Impressions de France: A First-Timer’s Reaction to Disneyland Paris

I remember being twelve years old in 1992, hearing that Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disneyland) had opened, and wondering if I would ever get the chance to go there. As a kid I was– and of course I still am to this day– fascinated by Disney theme parks, having grown up attending Walt Disney World in Florida with my family. Twenty-seven years later, and five years into my current career as a theme park / Disney-focused journalist, I was finally given the opportunity to make my pilgrimage across the Atlantic Ocean into Charles de Gaulle Airport and over to Marne-la-Vallée, the relatively new (in the grand scheme of European civilization) planned community in France where the Disneyland Paris resort is located.

I was sent there by Laughing Place to cover the two parks’ Halloween Festival offerings for this year, but I was also given time across a few days’ stay to soak in the general atmosphere, gorgeous design work, and overall feel of Disneyland Paris. Naturally I had heard so much about this now-legendary resort that I had a priority list of things I wanted to see and do, but I also made sure to allow myself time to simply breathe in the environment of the European destination– which still plays home to the only Disney theme parks outside of North America and Asia.

The entranceway to Disneyland Park (the resort’s first theme park, renamed a few times but most recently when its neighbor Walt Disney Studios Park opened in 2002) is beyond breathtaking, with the picturesque Disneyland Hotel overlooking the front plaza and looking into the park on its other side. The Parisian version of Main Street, USA is intricate and fascinating, and I wish I’d had more time to explore its every nook and cranny. Sleeping Beauty Castle is incredibly impressive and probably the ultimate expression of what Walt Disney set out to create with his initial take on that structure in mid-1950s Anaheim– and I knew I’d love the smoke-breathing, wing-flapping animatronic dragon who sleeps fitfully in the caverns underneath.

But I also knew as soon as I stepped through the gate into Disneyland Park’s Frontierland that I would be devoting most of this trip to getting to know that specific area. To me, Frontierland has always felt like the original Disneyland’s biggest missed opportunity, and the Imagineers who planned Disneyland Paris seem to have agreed. A huge amount of space is occupied by the fictional wild-west town known as Thunder Mesa, and in it stands two of the park’s best attractions: Phantom Manor (basically a somewhat classier version of The Haunted Mansion with a western twist) and the jaw-dropping runaway-train roller coaster Big Thunder Mountain.

Watch 4K Rope-dropping Frontierland / Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris:

The way I’ve been describing Disneyland Paris to friends and family is as follows: imagine the Southern California Disneyland, but on a grander scale and built more than 35 years later, with all of the advancements in Imagineering theory and technology inherent therein. That premise applies to Phantom Manor and Big Thunder Mountain as well, though less time had passed since their original iterations had opened in the states. Phantom Manor gave me chills as soon as I approached its gloomy facade, which was thankfully permitted a more dilapidated exterior than its Orange County precedent (Walt Disney famously didn’t want a ramshackle house in his otherwise pristine park). I loved the attraction’s winding queue, which reminded me of the Hollywood Tower Hotel’s eerily sprawling, deserted grounds at Walt Disney World’s similarly spooky masterpiece The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Phantom Manor’s ride experience itself is exquisite, but part of me wanted it to be even more different than what I had grown used to in Anaheim and Orlando. Indeed, many of my favorite parts were when the attraction’s story took a sharp left turn– the enigmatic character of the Phantom himself of course, but also the unexpected and almost non-sequitur trip through a literal ghost town near the end. But the real star of Frontierland is the massive Big Thunder Mountain, which takes guests through a tunnel underneath the Rivers of America (after boarding on the mainland) to the ride’s main structure where Tom Sawyer Island would be in the stateside Disney parks. That kind of landscape / ride layout interconnectivity is something of a theme park fan’s wet dream.

Watch 4K Big Thunder Mountain full ride POV at Disneyland Paris:

Outside of the two E-ticket rides, I also really enjoyed the mere act of walking around and absorbing my surroundings in Thunder Mesa. Past Phantom Manor there’s an area that’s just an atmospheric graveyard– it doesn’t lead to another attraction or land, so it’s just there for looks and mood-building– looking out over the Rivers of America and Big Thunder Mountain. To put it in Disney pun terms, I was pretty much dying to move into that particular spot.

Watch 4K Phantom Manor / Thunder Mesa area walkthrough at Disneyland Paris:

The Molly Brown Riverboat is another fantastic way to explore Thunder Mesa, with views of all the above-mentioned local landmarks– and some tucked away in the rear of the park, including waterfalls, a geyser, and an old fisherman’s shack. I’m exceptionally thankful Europeans are apparently as into the old American west as I am, because this entire land is remarkable, and its very existence makes me extremely happy.

Watch Molly Brown Riverboat full ride at Disneyland Paris:

And speaking of the old west, no visit to Disneyland Paris’ Frontierland is complete without walking through the Legends of the Wild West experience at the area’s entrance. It’s part Swiss Family Treehouse, part wax museum, and all edutainment. Once again, going through this edifice I found myself surprised that the park’s designers had devoted that much real estate to something exclusively reserved for guest exploration, but I found that to be a decidedly welcome theme running throughout most of Disneyland Paris.

Watch 4K Legends of the Wild West walk-through experience at Disneyland Paris:

Of course, Disneyland Park also has its own version of the actual Swiss Family Treehouse (this one called La Cabane des Robinson in French), and that’s located in my second favorite area: Adventureland, AKA Adventure Isle. This land is also home to Skull Rock, a labyrinthine series of caves with hidden treasure, rope bridges, and more fun surprises a la Tom Sawyer Island back home. And I can’t forget the phenomenal Disneyland Paris take on Pirates of the Caribbean– which kept me coming back for multiple rides over the three-day weekend I spent there. This attraction is scarier, more kinetic, and just plain more amazing than its 1967 Anaheim counterpart, which– don’t get me wrong– is still one of my most beloved theme park experiences of all time. I absolutely have enough room in my heart for both.

Watch 4K La Cabane des Robinson / Skull Rock area walkthrough at Disneyland Paris:

I know what you’re going to ask: did you make your way over to Fantasyland and Discoveryland at all during your visit? And yes, I definitely did. While they were both similarly impressive (especially Fantasyland’s gardens and ornate walkways), I was not enamored with either of them nearly as much as the other half of the park. It didn’t help that Les Mystères du Nautilus– another walk-through attraction I was very excited to check out– was closed for refurbishment during my time there (in addition to Adventureland’s Indiana Jones et le Temple du Péril and the park-encircling Disneyland Railroad) and Space Mountain still has its Star Wars overlay on it (I would rather have experienced the Jules Verne-inspired “De la Terre à la Lune” version).

But I did make a point to walk everywhere that was open to guests and do as many individual attractions as possible– including the Fantasyland dark rides, which are very similar to their American originators– though I skipped Star Tours, which I imagine to be roughly the same as in Anaheim and Orlando. I found “it’s a small world” to be unique enough to stick in my memory, and gave me my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower while on the European continent– until I took the hour-long train trip to see the real thing, of course.

Because I dedicated so much of the rest of my time to checking out the Halloween decorations and shows (which was admittedly my job and primary reason I was there) I don’t feel that three days was even close to enough time to fully take in all that Disneyland Paris has to offer. Next time I manage to make my way across the pond I hope to spend at least another couple days or so exploring, and hopefully the attractions I missed will be open during whatever period that happens to be. I’m aware I barely mentioned Walt Disney Studios Park in this piece, though I did spend a few hours in there trying out Crush’s Coaster, Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy, and the new Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride profiles I’ve written about previously. Obviously that park undeniably needs some work, but it’s good to know the powers that be already have plenty of changes and expansions planned for it.

For now, I’m very thankful to have visited the wonderful place known as Disneyland Paris, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed I get to return someday in the future.