Over the past 60 years, the Walt Disney Company has created some of the greatest examples of themed entertainment that the world has ever seen, but even Mickey sometimes makes a mistake or two. Fans love to debate about their least favorite Disney attractions almost as much as they like discussing the best one, whether we are talking about our recent well-publicized assertion that Disney’s Hollywood Studios is no longer worth the full price of a one-day ticket, or the legendary faults of Disney California Adventure’s opening day incarnation. But a troubled as those parks may be, if you haven’t been to Walt Disney Studios Paris, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
I’ve recently completed my first visit to the Disneyland Paris Resort, and while 3 days at the Mouse’s European outpost certainly don’t make me an expert, they did broaden my definition of what a Disney park can — and probably shouldn’t — be. In an upcoming column I’ll share my experiences at Disneyland Paris itself, once I’ve had some time to digest my complicated feelings about that potential-packed park. But first, join me on a walk through its sister attraction, Walt Disney Studios Paris, which is arguably the weakest gate in the company’s current portfolio. In honor of one of the films featured in the park’s best original offering, I’m going to divide my thoughts into three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And because this is my Best Week Ever, let’s begin by accentuating the positive.
The Good at Walt Disney Studios Paris
Before we delve into the less-than-stellar aspects of Walt Disney Studios Paris, I want to properly praise three of the parks attractions which can go toe to toe with any of Disney’s best, starting with one of my favorite experiences in the entire resort.
My very first destination upon entering Walt Disney Studios Paris was Cinemagique, a show that I’d heard wonderful things about for years, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. This clever, funny, and touching tribute to the art of film is easily one of the best media-based attractions (read: screens) that Disney has ever done, and is probably the best film that star Martin Short has made since his Three Amigos glory days. It’s so good, I’ve even forgiven him for Epcot’s O Canada!
Short plays an American tourist who interrupts our screening of an homage to Hollywood history by talking loudly on his cell phone, and is magically sucked into the world of the movies. (If only that happened to everyone who talks through a theme park attraction.) Through a mix of filmed element, live performance, and in-theater effects — not dissimilar to the Terminator 2:3-D show at Universal Studios Florida — Short interacts with dozens of classic movie characters in his quest to win the heart of a cinematic siren (played by the luminous Julie Delpy) and retrieve his lost luggage.
Along the way, he’s inserted into famous scenes from Westerns, comedies, musicals, and a certain sci-fi classic, always with amusing results. The show smartly integrates the French and English language, so that monolingual viewers should have no problem following along, and during its 30 minute running time it elicited spontaneous applause from the audience at multiple points. If you you want an example of what France’s answer to DHS could have been, look no further than this wonderful show.
Next up on our hit parade is Crush’s Coaster, an indoor spinning roller coaster inspired by the surfer dude sea turtle from Finding Nemo. A relatively recent addition to the park, Crush’s Coaster combines dark ride elements with family-friendly thrills in a truly satisfying package.
The initial dark ride section, though bereft of sophisticated animatronics, effectively repurposes visuals originally seen in Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo and Friends; while I still prefer the scope and storytelling of the former attraction, I enjoyed Crush quite a bit more than the latter.
The meat of the ride is a zippy little indoor coaster which — thanks some steeply banked curves and the unpredictable motion of the free-spinning shell-shaped vehicles — provides an unexpectedly intense (but not painfully extreme) experience. There isn’t a whole lot to see, other than projected bubbles that simulate the East Australian Current, but I was too busy whooping with delight to notice.
Crush’s only real problem is its limited carrying capacity, which can result in hour-plus queues even on slow day. Hit this one early in the morning, or take advantage of the single rider option. If you are forced to wait in line for a while, you can play a free video game on your smartphone by connecting to the attraction’s exclusive Wi-Fi network. Alas, internet service isn’t provided, so you can’t use the connection to check Facebook.
Last but not least, my favorite area of the park by far is the new Ratatouille land, which just opened this past July. Though modest in scope, this corner of the park boasts its best theming, with a slightly fanciful take on classical Parisian architecture.
The main attraction here is Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy, a 3-D dark ride that uses trackless vehicles (as previously seen in Japan’s Hunny Hunt and Hong Kong’s Mystic Manor) to shrink you down to rat size and send you scurrying through a gourmet kitchen.
Some have complained, largely based on viewing YouTube videos of the ride, that it doesn’t use its impressive technology to its fullest potential. But while it doesn’t quite one-up Universal’s Spider-Man ride for 3-D thrills, I found the experience extremely charming during all three of my rides — each of which was slightly different, depending on which loading station I boarded from.
This is currently the park’s most popular ride by a long shot, so make sure you hit it early for a FastPass, or use the swift single rider queue. On the plus side, the cast members operating this ride were some of the most efficient I encountered at the resort, so (barring any breakdowns) the line should move fairly smoothly.
In addition to the attraction itself, the Ratatouillie area is home to the Bistrot Chez Remy restaurant, which you can actually look into as you exit the ride. Here, I had hands-down the best meal of my entire visit for a very reasonable price — especially considering that all taxes and service fees (a.k.a. tips) are included in the price printed on the menu.
The starter salad was superb, the codfish was perfectly cooked, and though the steak was on the thin side, it was the tenderest, tastiest piece of meat I’ve had on Disney property outside of a super-expensive “signature” restaurant. And of course, every entree is served with a side of the restaurant’s namesake dish, which really did taste good enough to make Anton Ego weep.
Half the fun of Chez Remy is the decor, which carries out the ride’s rat-sized theming to a T.
Best of all, despite visiting on the final day of the summer season, I was able to secure a dinner reservation on 2 hours notice, something you’d never be able to do at an equivalent WDW eatery. If you make it out to Disneyland Paris, don’t pass up a chance to dine with these vermin.
On a final note, much of the souvenier merchandise at Disneyland Paris seemed a bit more tasteful and subdued than what I’ve seen in the American parks, and the Ratatouille gift shop is a great example.
I came home with a pin for a friend who used to be a “friend of Remy” at Epcot’s French restaurant, along with a cookbook for myself. Because, anyone can cook!
The Bad at Walt Disney Studios Paris
You win some, you lose some, and at Walt Disney Studios Paris there are a couple of big-time losers. The park features two attractions that I’d sadly rate among the very bottom of all Disney experiences. And yes, I’m counting Stitch’s Great Escape.
Do you miss DHS’s Backlot Studio Tour? The Studio Tram Tour is still alive and well in Paris…well, maybe “well” isn’t quite the right word.
On the bright side, Catastrophe Canyon is still in operation here, and is basically identical to the now-closed Florida original. In fact, its effects are in even better shape than Orlando’s were in its final years, and after the disaster you get to see a brief behind-the-scenes video of how it’s all done.
The Paris tram tour’s other highlight is a brief glimpse of these two futuristic vehicles along the route. Though not identified as such, they are remnants of Orlando’s beloved Horizons ride, and should bring a smile to any old-school EPCOT Center fans.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Since the Paris studios are not, and have never been, a real working movie studio, there is really nothing to look at outside of the staged special effects. Where DHS at least had genuine costume and scenic shops to peek into, Paris has little but a boneyard of cars from long-forgotten films like 102 Dalmations.
The tour’s finale, purportedly a recreated set from the film Reign of Fire, is frankly pathetic. I was probably one of the only people on my tram (or perhaps the whole European continent) who has seen and remembers the Christian Bale dragon-fighting flick, and I still can’t muster any enthusiasm for seeing a moderately impressive burst of flame blasted out of an ugly hole in the ground. An enormous animatronic dragon may have given the ending some oomph, but no such luck. As a result, I’d bet a Euro that the vast majority of guests probably have no clue why this scene even exists.
As the icing on this sad, stale, cake, prerecorded narration throughout is provided by actors Jeremy Irons (in English) and Irene Jacob (in French), both whom seem as enthusiastic as anyone fulfilling a burdensome contractual obligation. The live tram guide is left with little to do but project a very French sort of ennui, which is quickly adopted by the guests.
Even if you have a deep nostalgia for DHS’s departed tram tour, the Paris version will take years off your life. The only thing that competes with it for sheer miss-ability is Armageddon, a special effects “spectacular” that makes Universal’s soon-to-shutter Twister attraction look like a 5-star masterpiece.
The first half of Armageddon is seemingly endless preshow, in which blocky low-definition clips from the 1998 Michael Bay sci-fi flick are projected as a host tries to pump up the disinterested crowd. Late actor Michael Clarke Duncan suffers the posthumous indignity of being badly dubbed into French, and then subtitled back into English, lending the attraction a little much-needed (though unintentional) comedy.
Armageddon’s main show takes place inside the film’s Russian space station set, as guests enter a circular room and watch a series of creaky practical effects go through their half-hearted paces. The finale fireball effect gets impressively close to the guests, and the loud noises were enough to make many children in my audience cry hysterically. But the dialogue, whether in Russian-accented English or French, is almost entirely incomprehensible, and the pacing of the sequence is so absurdly slow that I was hoping for an actual meteor to strike the building and put us all out of our misery.
The Ugly at Walt Disney Studios Paris
Attractions alone, as good or bad as they may be, do not a theme park make. Aside from the rides and shows mentioned above, the Paris studios have their share of decent offerings, including an exact clone of California’s Tower of Terror (except in French); the original version of the Lights, Motors, Action automotive stunt show; a Disney Animation attraction with a unique preshow honoring the pre-Walt history of animation; and an odd variation of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster with flashy concert lighting instead of Florida’s plywood Hollywood landmarks.
But take away all the rides, and you are left with a park with little to no aesthetic soul. The artificial soundstage facade look that mars much of Orlando’s DHS and USF parks has run rampant here, resulting in the cheapest-looking Disney park I’ve ever encountered. That’s not even addressing the serious and widespread issues with maintenance and upkeep around the resort, which make already inferior areas look even more low-rent.
Some of the newer areas of the park, like Toy Story Land and Toon Studios, display a little more attention to detail, but even then they feel flat and underdeveloped compared to similar sections in the American parks.
This Cars-themed corner, which makes WDW’s Art of Animation resort look like DCA’s Cars Land, is a prime example.
In other words, what does Walt Disney Studios Paris lack?
If this edition of Best Week Ever hasn’t made you too depressed, come back soon for a look at the far-more-likeable Disneyland Paris park. And just think of it this way — the next time you visit your least-favorite American theme park, you’ll probably appreciate it a whole lot more!
In the meantime, I leave you with this parting shot of some merchandise you’ll find at Walt Disney Studios Paris, but probably not at Mickey’s U.S. parks any time soon…