Disneyland Paris has seen its share of problems, from poor public perception to low investment in maintenance to an ageing set of attractions. There are also attractions found in other Disney parks that are conspicuous in their absence here, like the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room. Nevertheless, Disneyland Paris is, in my opinion, the perfection of the Disneyland concept.
Disneyland Paris was the fourth Disneyland, Magic Kingdom-style park to be built after Disneyland USA, Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland. The latter two, while having their own innovations like Liberty Square and World Bazaar, were still based fundamentally on the same model as the original, which makes cohesion a bit touch-and-go. Disneyland Paris was redesigned from the ground up for two main reasons. One was the necessity of adapting the park to a more refined culture that was already suspicious of Disney. Second was seizing that opportunity to simply rethink Disneyland.
The mark of having to appease France's cultural gatekeepers is all over Disneyland Paris. It is felt most keenly in Discoveryland, their re-imagining of Tomorrowland. Originally this was based more heavily on the influence of French author Jules Verne, with three whole attractions - Space Mountain, Mysteries of the Nautilus, and Le Visionarium - based explicitly on his life and works. They also pulled in the Hyperion, the airship designed by a French aeronaut in the film Island at the Top of the World, and appealed to motifs from Leonardo Da Vinci and H.G. Wells. The opportunity seized here was to address the problem of Tomorrowlands always becoming out of date. By appealing to Retro-Futurism, that is no longer an issue.
The marks are seen elsewhere. Fantasyland skews even more deliberately European, with overt references to authors like Charles Perrault. The design of Sleeping Beauty's Castle was forced by the reality of authentic castles down the highway, and original blue-sky ideas included replacing the castle entirely with a Retro-Futuristic tower. Adventureland also skewed towards European stories - Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island - and the European colonial experience rather than the images of Hollywood and American topical exotica (hence no Enchanted Tiki Room). Main Street USA was tweaked to take place in the Twenties rather than the Turn of the Century, and its two walkthrough arcades (addressing the practical problem of moving people around when it snows) refer to Jules Verne-style invention and France's gift of the Statue of Liberty.
Doubling down on these alterations, Imagineers went further. Frontierland was taken beyond a vague theme to having an actual storyline. Frontierland and Adventureland were flipped, so that Adventureland lay beside Fantasyland. This change allowed them to cluster Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jolly Roger and Skull Rock, and Peter Pan's Flight together into a pirate-themed mini-land. It is one of my favourite areas of any Disney park. The landscaping at Disneyland Paris is stunning, as is the architecture. The castle walkthrough was more elaborate, and there is a greater emphasis on walkthroughs in general. I suspect this is partly because those are cheaper to maintain, but they also reflect a more European attitude. Disneyland Paris isn't a carnival for thrill ride seekers. It is more of a genteel stroll through a beautiful park. Copenhagen's Tivoli, second-oldest amusement park in the world and inspiration behind Disneyland, has its share of rides but is also renowned as a beautiful pleasure garden.
Perhaps the reason why I like it so much is that I myself prefer the "genteel stroll through a pleasure garden" to the mad dash after E-tickets. Sure I would like it to have the Jungle Cruise or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, or a real Haunted Mansion, but it has a solid foundation. Whatever the reason, I would go to Disneyland Paris again and again and again.
#1: Pirates of the Caribbean
I make no apologies for not being a fan of the vandalism performed against Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland USA, the Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland. It's not Jack Sparrow I necessarily object to. I would have been fine with him in the background, designed in such a way to look like he'd always been there and we just didn't notice. The problem is its just plain awful execution with its too-realistic animatronics set against Sixties models sculpted by Blaine Gibson, and projection effects of squid monsters in a ride with no other squid monsters or projection effects, and sudden blasts of Hans Zimmer's soundtrack against the vintage ride score, and a story that makes no internal sense (why is the town hiding Jack Sparrow?) while completely defeating the running gags of its own source material (Jack Sparrow was the only one to call himself "captain"... that was an important point in Pirates 1 and 2) and completely trouncing and corrupting the poetic morality tale of the original (piracy and lust for treasure is its own curse). The whole thing was just done so poorly. And Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland Paris has none of that! When we rode it, I just about broke into tears because I had forgotten how much I used to love it. While the order of the scenes is a bit different, all the essential elements are still there and still work. Had this not been the world's only unvandalized version of Pirates, it may not have gotten on my list. Because it is, it gets top billing (at least for the time being).
#2: Le Château de la Belle au bois dormant
The castles of Disney parks are iconic, but unfortunately I've mostly known them as giant props. When I first visited Disneyland USA the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough had not reopened, the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour in Tokyo Disneyland closed just before I visited there, and I hadn't been to Cinderella's Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom yet. So coming to Paris and experiencing a tour of my favourite fairy tale in a multi-level, multi-textured attraction was incredible. The upper levels of the castle retell the story of Sleeping Beauty in stained glass, tapestries, and props replicated from the film (my favourite being the petrified raven). The dungeons are home to a giant animatronic form of Maleficent the Dragon. In between are shops with more details from Sleeping Beauty and Sword in the Stone. It's more than something to walk through: it truly is entering the story.
#3: Les Mystères du Nautilus
Given my love for Jules Verne, this tour of the Nautilus being on my list should come as no surprise. Imagineers did an impeccable job simulating the interior of Captain Nemo's vessel, including an electrifying squid attack. This was the only thing I thought was missing from Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island.
#4: Le Pays des Contes de Fées
The fact that Paris' version of the Storybookland Canal Boats should be one of my favourite attractions in the park tells you a lot, one way or another I suppose. For me, it really signifies the strength of Disneyland Paris. It is not a park full of thrill rides suited to adrenaline junkies. It is a nice park, a pleasant outing, charming and beautiful and genteel. Three of my five top attractions are walk-throughs, and another is a cute little boat ride. It doesn't hurt much that this wonderful re-envisioning of Storybookland also has a handful of references to my favourite Disney film, Fantasia. Seeing Chernabog looming over his miniature village is awesome.
#5: Adventure Isle
When designing Disneyland Paris, Imagineers flipped the positions of Adventureland and Frontierland. They also flipped some of the attractions, so rather than Tom Sawyer's Island, they got Adventure Isle. This tropical escape includes three main areas spread across two islands: the Swiss Family Treehouse and shipwreck, Treasure Island with Ben Gunn's cave, and Skull Rock with Captain Hook's Jolly Roger anchored offshore. In the first place, it's extremely well done, with lots of paths and caves and things to explore (and get turned around and lost in!). Secondly, I positively adore how it references more venerable films like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island rather than the hackneyed Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer's Island with its references to the forgettable and regrettable Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
This one only gets an honourable mention because of the traces of what used to be. When Disneyland Paris' Space Mountain first opened in 1995, it carried a Jules Verne theme inspired by his novel From the Earth to the Moon as well as Georges Méliès' 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon. If it still had this theme, it might very well have been at the top of my list. Unfortunately, ten years later they needlessly "plussed it," ripping out all the charming internal theming, leaving it as sterile as any other Space Mountain anywhere else in the world. Thankfully the magnificent Columbiad canon fixture remains, along with the original architectural details, making it a great ride to look at.