Disneyland Paris: A 30-Year-Long Conversation Between France & America

How a global entertainment giant earns respect from a distinctly local audience.

Disney has come to represent not just a global entertainment enterprise; it’s become a culture. In expanding its multi-national horizons, it’s not surprising that it’s relentlessly fought against backlash from local cultures. The term to denote neocolonialism endeavors of multi-national corporations, beyond the context of Disney, is being coined “Disneyfication” in academia. As the textbook model of mass-produced and mass-disseminated entertainment, the Walt Disney Company has managed to lay its hands on many aspects of our daily lives. In this series, we’re taking a closer look at Disney’s international theme parks and exploring its far-reaching ripple effects.

In this issue, we focus on Disneyland Paris. Given its less accessible location in Chessy, an hour by train from central Paris, Disneyland Paris hails nearly 2 million visitors every year. This makes it more popular than the Louvre or the Versailles Palace by a far cry. How did something American-born — Disney — achieve such greatness in France? It certainly didn’t happen overnight; within the first few years, it was so unpopular that it risked going bankrupt. Since then, Disneyland Paris has picked itself back up, having blown up into a self-sustaining pleasure island that includes two theme parks, seven resorts, and a shopping “Village” as of 2022. It even has its own Eurostar train station, Marne-la-Vallée Chessy.

Jonathan Matusitz and Lauren Palermo of the University of Central Florida define Disneyfication as the international diffusion of US mass culture. By establishing theme parks around the world, Disney has planted American entertainment in foreign urban populations. Here are five ways in which Disney has interacted with Paris since the 1992 opening of Disneyland Paris and how, in turn, Paris has resisted Disneyfication.


1. Disneyland Paris used to be Euro Disney.

Disneyland Railroad Poster. PHOTO: Van Eaton Galleries

Disneyland Paris didn’t always have this name. When it opened in 1992, it was by the name Euro Disney. This implied a heavy generalization of Europe as a single culture and market in the eyes of the Walt Disney Company. The negative perception of “Euro Disney” by the local population was grossly underestimated; Parisians saw this new massive American entertainment venue in their local area as an act of cultural invasion and neocolonialism.

“My mandate was not to put Mickey Mouse in a French clinic for a face lift. We are going to stay faithful to what we are.” — Robert Fitzpatrick, First President of Euro Disney

“What we are,” on Fitzgerald’s terms, referred to Americana. Far beyond Mickey Mouse, Disney attempted to disseminate the very values at the core of modern America: hyper-consumption, emotional labor, and an appreciation for traditional European folktales that had been watered down and fabricated to suit mass American tastes.

Disney had to do a major rebranding of Euro Disney if they didn’t want to go bankrupt, and this rebranding was all about getting the local population to be more invested in the theme park. In 1994, just two years after its opening, Euro Disney changed its name to Disneyland Paris, indicating its renewed respect for their target audience. It also sounded much less imposing on the grand European market, as the name on the surface suggested only its geographic location close to Paris.

Caption: Poster for the railroad at Euro Disney. The colors, fonts, and the rocky cliffs in the distant background all combine to depict an American “Wild West” image and is almost a direct replica of same poster for Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim, California.

2. The Disney Obligation.

Disneyland Paris
FACEBOOK Disneyland Paris

One aspect of the American hospitality value system, exemplified by Disneyfication, is the expectation of emotional labor. In a Disney theme park, this takes on the form of the Disney Obligation — the contract-bound obligation to put on a smile during work hours. Regardless of how the “cast member” (Disney Park employee) feels inside, they are expected to cooperate in the construction of the emotional image of the experience being sold. This experience is that of returning to one’s childhood innocence and happiness.

“I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty.” — Walt Disney

French employees, when hired by Euro Disney, were distasteful of the Disney Obligation. Among other things, the Obligation comprised part of the lawsuits filed against Disney for cultural imperialism. Disney eventually had to take it down, framing it more as an encouraged behavior instead of an obligation.

A similar event happened with the dress code: Until Disneyland Paris, Disney parks had strict dress regulations that ruled everything from your hairstyle to your nail polish. These restrictions were significantly loosened after similar accusations of violations of employee freedom. It’s quite apt that centuries after the French Revolution, it would also be the French to stand up against such rules.

3. Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Disneyland Paris
The Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Paris. FACEBOOK Disneyland Paris

The symbol for every Disney park is the castle that stands in the center. Its importance is signified by both its location, its size that allows it to be seen from all corners of the park, and its centrality — in Disney, all roads lead to the castle. And here, at Disneyland Paris, Sleeping Beauty was chosen as the princess to whom the castle belongs.

Disney’s 1959 animation Sleeping Beauty is, first and foremost, set in France. Its art is inspired by the Art Deco style of the early 20th century, which also has its origins in France. The design of the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland Paris is a nod of respect to the original animation, complete with its distinct geometric trees of the forest surrounding it.

The Castle is astounding in its almost uneconomic attention to detail. “Real” medieval castles are already everywhere around Europe and aren’t easily associated with fairytales among Europeans. Disney had to work out an extra “spark” that would ensure that the castle in Disneyland Paris would be just as magical to the French audience. Inspiration was drawn from everywhere across France: while the overall silhouette of the castle was inspired by the famous Mont Saint-Michel, the windows, towers, and tapestries were inspired by the national icons Chateau de Chaumont, Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, and Musée de Cluny, respectively. One of the most noticeable aspect of its interior is the pillars that reach upward like tree branches and are echoes of the Église Saint-Severin church in Paris.

A massive animatronic (life-like robot) of a dragon sleeps inside a cage, locked in the dungeon of the Castle. Guests of the park can travel down the stairs and visit this dragon, which sometimes “wakes up” and . This dragon is not a replica of any dragon appearing in a Disney movie, but one inspired by the dragons of European folklore. It’s another careful show of respect to the local population.

4. Main Street.

Disneyland Paris Main Street
Main Street. INSTAGRAM @kats_disneylife

In the Disney parks of Anaheim (C.A.) and Orlando (F.L.), the “Main Street” that leads guests from the entrance to the Castle reflect an idealized image of suburban America. Specifically, it was designed after Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, but generalized enough that any American visitor would feel right at home after setting foot in the park.

Obviously, the same Main Street was not going to have the same effect on Parisian visitors. Disney then had to come up with an alternative Main Street that would be appealing to the non-American audience without its distinctly American charm that marked it as Disney’s property. Walking around the “Main Street U.S.A.” in Disneyland Paris, one would notice certain urban elements as well as imagery taken directly from Hollywood, American advertisements, and catalogue photographs, all of which would seamlessly reflect what Europeans at the time “knew” America to be. Contrasted to Walt Disney’s small town Marceline at the turn of the century, the Main Street in Paris has a “knowing urban gaze,” capturing the 1920s which was the “moment when Europeans first became conscious of what America looked like by going to the movies.”

This astonishing overlay of realism on top of fantasy is quite the feat. The colorful progressiveness of the Main Street of Disneyland Paris shows a very different idealized version of America than the two American Disney parks that came before.

5. Discoveryland

Davy Crockett Ranch Disneyland Paris
Davy Crockett Ranch Disneyland Paris. PHOTO: Disney’s Davy Crockett Ranch

Last but not least, the most distinctive area of Disneyland Paris is on its right hand side, a section called “Discoveryland.” Discoveryland is a unique twist to what is “Tomorrowland” in the two American parks. While Tomorrowland depicts, as the name suggests, a futuristic vision of technology and space exploration of the 1950s, at the unfolding of the Space Race, the same story transplanted in 1992 in Paris just wasn’t going to work.

While maintaining the theme of futurism, Disneyland Paris constructed a retrospective vision of the future — that is, the imaginary imprint that people in the past used to dream would be the future. Inspiration was heavily drawn from the popular French novelist Jules Verne, who wrote science fiction stories like Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Historians usually point to Verne as the father of Steampunk, which is still one of the most well-known science fiction sub-genre that is characterized by its playful blend of individual freedom and technological power. With an increasing sense of doom brought upon by the industrial revolution, steampunk was a particularly optimistic way in which the 19th century French public envisioned the future of technology and industrialism. Its key icons include gears, pipes, and steam-powered machines, which Disney vigorously brings to life in Discoveryland.

As Disneyland Paris enters its 30th year anniversary this year, the Sleeping Beauty Castle recently came out of a twelve-month-long, head-to-toe renovation. The exterior renovations was overseen by the same carpentry firm responsible for restoring the Notre Dame cathedral. After years of persistent conversation with the national audience, Disneyland Paris seems to have established itself as a national monument. It’s now the most visited tourist attraction in the whole of Europe. What this means for the future of mass entertainment in France, we’ll have to wait and see.

Caption: Davy Crockett Ranch, one of the seven resorts in Disneyland Paris. Themed after Disney’s TV miniseries Davy Crockett (1954-55), Davy Crockett Ranch is a collection of family-friendly cabins in the forest a 15-minute drive from the theme parks, emanating an American “Wild Frontier” charm.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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