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From Box Office Bomb to Blockbuster: The Cinematic Story of Walt Disney Studios Paris

Imagine it's spring 2002. Word has spread of a second theme park added to the Disney resort outside of Paris. As the train pulls into the Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy station, you're bound to notice a few changes, especially if you haven't visited the resort since its debut a decade earlier.

For one thing, Disney has tinkered with some naming conventions. EuroDisneyland at the Euro Disney Resort is now Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris. The name change, according to Michael Eisner, is because "[a]s Americans, the word 'Euro' is believed to mean glamorous or exciting. For Europeans it turned out to be a term they associated with business, currency, and commerce. Renaming the park Disneyland Paris was a way of identifying it with one of the most romantic and exciting cities in the world."

In addition, the "Downtown Disney" style shopping area once called Festival Disney has become the Disney Village. 

One thing that hasn't changed? Disneyland Paris still has seven resort hotels – the same seven that opened together on April 12, 1992. It's no secret that in the decade since opening, Disneyland Paris has been... well... cooly recieved. Hotel occupancy has been down, and while Disney Parks fans call the Parisian park the most detailed, thoughtful, and well-designed Disney's ever built, that hasn't gotten locals through the gates.

Maybe a second theme park will!

When Walt Disney World began adding new theme parks, it simply placed them on vacant plots dotted around the 40 square-mile property. When the original Disneyland in California added a second gate, it took a little more work. Disneyland wasn't designed with a second park in mind, so the company needed to purchase land, reroute roads, build new parking structures, and buy existing hotels to turn their solitary theme park into a "resort."

Disneyland Paris – while much, much smaller than Walt Disney World – was master-planned and laid out intentionally. From the start, it was designed for multiple parks. Disney even announced the Disney-MGM Studios Europe that would fit perfectly into a plot of land branching off of the central plaza. But the financial failure here hit Disney hard, and executives became infamously wary of large-scale expansions. So instead of the Disney-MGM Studios Europe, Disneyland Paris' second park is Walt Disney Studios Park. And from the outside, it doesn't look too shabby!

The entrance to Walt Disney Studios is an elegant studio arch, clearly modeled after the ornate arches that often mark the properties of Hollywood's elite studios. A wide plaza beyond is in the shadow of three large soundstages, at least lovingly dressed with Golden Age-style arches and architectural flourishes instead of being drab boxes. Presiding over them all is a sight familiar to Walt Disney World visitors of the '90s and 2000s: the Earffel Tower.

Image: Disney

This comical landmark – a 163-foot tall water tower wearing Mickey Mouse ears – is the park's de facto icon. Like its older (and shorter) sister in Florida, the water tower is meant to evoke early 20th century studio backlots, where such water towers were kept on property at all times to douse any on-set fires on the very flammable wooden sets of the day. The Earffel Tower in Florida made it to our list of demoted and destroyed park icons, but in Paris, the tower still stands as the park's signature sight.

A fountain in the center of this plaza showcases Mickey Mouse as he appeared in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment in the 1940 film Fantasia. It also marks the entrance to the park's unique opening act...

Front Lot – Studio 1

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

The gates of this towering central soundstage – Studio 1 – are pulled back, ushering guests into the park's "Main Street." The original plans for Disney-MGM Studios Europe had called for an enclosed version of the Floridian park's Hollywood Blvd. That's kind of what Walt Disney Studios has to offer. But while Main Street, Buena Vista Street, and Hollywood Blvd. feel like idealized, magical, living replicas of romantic real places, Studio 1 borrows instead from the motif Disney was using in the 1990s and early 2000s at Disney's California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland – cheap, cheerful, and flat. 

Image: Disney

Day-glo colors, flat facades, exposed lighting rigs, neon lights reflecting from the visible corrugated steel ceiling, and wooden barricades around props make it clear that this is not a historic Hollywood. It's a Hollywood set of Hollywood. Make no mistake: you're standing in a massive soundstage (indeed, look around – you'll see the walls and ceiling) with flat painted panels giving the "illusion" that the street stretches onto infinity.

Image: Disney

The time is now. The place is here. This is a Hollywood of today, with metal tables and chairs, cameras hoisted on rigs, people passing by on overhead suspended catwalks, and facades that give way to structural supports.

While it does plenty to make you feel that you're on a modern film set in a modern Hollywood, Studio 1 doesn't inspire much imagination. But if this park is to be a studio where we get to see "behind the scenes," then that's alright!

 

Image: Disney

Exiting out into daylight once more, you'll be standing in the park's center – its "hub." However, there's no "Great Movie Ride" directly ahead. In fact, the awkward, open plaza dead-ends in a garish, industrial attraction marquee meant to look like a giant clap board with flat dragons, camera riggings, and painted flames coming out. This is the entrance to the Studio Tram Tour, though we're not quite ready to visit it yet.

Standing at that central "hub" just outside of Studio 1, you can look to the left. Look to the right. From this vantage point, you can see literally everything else in the park. Walt Disney Studios doesn't have many "nooks and crannies" to explore. After all, this is a studio lot! Instead, you'll find large, open, expansive plazas bordered by tan showbuildings. You're not in any particular "place" or "time." You're... in a studio!

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

The park's layout is somewhat like the letter Y. Studio 1 serves as the letter's stem. Now, we need only explore the two arms. First, let's turn to the right and enter the park's first land.

Animation Courtyard

Image: Anthony S, Flickr (license)

Just a few steps and you're there! Animation Courtyard is a celebration of Disney's rich history of animated films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to modern masterpieces like this summer's upcoming release, Lilo & Stitch. For all the pomp and circumstance around Disney's animation, Animation Courtyard leaves something to be desired... Blacktop asphalt as far as the eye can see, with towering lighting rigs and industrial backstage elements.

Image: Disney

 

It's star attraction is probably the stage show hosted in Studio 3, one of the large soundstages that borders Studio 1. Animagique is a live-action stage show incorporating puppets, inflatables, blacklight, and more as Donald Duck unlocks the Disney Vault and unleashes the worlds of The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid. It's a fan favorite.

In addition, Animation Courtyard is home to The Art of Disney Animation featuring the Animation Academy, similar to the larger animation attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure, and Flying Carpets Over Agrabah.

Image: Disney

As you might imagine, this is a unique twist on Magic Kingdom's Magic Carpets of Aladdin. But here, instead of being in an Arabian courtyard decked out with golden camels, palm trees, and a bubbling oasis, you're on a movie set circling over a concrete pad with a wrapped backdrop painted in vivid colors. Genie's here, too, hoisted up in a production chair shouting out your cue through a bullhorn. Wait a second... you thought Aladdin and Jasmine were really flying? Or, even sillier, that you could, too? Ha! Keep dreamin'! Isn't seeing "behind the scenes" fun?

In any case, we have to move on. Animation Courtyard is a dead-end (in more ways than one) and its three attractions don't elevate it quite to the level of any of next-door Disneyland Paris' intricate, themed lands.

Production Courtyard

Passing back through the park's "hub," we enter the next themed land on the left arm of the "Y." Production Courtyard leaves the world of animation behind in favor of live action. Fittingly, Studio 2 – the mirrored soundstage opposite Studio 3's Animagique – is playing Cinémagique. Think of it as the Great Movie Ride tweaked for European audiences and put in stageshow form.

Image: Disney

In fact, Cinémagique may be one of the best shows in Disney's playbook. Cast as a boring retrospective on films from the silent age to modern blockbusters, the show quickly rerails as a member of the audience (played a live actor) is magically transported into the screen and whisked through a cinematic landscape from Safety First! and Some Like it Hot to Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, stumbling upon everything from Monsters Inc. to The Exorcist along the way.

The would-be star of Production Courtyard, though, is the ride intended to be the park's headliner: Studio Tram Tour: Behind the Magic. Modeled after the Disney-MGM Studios ride (which is in turn based on the Universal Studios Hollywood original), Paris' version of the Tram Tour may be the most pointless yet, given that the Parisian park at no time even attempted to be a real movie studio. 

Instead, the Tram Tour passed by would-be props that give the impression that they might have been used in films, by some ambiguous "sets" littered with cameras and dollies, by numerous camera-ready vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and through two staged events. The first is a trip through Catastrophe Canyon (borrowed from Florida) followed by a tour of its backstage reveal.

Image: Disney

The second staged encounter is a tour of the "set" of Touchstone's largely-forgotten 2002 box office bust Reign of Fire (which was actually filmed in Ireland) displaying a future London wrecked-and-ruined by dragons, including a physical effects display with a flamethrower. 

As quickly as it began, the Studio Tram Tour is over, and with it, Production Courtyard.

Backlot

The most ominously-named of the park's themed "lots" is the Backlot, where designers were able to dispense with any indication whatsoever that they were trying to theme the park. Instead, the Backlot can have exposed steel, unthemed showbuildings, industrial signage, and more. Its three attractions similarly ensure that any pretense of story is quickly disposed of.

First, a familiar sight for Disney World visitors – Rock n' Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith. Though here on the Backlot, the attraction does away with any insinuation that you're visiting a recording studio and even with the razor-thin plot of racing through Hollywood to attend a premier. 

Image: DLP.info

Ironically, dropping the bulk of the "race through Hollywood" storyline ended up benefitting Paris' version of the ride. While the track layout is identical to Orlando's, the ride instead takes place in an abstract space of spinning, flashing, undulating lights that give the ride an astounding element. The intricate and ambitious light show that occurs around riders has to be seen to be believed, and you can watch it take place here. The more abstract style actually holds up better than the blacklight cartoon-perspective of Orlando's.

Image: Brian Holland, Flickr (license)

Here in the Backlot, you'll also find the Moteurs... Action Stunt Show Spectacular. The ambitious (if brainless) stunt car show actually made its debut in Paris, before being duplicated at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida in 2005 (where it's already come and gone, closed to make way for lands based on Star Wars and Toy Story). 

Already, we've arrived at the park's final inhabitant: Armageddon – Les Effets Speciaux. As the name implies, we're here to get an insider's perspective of the special effects that powered the 1998 Jerry Bruckheimer film for Touchstone Pictures, Armageddon. Similar in style and scope to Universal's "Twister... Ride It Out!" this living demonstration puts guests within feet of fireballs, sparks, steam, flickering lights, and an asteroid that seems to destroy all life on Earth until... "CUT!" 

At just 62 meager acres, Walt Disney Studios is by far the smallest Disney Park on Earth. But what's worse, its miniscule attraction offerings include just three – yes, three – rides. Next door, Disneyland Paris includes as much to do in Frontierland alone. And yet, this brand new Disney park meant to salvage Disneyland Paris seemed poised to do more harm than good... What happened next? Read on...

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There are 4 comments.

What a great review.
Actually The WDC was obliged by contract to build a second park ten years after opening the first park. Also a third park was part of the contract with the French government but I think that was renegotiated.
What I find extremely depressing is that these problems have been around since 2002, fifteen years and there have no plans been announced for any expansions or improvements of the park. Meaning, even if they'd publish any plans, due to the fact that the current refurbishment plan runs till 2022 we won't be seeing any improvements of the park before 2025-2027. Meaning there is no reason to visit this park for almost another decade!
Also the original DLP park has been refurbished to look great for its 25 anniversary but this park too has not received any new large attraction for over 10 years.
I really don't think it's going to work this way. Especially since the other large european themeparks are churning out amazing attractions year after year.

I totally agree with your assessment of this park. I know it very well as I go every 2 years. It is lacking in magic compared to the main Disneyland park in Paris and particularly the Florida & California parks, and I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why. The horrible boxy studio buildings and lack of theming and immersive lands. The comparison of the two carpet rides in the article was striking! Like you said, fountains under one and concrete under the other! Wish they would do what you've said and close a section at a time and re-do them to be immersive themed lands. Starting with that horrible studio 1 entrance building! Still love the park though but just feel it could be so much better, compared to other Disney parks I've been to. Certainly a lot better now with all the additions, I particularly love crush's coaster and Tower of Terror, and Ratatouille was smart. My little boys adore the cars race rally ride and the toy story rides. They are getting their first taste of Orlando Disney magic next year, so excited, it's a whole other level to Paris.

Great article and I agree with all however currently on Trip Advisor it is currently number 1 in Marne-la-Valley out scoring Disneyland Paris!!!!

Great Article, i absolutely argee with you. I don't get why The Walt Disney Company/ Disney Imagineering do have so much trouble, to come up with a great Idea to make WDS a Beautiful Park.

I have to say, i do find it very easy to make something amazing out of it. Front Lot, Production Courtyard and Backlot melt into one big Hollywoodland, behind R'n'Rc will be Star Wars Land, right of it Marvel Land and the rest Pixar Land and in the middle of The Park a giant Lake. Sure, i could explain it in detail, but that would be as long, as your Article.

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