Planning a trip to Disneyland Paris
Written by Robert Niles
If our reports from Disneyland Paris last week have you thinking about visiting someday, here are some tips to help you plan a trip to the Disneyland Paris Resort.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport tends to be one of the more expensive in Europe, so if you're thinking about including Disneyland Paris as part of a longer European vacation, I'd suggest flying into a different city. Looking at mid-week flights with a 30-day advance purchase, I'm seeing round-trip tickets to Paris from New York running about $900 now, and about $1,000 from Orlando or Los Angeles. You can find flights about $100 cheaper going into London, and $50 cheaper flying into Brussels - two cities connected directly to Disneyland Paris via the Eurostar train system.
We flew into London and stayed there for a week before taking to the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris. We visited Disneyland on our last day in Paris, treating it as a kind-of "halfway home" transition back to the United States. We took Paris' RER (pronounced "air-ee-air") train from the stop nearest our hotel in the city to the Disneyland Paris Resort, for about 7 euro per person. After our stay, we took the TGV bullet train from the Disneyland Paris station to Charles de Gaulle, from where we flew back to America.
There's a bus service connecting Disneyland to the airport, but it's your slowest and most expensive option. The TGV gets you from Disneyland to the airport (or vice versa) in just 10 minutes, and costs 17 euro a ticket. You can take the RER between the two, as well, but that requires a transfer in the city center of Paris and can take over an hour total. And that's still almost 17 euro once you buy your tickets from the airport to Paris and from Paris to Disneyland. So if you're going directly between the airport and Disneyland, take the TGV.
The Disneyland Paris train station is located right in the heart of the resort, right next to the bus stops connecting the parks to their on-site hotels and just steps from the security checkpoints.
A note about the security checkpoints: These aren't the simple "open your bag for the Disney cast member" tables that you might be familiar with in the United States. They're airport-style luggage scanners through which all your bags and purses have to pass. And don't be surprised when you see uniformed French army soldiers toting rifles and walking around the checkpoints, either.
Where to stay?
Prices for the on-site hotels at the Disneyland Paris resort are insane. We're talking $1,200+ per night for the Disneyland Hotel in the summer. And $500-950 a night for the other hotels, based on quality and distance from the park.
In comparison, you can spend about $400 a night in the summer and stay in the Grand Californian at Disneyland in Anaheim, our Theme Park Insider Award winner for world's best theme park hotel. If someone wants to make a case for staying in a Disney hotel in Paris, feel free to post in comments. I chose to stay at one of the much more affordable "partner" hotels instead.
We chose the Hotel L'Elysée Val d'Europe, spending about $200 a night. (I've seen this hotel going for less than $150 a night later this fall.) Our room at the Hotel L'Elysée offered two comfortable queen beds, a clean and well-appointed bathroom, and free WiFi, though the offered hot breakfast cost extra. (We skipped it.) It's located next to the immense Val d'Europe outlet mall and there's a free shuttle bus outside the hotel entrance that will take you directly to the Disneyland Paris train station.
A few things to know about the shuttle: It's free for hotel guests, but not for everyone else. So keep the bus schedule you'll get at check-in to show the driver to prove you're a hotel guest, if you're asked. The bus runs every 10-15 minutes around park open and close, but only every hour or so in the middle of the day, so plan accordingly.
Getting to the Hotel L'Elysée was a snap. We took the RER from Paris to the Val d'Europe station (one stop before Disneyland Paris), and just walked across the street to the hotel. The English-speaking front-desk clerk at the hotel also told us about the TGV and where to buy those tickets at the Disneyland station.
I used the Europe-focused booking.com to make our reservation, but found all the partner hotels on hotels.com as well. You can book through the Disneyland Paris website, but it defaults to packages that include park tickets for all days starting on your arrival day, through your check-out day. We stayed two nights, but only visited the parks for a single day, and there's no way to price that option on the Disneyland Paris website. (Do look at the DLP website to get the current list of partner hotels, though.)
There's also no way to make dining reservations online for Disneyland Paris, either. You'll need to call (011-33-01-60-30-40-50 from the United States or Canada), but Disneyland has English-speaking operators to help you. And once you make a reservation, you'll be noted in the system as an English-speaking party, which will get you an English-language menu and English-speaking waiter at your restaurant. (They might speak English as a second, or third, language, but that's still a help.)
If you're calling from the Los Angeles area (as I was), or from Orlando, the operators will ask if you're a cast member, too. I guess not very many non-CMs from LA go to Disneyland Paris. ;^)
Tickets and strategy
As always, buy your tickets in advance to save time at the gate and get the best deal. I paid $84 for a two-park ticket (a $22 savings over the gate price and a $3 savings over the gate price for a one-park ticket) by buying online. The only downside? Disneyland Paris doesn't exchange your print-at-home page for a paper ticket at the gate, as they do in the US, making it a bit of a pain to get Fastpasses later in the day. And they're strict about checking IDs with the print at home tickets, so don't forget to bring your passport to the park.
Unless you've got a goal of visiting every Disney theme park in the world and no plans ever to return to Paris, I'd strongly suggest skipping the Walt Disney Studios Park. Plan to spend all your time in Disneyland Paris instead. Walt Disney Studios Park simply isn't up to Disney standards for quality and value, and offers too few attractions you can't also find in other Disney parks to justify taking time away from visiting the adjacent Disneyland Park. If you'll likely visit Paris in the future, wait to see the Studios park until after the inevitable future visit by John Lasseter that results in his ordering a big-money rebuild of the park, just like at Disney California Adventure. If you must visit the Studios now, just to bag it for your list of Disney parks visited, go in the middle of the day, walk a quick lap, and see Cinemagique.
At Disneyland Paris, Fastpasses are available to Big Thunder Mountain, the Indiana Jones roller coaster, Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, Star Tours and Space Mountain. Unless you're hankering to see the old version of Star Tours, don't bother with that one. Fastpasses for Thunder go the fastest, followed by Indy and Pan. Space Mountain's intensity makes it a less popular ride here than in the U.S. Disneyland Paris offers Extra Magic Hours some mornings to on-site hotel guests, but only for selected attractions in Fantasyland and Discoveryland.
My must-see attractions for Disney fans from the U.S. would be:
Disneyland Paris offers a spectacular nighttime show called "Disney Dreams" that's earned raves from anyone who's seen it. Unfortunately, we didn't.
Here's a video of the performance, which blends "Magic, Memories and You"-type castle effects with "Fantasmic" and "World of Color"-like water screen animations and fireworks in a review of popular Disney musical moments, with special emphasis on those set in France.
Disney Dreams plays only at park close at 11pm in the summer. (It doesn't get dark until after 10pm in Paris in the summer.) And in trying to see two parks in one day on the final day of our visit, we were simply too exhausted to stay awake for the 11pm show, especially with a trans-Atlantic flight looming the next day. My bad with the planning fail. Learn from my mistake. ;^) So if you're visiting in the summer, staying up for Disney Dreams provides all the more reason to skip the Studios, arrive later at Disneyland Paris, or to take a break and pace yourself during the day. Or at least, don't plan anything important, such as flying out of the country, for the next morning after the show.
Counter service food in this park is the worst in the Disney chain. They're trying to "be American" and end up with a mediocre collection of places serving the same selection of burgers, pizza, chicken and weak BBQ. If you want something better, choose one of the table service restaurants, such as Walt's, or one of the all-you-can-eat buffets. Call in advance for reservations for table service and character meals (see number above).
Keep in mind that taxes are included in all the posted prices you'll see at Disneyland Paris. And tips are typically small in France, just round up a euro or so if you're paying in cash.
If you plan to use your credit card in Europe, you'll need to know that it won't work in many places. European credit cards use a "chip and PIN" system instead of the magnetic stripe used on US cards. In restaurants, servers will need to swipe your card through the reader, which is something many Europeans don't have much experience with. At Walt's, I ended up having to swipe the card, because no one on staff could get it to go the right away. When you're buying train tickets, you'll need to get tickets at a station with an attendant who can swipe your card, because it won't work in the automated machines. (All machines I saw also took cash, though.)
Dealing with people
The best piece of advice I got about visiting France? "Always remember, it's 'people before business.'"
That means the first word out of your mouth when entering a store or restaurant should be a greeting, not a question or a demand. Say "bonjour", or "bonsoir" (bon-swah) in the evening, before moving on to anything else. Forget to greet someone first and you can guarantee hostility in response. If you want to order something, say so with "Je voudrais…" (zhuh-vuh-dray, meaning "I would like…").
More than 200 years later, the French Revolution still reverberates. There is no surviving tradition of the "service class" in France, as there is in England, and even in America. No one "serves" anyone in France, so get over any expectation of that when you're in the country. Sure, the waiter's job is to bring your you meal, but it's not to denigrate himself or herself in "service" to you. If you want what Americans perceive as great service, appeal to your waiter's expertise, instead. Ask for suggestions and advice. (Then take them - you'll rarely regret it.) Finish your conversations by offering a thank-you ("Merci") and good-bye ("Au revoir" - ahv-wah).
If you must make what would be considered a menial demand or request, try to do it in French first. That shows respect. We stayed at a hotel in Paris where you had to leave the old-fashioned key at the front desk when you left the hotel. And every evening when we returned, we gave our room number in French. That's a menial request, asking for a key. But once we'd done that in French, the desk clerk was always happy show his expertise with suggestions on where to eat, in English.
In tourist areas such as Disneyland and the center of Paris, most people working in hotels, restaurants or retail will speak at least a little English and be happy to help you in that language - if you've shown the proper respect to them as a French-speaking individual first. Remember, people before business.
Also, take note that the French don't speak loudly in public, like too many Americans do. Loud talking at your table at dinner is another way to ensure hostile treatment from your waiter. On trains, some cars will be designated as "quiet cars," where you're not supposed to talk at all. In the others, people will speak in near-whispers. Keep your conversations to yourself. No one else wants to hear them.
Have you visited Disneyland Paris? We'd love to hear your best tips and advice, in the comments.
Tomorrow: Robert ranks the Disney theme parks worldwide, and talks more about planning trips to far-flung theme parks.
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