Disneyland Paris - A short history - part 1

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A history of the Disneyland Paris resort - The Disney resort that nearly closed

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:

This is one of…if not the very best, opening lines to a story ever, Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” it also echoes the early years of Disney’s European resort.

Fresh from their success in Tokyo where they had opened their first overseas resort and having learned the lessons from this franchise deal – Tokyo Disneyland was not owned by the Disney Company, which meant that Disney was forced to content itself only with royalties on that theme park's massive revenues. The mid 1980s found Disney looking towards opening a resort in one of its traditionally strongest markets, Europe.

The industry wisdom said that with a market of 320 million Europeans all within a three hour air commute of anywhere else on the continent, almost any country could have played host to the new resort. By 1987, the ‘City of Light’ had been chosen – Disney was coming to Paris.

The ‘City of Light’ had been chosen – Disney was coming to Paris.

It was a relatively easy decision, whilst the other main contender, Spain’s Costa del Sol had great weather, Paris's large population, its well-developed transportation system, and its role as one of the primary tourism destinations in the world won the day. The proposed location in Marne la Vallee put the park within a four hour drive for around 68 million people, and a three hour flight for another 250 million or so. These were important factors, but there were also a number of ‘important concessions’ made by the French.

The French government was eager to secure the job and revenue generating Disney resort.

  • They agreed to sell a large area of the Marne la Vallee area at the cut-rate price of $7,500 per acre,
  • They spent 1.5 billion FF (French Francs) on road construction linking the site to the A4 auto route,
  • They extended the ‘RER A’ train system to the theme park gates and built a track and station linking the Resort to the TGV train network,
  • To sweeten the deal, the French agreed to drop the value-added tax rate on park ticket sales from 18.6% to just 7%,
  • Finally, the French agreed to provide water, sewage, gas, electricity, and other services out to the huge resort.

Michael Eisner signed the first letter of agreement with the French government in December 1985 and started to draw up the plans and financial contracts for the new resort. Robert Fitzpatrick, a key organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was appointed as the President of Euro Disney, and under his leadership the park slowly started to take shape. Construction was started in August 1988 on the massive site which was about one fifth the surface area of the city of Paris.

Unlike the original Disneyland Resort, the Disney French property would be built in a plot of 1,945 acres at the centre of the 4,400 acre site. The central plot would house the theme parks and seven themed hotels with approximately 5,800 rooms, the parking lot and all the back stage support areas. The remainder of the acreage would make a buffer zone around the outside edge of the property. The outer ring would be kept as farmland which Disney would lease back to the local farmers and thus could buffer the new resort from the fast food outlets and cheap hotels that sprang up on the fringes of the California parks hoping to profit from Disney’s overflow.

Disney also sought to profit from the booming French real estate market of the 1980s by developing parcels of this buffer zone. By selling off the properties it developed in the buffer zone and retaining ownership of the land, they could maintain control of both the commercial use and design of the properties surrounding the theme park. The Walt Disney Company expected to easily recoup much of its development costs from these sales. These deals were expected to supply 22% of Euro Disneyland's revenues in 1992, they year the park was scheduled to be opened, and rise to 45% of revenues by 1995. In the boom of the eighties these figures were wholly believable.

The Walt Disney Company had a 49% stake in the Paris resort, satisfying the French government's requirement that at least 51 % of the company would be owned by Europeans. The initial financing for the venture was to come from two sources. A group of seven French banks would create a loan package that covered much of the Phase One costs. The second source was a public stock offering of 51% of Euro Disneyland S.C.A., which raised $1 billion to complete the initial financing.

Disney was determined to build a state-of-the art resort in Europe.

Disney was determined to build a state-of-the art resort in Europe. In addition to the theme parks, it was decided that 5,200 Disney owned hotel rooms would be built within the complex. These hotels would ensure control over the maximum amount of hotel business. In March 1988 Disney and a council of architects (Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, Stanley Tigerman and Robert Venturi) decided on an exclusively American theme in which each hotel would depict a region of the United States.

The complex features seven Disneyland Resort Paris hotels. The Disneyland Hotel is located over the entrance of the Disneyland Park and is marketed as the most prestigious hotel on property. A body of water known as Lake Disney is surrounded by Disney's Hotel New York, Disney's Newport Bay Club and Disney's Sequoia Lodge. Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and Disney's Hotel Santa Fe are located near Lake Disney and Disney's Davy Crockett Ranch is located in a woodland area outside the resort perimeter. At the time of the opening in April 1992 seven hotels collectively housing 5,800 rooms had been built.

As the plans advanced, extra features were added to keep up to date. These last minute design changes initiated by Disney Chief Michael Eisner were know as "budget breakers" and many of them lived up to their name. In order to cover rising construction cost overruns Euro Disney was forced to raise a further $144 million from the stock market and $522 million from a group comprised of more than 60 banks. The banks at this point were still very happy to invest in the Disney brand, Euro Disney was confidently forecasting gate figures of 11 million guests in the park's first year, rising past 16 million annual visitors soon after the turn of the Millennium. The figures looked good and Disney had never been known to let an investor down!

In December 1990, ‘Espace Euro Disney’ opened to the public to show them what Disney was constructing. The Sorcerer’s hat building near the town of Serris attracted many thousands of curious locals and tourists alike but it also attracted the anger of farmers. The government's compulsory purchasing of the farmland in Marne la Vallee had not been well received by the locals and together with the French Cultural Elite, the farmers waged a war of words against the new resort, its owners and Americans in general. The anti-Disney feeling was strong even before the resort had ever opened. The Americans were coming to ruin French culture!

The prospect of a Disney park in France was a subject of debate and controversy. Critics, who included prominent French intellectuals, denounced what they considered to be the cultural imperialism or ‘neo-provincialism’ of Euro Disney and felt it would encourage in France an unhealthy American type of consumerism. For others, Euro Disney became a symbol of America within France. On June 28, 1992 a group of French farmers blockaded Euro Disney in protest of farm policies the United States supported at the time. A journalist in the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote, “I wish with all my heart that the rebels would set fire to [Euro] Disneyland." Ariane Mnouchkine, a Parisian stage director, named the concept a “cultural Chernobyl;” a phrase which would be echoed in the media and grow synonymous with Euro Disney's initial years.

This however didn’t stop thousands turning up to the Vendome building in Noisy-le-Grande in early September 1991 when the Disney casting centre opened and Disney started recruiting the 14,500 employees that would ultimately operate the resort’s theme park and seven hotels.

14,500 employees would ultimately operate the resort’s theme park and seven hotels

Unlike Disney's American theme parks, Euro Disney aimed for permanent employees (an estimated requirement of 12,000 for the theme park itself) as opposed to seasonal and temporary part-time employees. Casting centers were set up in Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt in an effort to reflect the multinational aspect of Euro Disney’s visitors. However, it was understood by the French government and Disney that “a concentrated effort would be made to tap into the local French labor market”. Disney sought workers with sufficient communication skills who spoke two European languages (French and one other), and were socially outgoing. Following precedent, Euro Disney set up its own Disney University to train workers. 24,000 people had applied by November 1991.

In response, French philosopher Michel Serres noted, “It is not America that is invading us. It is we who adore it, who adopt its fashions and above all, its words.” Euro Disney S.C.A.'s then Chairman, Robert Fitzpatrick, responded, "We didn’t come in and say O.K., we’re going to put a beret and a baguette on Mickey Mouse. We are who we are."

Topics of controversy further included Disney's American managers requiring English to be spoken at all meetings and Disney's appearance code for members of staff, which listed regulations and limitations for the use of makeup, facial hair, tattoos, jewelry and more. French labor unions mounted protests against the appearance code which they saw as “an attack on individual liberty.” Others criticized Disney as being insensitive to French culture, individualism, and privacy, because restrictions on individual or collective liberties were illegal under French law, unless it could be demonstrated that the restrictions are requisite to the job and do not exceed what is necessary. Disney countered by saying that a ruling that barred them from imposing such an employment standard could threaten the image and long-term success of the park. “For us, the appearance code has a great effect from a product identification standpoint,” said Thor Degelmann, Euro Disney’s personnel director. “Without it we couldn’t be presenting the Disney product that people would be expecting.”

The Euro Disney Resort opened on schedule on April 12, 1992. Visitors were warned of chaos on the roads and a government survey indicated that half a million people carried by 90,000 cars might attempt to enter the complex. French radio warned traffic to avoid the area. By midday, the parking lot was approximately half full, suggesting an attendance level below 25,000. Speculative explanations ranged from people heeding the advice to stay away to the one-day strike that cut the direct RER railway connection to Euro Disney from the centre of Paris. The opening day crowds which were expected to number up to 500,000 visitors, failed to materialize, and at close of the first day barely 50,000 people had passed through the gates.

Whatever the cause, the low initial attendance was very disappointing. It is true that Euro Disneyland nearly reached its first-year goal of 11 million; in fact there were days in the summer of 1992 when the main gate were closed daily, but rates swiftly dropped. 1993 saw a low of 8.8 million guests. By the winter season, attendance fell away to virtually nil. Things were not going as planned and fortunes quickly dwindled.