We didn't know what to expect from our first international Disney trip. We are first and foremost lovers of Walt Disney World, and we didn't expect Disneyland Paris to compete with Walt Disney World. Not because we think Walt Disney World is definitely better, but just because it wouldn't make sense to compare the much smaller Disneyland Paris to Walt Disney World. While we still think that's true, Disneyland Park, the castle park at Disneyland Paris exceeded our expectations in all ways.
Welcomed by Main Street U.S.A. and Sleeping Beauty Castle
When you first arrive in Disneyland Park, you might be comforted, but short of blown away. There's something about Main Street U.S.A. that makes us feel at home. We walked around the corners just to make sure the little details were there, and they were, including sounds of piano lessons along one of the cross streets.
But while we found Main Street U.S.A. to be comforting, we found Sleeping Beauty Castle to be inspired. From the outside, the castle is as marvelous a work as any of the Disney castles, even though it doesn't architecturally impose on you like Cinderella Castle. But it is what is inside, around, and under the castle that is truly inspired.
Within the castle, around the second floor, is La Galerie de la Belle au Bois Dormant, essentially a walk-through retelling of Sleeping Beauty. This sounds maybe a little boring, but it is actually a beautiful use of the space. You can also walk outside the castle for views of different parts of the park. These aren't spectacular (in part because, duh, you want a view OF the castle!), but it's nice to take a moment to take in the park from a different angle.
And under the castle is one of Disneyland Park's great attractions, The Dragon's Lair. When you walk in, the transition from light to darkness will leave you nearly blind to anything besides the dragon, which, although it seems to operate on the same 2-minute loop of movements, is quite spooky. We stopped by the dragon several times, in park to enjoy the entertaining reactions of kids.
It was around our time in Sleeping Beauty castle that we started to understand Disneyland Park. We started to appreciate more the details and the sense that this was a park built with the idea of doing the small things just a little bit better. More on that later.
The Attractions of Disneyland Park
Disneyland Park is, of course, not just walking through the different lands. It wouldn't be a Disney park without some Disney attractions!
Disneyland Park is stacked with some gems of attractions. Pirates of the Caribbean is better in Disneyland Paris than Magic Kingdom. The take on Haunted Mansion, Phantom Manor, is spookier than it's Magic Kingdom counterpart. Big Thunder Mountain is rightfully a flagship attraction in Disneyland Paris, and we found it to be a better (mostly more comfortable) ride than Magic Kingdom's.
Unique attractions like Alice's Curious Labyrinth, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, and Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain (which is different enough from the ordinary Space Mountain to be called unique, in our estimation) are more of the icing on the cake as far as attractions go. Disneyland Paris relies on the old Fastpass system, which means you may wind up waiting longer than you're used to for attractions.
The truth is, Disneyland Park is not the tops of attractions. This is partly because so many rides are duplicates or near-duplicates, but it's also because some rides are just average. Indiana Jones, for example, was a pretty standard roller coaster. By shear number, Disneyland Paris is no lightweight, though. You can easily fill a single-day itinerary at Disneyland Paris, if not two, with the attractions.
But the best attractions reveal Disneyland Paris's true strength. Improved classics like Phantom Manor and Pirates of the Caribbean compete with walkthrough attractions like Alice's Labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty Castle, and Adventure Isle for the spotlight, and there's a reason for that: It's hard to overstate how thoughtfully executed the details of Disneyland Park are. Not just the twists and turns, but the details of the spaces you can wander in and around.
The best thing about Disneyland Paris is not the attractions, it is the lands. The adventure isn't the thrill of a loop on Indiana Jones, it's the hidden treasure in the caves of Adventure Isle. The cultural touch isn't a fantastic meal, but the fact that Pizzeria Bella Notte, where you can have some absolutely awful pasta, is tilted, just a bit.
The Disney is in the details of Disneyland Paris
At some point, it becomes a challenge to find a spot that isn't brimming with Disney detail (okay, restrooms are mostly normal). Stores and restaurants were all meticulously themed. In this regard, Disneyland Park is even slightly better than Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom is itself a genius park, and better than Disneyland Park in several ways, but we thought the overall attention to detail in Disneyland Park was a notch above Magic Kingdom.
If there is one way in which the magic at Disneyland Park is lacking, it is a thinner line between off-stage and on-stage. Several times from Disneyland Park we were able to peek into the off-stage area pretty easily, be it from different spots on rides or even just places accessible within the park. There is a noticeable lack of "Go Away Green."
Additionally, we felt like Discoveryland, the Jules Verne interpretation of Tomorrowland, was a bit lacking. The attractions are well-themed, but the depth of the space is lacking. Once you've ridden the rides and done a lap, you'll have seen pretty much everything you need to in Discoveryland.
If there's one other article a Walt Disney World fan should read to understand Disneyland Paris, it should be Tom Bricker's piece "I Was Wrong About Disney's Animal Kingdom." We know, that article is clearly about Animal Kingdom! But read it, and his discussion of Disneyland Paris captures exactly how we think a Walt Disney World fan, particularly an Animal Kingdom fan, should think about Disneyland Paris. (He also links to a trip report that is actually about Disneyland Paris, if you're just looking for the meat of it.)
Can we rank Disneyland Paris?
We spent a lot of time discussing where it fell in our park rankings. Emily places attractions at a high premium, which means she gives a bit more credit to Hollywood Studios. I (Ken) favor theming and environment, which means I think Disney's Animal Kingdom is the greatest place on earth (though we both rank it as our favorite park).
So what of Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris? We both place it close to Magic Kingdom. We both agree that the attractions at Magic Kingdom are slightly better, while the theming and detail of Disneyland Park are slightly better. So, as you might expect, Emily puts Magic Kingdom ahead of Disneyland Park, and I put Disneyland Park ahead of Magic Kingdom.
This is to say that if you have any worries about Disneyland Park as a castle park, you should put them to rest. Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris is a brilliant park in its own right. If you're like us, though, it might take time for you to warm up to it. You might arrive and feel like it is too similar to other castle parks.
But wander around Adventureland. Take in the Pirates of the Caribbean architecture. Marvel at the beauty of the Agrabah entrance from Central Plaza. Explore Frontierland. Enjoy the narrative that has been created (yes, there is one, if you pay attention). Learn about the American Wild West. Visit Lady Liberty in the Liberty Arcade, a hidden gem of Disneyland Park. Together with the Discovery Arcade, the Liberty Arcade is one of the finest parts of Disneyland Paris, and it's mostly hidden from the view of the average visitor!
Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris truly is a magical place. Visit it, explore it, and embrace it.