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We’ll Always Have Disneyland Paris


Since 1945, American culture has functioned less as friendly emissary than zombie horde. Marauding across continents, it devours brains, assimilates everything in its path, and leaves behind only ruin and childhood obesity. But as this onslaught spreads throughout Europe, one nation has boldly drawn its Maginot line in the sand. I refer, of course, to France.

Being an expert on France (I’ve seen Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Mis), I can speak authoritatively of its culture. Unlike America and its melting pot, France defines a fixed version of Frenchness which its government encourages everyone to upkeep. Roaming outside the bounds of this Frenchness is frowned upon, and succumbing to any aspect of American culture is expressly forbidden.

To better understand the struggle between American and French cultures, we need not look further than Marne-la-Vallée, a sleepy hamlet just 20 miles east of Paris. You may not know Marne-la-Vallée by name, but perhaps you’ve heard of a local business it contains: Euro Disney.

 

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Well, technically, it’s “Disneyland Paris.” Disney changed the name of the park in 2001 when they realized that “Euro” suggested currency rather than fun. While The Walt Disney Company rarely shies away from currency — specifically, taking yours—they would sooner position their theme parks around the concept of feel-good Americana.

Thus, at Disneyland Paris, the culture war rages. For on one side, you have Disney operating a bastille of American Culture within a stone’s throw of Paris. On the other, you have France attempting to storm said bastille and thrust Frenchness upon it. As a result, over its twenty-two years of existence, Disneyland Paris has become a begrudging hybrid of both American and French cultures. Like most examples of opposites grafted together (e.g. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the Labradoodle), no one wins.

French culture’s imprint upon Disneyland Paris first becomes evident when you’re standing in line for tickets. In America, we take lining up very seriously. Should someone behind us attempt to move in front, even by a single slot, we stare them down, block their way, and snatch back our rightful place at the earliest opportunity. In Disneyland Paris, however, lines are a communal effort. No one seems to care exactly what spot he or she occupies, or how this spot shifts, as long as there’s a sense of the whole community moving forward. This French indifference toward individuality begs the question of how do Disney movies—whose message is usually “I want to be an individual, whereupon I’ll marry a rich person”—succeed in France? But that is outside the scope of this essay.

For the most part, Disney hasn’t altered its theme park design to accommodate French culture. As in California’s Disneyland, you enter Disneyland Paris through Main Street USA, and as you stroll down it, you hear a calliope remix of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” from The Music Man. From a historical perspective, you’d think the French would be less concerned about the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon than, say, German troops, but Disney begs to differ.

At the end of Main Street USA is Sleeping Beauty’s “chateau.” However, this castle is significantly larger and more intricate than its California counterpart, presumably because French people know what real castles look like. A cave beneath the castle contains a fire-breathing, razor-clawed dragon, and here France’s influence becomes clear. For the country’s response to its monarchs has always involved flames and sharp objects.

From the castle, you may access the different areas of the park wherein the few differences between Disneylands emerge. Disneyland Paris has made the following concessions to French culture:

 

  1. King Arthur’s Carousel is Le Carrousel de Lancelot.
  2. They sell alcohol and cigarettes. Everywhere.
  3. Tomorrowland is now Discoveryland, as in “The sun will come out discovery, betcha bottom dollar that discovery there’ll be sun.” It has a Jules Verne theme.

 

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But these generous concessions weren’t enough for the French government; it also insisted on bilingualism and biculturalism. Accordingly, in the Haunted Mansion, a disembodied head speaks both English and French: “Ghoulies and ghosts, wherever you dwell / Give us a sign by ringing a bell” alternates with “Attention fantômes et goules lambinants / Dites ‘Bonjour, je suis un croissant,’” or something. And on Main Street USA, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” has been replaced with the “Statue of Liberty Tableau” which focuses less on where the Statue of Liberty stands, or what it stands for, than the fact that the French built it.

Disney has responded to these French dictates with a spoonful of passive aggression. In Frontierland, the riverboat is named the “Molly Brown,” after a passenger on the Titanic. Far from its New Orleans-and-therefore-somewhat French roots, the Haunted Mansion now has a Wild West theme; as you enter what is traditionally the graveyard section of the ride, you’re greeted by ghosts with six-shooters popping out of saloons. Finally, where France forbids hijabs in many public institutions, Disney happily incorporates them into the uniforms of its female Muslim employees. This being Disney, however, the hijabs are themed to the area of the park where the employee works. In Fantasyland, for example, the hijab is a long stocking cap that wouldn’t be out of place on a Seven Dwarf.

Though France may not be able to stop the Disney zeitgeist altogether, it certainly slows down the rate at which it’s adopted. As a result, Disneyland Paris consistently remains a beat behind its California counterpart. Its Main Street USA still has a twinge of that old-fashioned Disney racism, such as the shop window advertising “Mr. Chang’s Chinese Laundry, Mahjong Parlor upstairs.” The park’s main roller coaster has the theme of “Aerosmith.” And despite the release and world domination of Frozen, Disneyland Paris still promotes Tangled in its maps and parades. (Stop trying to make Tangled happen. Tangled is not going to happen.)

 

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Nevertheless, The Walt Disney Company continues to bet on the ability of “Disneyland magic” to cross over between cultures. In Paris as in California, this magic is a tripartite formula that consists of Disney characters, Americana, and relentless marketing.

At California’s Disneyland, this approach works like gangbusters. American visitors recognize the characters, connect subliminally to the Americana, and have seen Disney ads since birth. (It’s only a matter of time until Disney advertises in utero.) As a result, by the time you get to Disneyland, you’ve already internalized the message that every minute you spend there you will be happy—and if you’re not, something’s wrong with you. In practice, this leads to two types of visitors: (i) people having the time of their life and (ii) people who feel they should be having the time of their life, aren’t, and as a result are furious. Both types buy mouse ears.

At Disneyland Paris, however, the magic doesn’t quite gel. Sure, French people know the Disney characters and have seen the ads, but the third part of the formula, Americana, is anathema to a country that’s so protective of its own identity. To Americans, cultural signifiers such as barbershop quartets and cowpokes telling jokes represent a happier, simpler time. To the French, they represent people you want to strangle. Accordingly, visitors walk around Disneyland Paris in a state somewhere between bewilderment and indifference. Thanks to ads on the side of every bus and phone booth, French people understand that they should go to Disneyland Paris. Upon arrival, however, they’re not quite sure why they’re there or how they should feel about it.

For these are French citizens, the frontlines of their country’s culture war. And they definitely don’t wear mouse ears.

 

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Greg Edwards: Writing wrongs. 



  1. August 28, 2014 @ 8:41 pm Jim

    Well, I mean, first of all, most of this article isn’t true. Let’s get that out of the way at the start. I don’t know know which horse’s arse you pulled your information out of, but it wasn’t a very honest one. Second, you really don’t seem to understand who Disneyland Paris advertises to. Hint: it’s not the French. Disneyland Paris advertises throughout the EU. TV ads in the UK and Ireland. Bus ads in every major capitol city. Billboards in every airport. It’s in France because France is the biggest tourist destination in the world by visitor numbers. It’s the most accessible point in all of Western Europe. There’s literally no other reason. The people you’re queuing with are more likely to be British or German than they are French (and we love to queue, us Brits and Germans).

    It really seems like you just visited Disneyland Paris, decided you should really write an article about it and then peppered it with stereotypes and half-researched information for fun. Well done. Your stupid article has made me stand up for the bloody French. Thanks a lot, buddy.

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  2. August 28, 2014 @ 9:33 pm Paulo

    First of all, Disneyland Paris is not visited by the French any more than the over 60 millions visitors to France each year (more than the population) are French. The vast majority of visitors are from throughout Europe, Middle East/North Africa and even Asia. Secondly, there is no agenda here, they are simply adjusting the Disney experience to the visitors. Kind of like McDonalds serving espresso in Paris – this is less about “cultures” than simply selling what sells.

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  3. August 28, 2014 @ 9:49 pm Tom

    Generally speaking I’m not one to comment on articles I come across on the internet but your viewpoint has genuinely inflamed me somewhat here..

    Your demeaning comments on the location of the park aside… in an article which seems to be based around reviewing or comparing theme parks from different parts of the world; you seem fairly comfortable in mocking French culture in general through comments regarding queuing that would be more at home in a Stephen Clarke comedy novel than in a non-fictional report.

    Following this you seem to belittle everything possible regarding Disneyland’s European counter-part as you can whilst naively trying to negatively relate any differences the French have quite rightly made based on American values.

    “But these generous concessions weren’t enough for the French government; it also insisted on bilingualism and biculturalism. Accordingly, in the Haunted Mansion, a disembodied head speaks both English and French: “Ghoulies and ghosts, wherever you dwell / Give us a sign by ringing a bell” alternates with “Attention fantômes et goules lambinants / Dites ‘Bonjour, je suis un croissant,’” or something. And on Main Street USA, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” has been replaced with the “Statue of Liberty Tableau” which focuses less on where the Statue of Liberty stands, or what it stands for, than the fact that the French built it.”

    I’m not even sure where to start here. The French government “insisted” on bilingualism? Is this serious? In-case you weren’t aware.. Disneyland Paris is situated in.. wait for it… Paris! Should French children who visit this Park be given a handy dictionary to translate language given solely in English to brighten their day. Of course it’s in French. It’s France. If anything it’s a subtle nod to Walt Disney as well as an effort to make the park accessible to English speakers that any English is offered at all.

    “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” has been altered. Excuse them for placing a culturally relevant piece of information where there should rightly stand a meaningless-for-french-children-but-go-america homage. Nothing spells fun more than having to explain to your children why they should be enjoying themselves.

    Final note… don’t like France’s fine tribute to America’s Independence? No problem; I’m sure they’d gladly retake your statue of liberty.

    Shall we continue…

    “Mr. Chang’s Chinese Laundry, Mahjong Parlor upstairs.” This apparent cause of racism may seem valid but for someone with your vast knowledge of French culture I shouldn’t have to remind you that such associations as the name ‘Chang, with Chinese culture just don’t exist in France signifying that it’s you, yourself who has made this link, thus demonstrating your own racist generalisations rather than that of an entire Culture. Far worse one might say are the horrifying generalisations you’ve made against several million French people’s attitudes over the course of your article.

    Just as a final note…

    “For the most part, Disney hasn’t altered its theme park design to accommodate French culture. As in California’s Disneyland, you enter Disneyland Paris through Main Street USA, and as you stroll down it, you hear a calliope remix of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” from The Music Man. From a historical perspective, you’d think the French would be less concerned about the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon than, say, German troops, but Disney begs to differ.”

    Is this seriously a cheeky poke at the French collaboration with Nazi Germany? Can we be equally blaze with the modern German about a war that so negatively impacted the world as a whole. Would a German Disneyland result in comments such as “I hope visitors to this non-American atrocity enjoy it more than gays and Jews enjoyed Auchwitz?

    If any deviation from the “Real American Way” seriously doesn’t please you; do yourself and everyone else a favour and don’t bother trying anything else. Particularly if it means you need to write small-minded, borderline racist articles regarding cultures you seem to know nothing about.

    Thanks,

    An Englishman living in France (and typing with tremendous difficulty on an AZERTY keyboard!)

    Reply

  4. August 28, 2014 @ 10:47 pm Jennifer

    This would be more interesting if you actually did know something about France. Would it be acceptable to write about any other country when you cavalierly mention in the first two paragraphs that your knowledge consists of watching two movies? No. Why is this still considered “funny” in regards to France?

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  5. August 29, 2014 @ 5:11 am Nathalie

    Thank you for putting words to all this! As we live in Paris we were excited to go to ‘euro’ Disney and bring the kids for the first time. We came back beyond disappointed. It was as you described, even worst. No smiles. People smoking in your face (and in your baby’s face) everywhere (even though it’s not allowed). It’s outdated. The whole day we did not see ONE character except during the parade which I adamantly told my husband we would not miss so our son could see at least Mickey. Anyway, now we know and if we ever go back again, it will be in Florida.

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  6. August 29, 2014 @ 8:56 am Christopher

    So should Main St. have a “Mr. O’Leary’s Chinese Laundry?” How is the mahjong upstairs racist exactly? By mentioning race it is ultimately racist. The article is based upon a faulty premise of Disney’s lack of tone, but I think that French people who visit the park are looking for escape and recreation–if they are too blase to enjoy themselves then tough for them. I know some French who love Disneyland Paris–France is a country that bred Jean Paul Sartre, Beckett and De Bord so it’s their own fault.
    The author is basically saying that the dominant patron is a xenophobe because they are looking to substantiate their own national identity (right, in a theme park) and so what is the author saying? That the dominant French demographic is xenophobic. Maybe not playing to the National Front is the right tack, pardon the pun. But if one is writing to win friends and influence people in France, then this might be the article to do it, at least for the author. Other than that, I see sophistry and little else. Sorry.

    Reply


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