This Day in History, April 12: Euro Disney Resort, Now Disneyland Paris, Opens (1992)

Euro Disney Resort, Now Disneyland Paris, Opens (1992)

 

Disneyland Paris, originally Euro Disney Resort, is an entertainment resort in Marne-la-Vallée, France, a new town located 32 km (20 mi) east of the centre of Paris. It encompasses two theme parks, many resort hotels, a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, and a golf course, in addition to several additional recreational and entertainment venues. Disneyland Park is the original theme park of the complex, opening with the resort on 12 April 1992. A second theme park, Walt Disney Studios Park, opened in 2002. Disneyland Paris celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017. In 25 years, 320 million people visited Disneyland Paris.[1] The resort is the second Disney park to open outside the United States following the opening of the Tokyo Disney Resort in 1983.

Ownership

Walt Disney announced a €1 billion ($1.25 billion) bailout plan to rescue its subsidiary Disneyland Paris, the Financial Times reported on 6 October 2014.[2] The park is burdened by its debt, which is calculated at about €1.75 billion ($2.20 billion) and roughly 15 times its gross average earnings.

Until June 2017, Disney only held a majority stake in the resort, when they bought the remaining shares. In 2017, The Walt Disney Company offered an informal takeover of Euro Disney S.C.A., buying 9% of the company from Kingdom Holding and an open offer of 2 euros per share for the remaining stock. This brought The Walt Disney Company’s total ownership to 85.7%. The Walt Disney company will also invest an additional 1.5 Billion euros to strengthen the company.[3]

History

Seeking a location for a European resort

Following the success of Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, plans to build a similar theme park in Europe emerged In 1972. Under the leadership of E. Cardon Walker, Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 in Japan with instant success, forming a catalyst for international expansion. In late 1984 the heads of Disney’s theme park division, Dick Nunis and Jim Cora, presented a list of approximately 1,200 possible European locations for the park. Britain, France, Italy and Spain were all considered. However, Britain and Italy were dropped from the list due to both lacking a suitable expanse of flat land. By March 1985, the number of possible locations for the park had been reduced to four; two in France and two in Spain. Both nations saw the potential economic advantages of a Disney theme park and offered competing financing deals to Disney.

Both Spanish sites were located near the Mediterranean and offered a subtropical climate similar to Disney’s parks in California and Florida. Disney had asked each site to provide average temperatures for every month for the previous 40 years, which proved a complicated endeavour as none of the records were computerised and were registered on paper.[4] The site in Pego, Alicante became the front-runner, but the location was controversial as it would have meant the destruction of Marjal de Pego-Oliva marshlands, a site of natural beauty and one of the last homes of the almost extinct Samaruc or Valencia Toothcarp, so there was some local outcry among environmentalists.[5] Disney had also shown interest in a site near Toulon in southern France, not far from Marseille. The pleasing landscape of that region, as well as its climate, made the location a top competitor for what would be called Euro Disneyland. However, shallow bedrock was encountered beneath the site, which would have rendered construction too difficult. Finally, a site in the rural town of Marne-la-Vallée was chosen because of its proximity to Paris and its central location in Western Europe. This location was estimated to be no more than a four-hour drive for 68 million people and no more than a two-hour flight for a further 300 million.

Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO at the time, signed the first letter of agreement with the French government for the 20-square-kilometre (4,940-acre) site on 18 December 1985, and the first financial contracts were drawn up during the following spring. The final contract was signed by the leaders of the Walt Disney Company and the French government and territorial collectivities on 24 March 1987. Construction began in August 1988, and in December 1990, an information centre named “Espace Euro Disney” was opened to show the public what was being constructed. Plans for a theme park next to Euro Disneyland based on the entertainment industry, Disney-MGM Studios Europe, quickly went into development, scheduled to open in 1996 with a construction budget of US$2.3 billion.[6] The construction manager was Bovis.[7]

Design and construction

In order to provide lodging to patrons, it was decided that 5,200 Disney-owned hotel rooms would be built within the complex. 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. At the time of the opening in April 1992, seven hotels collectively housing 5,800[8] rooms had been built.

An entertainment, shopping, and dining complex based on Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney was designed by Frank Gehry.

With its towers of oxidised silver and bronze-coloured stainless steel under a canopy of lights, it opened as Festival Disney.[9] For a projected daily attendance of 55,000, Euro Disney planned to serve an estimated 14,000 people per hour inside the Euro Disneyland park. In order to accomplish this, 29 restaurants were built inside the park (with a further 11 restaurants built at the Euro Disney resort hotels and five at Festival Disney). Menus and prices were varied with an American flavour predominant and Disney’s precedent of serving alcoholic beverages was continued in the park.

2,300 patio seats (30% of park seating) were installed to satisfy Europeans’ expected preference of eating outdoors in good weather. In test kitchens at Walt Disney World, recipes were adapted for European tastes. Walter Meyer, executive chef for menu development at Euro Disney and executive chef of food projects development at Walt Disney World noted, “A few things we did need to change, but most of the time people kept telling us, ‘Do your own thing. Do what’s American’.”[10]

Recruitment/employment

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 centres were set up in Paris, London, and Amsterdam. However, it was understood by the French government and Disney that “a concentrated effort would be made to tap into the local French labour market”.[11] 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.[11]

Controversies

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 of Euro Disney and felt it would encourage an unhealthy American type of consumerism in France.[12] On 28 June 1992, a group of French farmers blockaded Euro Disney in protest of farm policies supported at the time by the United States.[13]

A journalist at the centre-right French newspaper Le Figaro wrote, “I wish with all my heart that the rebels would set fire to [Euro] Disneyland.”[14] Ariane Mnouchkine, a Parisian stage director, named the concept a “cultural Chernobyl”,[15] a phrase which would be echoed in the media during Euro Disney’s initial years.

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.”[11]

Topics of controversy also 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, jewellery, and more.

French labour unions mounted protests against the appearance code, which they saw as “an attack on individual liberty”. Others criticised 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.”[16]

Opening day and early years

Euro Disney opened for employee preview and testing in March 1992. During this time visitors were mostly park employees and their family members, who tested facilities and operations. The press were able to visit the day before the park’s opening day on 12 April.

On 12 April 1992, Euro Disney Resort and its theme park, Euro Disneyland, officially opened, on the same date that Mediaset’s La Cinq (unrelated to the resort) ceased transmissions.[17] Visitors were warned of chaos on the roads. 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 car park was approximately half full, suggesting an attendance level below 25,000. Explanations of the lower-than-expected turnout included speculation that people heeded the advice to stay away and that the one-day strike that cut the direct RER railway connection to Euro Disney from the centre of Paris made the park inaccessible.[14] Due to the European recession that August, the park faced financial difficulties as there were a lack of things to do and an overabundance of hotels, leading to underperformance.[18]

A new Indiana Jones roller-coaster ride was opened at Euro Disney in 1993. A few weeks after the ride opened there were problems with the emergency brakes which resulted in guest injuries.[19]

In 1994, the company was still having financial difficulties. There were rumours that Euro Disney was getting close to having to declare bankruptcy. The banks and the backers had meetings to work out some of the financial problems facing Euro Disney. In March 1994 Team Disney went into negotiations with the banks so that they could get some help for their debt. As a last resort, the Walt Disney Company threatened to close the Disneyland Paris park, leaving the banks with the land.[18]

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