Like you said, there are some really nice hotels off-property at much more reasonable prices and most of them have a shuttle to the parks.
The main draw to WDS at the moment is Crush's Coaster and everyone gets very disappointed with the capacity problems on that ride, combined with the amount of times it seems to break down. Even when the park isn't busy you won't see a queue less than 90 minutes, because it's a unique attraction that has a height limit of only 1 meter. EVERYBODY wants to ride it.
You also have to remember most people who visit the park are European and haven't visited any of the other Disney parks. It is still pretty brilliant and definitely better than nothing.
As for dealing with people - everyone we met in the park was delightful. I apply the same mindset I do wherever I go: be polite from the beginning of an interaction, smile, and be patient. They will 99% of the time be the same thing right back to you. I rarely ever have a problem dealing with someone in a park or restaurant if I go in with a good attitude.
Let me know if anyone's interested in seeing on Youtube the park video we shot of the day at the very snowy, very Christmasy Disneyland Paris.
Uh, yes, I'd love to see that video! Please post the link!
Also, I was quoted $510 a night for Cheyenne, and Crockett's actually off the main property, so I didn't consider it. (It's a lower star rating and further away than some of the partner hotels, so I didn't see any benefit.)
As for London, I highly recommend Borough Market (I have developed a regrettable addiction to Pieminister, seeing as they do not deliver outside the GB mainland), Hampton Court, the British Museum, heck, just everything. We're having fun watching the Olympics (on the BBC live feed, shhhh) and recognizing all the places we visited around town.
A few tips: Go to Evensong at Westminster Abbey. It's free and you get to see the church in its proper context, as a house of worship. We were fortunate and were seated in Poets' Corner, the part of the church I most wanted to see on the paid tour anyway. I wanted to see the graves of Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and saw them all either on the way in or out of the service. The ministers also let you linger around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as long as you'd like, but they do rush you out of the rest of the Abbey after the service.
Street markets in England and France are amazing - the best food at the best prices. Laurie's missing the Monmouth coffee at Borough Market already.
The longest line we waited in in London was for the Platform 9 3/4 photo op at Kings Cross station. Don't rush by the neighboring St. Pancras Station, though - that was the station used as the exterior of Kings Cross in the Harry Potter films. One more Harry Potter note: Natalie bought a sweater at AllSaints Spitalfields on Portobello Road and just realized today that it's the same sweater Neville Longbottom is wearing in the final scenes of Deathly Hallows Part 2. So there's a place to go for your truly authentic Harry Potter gear.
As least in the U.S., tips is how we reward good service. In France, they are happy to offer it via handholding. Here it is after getting an ego boost.
(Which makes sense. Because if you need help from someone, it's usually because they have some knowledge, access or expertise you don't.)
And, hell yes, a customer damned well better know and abide by the code of conduct in the country he or she is visiting! A visitor who doesn't say hello and starts making demands in Spanish (or French) in the United States isn't going to get much good help in return over here, either. Nor should they.
I'm actually surprised that tipping happens at DLP considering what I've heard about tipping in Europe and similarly, Australia.
The French are masters of having it both ways. They don't get a tip if they don't deserve it, but unfortunately, the service charge is usually on the check so you don't have any choice.
Sometimes a good host should help someone out. The French have no excuse if their visitors complain when they are not helping them understand. I can pretend just like they pretend they don't understand English.
As a person of Chinese ancestry, you should know bad service when you get it at Chinese restaurants and they don't expect tips either. It is race to the bottom there. Eat and get out.
I found the best way to have lunch was to grab a baguette and some cheese and fruit before we left Paris. Noone seemed to mind we bought our own food and it was cheap and tasty. Im not sure if these are available in the US, but in Australia you can get things called Travelex cards that you preload with the currency of the place you are travelling to. They have chips and pins as well as magnetic strips and can be used like credit cards or to take cash out of ATMS.
and finally my case for the on site hotels.... extra magic hours.... this extra addition that is only available to guests in the on site hotels (you need whats called a hotel easy pass to get past the ropes into the lands of the parks) gives you up to a whopping 2 hours of extra time in the parks and that means you can easily get the most popular rides in discoveryland and fantasyland done before the regualr park hours even begin (get in at least one ride on peter pans flight and buzz lightyears lazerblast as they are the two most popular.... then go for the others)
just need to say now that i really enjoyed reading your report its made me all excited for my next trip (in planning for Jan 2013)
I think that's not really a "France" thing, but an "everywhere" thing.
Also, I can't endorse enough the idea of shopping in the speciality or street markets to assemble a picnic lunch. The best meal we had in Europe was a picnic we assembled at a boulangerie, patisserie, and fromagerie in Vernon. Amazing.
Just a question, though - how "inevitable" really is it that there'll be a big-money rebuild in the future? I live in the UK and my cost for coach travel, 2 days in the park, and 3 nights at a partner hotel is just $400 so any upgrade to my local park would be great!
I think a re-do of the park entrance, a la what Disney did with DCA, would improve Studios immensely. The good news is Disney has plenty of space to work with in Paris. It's money and will to invest that seems to be the issue. If Disney spends the money to improve the Studios, will enough additional guests come, spending enough additional money, to make that investment worthwhile?