah took with her Sony RX-100 (our review). Not exactly the most exhilarating way for a photographer to enter a Disney theme park for the first time, but I’m glad we at least have this one photo!
As soon as we walked into the park, we were immediately drawn to the castle. I have always loved Cinderella Castle and I find myself liking the quaint charm of Sleeping Beauty Castle more and more, but Le Château de la Belle au Bois blows them both out of the water. It’s by far the best Disney Castle at any of the parks. With the exception of the Enchanted Storybook Castle in Shanghai that is presently being built, I’ve now seen every version of Disney’s castles (Tokyo and Hong Kong feature substantial clones of the castles in Walt Disney World and Disneyland, respectively), so I feel fairly confident making this assessment. It’s majestic, yet quaint and charming. It’s whimsical, yet grand. It seems to contradict itself, yet it just works, and works very well. There are not enough castle-related superlatives to adequately describe the level of awesome found in Disneyland Paris’ Castle.
Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant is all of those things, with lush landscaping and quirky details that give it a sense of childhood whimsy as if it’s something you’d actually find in a forest clearing if you stepped into a fairytale. When Imagineers designed it to contrast the “real life” castles found throughout Europe, they did an amazing job striking this balance between a real piece of architecture and a whimsical setting more appropriate for unicorns and leprechauns (neither of which I saw, so I assume these creatures were down for refurbishment).
On top of its superficial beauty, Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant has several winding paths for exploration, and a few walk-through exhibits and shops. Easily the best of these, and the first “attraction” we saw at Disneyland Paris was the La Taniere du Dragon (or “Den of the Dragon”). I had seen photos of the Den of the Dragon before our trip, and they didn’t even begin to do it justice. This was so simple in idea, and so powerful in execution that it ended up becoming one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland Paris.
Basically, it’s “just” an Audio Animatronics dragon chained down so only a his neck, head, and tail can move. He also breathes and has some minor movements elsewhere, but those are the big ones. Even though only a few parts of him move, he’s still huge, so I assume he cost a small fortune to build. Whatever the cost was, it was worth it. The backstory of Castles are cool with the whole princess thing if you’re a little girl, but dragons (who are probably a close relation of dinosaurs, the greatest creatures to have ever terrorized earth) have universal appeal. The dragon gave that castle incredible amounts of street cred, as one can only imagine all of the awesome things that go on inside if they have a dragon chained down in the basement.
Explaining why a “simple” Audio Animatronics character is awesome is sort of like trying to explain why a mountain is awesome. It just is. If I had to muster up an explanation, I’d say it’s because of the sense of awe it creates in guests who see it. I am, unfortunately, well past the age where I believe the figures in Disney attractions are real. Yet, I stood in front of that dragon with my sense of disbelief suspended. Not to the extent that I thought a real dragon was down there (I didn’t need a change of pants after seeing him!), but in the sense that I was standing there in awe of the creature, rather than standing there examining the character from a technical and artistic perspective. Like I said, it’s difficult to explain.
We made regular stops to see the dragon later, so there will be plenty more photos of him later in the report. At that point, though, it was time to head back to Pirates of the Caribbean and Phantom Manor.
These were our first two attractions of the day, and both had lines. Pirates wasn’t too bad at only about a 15 minute actual wait, but our wait at Phantom Manor was 45 minutes. That’s the most we’ve waited for anything in a long time. We didn’t expect waits to be that long given that it was a slow season for the park, and the park had just opened. At that point, we were a bit worried that we may only be able to ride these attractions a couple of times during the trip.
My first time through any Disney attraction, I don’t take photos, so I have nothing from those ride-throughs. I’ll share my full thoughts on each of these attractions when I have photos to supplement, but for now I’ll tease this: Disneyland Paris has the best Pirates of the Caribbean, and Phantom Manor is incredible, but is so different than Haunted Mansion that a comparison isn’t really fair.
Next up was Fantasyland, where we were hoping to beat the rush to Peter Pan. Before that, we made a restroom stop near Toad Hall, which is a counter service restaurant in Disneyland Paris. It looked incredible from the outside, and although it wasn’t yet open for business, I decided to see if the building was physically open since I had some time to kill. Jackpot!
These photos of one of the coolest counter service restaurants I’ve ever seen seem like just as good of a way to end Part 1 of this trip report as any. Click here to read Part 2!
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