Sunday, April 20, 2008

Euro Day 13: Be Our Guest!

Warning: I haven't had any time to get a video together for this post. On the rather ego-driven assumption that people like grainy home movies showing other people doing interesting things (or what's a Youtube for?), I'll have an update to this post within a day or two. In the meantime, you may proceed....

Update: Okay, there's video goodness below. Just scroll to the end. And don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, July 20, 2007 - our last full day in France. It was inevitable that there would be a sense of melancholy at the end of our Adventure by Disney. We planned for this by adding an extra day to our itinerary (ABD offers an extra night accommodations before or after the tour). Disneyland Paris - or DLP for those hip to the lingo - would be the salve to ease our pains. We had originally planned to add a few extra days to our vacation and stay at DLP. In fact, many of The Gang did just that. DLP sticker-shock (and some iffy logistics) ratcheted those plans down to a day-trip to DLP. For those Intrepid Readers who've emptied their wallets at the venerable DisneyWorld - understand that DLP is in a whole different universe of 'spending'. Europe is expensive. DLP can be breathtakingly expensive.

The day started with another Hilton breakfast buffet, and a chance to say some more goodbyes. Faces that were strange just a week before were now familiar, and we were sad to see the last of them. Our plan: be at DLP somewhere near 10am when the gates open and the rope drops. Since we only had one day, we'd make the most of it with a blitzkrieg of the park highlights. DLP has many attractions that can be found at our old friend DisneyWorld, we reasoned, so we'd generally avoid those in favour of 'the new'.

DLP is easy to get to from Paris - about a 40 minute trip on the RER. We walked to the CDG Etoile metro station by the Arc. Return tickets were purchased easily and soon we were on the RER A line bound for DLP's very own station: Marne-la-Vallee-Chessy.

This merits a cautionary tale. At most Paris subway platforms you'll notice video screens hanging from the ceiling. Don't ignore these! While you might be catching the RER A train - for example - the train might not be stopping at every station on the route ahead. As each train arrives, check the video screen (your train with be obvious) and make sure it will be stopping where you want to go. We almost learned this Douglas Adams-inspired lesson the hard way.

The subway ride was uneventful and sparsely populated, and 35 minutes later we emerged from the subway car straight into DLP. It was just after 10am and the crowds were largely non-existent. It was comforting to know that our tried-and-true DisneyWorld tactic of arriving early seemed to apply half a world away at DLP.

DLP is actually 2 parks: Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park. We opted to hit Disneyland first and ride as many rides as possible before any lines materialized. Our luck continue to hold as the only barrier to riding the rides was our rumbling stomachs. By Noon we had done everything in our Disneyland plan. Before foraging for lunch, we made a point of re-visiting Pirates of the Caribbean to make dinner reservations at Blue Lagoon (more on this later).
Our lunch was found at a reasonable recreation of Toy Story's Pizza Planet. While the rather vast space was largely devoid of other organic lifeforms, the counter-service food was actually very good. This served to further deepen the mystery of how take-out food in France was so superior to the vacuum-molded styrofoam we take for granted in North America. As we exited the dimly-lit pizza joint, we noticed that - well - nothing had changed. The crowds still had not materialized. Not even a little bit. Perhaps Europeans sleep late, drink espresso at cafes, and only then saunter through the DLP gates with a faux-grimace for the bourgeois entertainment that lies ahead. Or maybe no one ever comes.

Next up was Disney Studios - a smaller, leaner avatar of the DisneyWorld version who's name escapes me since it's always changing. Yeah, that one. It turned out that the Studios park has some of the same rides and shows as its big brother. But, like Disneyland, it has a few unique wrinkles of its own such as Crush's Coaster. There were 2 rides under construction - Tower of Terror and a Cars-inspired ride (I think these are both up-and-running now). In all, there wasn't much to see and do for us, and we had pretty much 'done' the park by 6pm.

The ungodly expensive and beautiful Disneyland Hotel
has a private entrance to Disneyland Park just for its guests
(and special VIP Fastpasses for all the rides).

We hightailed back over to Disneyland for our 7pm reservation at Blue Lagoon. This restaurant had been touted as a 'must do' on a few websites, and that was our only reason for trying the place. Blue Lagoon it actually part of the Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC) ride experience - a feature not found in the Florida or Anaheim versions of the ride. It overlooks a part of the ride such that patrons can watch boats float by their tables. Ultimately, it's about living inside the POTC experience, just for awhile. Since this is one of my favourite rides (I love the immersiveness of the it all), Blue Lagoon sounded fun. Sadly, the Internet naysayers were right. While the ambiance was way-cool, the service was so-so, the menu was sub-par, and the prices were too high. One more pea under my mattress: I have a strong suspicion that guests who stay on-site at DLP get preferential seating (and service) at Blue Lagoon. All things considered, avoid this place.

Entrance to Main Street USA - European style.

With our disappointing dinner behind us, we hit up some more rides. We had intended to head back into Paris by 9:30pm, but it wasn't happening. The crowds were thin and we partook of more rides than we had planned. We even ran into one of our Adventure friends (David from Philly), which meant we had to visit for a while and further press our luck time-wise. With a few souvenirs left to purchase, we made a quick trip into the Disney Village shopping area. BandGeek found her coveted French Mickey Mouse (think: beret) - and we all said a little prayer of thanks under our breaths.

The Castle (with a real dragon in the
dungeon that you can visit!)

From there, it was back on the RER and back into Paris with 2 sleepy kids in tow. Once at the hotel, we ever-so-sadly did the bulk of our suitcase packing. The pixie dust cloud that had surrounded us for the past few weeks seemed to thin and I swore that I could almost see the real world through the haze. Tomorrow, we were going home.

Main Street at dusk.

And now - mini-review time!

Disneyland Park: Beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous. Very compact. Many of the rides are familar to Disney geeks, but they have their own personalities.

Disney Studios: Not very much to offer (some expansions under construction). Really feels like a sad imitation of DisneyWorld. Needs time and more attractions.

Awesome Rides: Thunder Mountain - pretty much like the original, Crush Coaster - be a turtle in the swirly ocean currents, Space Mountain: Mission 2 - it has a freakin' loop, Rockin' Roller Coaster - always a good time.

So-So Rides: Indiana Jones - just a coaster, Star Tours - like the original

Sucked Mightly Rides: Pirates of the Caribbean - felt contrived somehow, Phantom Manor - pale imitation, Pinocchio - didn't get the point.

Crowds: Disneyland was pretty devoid of crowds - and my theory is that the preponderance of rides for smaller tykes seems to keep the lines shorter for the big-kid rides. Disney Studios had longer lines for sure, and on Crush's Coaster we actually waited almost an hour in line (well worth it, I might add). On the whole, nothing like DisneyWorld in July.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Euro Day 12: High Society

It's Thursday, July 19, 2007 - so it must be time for a trip to Versailles! As we boarded the shuttle bus at 9am, we were warned that the 18km trip to this fabled chateau could last up to 45 minutes due to Paris' notoriously heavy morning traffic. As luck would have it, most Parisians must have slept late and we were able to reach our destination in a blistering 20 minutes.

Upon arrival in the chi-chi town of Versailles, Sylvie and Alec narrated as the coach did a quick spin by some local sites. The main theme: Versailles is a fairly wealthy and exclusive place to reside, and still bears the echoes of France's great aristocratic families. We soon departed the coach and spent a little while strolling through the (seemingly deserted) town center - pausing for awhile at Louis XIV's Notre-Dame 'cathedra'. My impression was that the town is picturesque enough, but lacks anything particularly distinctive. I was to be proven wrong, of course.

Sylvie led The Gang on the short stroll to Chateau Versailles. As we entered through its ornate main gate, my jaw nearly hit the ground. The entrance square is a massive field of something akin to cobblestone and guarded on 3 sides by the Chateau, itself. The right words are elusive, but panoramic and awe-inspiring probably come close. If King Louis was looking for a way to impress his visitors (and he was), then he had succeeded in spades.

Mere mortals line up in the square, hoping
to get inside the Chateau someday soon

We had a few minutes to kill as The Gang waited to enter the Chateau at the reserved time. I - along with Dee and JediBoy - strolled through through a nearby archway and suddenly found ourselves in the 'backyard' - the entrance to Versailles famed gardens. While we could see the canals and manicured greenery, we could not fully comprehend the massive scale of the gardens from this vantage. All we knew was that the garden's precise geometry extended into the horizon and into forever.

First glimpse of the gardens

We hurried back to The Gang and found ourselves in tour-mode (after yet another half-hearted security check) inside the Chateau's State Apartments. With Alec as our guide and professor, we saw the Throne Room, various salons named for Roman gods, and - of course - the newly-restored Hall of Mirrors. It's interesting to note that the Hall of Mirrors - much like the Chateau's grand entrance - was designed by Louis to impress and intimidate his visitors. With the entrance at one end of the Hall, and the King seated at the other end, visitors would have to traverse a long corridor full of (then-expensive) mirrors and windows all designed to reflect candlelight and sunlight. Louis was, indeed, the Sun King.

Marie Antoinette slept here

It's also interesting to note that the extreme ornateness and opulence of the Apartments soon became rather ordinary. Perhaps it was sensory overload, or perhaps I was channeling my Inner Aristocrat. But it was a wonder that anyone ever lived here. Sadly, many of the Chateau's furnishings - the things that people leave behind to say they stopped somewhere for awhile - have long been dispersed by descendants of the Revolution.

It was nearing lunch by this time, and we would be sitting down to our dejeuner at a small restaurant named La Flottille, a jewel hidden in the Chateau's gardens. We hopped aboard a tram for a bumpy tour of the gardens on our way to lunch. It was here that the scale of the gardens started to become apparent. We spied many lane-ways, paths, outbuildings, and fountains - all surrounded by geometrically manicured greenery. I marveled that so many large trees could be kept to such precise shapes and I imagined the Dr. Seuss-inspired devices employed for this purpose.

At La Flottille we sat outdoors at long tables under a large awning. In true French style, the meal was elegant, enjoyable, and lasted 2 hours. Lunch was also quite filling. A bike ride would be just the thing to burn off those French calories. And that's just what some of us did!

I should point out that a Very Large Pond, known as the Grand Canal, is the focal-point of the gardens - and it is around one end of this pond where various amenities such as La Flotille, bike rentals, boat rentals, and snack kiosks are located. All of these amenities exist not just for tourists - for the Chateau is also maintained as a public park for the local residents. As a result, we saw people with picnics, people rowing across the pond in little wooden boats, and people just generally enjoying the gardens.

Looking back to the Chateau

And so, Dee, JediBoy, BandGeek, and myself were fitted with bikes and set off on a 1-hour tour of the garden's byways. We opted to follow the tree-lined lane that skirts the pond and its various canals that, together, form a sort of large cross. The scale of the place became apparent again. One bike-lap around the pond is approximately 7km and requires about 30 minutes of peddling! We were able to complete 2 full laps before returning our bikes.

This marked the end of our Versailles experience and, before long, the coach collected The Gang and brought us all back to our hotel. At this point we had a couple of hours to kill before a planned farewell dinner that would mark the official end of the Disney tour. We made the most of this break: JediBoy and I dozed in front of a TV while the ladies made one last, desperate shopping run down the Champs Elysees.

Dinner would also be served along the Champs Elysees at an elegant restaurant known as Laduree - famous for its delicious macaroons. We were given a private dining room upstairs furnished in French antiques. Essentially, the establishment seemed like a toned-down version of Chateau Versailles. I won't spoil too many surprises for those Gentle Readers who are intending to experience this tour on their own. That said, there were gifts to be had and a remarkable video presentation of our tour highlights - obviously the fruits of the Double-A's constant camera-clicking throughout the week. We were even serenaded by a beret-clad musician, who was only too glad to give accordion lessons to JediBoy.

Our entertainment

As an extra-special surprise, Alex and Andrew presented Dee and myself with a very thoughtful anniversary card and pin. It seems that 2 kids we know intimated to our hosts that Dee and I were celebrating such an occasion the following day. It was just kind of Disney touch we've come to expect over the years.

After a fabulously decedent meal, a coach was waiting out front to bring us the few blocks back to our hotel. Many of us lingered on the street in front of the Hilton saying our goodbyes. We made a point of saying so long to a mother/daughter couple with whom we shared a number of mealtime tables. We also bid our fond farewells to the Double-A's, who had worked so hard to make the tour so memorable. There were others I wanted to seek out, but JediBoy was asleep on his feet by this point and I elected to finish my goodbyes at breakfast the next morning.

While this was the formal end of the Disney tour, we four had one more day of fun between this evening and the long plane ride home. Tomorrow: Disneyland Paris!