Monday, June 02, 2014

The happiest place on earth if you are on crack

This evening I reached for the honey and noticed some ants around the lid. I grimaced before being transported back to my childhood: I am opening a tin of biscuits in my grandmother's kitchen and there are tiny black ants in it. I belt out a scream, she comes running, sees I've not been mortally wounded, sees the ants, and then begins admonishing me for being a fussy young person of today and tells me if I had lived through the depression, ants on the biscuits would have been the least of my worries. Fast forward about 10 years later, I watch 'Empire of the Sun' and how the boy in the concentration camp eat the maggots in his food for the protein, and I think maybe my grandmother wasn't so crazy after all.

We recently visited Disneyland Paris with our children. My grandmother would have hated Disney. She hated people and things that displayed a kind of forced exuberant happiness and enthusiasm. The only reason I go to Disneyland is because of our children and I am genuinely surprised every time I see adults there without kids. I look around to see if their offspring are standing a few steps away from them, or pretending they aren't actually there with their parents, or are perhaps at a concession stand buying something, and when it becomes apparent there are no kids I am shocked. Why would an adult, of their own volition, minus any nagging or manipulation, voluntarily use their precious free time and money to go to such a place?

At breakfast in our hotel one morning two middle aged men sat at the next table. Each time the characters came past one of the men, who had strangely dyed punkish-looking hair, would get excited, and just about manage to contain himself to wait while my kids had their turn getting autographs and roughhousing with Pluto, or Donald. Then he'd jump up with a huge grin on his face, pose for pictures and make jokes with the characters. When his friend went off to top up on his breakfast plate I heard him happily singing to himself, and realised that this was evidently a dream come true for him. Later I noticed that he and his friend had a large collection of Disney badges all over their jackets.  Maybe some people have a rotten childhood and make up for it by going to Disneyland as adults, or perhaps they happen to genuinely like theme parks and rides? 

My father, an electrician, hated roller-coasters and maintained that they were dangerous devices that could kill you at any time, specifically when you least expected it. He told us a story of a boy who had been killed on a faulty one when he was a boy himself. As my father was an electrician he was therefore considered by us to be an expert on anything electrical and its potential dangers. Maybe this stuck with me somehow, or maybe, like my grandmother, I'm not buying all that fake happy shit. Or perhaps further still, there is some kind of developmental Disney milestone that I failed to achieve as a child. Either way, I just don't get the appeal apart from the bursts of pleasure my children derive from it – that is when they are not crying or complaining about being tired or thirsty or because we won't purchase the giant round lollypops that will cause instant diabetes.

I am however in awe of the creativity and legacy of Disney animation and love many of the films which are as much a part of my childhood as anyone else's. But I just don't get excited when I see a struggling actor dressed in what looks like a suffocatingly hot Minnie Mouse or Chipmunk suit. You don't see adults react like small children on E numbers when the guy at the mall dressed as a giant hot dog hands them a flier, but at Disney if Donald Duck or Cinderella happens into view – it's a flash mob of adults in shorts and flip flops wearing Mini Mouse alice-bands and Sorcerer’s Apprentice hats.

The Disneyland experience reminds me of Christmas; I have moments of enjoyment in a vicarious manner through my children's joy and excitement of it, but the rest of it is like having to sit through a root canal. The crowds of people, the eternal waiting in queues, the terrible food. On this most recent trip I went on the rides with our kids and some of them were fun, I'll grant that. But they lasted for what felt like seconds, and I came off thinking: For that I waited 45 minutes with two small tired and on the verge of losing their shit kids next to the very smelly man? 

My daughter, who is six and a half, asked me one day how the people inside of the costumes could see out? And the first thing that came to mind was: Yes! I won't have to keep doing this for much longer. Which is not to say I am in any way wishing away their childhood - god knows it's quite the opposite and I am morbidly sad in anticipation of my children's inevitable growing up and not being these delightful little people any more - but can't I have the delightful little people without having to go to Disney? (Note: I am hoping they grow into delightful big people too).

The crowds and queues are brutish, but what I most take exception to at Disney is the food and just how much bad food costs. Foolishly I, perhaps like others before me and I'm certain those to follow, think that because I am in France, the food is going to be good, and maybe even excellent. We have visited Disneyland Paris three times in four years now and I am yet to have this misguided assumption proved correct. The food in our hotel was a buffet and it was basic in terms of choice, but tasty - certainly nothing to write home about though. Think cafeteria food at say, the BBC. This snobby sounding description is not quite so snobby when you see the prices which are very steep and for that you are accustomed to expecting good food, not just OK food. The food on the go in the park is fast food which I cannot eat because of a variety of boring food intolerances that happen to cover pretty much all fast food's basic ingredients: Wheat, gluten, lactose, aspartame. Oh and sugar – which I am allowed to eat but avoid because I read somewhere that sugar, rather than fat, is what is causing heart attacks and a host of other serious medical conditions. And I cannot in good conscience give that kind of food to my children either - especially if I don't eat it. But the food in the Auberge de Cendrillion (a much sought after lunch with the princesses experience - kind of like trying to get into Spargo back in its heyday) really takes the cake when it comes to really bad food.You can check out my TripAdvisor review here. One other reviewer said he had been a chef for the past 20 years and thought the food was excellent. And I thought really? A chef where? Prison?

And then there's the money. You spend a lot of it in Disneyland and not just on the bad food. To contextualise: A friend of mine bought my daughter a Frozen Elsa dress at Disneyland Paris, and it cost 60 Euros which roughly translates to 50 pounds. A couple of weeks later I bought the newer version in John Lewis for a friend, for 30 pounds. That's a pretty steep markup. But my husband and I are not tight when it comes to these things. You cannot take a child to Disneyland and not be prepared to get them a toy (even a small one), a costume,  some candy or other branded crappy merchandise - it's not fair. But I don't think people appreciate just how much they will land up spending because it's a kind of Vegas equivalent for kids with toy shops and candy stands everywhere you look. A friend of mine recently asked my opinion as she was considering a visit, and I advised her beyond the cost of the entrance to the park and food, to budget in an allowance for purchasing, and then some more purchasing and then some more on top of that. She told me her husband was tight, so I told her to not bother going because he would probably have a stroke.

I have to end this post on a vageuly positive note because I don't want people thinking I am a sad cow that doesn't derive joy from anything other than Kafka and red wine, so here goes:

The Small World Ride remains lovely. Although as my husband accurately mused as we gently waded through in our boat: “I don't think this is a very accurate depiction of the world.” (If only it was).

In the Fantasyland part of the park there is a fantastic little known about rollercoaster/train ride called 'Casey Jr. - le Petit Train du Cirque'  – perfect for the under 5 crowd. And next to that a little boat ride called Le Pays des Contes de Fées or The land of Fairytales. Both of these don't have enormous queues and are actually quite fun - well the train ride is fun and the boat ride is boring as hell, but very small children might like it as it's gentle. 

The Buzz Lightyear ride accepts the Fast Pass, very few other rides do which makes you wonder why the hell you got one in the first place. But if you have a child like ours that remains obsessed with Toy Story and specifically Buzz Lightyear (2 years running), it's worth every penny.

Autopia is a ride that consists of you driving cars around a lovely meandering track with your kids which actually lasts for a decent amount of time. This was my favourite ride. They can steer, but the go/stop pedal is wisely positioned in the middle of the car so you, the adult, can operate it. The cars are on a track so the kids have the delightful illusion of driving independence which my daughter simply loved. This also gives you a window into their future driving style and having to teach them how to drive which means that while they are driving around laughing maniacally and having a great time, your face is fixed in a deeply worried expression.

And finally if you stay or eat in the Disneyland Hotel you get to see a lot of different characters at meal times - more than you will see out and about in the park. Plus you can pinch some ham, jam and bread-rolls for food on the go if you don't want to mainline cholesterol in the park with all the deep friend sugary fast food. Do not, like my husband, try and (in his case incorrectly) guess who the characters are though, as they do not talk. And it's sad and cruel to watch an aspiring actor inside of a boiling hot duck suit attempting to use giant four fingered hands to charade-like mimic their character's true identity. One such character got so frustrated at my husbands continued incorrect guesses, he eventually took my son's autograph book and in large eejit-proof letters wrote his character's name and handed it to my husband. Later my husband confessed to me that he still couldn't place which film the character was supposed to be from.

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