TouringPlans #Everywhere wrapped up a month ago, but as the lucky person chosen to head to Disneyland Paris, I just returned home 2 weeks ago. (Ed. – yes, I’m late running this.) Since it was my first trip to Europe, I was able to spend 3 weeks visiting Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, and Dublin. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this trip, but the two best are probably “Amazing” and “Exhausting.” It’s a weird dichotomy, in that I dont think I would ever suggest that anyone ever take a 3 week vacation to 6 cities in 5 countries, but I also can’t think of anything I would have willingly removed from our itinerary – it was such a great trip and I wouldn’t change a thing.
What I learned about Disneyland Paris – The Good
I thought Disneyland Park in Paris was beautiful. Excellently themed, with great attractions. The level of detail in this park equaled that of the Magic Kingdom in my opinion, as it felt like each land and each attraction would have fit perfectly in Orlando. The roller coasters in Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios were also the best Disney roller coasters I’ve been on. Space Mountain: Mission 2, Crush’s Coaster, and Indiana Jones were all more intense and more fun than anything at Walt Disney World. The Paris versions of Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion (called Phantom Manor) and Pirates were different enough to warrant several rides without ever feeling like you were just wasting time by re-hashing Disney World copies. There are attractions unique to Disneyland Paris’s two parks that at the very least could be considered interesting (The Alice in Wonderland Hedge Maze, a Snow White-style Pinocchio ride, The Dragon under the castle, Cinemagique), or at the very best, superior to attractions we have in Orlando (Crush’s Coaster, Ratatouille).
And speaking of Ratatouille, the new ride in Walt Disney Studios is incredibly fun. I’ve heard it compared to Spider-Man at Universal Orlando, but I think it’s more like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I suppose both Spider-Man and Harry Potter are similar in that they move you through physically themed areas before depositing you in front of a 3-D screen utilizing motion simulation, but the story and level of detail in Harry Potter is far superior to Spider-Man, which is why I say Ratatouille more resembles that ride. You can tell a lot of thought and detail went into creating this ride so that it wouldn’t feel like just another motion simulator. If Pixar land ever materializes at Hollywood Studios, I really hope they bring this ride along. It’s almost not fair that the Europeans get this one all to themselves.
Also, Disney Dreams!, the night time show utilizing 3D mapped projections on the castle, is great. While in Paris, I tweeted that I thought it was great, but that I still preferred Wishes, and you would have thought I just said Disney Dreams was garbage based on the replies I got. Far from it. From a technical standpoint, Disney Dreams is probably the best nighttime show I’ve seen (granted my experience is limited to WDW and Disneyland Paris). The music, fireworks, and castle-mapping 3D projection are top notch and work perfectly together. And they also use several characters that don’t get a lot of attention in the American parks. (I just prefer Wishes by a slim margin, what’s so wrong about that?)
What I learned about Disneyland Paris – The Bad
For everything Disneyland Paris does right, it still just has this feeling like something is off. We noticed very few people were wearing anything Disney-related, including any of the little kids. And everyone smoked. All the time. Everywhere. There were even people smoking in the outdoor queue for Crush’s Coaster. You’re technically not allowed to smoke except in assigned places, but it didn’t matter. And these two things were a bit jarring. It kind of killed the Disney magic for us, because the majority of people there were treating it like some random, generic theme park. Maybe I’ve just over-sentamentalized Disney World, and how everyone there gets caught up in the Disney atmosphere.
Also, Walt Disney Studios is very small. Ridiculously small, even. The Toy Story themed rides like the Slinky Dog Zig Zag Spin, Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop, or the RC Racers were just standard, generic carnival rides re-themed. The Backlot Tour is somehow even worse than the one at Hollywood Studios. The Armageddon Special Effects show is super cheesy. If you thought Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios were half day parks, you obviously haven’t been to Walt Disney Studios. The only thing that might keep you there longer than half a day are the ridiculously long lines for Crush (which doesn’t even have fastpass) and Ratatouille.
And while the food isn’t terrible, it wasn’t spectacular. I would put the food on par with any in-park restaurant from Disney World, except since the average main plate costs 25-30 euros, instead of 25-30 dollars, it means the same quality of food is now 1.3 times more expensive. There is one exception though: Walt’s American Restaurant. It’s a restaurant that overlooks Main Street, which is worth the price of food alone if you can grab a seat by the window. People watching from above Main Street is great. We also managed to catch a parade from up there, too! And it was probably the best food we had in the park.
Disneyland Paris is a must visit if you’re already in Paris. I wouldn’t take any trips to Europe specifically for Disneyland though. I do feel like it’s 100% worth seeing if you can spare a day or two from an existing Parisian or European vacation.
But Wait, There’s More
Speaking of that European vacation, I’ll now talk a little bit about the rest of the trip; how traveling went, favorite sites, etc. There won’t be any more Disneyland Paris talk, so if that’s all you wanted, you can bow out now.
We used a combination of trains and budget airlines to move from city to city, and neither method proved too difficult. Probably the easiest way to get around in each city we visited was to buy a multi-day public transport pass. Being able to use this on the metro, trams, buses, etc, of each city saved us tons of time worrying about tickets, or trying to find and pay for taxis. One of the bad things about visiting so many different countries is that as soon as you get used to one public transit system, you’re off to the next place which is mostly the same, but just different enough to take a day or two to get used to. In Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam we stuck mainly to the subway, and in Dublin we only used the buses (which had free wi-fi!), while in London we used a combination of the two. Coming from a city without reliable (or safe, sometimes) public transit, I have to say Europe was great in this aspect. Also, in Paris and London, we used the CityMapper app which often proved more reliable and faster in finding directions from one place to another (through walking and public transit) than Google Maps or even talking to locals.
As for the places we visited, Paris was amazing. So many historical buildings, monuments, and museums. You could spend a month there and not see everything. The Louvre and Orsay museums were breathtaking and I wanted to spend days in each one. Notre Dame cathedral was beautiful. The food was excellent, and since a glass of wine costs as much as a glass of soda, why not drink wine with every meal? And perhaps most importantly, we found a Canadian sports bar on the Seine River across from Notre Dame that was showing the weekend’s NFL games! The city was huge, but when combined with the subway it was very walkable. I suggest getting the 2 day museum pass, because not only does it give you access to tons of museums, but you get to skip the lines to get in to them. At the Louvre, our 35 minute wait was still much better than what looked like at least a 90-120 minute wait for people who needed tickets. We stayed in a hotel in Vincennes, on the outskirts of the city. It was a block from a metro stop on the M1 line, and much cheaper and larger than hotel rooms inside the city. However, in retrospect, I think I would have rather paid the money to stay inside one of the main arrondissements in Paris proper.
Brussels, by comparison, is a very small city. The only time we even needed a bus or subway was to get to the Cantillon Brewery and to visit some bookstores in the areas outside the city. Other than that, you can walk everywhere. We stayed in a guest house called the Carmelites, which was a block from the Mannekin Pis, which is in the middle of everything. The owner of the guest house was incredibly friendly and we enjoyed talking with him each morning over breakfast (which he prepared for us). As a beer nerd, Brussels was probably my favorite city on the trip. So many bars with such cheap Belgian beer that is usually so costly in the US if you can even get it. And we actually enjoyed the food more in Brussels than in Paris, and found the people much more friendly and laid back.
If we could combine the wine, architecture, and museums of Paris, with the people, food, and beer of Brussels, it would probably be the perfect city.
As for Amsterdam, I had come down with a pretty bad cold, and didnt get to see much. I made it a point to drag myself out of bed to visit the Anne Frank museum, and it was well worth it. Sadly, I had to skip out on what I heard were other excellent museums like the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, but I spent the majority of the 2 days in bed. And again, this was a city like Paris where we stayed in a cheaper hotel outside of the city, with a metro stop a few blocks away, where I wish we had just paid more money to stay in the city itself.
London we had mixed feelings about. The city is huge. Like, ridiculously big. Bigger in size than NYC or Paris, and it certainly feels like it. The buses and subway worked exceptionally well, but the city is so huge it still felt like it took forever to get anywhere. But the museums here were incredible, and most of them were free. The National Gallery, the British Museum, and the British Library were our favorites, housing things like the original Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, and pieces of the Parthenon. But outside of a few buildings like the Tower of London, it feels like the city has torn down most of its past in favor of building for the future. Whereas Paris seems more likely to retrofit centuries old buildings for new purposes, it seems like London hasn’t been as sentimental. We had a lot of fun here, but to me it felt like a British version of NYC.
Dublin, was great, and was my wife’s favorite city. There is plenty of literary history here, which is my wife’s favorite type of history. We took a half day trip out to a castle, drove along the coastline, saw one of the oldest illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels at Trinity College, went to the Irish Writers Museum, saw Oscar Wilde’s house, and visited the Guinness Brewery. Not bad for two days in Dublin. Dublin doesn’t have a subway, so the buses were the only way to get around. Whereas the buses in London had signs in each bus announcing the next stop, as well as a voice telling you the next stop, buses in Dublin usually didn’t, so it’s important to know where you’re going. Google maps was decent for the most part, and there are a few apps in the iOS App Store, but nothing worked exceptionally well like CityMapper did. We still never missed any stops, but there were times where we needed to find a cafe with wifi and spend a few minutes figuring out how to get somewhere. Once you get the hang of it though, the Dublin bus system isn’t too bad.
Overall, it was a great trip. The feeling of constantly traveling wore us out pretty quickly though, and by the middle of Week #2 we were tired of it. Luckily, every place we went was so much fun, and kept us so busy, that it was easy to push aside any feelings of travel fatigue. We never had any issues with money (we carried about 50-100 euros or pounds with us at all times, but only a few places in Paris and London didnt take our credit cards). Our power converter worked great for laptops and cell phones (and comes with plug adapters for every outlet style), and the plan to use a dual voltage travel hair dryer with plug adapters was also a pretty good one, as a few hotels didnt have hair dryers in them. But there were very few language issues. Most people in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam spoke decent English. In Paris, no one was ever rude to us for not being able to speak French, though a few times it did seem like a waiter was merely tolerating us. In Brussels, however, everyone seemed genuinely friendly and happy to serve tourists who couldn’t speak French. It was also a great experience to visit so many countries, with histories that are centuries older than our own country.
Here’s a photo dump of some cool things we saw on our trip!