A few months ago the mugs in the souvenir shops of Disneyland Paris, emblazoned with Toy Story’s brawny Buzz Lightyear and his catchphrase ‘I Need Space’, would have struck a very different chord with visitors.
But much has changed at Europe’s most visited theme park, which, in normal times, is jam-packed year-round with wannabe princesses, aspiring superheroes and dedicated Disney fans riding high on white-knuckle rollercoasters and that inimitable Disney magic.
Two years ago my daughter and I queued for almost an hour in blazing summer heat to swirl in the Mad Hatter’s Teacups and gave up altogether on the Dumbo Flying Elephant carousel, so miserably long was the line. When I visited yesterday, the stifling crowds and tiresome queues had vanished, replaced by relaxed Covid-era Disney flaneurs (including a couple I saw strolling around Fantasyland with baby in pram and matching Mickey and Minnie Mouse tattoos).
The park reopened to the general public on July 15 after being shut down, along with the rest of France, by the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March. And, to be brutally honest, the less frenetic, slower-paced experience is a dream come true.
As per strictly enforced new regulations, I pre-purchased dated day tickets in advance online – the only way to buy tickets now due to dramatically reduced visitor capacity. Military lines of racing-green metal barriers and floor signage in front of the park’s security gates ensured the few visitors waiting to enter respected the one-metre rule, while an army of enthusiastic cast members buzzed around checking everyone was sporting the now-obligatory face mask. Children under 11 are exempt, although my 10-year-old daughter wore a mask, as did many her age and younger.
Social-distanced @DisneylandParis must surely be quieter than its quietest days in history? Maximum queue time at big-hitter attractions like Stars Tours & Big Thunder Mountain is 5 minutes at most. A dream come true for any Disney fan #France @TelegraphTravel @atoutfranceukpr pic.twitter.com/xVHQ91Og0i— Nicola Williams (@tripalong) July 15, 2020
At a retro souvenir cart strategically parked up immediately inside the park, we spotted packs of throwaway masks (€1.90/£1.72 for two) and miniature bottles of Disney-branded hand gel discretely displayed beneath more cheering tubs of lurid-pink candy floss and giant Mickey hand mittens (surely not intended for visitors who prefer to be gloved during these risky Covid-19 times?). Talking of touching, the theme park’s wonderful old-fashioned printed maps are no more: download the Disneyland App to navigate your way around.
At the Town Square in Disneyland Park, the celebratory opening party was in full swing. Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy danced and waved to guests from the balcony of the Disney Railroad train station while cast members in bright red jackets jigged exuberantly on the street below – all to the rousing song of ‘Coming Home to Disneyland’ belting out across the square.
Far from making me ‘feel good’, the familiar tune – the die-hard theme track for Disney’s end-of-day Main Parade, lyrics rewritten for the reopening – was a bittersweet reminder that this special day with my daughter wouldn’t climax with the dazzling end-of-day spectacle of Elsa, Olaf, Stitch, Peter Pan and dozens of other iconic Disney characters dancing and singing along Main Street USA. Cancelled because of the huge crowds it draws, Disney Stars on Parade is another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, as are the traditional fireworks at dusk above Sleeping Beauty’s castle, children’s playgrounds, all shows, character dining and character meet-and-greets.
Accustomed to legging it frantically to our favourite ride upon arrival to beat the crowds, it felt oddly indulgent to amble along empty walkways to Big Thunder Mountain in Frontierland. There was no queue to speak of, floor stickers indicated where guests could stand, and hand gel before boarding was mandatory. Social distancing meant only alternative seat rows on the runaway train were filled with screaming thrill-seekers as it hurtled through faux red rocks of the Wild West. It was the same procedure at Hyperspace Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, every ride, rendering skip-the-queue Fastpass – temporarily suspended – completely redundant anyway.
My daughter was naturally eager to meet a princess. We sailed alone in a boat through the whimsical It’s A Small World, then waltzed into the neighbouring Princess Pavilion to see Cinderella and Ariel. But there were no princesses in sight – just an empty, over-sized throne for young guests to be snapped sitting in. Meet Mickey Mouse was a slightly more endearing experience, with Mickey prancing and posing from a safe distance on stage while guests posed for a photo in front. Forget any cuddles, kisses, autographs and magic tricks though. Close encounters with characters are simply not part of the new Disneyland.
With many crepe stands ominously shut and the summertime street-food chalets of Rendez-Vous Gourmand in Walt Disney Studios Park most likely culled this season, we lunched between over-sized plates at Chez Rémy – one of three restaurants open across both parks (in addition to several fast-food joints).
Dining is by advance reservation, scannable QR codes replace paper menus, tables are spaced one metre apart, and contactless payment is encouraged. We entered via the usual bistro entrance and exited using a fire door, sanitising our hands – for the 36th time so far that day – with gel from no-touch wall dispensers strategically located at both points. Not surprisingly, the theme park expects to go through 21,000 litres of hand sanitiser a month.
Friends on social media commented on the nerves of steel my daughter and I clearly possess at visiting Disneyland Paris right now. But to be very frank, it felt safer than our local supermarket or the crowd-thronged hiking trail I unwittingly found myself on last week in Morzine.
Loudspeaker announcements throughout the day repeated the new health and safety rules, while cast members – clearly jubilant at returning to work despite the masks and occasional disobedient visitor – provided a friendlier human reminder. Prior to leaving we treated ourselves to one final magical twirl above the Disney skyline with Dumbo the Flying Elephant. We might well have to queue next time.
How to do it
Direct Eurostar trains from London St Pancras to Marne la Vallée-Chessy start again on August 2; fares from £39. Disney’s Newport Bay Club is the only hotel currently open inside Disneyland Paris; Hotel Cheyenne opens on July 20, Hotel Santa Fe on August 3, and flagship Disneyland Hotel on September 7. Outside the park, Villages Nature Paris offers self-catering lakeside cottages, a water park, farm and mountains of green family activities. To explore more see uk.france.fr.