As one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions celebrates its 25th anniversary, Damon Smith regresses to childhood to join the fun (top marks if you can spot the hidden Disney ditties!)
At the age of six-and-a-half – the half was spoken with chest-puffing pride back then – Disney became my recreational drug. My parents were my dealers, kick-starting my habit one Saturday afternoon in the stalls of Watford Odeon, as an animated bear in an ill-fitting red T-shirt shimmied up a tree, rhapsodizing the growl in his furry belly.
I felt rumbly in my tumbly – not for honey but for the box of mint Matchmakers perched invitingly on my father’s knee. Then a most befuddling thing happened: pure, unadulterated joy washed over me. In truth, I had upended a carton of Kia-Ora and, seemingly, wet myself with excitement. I was oblivious because in the darkness, I was hooked.
That same feeling of unabashed glee, minus the damp trousers, bedevils me whenever I make a pilgrimage to Disneyland Paris.
I visited last year and the fizz of childhood wonder was diluted by a sombre realisation that Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park were looking tired, like a beloved soft toy that has been hugged and snuffled until its colours are bleached and seams distressed.
A few months later, as I walk out of Marne-la-Vallee/Chessy train station on a rather blustery day, I find my little patch of heaven has been extensively replanted and repolished to a lustre for the 25th anniversary celebrations.
The Newport Bay Club, which exudes the sprawling grandeur of a 1920s Cape Cod mansion, has been completely renovated with nautical but nice flourishes, including knotted profiles of a certain anthropomorphized mouse in carpets and animated characters peeking through portholes above the beds. Anchored within a leisurely 10-minute walk of both parks, it’s a convenient if disconcertingly labyrinthine base of operations for the weekend.
I pack the bare necessities, including a portable mobile phone charger. The official app is invaluable to discern where you are and delivers real-time updates on queues for rides and shows. Be prepared, however, to rack up data roaming charges as you zig-zag between two worlds of wonder, taking full advantage of the Fast Pass system that permits queue-jumping on major attractions, except the topsy-turvy Crush’s Coaster.
Kitsch and wistful nostalgia have always been the best of friends at the resort and that’s evident during the silver anniversary. Main Street Station, iconic gateway to Disneyland Park, now conceals its stained glass windows behind a shimmering overlay, framing a cameo containing two silhouettes in digitized fairy dust of the Sleeping Beauty castle and a curlicued 25.
The colours of the wind blowing through every design element are royal blue and silver sparkle, while sheen Tinkerbells flit atop lamp posts that light a path to Fantasyland, casting blue shadows on the trail.
Following a year-long refurbishment, the Big Thunder Mountain runaway train in Frontierland chugs past rainbow-coloured pools of water, encircled by glistening stalagmites. A falling oil lamp ignites a simulated explosion on the final ascent of the journey, replete with lit fuses skittering over jagged rocks and a theatrical blast of TNT smoke.
I dig a little deeper and discover night time scenes in Peter Pan’s Flight have been meticulously recoloured, so they sear my retinas under the ultraviolet glow of the second star to the right. Meanwhile, the It’s A Small World boat ride has been given a welcome lick of pastel paint, delivering a whistle-stop tour of a perfect world, where mechanical children greet visitors with a smile and a song.
Gluttonously, I hunger to try everything but two major attractions are closed. The transformation of the Space Mountain: Mission 2 futuristic rollercoaster into Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain won’t achieve light speed to the strains of John Williams’ score until May 7. A revitalized Pirates Of The Caribbean galleon ride is also just around the riverbend.
From July, animatronic Captain Jack Sparrow and swashbuckling special effects will enhance rum-soaked scenes from a pirate’s life awash with boisterous buccaneers barking at the moon, and poor unfortunate souls trapped in a dungeon jail.
Back above ground, I see the light refracted in 250,000 hand-glued Swarovski crystals, which adorn the Royal Castle Stage, situated to the right of the moat. Several times a day, weather permitting, the stage hosts the bilingual anniversary spectaculars Mickey Presents Happy Anniversary Disneyland Paris and The Starlit Princess Waltz. I hail to the Princess Aurora, Belle, Cinderella and five other spirited heroines as they waltz dreamily with their swaggering beaus.
At 5.30pm, we gather – a dozen deep – to witness eight gargantuan floats snake through the park, steady as the beating drum, on the inaugural Disney Stars On Parade. Mickey and Minnie, dressed fetchingly as explorers, lead festivities, followed by elaborate mobile designs dedicated to Toy Story, The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Peter Pan, fronted by the elegant Captain Hook. Some floats are enlivened with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, and a 15-metre long dragon elicits gasps every time the mechanized behemoth rears its head and spews blood red fire, all in the golden afternoon.
At nightfall, millions of LEDS that frame Main Street are dimmed for the premiere of Disney Illuminations. State-of-the-art projection mapping brings to life scenes from animated classics on the castle ramparts, enhanced with lasers, fireworks and choreographed water jets. For the first time, live action elements from Pirates Of The Caribbean and Star Wars have been incorporated, building to a pyrotechnic-laden crescendo infused with heartwarming sisterly solidarity and love courtesy of Frozen.
Tomorrow is another day and after a hearty, buffet-style breakfast in the hotel’s ground floor Yacht Club restaurant, I join the excitable throng heading to Disneyland Park for the grand opening of Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. Reimagined in eye-popping 3D, the white-knuckle simulator ride seesaws wildly through a whole new world of Star Wars-related escapades, against iconic backdrops including the ice planet Hoth and forest moon of Endor.
To encourage repeat visits, the ride randomizes scenes for each daredevil mission, piloted by a discombobulated C-3PO, whose communications circuitry is hardwired to excitable Francais. The absence of English subtitles is a little black rain cloud over a beautiful spring day.
The tantalizing promise of more than 70 different combinations seems too good to be true but I take three rides in the space of one hour and sure enough, there is a fresh sugar rush of otherworldly special effects each time we blast off, including a splash landing fathoms below Lake Paonga, where we collide with floppy-eared aberration Jar Jar Binks to collective whoops of delight.
Across the repaved Discoveryland courtyard in the Star Port, an imposing Darth Vader hosts private audiences with new recruits to the Galactic Empire. I’m a happy-go-lucky fellow and my fun and fancy-free Mickey ears fail to impress the Sith Lord. He is quick to snuff out the light-heartedness with a clench of his black-gloved fist and barks orders in that sonorous rasp before sending me on my way.
Outside, I’m in great spirits as I greet Chewbacca. In a world of my own, enveloped in a Wookiee hug, I fail to notice two approaching Stormtroopers in shiny white armour.
“Do you have clearance for this area?” asks one accusingly. I blush and blither a feeble response.
“Calm down,” gestures his partner in intergalactic crime.
Very good advice for a 43-year-old man, who still thinks he’s that six-and-a-half-year-old boy, with sodden trousers. Let it go… until next time.
:: Damon Smith was a guest of Disneyland Paris (www.disneylandparis.co.uk, 0844 800 8111). A two-night/three-day stay at Disney’s Newport Bay Club, including return travel on Eurostar from London St Pancras (indirect via Lille) to Disneyland Paris starts from £1,203.14 for two adults and two children including park tickets and half-board meal plan. Price based on a May 2017 departure