Visiting the Happiest Places on Earth

When Disneyland first opened in Anaheim, California in 1955, it was a disaster. Nothing was going as planned. The park was overcrowded due to attendance underestimations and fake tickets, guests found the freshly laid asphalt a bit sticky on their feet, and cars on the Autopia attraction were smashed up in a smoking heap of wreckage by the end of the day. Guests in attendance would have laughed if someone had told them that one day, Disney parks would be some of the most visited and profitable attractions in the world.

Disney parks have always intrigued me. Ever since my first visit to Walt Disney World when I was ten years old, I have been captured by the magic, attention to detail, and technological wizardry accomplished by the parks’ engineers. As an adult, my desire to visit these parks has increased, and my amazement with the results that they are able to produce has amplified. I have made it my goal to visit every Disney park in the world.

I have been to the six Disney parks in the United States (Disneyland and California Adventure at Disneyland Resort in California, and Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida) and the two Disney parks just outside of Paris, France. I currently have plans to complete the Disney global circuit this summer with Tokyo, Japan in June, and Hong Kong in July. With five resorts spanning four countries, I have often been asked why I make visiting Disney parks a priority. Why would an American go all the way to Paris, Tokyo, or Hong Kong to visit Disney when there are two resorts in his own country?

Roller coaster and Ferris wheel feature Mickey Mouse

Paradise Pier, Disney’s California Adventure, Anaheim

My first international Disney experience was visiting Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios in Marne-la-Vallée, just a short metro ride from Paris, in November of 2011. The first thing I noticed, being an American, was just how French everything felt. Subtle decorating touches that reflect local architecture, audio on attractions being in French, and local cuisine made me feel like I was in France, not simply in a small slice of America in the middle of Europe. An entire themed land in Disneyland Park is based upon French novelist Jules Verne’s steampunk vision of the future. The friendly French cast members were always willing to offer assistance in basic English, and seemed very curious as to why two Americans were walking around their park. I felt noticeably different from the rest of the crowd, as most of the guests were either locals or from various other European countries.

Throughout my two-day visit to the Disney Resort in France, I began to realize that Disney captivates guests by ensuring that there is something for every type of individual on their properties. If one happens to be a foodie, Disney offers a wide range of restaurants and tasty treats to cater to any sized wallet. If thrills are desired, there are a few attractions to get the heart pumping, such as the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster; a looping indoor coaster that launches from 0 to 57 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds. If thrilling rides cause nausea and panic, there are plenty of other options ranging from classic spinners to visually stunning dark rides. For the art appreciator, there are detailed, themed environments that create a sense of immersion. Disney seems to have discovered the perfect formula for the theme park experience. This is not to be confused with the “thrill park” experience. Disney is not concerned with making the tallest, fastest, and most inverting attractions. Instead, they perfectly blend nostalgia, customer service, and cutting edge technology to create an immensely satisfying, and sometimes addicting, experience.

Discoveryland sign in front of Space Mountain: Mission 2

Discoveryland and Space Mountain: Mission 2, Disneyland Park, Paris

Graphics versus gameplay debates are common in the video game community. While games with magnificent graphics can sometimes make up for average gameplay, and games with flawless gameplay can make up for less than ideal graphics, I believe that a perfect combination of the two is needed to make a truly epic game. Similarly, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world is going to be amazing, but without theming and special effects, the experience may leave one wanting just a little bit more after multiple rides. Conversely, a theme park full of tame, average rides that have outstanding visual theming can get a bit boring after awhile. If Disney parks were video games, they would be ranked among the best. The graphics age well, the gameplay is still great, and the healthy dose of nostalgia makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

I am not the only person who believes that Disney is doing something right. According to the 2013 AECOM Theme Index, only one non-Disney park cracked the top ten list for total park attendance in 2013. In the 2013 calendar year, approximately 128,809,000 people visited a Disney theme park—that is more than the population of Mexico. With a new park currently being built in Shanghai, China, I anticipate those numbers to climb even higher once the resort opens in 2016.

I will continue to visit Disney parks, both domestic and international, because they make me happy. While some view these parks as symbols of American cultural expansion throughout the world, I view them as seamless blends of local and American culture. The number of international tourists that show up to the resorts in California and Florida support my claim that each Disney park offers a truly unique and compelling experience.

A road stretching towards a Disney castle in the distance

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Update

In June and July, I was able to visit the parks in Tokyo and Hong Kong, completing my life-long goal of visiting every Disney park in the world. Read my follow-up article, Completing the Disney World Circuit, for my thoughts on how they stacked up.

Works Cited

TEA/AECOM 2013 Theme Index & Museum Index: The Global Attractions Attendance
Report. Ed. Judith Rubin. Themed Entertainment Association. June 2014. Web. 4
December 2014.