Chasing down magic in ‘the Happiest Place on Earth’

While flipping through a guidebook in preparation for a trip to Paris earlier this year, I happened upon something that intrigued me — the city has its own bona fide Disney park.

Located in a suburb 32 km east of city’s centre, Disneyland Paris is the most-visited tourist attraction in France — welcoming 15.5 million guests in 2011. This compares with 8.4 million visitors to the Louvre museum and 6.6 million for the Eiffel Tower over the same period of time.

I immediately jumped online and purchased tickets to the French version of the Happiest Place on Earth. But it was an act that begged the question: what would possess me — an adult without any children — to visit Disneyland?

It turns out that, on that front, I am far from alone. According to attendance figures from Disney, nearly one third of all visits to its parks are undertaken by adults who do not have children in tow. Disney apparently even has a name for people like me: non-family guests. There is, obviously, something that pulls us all in.

My attraction to Disneyland was a bit perplexing. I didn’t visit a Disney park until my late teens. I grew up before Disney movies could be watched repetitively on a DVD player. I am also too old (thankfully) to have been swept up in the princess craze. So it didn’t seem that this was a case of childhood nostalgia.

There was also the fact that I was in Paris — a city of museums and sidewalk cafes and wine. It’s chock full of grown-up pleasures. Why would I waste an entire day of my Parisian stay in a place that was sure to be overrun with long lines, screaming children and extortion-level prices?

The reason was simple. I wanted to wish upon a star. I wanted to grab on to Disney’s trans-national and cross-generational theme: if you can dream it, anything can come true.

DISNEY DREAMS

As I entered the gates of the Magic Kingdom, there was a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I couldn’t help but feel almost manically happy as I stood on the Main Street USA with Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah booming in my ears. Unfortunately, the feeling was fleeting.

When I was a child, I had no problem embracing Disney’s make-believe, feel-good universe where animals talked and dreams came true. But as an adult, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. It was a bit unsettling — but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

CYNICISM

“Then, as if out of nowhere, an over-sized baboon — Rafiki from The Lion King — appeared and hugged me. Despite myself, I smiled.”

Photo by Karry TaylorIt’s easy to be a cynical adult in Disneyland.

It’s an exaggeration — although not a large one — that there is a gift shop everywhere you turn in Disneyland. But eventually I lost count of how many I passed.

They line Main Street USA and are strategically placed near the exits of all major rides — crass consumerism beckoning via rack upon rack of mouse-ear hats, sequined princess dresses and Goofy-themed coffee cups.

This might not be so bad if the overpriced merchandise was geared at adults. But it isn’t. Nearly all of it is targeted at children. Eventually I began to take note of the various gift shops not by the items offered for sale, but by the number of temper tantrums and parent-child power struggles occurring at each. Disneyland is, it seems, more about the power of the dollar, not the power of dreams.

SCEPTICISM

It’s also easy to be a sceptical adult in Disneyland. The entire place is wholesome and earnest — almost unnervingly so. The grass is too green. The grounds are too clean. The staff members are too friendly. The ride queues are too orderly.

Theme areas such as Frontierland and Main Street USA celebrate an idealized past. Tomorrowland celebrates an idealized future. Fantasyland celebrates a present we wish we lived in but don’t. The actual present doesn’t seem to fit anywhere into the equation. I am not sure that is such a good thing.

“It’s a Small World” initially made me smile. Then its broken-record repetitiveness gave me a splitting headache. Space Mountain initially thrilled me. Then caused me to be sick. I tried to enjoy myself, but instead become increasingly annoyed and grumpy. I felt old.

I wanted — make that needed — a drink. Alas, booze cannot be purchased in the Magic Kingdom. As I made do with an $8 thimble-sized cup of coffee, I decided I had enough. I looked for the exit.

Then, as if out of nowhere, an over-sized baboon — Rafiki from The Lion King — appeared and hugged me. Despite myself, I smiled. And decided to stay longer. The day got better. I even started to enjoy myself. By the time the nightly parade and fireworks ended, I didn’t want to leave.

Appreciating Disneyland as an adult requires a willful suspension of disbelief and the ability to check your grownup grumpiness at the gate. If you can do that, the place can be absolute magic for those of us who qualify as “non-family guests.”

ktaylor@cjournalca