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Disneyland Paris

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Disneyland Paris

Translated by Helen Hardy — 4 years ago

Original text by Patricia Saiz Díaz

Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Resort Paris is a holiday and leisure resort in Marne-la-Vallée, an eastern suburb of Paris, in France. The complex is located 32 kilometres (20 miles) from the centre of Paris on land belonging to the Chessy community.

Disneyland Resort Paris features two theme parks, an entertainment district and seven official Disney hotels. The resort has been in operation since April 12th 1992 and was the second Disney resort to open outside of the United States (Tokyo Disney Resort being the first), plus the first to actually be operated by Disney. With 14. 5 million visitors in 2007, the resort is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

Disneyland Resort Paris is owned and operated by the French company Euro Disney SCA, a company with 39. 78% of its capital in the hands of The Walt Disney Company, 10% belonging to Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia, and 50. 22% belonging to other shareholders. The park is directed by the president and CEO Karl Holz.

Disneyland Paris

The complex was surrounded by controversy during negotiations and its construction period when a number of prominent French figures expressed their opposition to the plans, and protests arose from French trade unions amongst other groups. A further setback followed the opening of the park, as park attendance, hotel occupancy and income all fell below predictions. In an effort to improve the park´s public image, the complex was renamed Disneyland Paris (its previous name being Euro Disney Resort) in 1995. In July of the same year, the company saw its first quarterly profit. A second theme park named Walt Disney Studios Park opened its doors on March 16th 2002.

After the success of Disneyland in Anaheim, California and Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, plans to construct a similar theme park in Europe were suggested in 1972. Under the leadership of E. Cardon Walker, Tokio Disneyland opened its doors in 1983 in Japan with immediate success, forming the catalyst for international expansion. At the end of 1984 the heads of Disney Theme Parks Division, Dick Nunis and Jim Cora, presented a list of approximately 1, 200 possible locations for a park in Europe.

In March 1985, the number of possible locations for the park had been reduced to four: two locations in France and two in Spain. Both nations saw the potential economic advantages of such a park and competed for the location, offering financial contributions to Disney.

Both locations in Spain were situated close to the Mediterranean Sea and would offer a subtropical climate similar to that of the Disney parks in California and Florida. Disney had also shown interest in a location near Toulon in southern France, close to Marseilles. The beautiful countryside in this region combined with its climate made the location a serious competitor for what would be known as Euro Disneyland. However, thick layers of rock were found below the ground, which would have severely hindered construction. In the end, a location in the rural area of Marne-la-Vallée was chosen due to its proximity to Paris and central location in Western Europe. This location was estimated to only be four hours´ drive away for 68 million people, and no more than two hours´ flight time for another 300 million.

Disneyland Paris

Michael Eisner, the current executive director of Disney, signed the first agreement with the French government granting him the 20 kilometre square area to build on in December 1985, and the first financial contracts were prepared the following spring. Construction began in August 1988, and in December 1990, an information centre named ´Espace Euro Disney´ (Area Euro Disney) opened to show the waiting public what was being built. Plans for a theme park to be built next to Euro Disneyland connected to the entertainment industry, Disney-MGM Studios Europe, rapidly developed, and the theme park opened in 1996 with a construction budget of US $2. 2 billion.

Unlike the Disney theme parks in the United States, Euro Disney is run by permanent employees (12, 000 are needed to operate the theme park alone) instead of part-time and temporary workers. Selection centres were set up in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt in an effort to reflect the multinational aspect of Euro Disney visitors. However, it was also understood that the French government and Disney would make a concerted effort to make use of the local French labour market. Disney sought workers with sufficient communication skills, usually ones who could speak two European languages (French and one other), and who were outgoing in personality. Following this precedent, Euro Disney created its own Disney University to train its employees. By November 1991, 24, 000 people had already applied.

In order to manage the hotel sector, it was decided that 5, 000 of Disney´s hotel rooms would be constructed inside the complex. In March 1988, Disney and a team of architectural advisors (Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Robert AM Stern, Stanley Tigerman and Robert Venturi) decided on an exclusively American theme for the hotels, in that each would be based on a different region in the United States. By the time of the park´s official opening in April 1992, seven hotels housing a total of 5, 200 rooms had been constructed. According to specific terms in the contract signed by Disney and the French government, Disney will be required to have finished building a total of 18, 200 hotel rooms located at different distances from the town of Marne-la-Vallée by 2017.

The entertainment complex full of shops and restaurants based in the centre of the Walt Disney World area was designed by Frank Gehry. Featuring its towers of oxidised silver and bronze-coloured stainless steel beneath a canopy of lights, the complex opened its doors as ´Disney Festival`.

With an estimated daily attendance of 55, 000, Euro Disney planned to be able to serve an estimated 14, 000 customers per hour within the Euro Disneyland park. To achieve this, 29 restaurants were built within the park (with another 11 restaurants in the Euro Disney complex hotels and 5 in the Disney Festival). A variety of menus and prices were set, all with a predominantly American style, and the precedent of not selling alcoholic drinks at Disney resorts continued within the park. 2, 100 patio seats were installed (making up 30% of the seats in the whole park) in order to satisfy the European preference of eating outside weather permitting. In the test kitchens in Walt Disney World, recipes were adapted to European tastes. Walter Meyer, executive chef in charge of developing the menus for Euro Disney and of food development projects in Walt Disney World, said: ´A few things needed to be changed, but most of the time people just told us: Do your own thing. Do what´s American. ´

Disneyland Paris

The idea of a Disney park being built in France was a debated and controversial theme. Critics, among them prominent French intellectuals, denounced what they referred to as the culture imperialism, or ´neo-provincialism´ of Euro Disney and felt that it would encourage an unhealthy American-style consumerism in France. For others, Euro Disney became a symbol of the United States´ influence within France. On June 28th 1992, a group of French agricultural labourers blockaded Euro Disney in protest against the agricultural politics supported by the United States at that time. A journalist for the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote: ´I hope with all my heart that the rebels set fire to [Euro] Disneyland. ´ Ariana Mnouchkine, a director of the Parisian scene, christened the concept a ´cultural Chernobyl`, a phrase which echoed throughout the media and became synonymous with Euro Disney´s first years of business.

In answer, the French philosopher Michel Serres stated: ´It´s not America that´s invading us. It´s we who adore them, adopt their fashions and, above all, their words. ` Another response came from the president of Euro Disney SCA, Robert Fitzpatrick: ´We´re not going to turn up and say right okay, let´s put a beret on Mickey Mouse and a baguette in his hand. We are who we are. ´

Themes of controversy continued and included criticism of Disney´s American administrators, who required English to be spoken in all meetings and introduced a code of appearance for the park´s personell, which consisted of restrictions imposed on make-up, facial hair, tattoos, jewellery and more. French trade unions launched protests against this code of appearance, which they viewed as ´an attack on individual freedom´. Others criticized Disney for being insensitive to French culture, individualism and privacy, since the restrictions on individual or collective freedom were technically illegal under French law unless it could be proved that the restrictions were necessary for the nature of the work and did not exceed what was absolutely necessary. Disney responded by claiming that if workers decided to impede the enforcement of this rule, the success of the park´s image and, in the long run, of the park itself would be put in danger. ´For us, the code of appearance has a big effect from the point of view of what is identified with the product, ` said Thor Degelmann, Director of Personell at Euro Disney and a Californian native. ´Without it, we can´t present the Disney product the public will be expecting. `

On April 12th 1992, the complex officially opened under the name of ´Euro Disney Resort`, along with the first theme park, named ´Euro Disneyland`. Visitors were warned to expect chaos on the roads, and a government survey indicated that half a million people in an estimated total of 90, 000 cars would attempt to enter the complex that day. Radio France advised drivers to avoid the area. Yet at midday, the car park was only approximately half full, which suggested the amount of visitors to be below 25, 000. Speculative explanations arose that the low number of visitors was perhaps due to the fact that potential visitors had been advised to avoid the train strike happening that day, which closed the line offering a direct connection between the centre of Paris and Euro Disney.

In May 1992, the entertainment magazine The Hollywood Reporter reported that around 25% of Euro Disney´s labour force, approximately 3, 000 men and women, had already handed in their notices due to unacceptable working conditions at the park. It was also said that park attendance had thus far been far below expectations. Euro Disney SCA responded to these allegations in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which Robert Fitzpatrick alleged that only 1, 000 workers had left their jobs.

With regards to the financial situation, Fitzpatrick commanded that the Disney-MGM Studios project be put on hold until a new decision could be made. Hotel prices were reduced to encourage visitors.

Despite these efforts, in May 1992, daily park attendance was around 25, 000 (some reports give the figure as 30, 000) instead of the expected 60, 000. Euro Disney Company´s shares prices spiralled downwards, and on July 23rd 1992, Euro Disney announced an expected net loss of approximately 300 million French francs from its first year of operation. During the first winter Euro Disney was open, the amount of overnight visitors was so low that the decision was made to close Newport Bay Club hotel until the springtime. It had originally been hoped that every visitor to Euro Disney would spend an average of US 33$ per day, however according to surveys undertaken at the end of 1992, visitors were spending around 12% less.

Efforts to increase park attendance included the introduction of serving alcoholic drinks within Euro Disney park on June 12th 1993, in response to a presumed European demand.

In January 1994, Sanford Litvack, a New York lawyer and Deputy Attorney General during Jimmy Carter´s presidency, was assigned principal negotiator for Disney regarding the future of Euro Disney. On February 28th, Litvack made an offer (without Eisner or Frank Wells´ consent) to divide Euro Disney´s debts between the main Disney company and its creditors. After banks showed interest, Litvack informed Eisner and Wells.

On March 14th, the day before the annual creditors meeting, the banks gave in to Disney´s demands. The creditor banks bought US $500 million dollars´ worth of shares in Euro Disney, froze the interest for 18 months and deferred interest payments for three years. The Disney company invested US $750 million in Euro Disney and suspended royalty payments for five years. In June of the same year, an agreement was reached with Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, whereby the Walt Disney Company bought 51% of new US $1. 1 billion issue of shares, and the rest offered to existing shareholders at rates below market, and the Prince buying any that were not taken up by existing shareholders (up to a share of 24, 5%). In August of 1994, all the park´s hotels were full during the peak summer holiday season.

On March 31st 1995, a new attraction was inaugurated into the theme park. Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune had been on the drawing table since Euro Disneyland´s launch, but had been withheld to be used to cause a resurgence in public interest at a later date. The US $100 million attraction had a new design (it had first been opened in Walt Disney World´s Magic Kingdom in 1975) including a canon launch system and themed music during the ride, and was opened in a ceremony attended by celebrities such as Elton John, Claudia Schiffer and Buzz Aldrin.

On July 25th 1995, Euro Disney SCA announced its first ever quarterly profit of 35. 3 million dollars. On November 15th, the results of the tax year which ended on September 30th were released: over the course of one year, park attendance had risen from 8, 800, 000 to 10, 700, 000 - a 21% rise in figures. Hotel bookings had also risen from 60% to 68%, a rise of 5%. After paying off its debts, Disneyland Resort Paris reached the end of the financial year having made a net profit of 22. 8 million dollars.

On March 16th 2002, Walt Disney Studios Park opened its doors to the public. 27 hectares in size, it is the continuation of a never-before realised concept: Disney-MGM Studios Europe. This same year, Euro Disney SCA and The Walt Disney Company announced another yearly profit for Disneyland Resort Paris. However, the park had incurred a net loss over the past three years, and as of 2007 the park is still in US $2 billion worth of debt. In 2005, The Walt Disney Company agreed to wipe off all debts owed to them by Euro Disney SCA. On April 12th 2007, the park celebrated its 15th anniversary. The One Upon a Time parade premiered for the first time during the celebrations.

The fourth section of the park is based on the original in Anaheim, California, although modifications to the park´s concept and designs were made. One of these was the change of the park´s name from ´Tomorrowland` to ´Discoveryland`, giving the area a retro-futuristic theme. Other altered elements include the Haunted Mansion, which was redesigned as Phantom Manor, and Space Mountain. The location of the park in Europe gave rise to its own challenges - for example, it was reported that the Disney castle had to be re-evaluated by its designers so that it would be suitable for a continent in which authentic castles are found.

Modifications were made in the park to protect it against the changeable Parisian weather. Covered walkways were added, and Michael Eisner ordered the installation of 35 chimneys in the hotels and restaurants. ´People walk through Disney World (sic) in high temperatures and humidity, walk down an air-conditioned corridor or queue and say: ´This is the best`, said Eisner. ´When it´s raining and miserable, I hope someone from a pressure groups visits, sees the chimneys and goes and says the same thing. `

The park, as well as the surrounding complex, initially did not meet financial expectations. This gave rise to a change in image in which the word ´euro` was removed from various names, including from Euro Disneyland.

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