Walt Disney Studios Paris, and the problem with movie studio theme parks
Written by Robert NilesI hadn't planned on spending much time at Walt Disney Studios Paris. Not only is the 10-year-old park Disney's smallest and least-attended (drawing an estimated 4.7 million visitors a year, according to AECOM), it languishes at the bottom of all Disney parks in the Theme Park Insider readers' ratings. Given that lack of popularity, Walt Disney Studios Paris seems to have replaced the resurgent California Adventure as the runt of the Disney Parks litter.
Published: July 22, 2012 at 5:52 PM
Still, the discount Disneyland Paris ticket I bought online included both parks at no additional charge, so I figured I'd start my day at the Disneyland Paris Resort with a quick visit over at the Studios, to experience a couple of the park's unique attractions.
At the top of my list? Crush's Coaster, a Maurer Söhne spinning coaster/dark ride that opened in 2007 and still draws long lines at the park. Knowing this, I arrived at the park a little over 30 minutes before its posted opening, hoping to use my theme-park-power-walking skills to work my way to the front of the rope drop and into the queue before the line could build.
Busted. When I arrived, the Crush's Coaster queue already was filled to overflowing, spilling across the Toon Studio plaza. Had the park opened early? No. The rides weren't yet operational, but Disney allowed early arrivals to enter the park and fills its queues in advance of the park opening. I'd never seen nor heard of that happening in a Disney park before.
So when the opening spiel sounded, the ride's wait-time sign finally lit up: 120 minutes. After 20 minutes inching forward in the queue, I became convinced the sign was accurate. And there's no Fastpass or single rider option to lessen the time in line. We would be blowing 15 percent of our day at Disneyland Paris Resort waiting for one, five-year-old roller coaster with an 8 rating on the site.
The wait went down, a little, when I took this photo. Maybe because we bailed on the line?
No, thank you.
So instead we decided to take in the park's top-rated attraction, Cinemagique, which had its first showing of the day 40 minutes later. In the meantime, we wandered the park, taking photos and making comparisons to the other Disney parks we'd visited in the past year. Across the walkway from Crush's Coaster stands Disney Studios' little version of Cars Land.
It's home to just one ride - Cars Race Rally, a spinner that works a bit like Mater's Junkyard Jamboree.
Walt Disney Studios' newest land is Toy Story Playland, which also has been duplicated at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Toy Story Playland reminded me of the original Pixar-themed Disney Parks land: A Bug's Land at Disney California Adventure. It's aggressively decorated, but ultimately features just a handful of low-capacity carnival rides. In the case, a slow drop ride, a Himalaya, and a halfpipe.
Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop in Toy Story Playland
Slinky Dog Zig Zag Spin
Still, cranes looming over the land are working on building a new Ratatouille-themed dark ride, which might help provide some much needed capacity for this park.
Working our way around the park, we passed the park's Studio Tram Tour, which, like the one in Florida, offers a ride through Catastrophe Canyon though no working film or TV production studios.
The Tower of Terror here is a duplicate of the one in California - with the Twilight Zone theme and single drop shafts. No fourth dimension, as in Florida, or delightfully wicked Harrison Hightower, as in Tokyo.
Walt Disney Studios Paris also offers a couple of popular attractions also found at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida: Rock 'n Roller Coaster...
...And the original installation of the Motors, Action Stunt Show, though the show's been updated to feature Cars' Lightning McQueen.
There's an Armageddon-themed special effects show, too…
…but based on your reader ratings, we'd decided to opt instead to see Cinemagique.
It's a delightful show, starring Martin Short and France's Julie Delphy in a clever montage of scenes inspired by classic Hollywood films. The characters literally "break the fourth wall" on occasion, bringing the action off the screen and into the theater. It's charming and sweet, though I feel compelled to warn theme parks: Please stop making movie-based attractions featuring cell phones, unless you're willing to reshoot them every year to keep the film from looking pathetically dated. Short's clunk old Nokia just killed the narrative momentum every time it appeared on screen.
Once the film was over, we couldn't wait to get out of this park, and into the much more elaborately themed and enjoyable Disneyland Paris. A walk through the Disney Studio 1 building that serves as the park's "Main Street" illustrates the inherent problem with this - and other movie-studio themed parks.
At first glance, I was excited - They've got a Brown Derby restaurant? I didn't know that!
But a couple steps forward revealed that the Brown Derby exterior was just a flat facade, as were all the exteriors in the building. Behind the Brown Derby wall stood an ordinary counter-service restaurant, serving burgers and chicken.
Universal created the movie studio theme park with its Studio Tour in Hollywood. At Universal Studios Hollywood, the false fronts and flimsy finishing materials were genuine components of the film production that took place within the park's backlot. Years later, when Disney opened the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida and Universal created its Florida theme park, designers used those elements to create an impression of working studios. (As Disney did again, here in Paris.)
But when DVD and Blu-Ray extras spill the secrets of film production, and nine-year-olds are using Chroma key and After Effects to create professional-looking short films on YouTube, who cares about visiting a film studio? At least in Hollywood, you've got history, and the appeal of touring the sets where many classic movies were filmed. But at Walt Disney Studios Paris? Nothing's ever been filmed there - except what visitors are recording with their iPhones.
The irony? Universal - the company that created the studio theme park - doesn't even build them anymore. Take a look at Universal's latest theme park - Universal Studios Singapore - and you won't find ubiquitous false fronts and "we're filming a movie" conceits on its rides, as you did at Universal Studios Florida decades ago. Instead, in attractions based on Transformers, Madagascar, and Shrek, Universal's chosen in Singapore to immerse us in the narratives of movies themselves. They've ditched their old way of simply placing us into the process of creating those narratives.
Walt Disney Studios Paris, alas, does it the old way. Want an illustration? Take a look at the park's Aladdin-themed spinner ride, Flying Carpets over Agrabah:
Then compare that with the same ride in Tokyo DisneySea, where the ride is called Jasmine's Flying Carpets.
In Tokyo, you ride like royalty, in a lush environment that employs fine building materials and elaborate fountains. In Paris, you're riding atop a flat concrete floor, in front of a painted backdrop, while a minimally animated Genie barks orders at you. You're not royalty - you're a peon, an unpaid extra in an anonymous movie scene. This isn't an escapist fantasy. It's work.
And that's the inherent problem with studio themed parks. They don't whisk us away into the magic of great movie stories. They drop us into the somewhat ugly and tedious work of creating them. Who wants to visit a job site on vacation?
That's why Universal took a different approach in Singapore, and, using the rubric of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it is transforming its other theme parks from the old, process-driven model to a narrative-driven one. In short, Universal stopped making Universal theme parks, and started making Disney ones instead.
At some point, if Walt Disney Studios is to become anything other than the worst of the Disney theme parks, it will need to make the same change.
Coming tomorrow: We start our week-long, land-by-land tour of Disneyland Paris!
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