Florida 2015: ALL THE FOOD (featuring Le Cellier, Be Our Guest, Via Napoli & The Leaky Cauldron, among others)

And, as if by strange and sad magic, we’re back. Two glorious weeks in unseasonably baking weather – which wilted but did not wither this fragile British blossom – and it’s back down to (spaceship) Earth with a bump.

I dare say there will be a few things I will be keen to blog about over the next few weeks, but being of Mediterranean origin I’m going the traditional Greek route of telling you about everything I ate since we last met. Food was always going to be a major part of the trip, from classic US diner breakfasts (yes, Brits are obsessed with the likes of Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Denny’s because they might be ubiquitous cheapie chains to you, my American brethren, but to us they’re  ZOMG biscuits and proper pancakes) to a date night in Epcot, because why would a date night involving me be anywhere else?

So, here is a brief(ish) rundown of the highlights, with just a few of my favourite things. Continue reading →

A Christmassy Outing in London: John Williams at The Barbican and a night at the Malmaison

Since our beloved Pickle was born, my husband Ash (he of the fab design) and I have tried to build in a night away over the Christmas period as a little treat; as Christmas is near our mid-December wedding anniversary, it also functions as a late celebration. This year it also coincided with a particular concert I was glad to nab one of the last few pairs of tickets for – this year’s take on a regular celebration of the music of John Williams at the Barbican Centre. So we did a bit of quick searching and nabbed a LastMinute one night bed-and-breakfast deal for £159 at the Malmaison in Clerkenwell, a stone’s throw from the venue.

The concert was great – everything you want at Christmas, from the cheesy dad humour of star conductor Anthony Inglis* (at various points in the evening a Princess Leia wig, fedora and whip and a Superman t-shirt were all employed) to a joyous rundown of the phenomenally prolific film composer’s most famous works. Highlights for me were a stirring Indiana Jones theme to wake us up after the interval, and some great pieces from Harry Potter; I’d never been such a lover of the theme music but I’d also never realised how phenomenally complex the string section is. According to Inglis, rumour has it that the LSO took twelve sessions to really nail it when the original soundtrack was recorded (the London Concert Orchestra seemed to know what they were doing, at least to my uneducated eye / ear).

Amongst the menace of Jaws, drama of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and soaring sprinting of E.T., gentler moments were provided by Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha and the tear-inducing inclusion of the theme from Schindler’s List. The concert as a whole went seriously heavy on Star Wars, but there were no complaints to be heard. At one point they did the Throne Room piece followed by the entire end credit movement; during the former Ash leaned over and did a very quiet Wookiee growl into my ear, setting off the most enormous, silent fit of the crying giggles. I can only hope that, since were in the centre of the front row, it wasn’t too off-putting to the performers.

And yes, Jurassic Park did make an appearance, though sadly not this version…

 

Speaking of the front row, it was quite brilliant for inspiring the imagination (even if it’s possibly not the best place to experience the full richness of the music as you’re a little too close to individual instruments). Luckily for me, as I love them, we were nearest the cellos, so I could spend quite a lot of time admiring their lovely, deep, chocolatey notes and presence. But mostly I just liked picking a different musician or two to observe during each piece and wonder about them. Was that  viola player, faintly reminiscent of David Warner, actually The Doctor? Why did that woman – a blonde Donna Tartt-alike, glacially beautiful in an androgynous black suit – never once smile? Was that cellist going to realise his bow was disintegrating? There was probably enough to write a short story on each of them, without knowing anything other than their appearance and chosen instrument.

Me, caught by husband looking appropriately 60s in the Barbican while waiting to go in to the concert hall.

The venue itself is also beautiful. The Barbican Centre has always been somewhere I’ve been dubious about on the outside but absolutely bloody love on the inside, even if I can’t navigate it to save my life. The concert hall and theatre are both elegant, imposing and very comfortable, with awesome acoustics. And it’s nice just to have a wander about the building before your event starts.

My sister gave me a gift membership for my birthday this year so that we could have a hope in hell of nabbing Cumberhamlet tickets (we did!). It comes up for renewal in March so I’m scouring the listings to see if I can make best use of it… I certainly used the members’ discount on the tickets, and in the lovely Food Hall beforehand for dinner. Although it’s not a budget option, the three hot meal and multiple sandwich and salad choices in the Food Hall are lovely; Ash had a spicy-sweet Thai Red Curry and I had a stupendously filling salmon fishcake, both with generous sides for a (reduced) price of £16.50. We took advantage of the free jugs of tap water provided to make a small saving too.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

After the final bow, it was time to shuttle back to the Malmaison, which took, oh, five minutes. My overall impression of the place is that it’s trying very hard. The decor is dark and sumptuous, with some lovely 60s-inspired furniture in the main entrance. The padded lift ceiling was only mildly disturbing, but for me the entire decorative approach was summed up by having one of the bafflingly overrated Jack Vettriano’s prints (Game On – probably NSFW) in the dining room. Meh.

Anyway, for the deal we got a teeny but very comfortable room with a super soft and cosy cocoon of a bed and quite a sizeable bathroom with a large shower (Ash was a bit disappointed at no tub, but we hadn’t actually specified in our search that we wanted one). A continental buffet breakfast was included in our booking but usually costs £15 per head. This seemed ambitiously priced for what it was; lots of cereals (including brands like Dorset), multiple types of fruit and yogurt and two types of pastry, plus toast was brought fresh to the table to order. Generous and limitless, yes, but I’d have loved to see some more bread options etc. In fairness, there was more on the menu that you could ask to be brought from the kitchen in order to keep it fresh (eg cured meats and cheese – great not to see these out, curling sadly on platters!). Perhaps I’m nitpicking here as it’s hard to point to a specific fault, but it just seems to be that for £30 a couple you could get some really amazing food in the area elsewhere. We chucked in an extra fiver each to get a cooked option and had some tasty Eggs Benedict. Again, though, for £40 a couple… well, you get the picture.

Service was lovely and friendly, and when Ash managed to leave something at the hotel and called later that afternoon to track it down they were extremely helpful. All in all, given its proximity to the theatre, the comfy bed and the nice service, I would consider staying here again for Hambatch – but I’d also want to explore some other options as I wasn’t really blown away (a similar deal at the Threadneedles last year was somehow much more impressive!).

 

*More than a passing resemblance to Denis O’Hare, so we have referred to him as Russell Edgington ever since.

No disclaimer needed, as none of this was paid or provided for review – just me musing about a nice evening out.

Disneyland Paris: tips for visiting with guests with disabilities

We were privileged recently to have our second trip to Disneyland Paris within a year, and this time we had family with us that included someone in a wheelchair.

Now, just as all people are different, all disabilities are different – and two wheelchair users will not have the same needs as each other. However, I do now have a few tips for navigating the parks and transport when accounting for a chair.

I’ve written this from the perspective of someone who has attended with a guest with reduced mobility; some of this applies across multiple other needs but there’s definitely more to be discovered, so this really is only intended as a useful starting point.

Five Tips for Guests with Special Needs

Before arriving:

1. Check the online guides for info. Although the DLP website can have its navigation issues, there is a section devoted to guests with additional needs. You can download accessibility guides here, which include a chart of rides and attractions which do / don’t require transfer from a wheelchair (off the top of my head, all shows are non-transfer, and It’s a Small World and Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast both have modified vehicles which don’t require a transfer).

2. Plan for transportation options. If you’re driving to DLP, parking for guests with additional needs is in the parking lot for the Disneyland Hotel (the big pink confection that sits over the Disneyland Park gates). You emerge right by the entrance, and you’ll be given a four-digit code to exit the car park when you’re ready. If you’re at a resort hotel and want to use the buses, there are two options. There are not ‘kneeling’ buses, but if they’re aware that there is a guest boarding in a chair the driver can pull right up to the curb to allow easy transfer (they likely won’t otherwise). Alternatively, there is an adapted minibus, and the concierge staff at the hotel and Guest Services in the park can arrange this for you, though it means a bit more inconvenience. As my family joined us there by car, that’s what the member of the group with restricted mobility used – so I can’t comment on the bus options, but all Cast Members were very keen to advise on services.

3. Be aware of distances. This one is more a warning for those whose role it will be to push anyone in a manual wheelchair. Surfaces are mostly wide and level, and there are few inclines, but distances mean it can be hard work. There are ways to help make things easier (eg, don’t go through the castle each time, but zip around past Bella Notte gelateria / Small World on the right to get to Fantasyland without having to huff uphill), but you will need a certain amount of stamina, particularly if heading back and forth between parks.

On arrival:

4. Pick up your green pass from Guest Services. When you arrive in the Disneyland Park, head straight to Guest Services near the arches under the railway station. Present your proof of disability status (the standard UK blue badge is fine) and you’ll be given a green pass which you’ll need to use any of the accessible entrances / adapted ride vehicles. Additional note: If you stay in a resort hotel, you’ll also get a modified hotel ID (the thing that means you’ll get in for Extra Magic Hours etc). It will have a sticker which indicates your status, and means you don’t have to pick a particular time for breakfast but can go when you’re ready. This also applies to up to another four people in your party. Because our bookings were linked, even though we stayed an extra two days, we had a modified ID for the duration of our visit.

5. Make appointments at non-transfer rides. Rides which have adapted vehicles, such as It’s a Small World need pre-booking to ride. You’ll go to a separate entrance (in fact, for IASW, it’s the exit), and they’ll sign you up for the next available slot, so you can come back there just before your time. A ramp is lowered, and you can wheel your chair straight in, plus there’s room for several additional guests. For Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast you queue at a special side entrance near the shop until the adapted car is ready to come back around (it’s an Omnimover type ride). You then head straight to the boarding area, the conveyor belt is stopped and you can wheel on to the car, with a guest next to you. It is quite a tight fit on BLLB, but should accommodate a variety of chairs.  We didn’t attempt any transfer rides, but I know from past experience that Cast Members will do things like stop conveyor belts, or slightly delay vehicle departure, to allow a smooth and stress-free transition.

Disney Parks in general are set up to accommodate a wide variety of needs, and Cast Members are usually very helpful. Accessible rooms are available in the resort hotels with suitable bathrooms etc, too. The best place you can start with any questions is giving the team a call – most issues can be resolved with enough prior warning.

Happy travelling!

(No disclaimer needed – it was a family holiday, not a free trip.)

Disneyland Paris with a Pre-Schooler: Sequoia Lodge

If you’re interested in more of a general overview of staying at Disneyland Paris (aka DLRP), please read this post first. If you’re all about the food, head here. None of these posts were in any way suggested by, paid for or anything to do with DLRP – this is just a family holiday report.

If you’re planning a trip to Disneyland Paris, one of the first questions you’ll need to ask yourself is “which hotel?”. There are several considerations – on site or off? If off-site, a Disney affiliated hotel or not? What the hell is my budget? – but this particular posts assumes the possibility of choosing a Disney resort hotel, but perhaps not having the budget for the gloriously convenient Disneyland Hotel – the one which sits proudly over the gates of the Disneyland Park itself.

There isn’t really a low-budget Disney option per se, but don’t make too many assumptions based on Disney’s rating system; its ‘keys’ are not exactly equivalent to usual star ratings. For what it’s worth, Sequoia Lodge is a 3-key hotel and this does seem to roughly translate to three star, but I’m not sure this necessarily applies across the board.

Based a 15 minute walk – or short bus ride – from the station and parks, Sequoia Lodge is spread over a main large hotel building (whose exterior shots on the DLRP website in no way do it justice) and several low lodges that extend back through the land surrounding the property. The theming is rather suggested by the name, and the towering evergreens clustered around the property don’t disappoint; we even spotted a rabbit bouncing around in the grass!

Approaching Sequoia Lodge

Approaching Sequoia Lodge

Buses run from directly outside the hotel every 15 minutes (allegedly; it’s was actually often a lot faster than that), but it can also be walked in that time. Due to the colder, wetter weather and easily tired legs of the youngest of the party we didn’t try it, but I’m told it’s a lovely walk. If you’re ridiculously energetic, a run around the hotel grounds would make a great start to the day.

When arriving, there was a temporary-looking security tent set up outside the front door, which rather ruined our first impressions; more to the point, the only people who put their bags through the scanner were the ones who ambled over out of that British sense of Doing The Right Thing. The rest simply charged straight past unchallenged – so quite what the point of it was, I’m not sure.

The main reception is spacious and lovely, all wood panels, crazy paving and bear statues. The desk staff were quick and efficient, providing one person from each room with a pack of tickets, maps and general information, and booking the breakfast sitting for the week. For this, you’re handed little colourful tickets marked with the day and sitting time (it’s the same time all week). Pay attention to when Extra Magic Hours are; if you’ve paid to book a Disney hotel you surely want to take advantage of these. In our case, Fantasyland in Disneyland Park opened from 8am, two hours ahead of general opening hours, so we opted for a 7:30am breakfast, deciding 7am was just that bit too early.

Sequoia Lodge reception

Sequoia Lodge reception

Also in the main building is the concierge desk, which is great for booking restaurants, character meals and dinner shows, and giving you information about special events and the local area. Beyond that, heading back and down, are the two restaurants; the Hunters Grill and Beaver Inn Tavern, while on the same floor there’s the lovely Redwood Bar and Lounge (complete with roaring open fire in winter) and a small but well-stocked shop with Disney Parks merchandise. There’s also a themed posing area for character meet and greets; I understand that it’s common for characters to frequent Disney hotel lobbies around check-in time, and my daughter was incredibly delighted to find Pluto waiting for us when we arrived.

The Redwood Lounge

The Redwood Bar and Lounge

The only request we made was to link our bookings on the website and ask for adjoining rooms if possible; we didn’t check to see if this had been done, but it had. It might have been easier to accommodate us because it was term time, but we had two lovely double rooms linked by a connecting door in the Big Sur Lodge. This was towards the back of the complex, next door to the lodge which houses the swimming pool.

The whole hotel underwent a substantial refurbishment in 2011, bringing an apparently much-needed coat of paint and some new Bambi theming in the rooms. Annoyingly, I’ve misplaced the photos we took inside the rooms, but will post them as soon as I can track them down! Decor is quite dark, but not dingy; the dark woods contrast beautifully with paler walls, and the result is lovely and cosy. The bathrooms are compact, but contain everything you need (bathtub with a showerhead, shelf and towel rail, loo), with an external sink. Tap controls were easy to work out, and water pressure was great. The only complaint was that housekeeping was a little spare with the mouse-eared toiletries. These were just a bottle of shower gel and a Mickey-imprinted soap; it took til day 2 to get an extra bottle or two, and there was no array of the kinds of knick knacks you find even in cheap chains these days, nor signs indicating that you might be able to grab a spare toothbrush etc. There’s also a wall-mounted hairdryer of the kind I tend to refer to, childishly and with accidental punnery, as ‘mouse-fart dryers’ because they usually provide about that level of warm air; I brought my own, though my mother-in-law used the room’s dryer and declared it perfectly adequate.

Our room contained two standard doubles, so did feel a little crowded, but to be honest we weren’t there much. There was a large chest of drawers and a TV that wasn’t used because we were too busy being out and about; opposite the sink there was a small clothes rail and the all-important room safe. There is no mini-bar or fridge.

The adjoining room only had one bed, a fairly vast king-size number, and therefore felt much bigger despite being the same dimensions. Both were perfectly clean and in an excellent state of repair. The connecting doors came in very handy on the night we stayed in the parks and my in-laws took care of our three-year-old, as they could put her to bed and keep an eye and ear out from the adjoining room without disturbing her with light or TV sounds. For bigger families, it could also be a useful way to put the youngest, who have to sleep earlier, in a separate space while others stay up later. We didn’t opt for any sort of child bedding, as our daughter is big enough to sleep in a normal double by herself and indeed she did so perfectly comfortably.

Beds were lovely, and a medium softness which is perfect for me; I have a bit of a knackered back so hard or very soft beds are hard work for me (too hard, and my hips and lower back ache; too soft and I strain my back trying to turn over!). Pillows were so deep we both dispensed with the second one.

The setting is beautifully peaceful and dark (though you can see hints of Disney Dreams! far off!), and being apart from the main building there was very little noise; there was one occasion when I heard a rather loud family bumbling in late-ish – as the parks were closing at 9pm and Disney Village started wrapping up by 11pm, there was no reason to come back staggeringly late – but the walls and doors were solid enough that it wasn’t a major issue.

Breakfast is orderly and plentiful, with a range of cereals, baguette and ciabatta rolls, cold cuts, cheese, jam, chocolate spread, butter, marge, fruits and yogurts. There’s a machine with hot chocolate (decent), coffee (according to Ash, coffee-flavoured hot water, but he really likes coffee) and hot water for various teas, plus apple and orange juice on tap and plenty of jugs of cold milk. Scrambled eggs or other cooked options range in price from €3-4.50. Ash tried the scrambled eggs, and said they were fine, but nothing to write home about. We found it very easy to get in and grab a table, but my sister’s family – who went during October half-term – found very long queues and crowds.  Bearing that in mind, you should consider the earliest, 7am dining slot if you’re visiting during school holidays because of older kids, and are keen to get in and out in time for EMH.

I didn’t personally experience the evening buffet at Hunters Grill, but my in-laws took our daughter and all three of them were raving about it; my mother-in-law counted 20 options for dessert and said they were in much more generous portions than in the park (for more about park food in general, read this post). She and my father-in-law – self-confessedly not always the easiest person to feed – found the range and quality of mains on offer very impressive and felt that despite it being one of the more expensive buffets on property (around €30 per adult, and more than half that for kids), it was one of the best value.

We sadly didn’t have time (or energy!) to visit the swimming pool, so I can only go on general impressions I’ve gained from reviews on this one; it usually gets a very good reaction, with only a handful of complaints saying it was on the cold side.

Cast members (staff) were universally helpful and pleasant; though a couple of times we encountered staff who were not fluently bilingual I’m not really sure that’s a cause for complaint – after all, Miss, this is France.

Summary

Overall, I would certainly recommend Sequoia Lodge as an excellent mid-range place to stay; the frills are fewer than you might expect from three keys, but the comfort and cleanliness are probably more than you’d expect, so I guess it balances out! I didn’t go into the Hotel New York, which was undergoing its own renovation, but the outside was a bit uninspiring and surgical-appliance pink; if you want to stay on site but don’t have the megabucks to stay in the Disneyland Hotel (and who does?!), then I think I’d skip the next one down and opt for the gorgeous surrounds of Sequoia Lodge anyway.

The only request we made in advance was to link our bookings on the website and ask for adjoining rooms if possible; we didn’t check before arrival to see if this had been done, but obviously it had. It might have been easier to accommodate us because it was term time, but you can always call and check after booking, by ringing the central reservation line.

Disneyland Paris with a Pre-Schooler: An Overview

photo 1I admit it: I’m a total Florida snob. My last experience of Disneyland Paris was a good 15 years ago; there was just one gate and it, at least to me, felt like it had little to recommend spending the amount that was required to stay there. 4 nights in Paris was equivalent to 10 days in Florida, and too much was lacking – weather, service, atmosphere, to name but a few.

Yet, over the years, my curiosity started to creep back. What really swung it was the active Disney community on Twitter, among whom were some really committed DLRP fans. I was intrigued. And then I went and had a kid, and suddenly an 8-hour flight with a quite sensitive and strong-willed pre-schooler to the massiveness of Walt Disney World seemed too much. My in-laws then gave us the astonishingly generous opportunity to go, all together, to DLRP, and I admit I was excited.

It didn’t let me down.

Honestly, it is, in almost every way, entirely better than I remember it. Okay, there’s nothing you can do about the weather, but given the recent complaints about the condition of the rest – culminating in a 7,000+ strong petition addressed to Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, asking him to ‘save’ the resort – I was staggered by how good the overall experience was. I could argue my expectations had been set low, but actually I was far more actively impressed than tolerant. There were some issues, and I’ll come to those, but it general DLRP is a beautiful place, which when it comes to pre-schoolers, is entirely more convenient and enjoyable than facing that epic flight. Which is not to say that WDW isn’t my ‘home’ park and I can’t wait to get back there – but I might actually choose to go to DLRP again once in a while just for fun, because I had a great time. Also because it’s the one place in the world where Ratatouille gets its due – and, next year, a dark ride of its own.

This, then is my overview; I intend to write up some actual tips separately to this as soon a I have a chance, though there are a few peppered through this. See this more as an overview than something to use for planning, but if it’s helps with that, then great.

So, what’s the best of the resort?

For a start, there are lots of pre-schooler-accessible rides. That my daughter was freaked out by Peter Pan was entirely down to her uncertainty about the dark and complete lack of experience with anything like it – it was my mistake to go on that ride first, due to my own eagerness. Many of the rides she loved were based on very simple, fairground premises, yes, but at three years old, who would expect anything else? The Mad Hatter’s Teacups, Dumbo, It’s a Small World (which enchanted my father-in-law even more than it did her) and of course character meet-and-greets all completely entranced her; she also hugely enjoyed Slinky’s Zigzag Spin and whirling round and round in Cars Quatre Roues Rallye. And it was easy, given the size and placement of the parks, to whizz back and forth a couple of times a day.

photo 2On that note, while Walt Disney Studios is far less of a jewel than Disneyland Park, it’s obvious that steps have been taken to bring it up to standard. For example, the Toy Story Playland theming is delightful; my daughter, unprompted, pointed out that the fences were “made of connecting toys” and while she was initially scared of the massive talking Buzz Lightyear who proudly marks the entrance, he is a brilliant talking point. (Um, yes, I know that’s not Buzz, but it was in the Studios and it was cute, so Mike it is.)

Whether I have a warped recollection of cast members from my previous visits in the 90s, or they really have upped the ante I don’t know, but every CM I had any cause to interact with was charming, helpful and full of Disney magic. If they had slightly less of a spring in their step than their US counterparts, well, I didn’t feel shortchanged.

photo 5The attention to detail spread to the resort. We stayed in a mid-rated Disney property, Sequoia Lodge, which I hope to blog about in more detail soon, and which was given a comprehensive refurbishment in 2011. Our rooms in Big Sur Lodge – quietly away from the main building and right next door to the pool which, sadly, we didn’t have time to explore – were immaculately clean, beautifully revamped with Bambi details and perfectly fit for purpose. We left our daughter’s beloved cuddly weasels in the room every day, and enjoyed coming back to find out what funny arrangement they’d been left in. The continental breakfast buffet was well-stocked and speedily replenished, and if you wanted something hot for a change then less than €5 could get you a generous plateful; my husband tried the scrambled eggs and while not excessively brilliant, they were certainly perfectly pleasant. Every day we filled up on a choice of mini baguettes, mini ciabattas, toast, cereals, cheese, cold meats, spreads, jams, yogurts and fruit. The juices, hot chocolate and tea were decent; Ash had less enthusiasm for the coffee, but this is a man with this section on his website. I’d venture a guess that the average caffeine craving parent would cope. (A planning note: you choose your breakfast sitting – from 7am to mid-morning – at the beginning of the week and need to stick to it every day; we picked 7:30am as Extra Magic Hours, the bonus time you get for certain areas of the park if you stay on property, started at 8am.)

photo 3Food is of variable quality and it is expensive, but buffets are extremely good value. Depending on lunch or dinner and whether it’s in the park or at a hotel, this could set you back between €22-32 for an adult, minus drinks and around half that for a child of 3+, including a drink. However, the quality is miles better than other quick service offerings, and the price is considerably more reasonable than the high quality a la carte offerings. Plus, if you’ve gone for advance meal plans, buffets tend to be included. There is oodles of choice generally including a fish dish, a roast, several other meat options, lots of veggie sides and a panoply of mini desserts. In the Studios, we also got a very cute visit from Remy. I could write a whole blog post on food here, and I still might, plus I intend to go into some detail about a pretty gorgeous experience at Blue Lagoon, but to summarise: eat well at breakfast, subsist on snacks as much as possible through the day and then pick a buffet for your other main meal. Don’t be tempted by a quick burger and fries unless you head out to Maccie D’s in the Village – the ones in the parks really are as horrible as you’ve heard. Alternatively, head into the Village for a €10 uber-toastie and crisp combo at Earl of Sandwich and leave happily sated.

Speaking of nipping to the Village, Disney transport is really very good. The free shuttle buses are supposed to swing back and forth from Marne-la-Vallee station to the resort hotels every 15 minutes, but it was often more frequent. They were always clean, quick and a pleasant ride. In better weather, you can easily walk from most hotels in 20 minutes or less – just five from Hotel New York and, of course, no walk at all from the Disneyland Hotel.

The amazing Disney Dreams projection show and fireworks also deserve their own mention. Just too excellent for words. And few things in this world could move me with more tear-inducing joy than watching my daughter’s jaw drop with delight at one of the daily parades.

And what’s not so good?

There are some unavoidably obvious maintenance issues, though not nearly as many as I’d been led to expect. Peter Pan‘s screaming brakes could be heard a full twenty feet from the attraction. Several Small World figures either didn’t work at all, or twitched frenetically (those poor hula girls). One Dumbo car was out of commission for our entire four day stay – over the course of the day, given it’s such a popular and central attraction in the busiest ‘land’ in the park, that’s a significant hit on capacity. Crush’s Coaster was down for three days straight, which meant that when it came back online the lines were too long for us to brave it (though in all other respects we were totally and utterly spoiled by off-season queueing in mid-September and had an absolute maximum wait time of 25 minutes for a character meeting, and 15 minutes for a ride – often nothing). Sadly Phantom Manor and Lancelot’s Carousel were under planned closure, but since that’s a sign of tackling maintenance head on, it’s hard to complain about it, and park management logically picked a less busy time of year to close these.

As I said earlier, food is variable, and eating well is expensive. Where WDW has painstakingly improved its offerings every year to the point now where it is hard to criticise even the cheapest meals, Paris – Paris, for goodness’ sake, real Be Our Guest territory – is very mediocre at counter service level.

photo 4But the biggest problem DLRP has is entirely not its fault – and no, it’s not the weather. It’s the guests. Some of the guests were really, really dreadful. Both DLRP rules and French law restrict smoking, yet I was caught behind smokers in queues for rides twice; what made this particularly annoying and upsetting was that they were rides for very young children: Mad Hatter’s Teacups and Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast. Why this hipster, for example, couldn’t have sparked up before joining a paltry 10 minute queue, I’ll never know. In both cases the guest did so out of the eye-line of a CM; I have heard it’s unlikely anyone would have said anything anyway, which is disappointing, but I couldn’t confirm it. I do know they did nothing to shush or attempt to control a rowdy bunch of men in their 20s who yelled and chanted through one ride of It’s a Small World; I simply can’t imagine that kind of nonsense passing in the US.

There was also much less consideration from visitors when it came to litter. There are bins literally everywhere – close your eyes, spin around randomly, open them and you’ll see a goddamn trash can. And yet despite this, and the ever-present cleaning crews, guests conspired to litter at every opportunity; I picked up and threw away some packet or other every single day. On one Small World ride through, there were plastic bottles washed up against Egypt; they were gone by the next day, but it just made me mad that anyone would do it in the first place. After the extraordinarily gorgeous, absolutely WDW quality Disney Dreams! 20th anniversary show against the stunning castle, the streets were peppered with cups and bottles, and the CMs immediately out in force to stem the tide of rubbish.

And, of course, there is the pushing and shoving at parade times. It was actually not as bad as I remembered, but it still happened enough to be noticeable.

It’s possible that the only way Disneyland Paris management will have to resolve this is to expect even more from staff, so that CMs step up to demand better behaviour from visitors, but as a European twice over (British-born Greek), I’m embarrassed that we need that kind of enforcement. Chatting with others who have visited, it’s clear I’m not the only one to have noticed and bemoaned this.

But I don’t want to leave this on a downer, because I really did have a wonderful holiday there. Four nights was just right with a three year old, because frankly you don’t want to disrupt their routine for less, and they will want to do everything fourteen million times given the option. As we were blessed in having grandparents on hand, we had a date night off to have a wonderful meal and see the show, as well as riding Star Tours (still the old version, and in French which I don’t speak, but no less enjoyable for my linguistic failures) and Pirates of the Carribbean. We found we were up at 6:45 and she was in bed by 20:30, totally but agreeably shattered (bearing in mind she doesn’t nap). The timings of the Eurostar trains are deliberately planned to allow the first and last days to be full half-days in the parks, and you need that first half day just to orient yourself – though the parks are wonderfully close to each other and the hotels, the total space is still larger than most people expect.

So, all being well, these are the other things I’d like to blog about, and when I do I’ll come back and link to them below.

But please do be patient with me – I’ve still got a three-year old…

Snow White and the Huntsman… and her Scary Adventures

It’s been a very Snow White week.

On the 31st of May, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom saw the permanent closure of one of its classics, Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Based on the very first of Walt’s feature-length animated films the ride – which over the years was the subject of the most complaints about Disney to the Unoffficial Guide because of its witch-heavy visuals which saw a tamer reworking in the 90s – is lamented by many Disney fans. Although it remains in its original home at Disneyland, at WDW its footprint will eventually be occupied by a princess-y meet and greet, and there will soon be a very different Snow White themed ride in the form of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train family-friendly coaster.

Personally, I’m really not sorry to see the back of her. I do appreciate the sentiments of those who feel the announcement was not one of Disney’s finest moments, and failed to build momentum and excitement around the coaster to come. I also know some children will inevitably be heartbroken. But Snow White… scared the bejeezus out of me as a four-year-old even though to this day the Haunted Mansion is a beloved favourite; I remember clearly, at my mother’s suggestion, ducking under the safety bar and actually hiding in the front of the cart until Mum told me the coast was clear of deranged old ladies proffering poisoned apples. More to the point, the attraction was crumbling. There’s nothing wrong with the classic ghost-train style dark ride, but it lacked the essential charm of neighbour Peter Pan’s Flight or even the psychedelic lunacy of It’s a Small World (seriously – it’s quite bizarre when you ride it as an adult).  It needed a complete rebuild, or scrapping. What with Fantasyland due a huge renovation, scrapping was the order of the day.

There were some touching moments as I watched the Disney community online lay Snow White to rest – this time without a glass coffin or chance of romantic resurrection. A young boy called Ben, who has an autistic spectrum condition, held SWSA in such esteem that he’d ridden it thousands of times. Reports on Twitter quickly circulated saying that Disney Parks cast members had ensured that he got on the ride with Snow White herself, and that his family were among those on the last ever ride.

As someone who is next to return to WDW (whenever that happens) with a young child, I’m delighted that there is finally a focus on the younger element in Fantasyland, the land that most needed it. It surprises people when I say that Magic Kingdom actually does suffer from a lack of really exciting toddler entertainment – at least, for those of us who can’t pop back there regularly for short visits. Apparently, Disneyland Paris does it very well, and I hope we’ll go back some time not too far away to find out.

In the meantime, I had a rather different Snow White experience by going to see Snow White and the Huntsman. That I unenthusiastically tweeted ‘meh out of ten’ right after seeing it really says a lot about how the film left me feeling.

It wasn’t without its positive elements: the concept was essentially good, as were the attempts to flesh out the characters and give depth to the struggle between the evil queen and her step-daughter beyond a bit of petty jealousy. I actually appreciated the ending for not being entirely obvious, and not just for bringing the overlong story to a close. The visuals, which owed a good deal to Lord of the Rings, were stunning, but felt like a smokescreen to conceal the agonisingly dull performances from both Stewart and Theron. The latter did put her back into it, but the spasmodic changes of tone from cool threatening to incandescent rage merely came across as talking very slowly, as if to a tourist, and then going predictably Basil Fawlty. Chris Hemsworth was fine, but bland; a younger Sean Bean he ain’t.

There were also several cringeworthy moments: at one point, the titular huntsman rips Snow White’s skirts from her in order to stop her impeding their progress through the gnarly woods; she is taken aback, understandably, and he sneers “don’t flatter yourself”. Because, evidently, Snow White should find people ripping her clothes off without asking her a compliment, as indeed is all sexual assault.* Plus, as my sister pointed out, he then left said clothes behind as a clear indication of their progress, thus also being a crap huntsman. Then there was the failure to actually bother to cast anyone of restricted height as a dwarf, instead projecting fairytale dwarfism onto some familiar faces.

It wasn’t unwatchable, and there were some deft moments, but with a bit of life, some judicious editing and a snappier pace, it would have been considerably better. I was left wondering if the production rivalry with the apparently very different Mirror, Mirror (which I haven’t seen), forced Snow White and the Huntsman to take itself too seriously, and ruined the dark romp it could have been.

Still, if anyone wants to have a crack at the dark side of The Little Mermaid, I’m all for it.

*Withering sarcasm, in case it wasn’t obvious.