Historically, I think July 2014 will go down as a notable mile marker in the annals of themed entertainment. Themed entertainment has far reaching implications the world over, but the front lines, and to what I’m speaking now, is what we currently think of as theme parks. In terms of bullet points, the Summer of 2014 will note that Universal opened up a themed London down in Orlando via their expanding Harry Potterification, and Disney opened a themed Paris just outside of Paris itself via Ratatouille and their continued Pixarizing. While these two events happening via disparate companies at nearly the same time is largely just logistical coincidence, there’s something very prescient about what led to such similar theme park happenings planting flags at nearly the same time. The origins of the themed areas from both real world and film backbones, the designs approaches they took, and the technology they chose to highlight are a capsule of where themed design is currently at and where it seems to be heading. London in Orlando and Paris in Paris are capturing the zeitgeist. As of right now, for both better and worse: this is theme parks.
Out of pure coincidence I happened to be present for both the sunny soft opening and rainy grand opening (although not the Press opening) of this new Paris just outside of Paris at Disneyland Paris. These are photos and words about one half of this outbreak of simulated Europe going on in Orlando (You can go here for a summary of the other half going on in Orlando. Some great photos here).
The charming bit of idealized Paris Disney came up with is known as La Place de Rémy (roughly: Remy Plaza), named for the star of the Ratatouille film. Disney’s new Paris is actually their second, as they previously made the France Pavilion for Epcot back in 1982. La Place de Rémy contains 3 notable features: Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (“Remy’s totallly zany adventure”: the new ride the land is based around), Bistrot Chez Remy (the restaurant connected to the ride), and a yet to be opened gift shop, all unified around as a small Parisian street. This area is inexplicably in the middle of the thematic mess known as Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney Studios is the “other” park across from Disneyland Park, both located in the resort known as Disneyland Paris. While Disneyland Paris has an interesting history, it is well known as a park of intense beauty and expert design: possibly Disney’s best, at least at inception. Disneyland Park in Disneyland Paris is a sweeping epic full of romantic beauty, charm, and adventure that hits core emotional touchstones just as the original Disneyland on which it is based. In contrast, Walt Disney Studios is best described as an action film with no plot on a shoestring budget: things are happening, but there’s no cohesion or purpose to it. What is there is largely utilitarian, with the attractions denoted as such only because of signs and markers on a map then on immersive areas carefully drawing you to them. While there are quality attractions to enjoy there, it’s easily Disney’s worst theme park in terms of design, planning, and aesthetics. Why Disney’s best and Disney’s worst are right across from each other is a long story for another day, but that’s where things stand as of now at Disneyland Paris.
Even as you try to approach one of its few design successes, Walt Disney Studios makes sure you know it is truly a consignment of failures, lovingly thrown together as part of the swap meet of diversions we call a Studios theme park. Again, there are enjoyable diversions and attractions to experience here - you will have some fun - but by and large the park begs you not to notice itself, succeeding in idiosyncrasies but failing in overall purpose. As such, to reach Disney’s new, romanticized Paris you need to walk through Walt Disney Studios’ “Toon Studio”, which is a jumble of Pixar properties with no real sense of place or purpose. Warehouses painted blue for Finding Nemo coasters, random spinning cars in kitschy desert themed to Cars there, or an amusement park vaguely themed to Toy Story around the back. It’s a cacaphony of what I can only expertly describe as theme park “stuff”, all simultaneously assaulting, enticing, offending, and confusing.
And then, suddenly, Paris.
Beautiful, charming, romantic Paris.
In practice La Place de Rémy isn’t “Paris” in any grand sense, or even in the World Showcase “idealized microcosm” sense. This is a small slice of neighborhood Paris, somewhat out of time and romanticized, but not attempting any larger conceptual commentary (as Tokyo DisneySea might) or cultural contrast (as World Showcase might) or deep, emotional core (as Disneyland might). La Place de Rémy is Paris, a Paris with a bit more Fantasy to be sure, but nothing more. I think it stops short of what a Fantasyland representation of Paris might be, but Modern Fantasyland Paris probably isn’t too far off the mark. In that, we have what I think is both the area’s weakness and also its ace in the hole. The area alludes to a grander depth here and there through the usual theme park design bag of tricks (no stairways to nowhere, but plenty of other hinted liveliness), as all good theme areas should, but it’s not so much hinting at a larger world to explore as fleshing out what is already presented there. This is small-scale Paris. This is charming, quiet Paris. This is not pomp and circumstance, Eiffel tower Paris. It’s as if you have taken one of the Fantasyland dark rides and severely ramped up it’s exterior, but also isolated from the rest of Fantasyland that makes each attraction and land more than the sum of its parts. This is not a failure shared by the much larger-scale London opened by Universal as Diagon Alley, as they literally made an attraction out of connecting the area to a larger world by transporting you to the theme park equivalent of another world (another theme park). La Place de Rémy is not making any grand statements or attempting to reach that theme park rarified air where a larger reality has successfully been suggested. This smaller approach, with focused mini-lands based largely around a single ride seems to also represent the zeitgeist, with Disney applying it 3 times over in Hong Kong recently, and with Diagon Alley’s arguable 1 ride and 1 restaurant at an otherwise massive scale perhaps representing the extreme to which this approach can be taken.
This small scale, however, is not a complete negative in La Place de Rémy’s case, as a key and necessary ingredient in what makes the whole theme park meal work is charm. The area, the ride, the restaurant: they all give off an earnest charm, the kind you can’t pull off with overconfident grandeur and fire-breathing dragons, but with approachable scale and inviting architecture. La Place de Rémy is more Disneyland than Magic Kingdom, inviting you more with charm more than it tries to impress you with grandeur. The area itself is much like Remy himself: confident in goal and yet uncertain in path. It all feels so very approachable, as if you were simply meant to be there. It’s an odd balance of depth of which there is not much, but approachable charm, of which there is plenty. I think this area as part of a larger exploration of Parisian themes would be amazing, but as designed the area stands on its own and does so well. Just don’t expect the be lost and engrossed in a richer exploration of themes as you might be in a land in Disneyland or a pavilion in World Showcase.
The area is not too dissimilar from Carsland Disney California Adventure in that it is both a real place and a fantastical version of that place, simultaneously. Carsland runs on conceptual and experiential layers, the surface of which is the fantastical car-inhabited Radiator Springs, but that layer rides on a foundation based on the core themes and aesthetics of the very human Route 66. Similarly, La Place de Rémy Paris is both the one 30 minutes away and the one where rats sound like Patton Oswalt and are the cooks at a restaurant. It’s not one or the other: it’s quite literally both. Trying to be inflexible about this and mentally demanding that it be one way or the other, like with Carsland, will only drive you mad as it means the area doesn’t quite exist in any world, be it the real life inspiration or the reality of the film, as the two inevitably contradict each other. No, the Carsland model of themed lands is more of a hazy trip, representing the fringes as you slide between one reality and the other. Luckily the Ratatouille Paris and the real Paris overlap pretty well, so the only contradictions tend to stem from trying to plausibly fit the movie, area, restaurant, and ride into one coherent plot and timeline (the trick: it’s all mid-film except the ride end suddenly plops you post-film, where the restaurant then also takes place.). As far as Pixar lands go: this one is the easiest to accept.
This zeitgeist, the themed lands hyper-specific to one property and attraction, highlight a theme park industry less concerned with putting out “albums” like Fantasyland but one with an increased focused putting out hit singles. Studios Parks make sense for this as they never pretended to have a theme (“movies” is a category, not a theme). Studios parks are built for singles. They’re top 40 radio. I say this with both reverence and disdain, but there’s not denying it to be a popular approach, by definition. This isn’t an absolute sea change as Disneyland’s success and very name necessitates larger lands and thus themes, and the currently under construction Shanghai Disneyland shows this approach is not going extinct. But make no mistake, one-offs and franchise-centric areas are very much on the table in themed design as of 2014. The “land” is no longer absolute king and the “franchise” (likely film, but really about many instantiations including toys, books, TV series, and films) has proven the de facto design catalyst. Place de Rémy is a summary of how themed design has been rethought, how it can still work, how it can outdo the past, and what it still needs to learn from it.
Make no mistake: La Place de Rémy is beautiful and charming like no place else in Walt Disney Studios, but this only highlights its place as an outlier. It has no thematic connection to anything other than itself, really, which is a plus in the thematically misguided and aesthetically confused Walt Disney Studios park, but gives it less weight and emotional impact compared to similarly surface-beautiful areas in theme parks that attempt to do and be something more. As it stands the area is a lighthouse in the dark. This is a flower in the weeds. This is a glass of ice water in hell. You’re happy to get it, but you worry about what happens when you take the last sip.
Walt Disney Studios has a long way to go to be anything more than a “theme park” in the most limited sense of the word. I’m not sure it can ever get to that transcendent, dare I say significant point of a Disneyland or a DisneySea or an Epcot when it had more focus, but then again I don’t think every theme park necessarily needs to as long as some of them do. As it stands, if Walt Disney Studios isn’t going to ask big questions and is instead going to be Top 40 radio, let’s at least fill it with more charming and enjoyable singles like La Place de Rémy. Even the most simple and guilty of pleasures can still be beautiful.
A review of L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy
“Fantasyland for Hobos”
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