What’s wrong with Disneyland Paris

The castle at Disneyland Paris.

The castle at Disneyland Paris.

We decided to visit Disney’s European theme park just a few days before we were scheduled to leave France. We aren’t diehard Disney fans, but we had annual passes when our daughter was younger and thought it might be fun to see how the park outside Paris compared with the ones in Anaheim and Orlando.

Bottom line: We had a great time with one notable exception.

Getting to Disneyland Paris is dead easy: we just took a train from the city, the RER “A” line, one branch of which stops right outside the park. We got theme park admission tickets online in advance to avoid the line at the gate.

Using FastPass and a little strategy, we never waited more than about 10 minutes to board a ride. Our perception was that the park wasn’t nearly as crowded as American versions (which may explain why you can find discounted tickets, which aren’t common in the U.S.).

I also made lunch reservations at a restaurant with table service (the Blue Lagoon) two days in advance, and we had a great experience there. I tried to make a dinner reservation as well at Walt’s, but the earliest slot available was 9:30 p.m. We hadn’t become THAT Parisien, so we decided we’d use one of the “food on the go” places that dot the park. And that was our big mistake.

Similar restaurants at the U.S. parks typically have a line leading up to the cashier, where you order, and then a short wait until you pick up your food at the counter behind the cashier. It’s usually an efficient way to feed people, as the lines move quickly.

Not at Disneyland Paris. I spent more than 30 minutes standing in line, with wailing kids and increasingly impatient parents, and I was just two people away from the cashier virtually the whole time. She kept running back and forth to the counter as people complained about their messed-up orders. And this was at a place that had only three options for a main course: a Barvarian hot dog, chicken and a cheeseburger.

A lot’s been written about the lack of a “service culture” in France. I’d never found it a problem before then, because treating people with respect and politeness usually brings good results. But my experience at a theme park did make me miss good old fashioned American efficiency.

Still, a Disneyland Paris visit is well worth the short trip. Here’s some advice to make the most of it:

Plan at least a little in advance. It’s not that hard to find and buy discounted tickets. If nothing else, buy tickets online from the Disneyland Paris site and bring them with you to avoid the lines at the gate.

Make reservations at a table service restaurant or buffet. These are the most expensive options, but they’re also a great way to build a break into your day. You have to call in advance, and the earlier you call the more options you’ll have for venue and time.

Learn the FastPass system. The most popular rides allow you to reserve a time slot in advance. You may have to zigzag through the park to hit all the best rides, but we were able to ride everything we wanted in one day. Some rides run out of FastPasses early, so ask an employee’s advice about which ones to get first.

Bring snacks and water bottles. As with all theme parks, snack prices are especially inflated. You can refill your water bottle at one of the drinking fountains.

One day is fine. Some people advise planning a three or four day visit, or at least one day per park (there are two, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios). Attractions at the second park are so slim, though, that we didn’t really regret missing it. If you have smaller kids who easily tire, you might want to break up your visit into a couple of days. But we found a one-day visit worked out just fine.

The lines at the Louvre: 3 ways to have a better time in Paris

Sainte-Chappelle

The stained glass of Sainte-Chappelle.

One thing that’s impossible to understand, no matter how many times we visit Paris: the long lines to get into the Louvre.

It’s not that the place isn’t amazing and an absolute must see. It’s that you can skip the lines simply by buying a Paris museum pass.

Even if you’re not big on museums, you’ll want to see the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay (a grand converted train station with a wonderful collection of Impressionist art) and the lovely Rodin museum and gardens. The admission costs for those three museums equal about 28 euros and the two-day pass costs 42 euros.  You only have to hit a couple more places–such as the jewel-like Sainte-Chappelle, with its breathtaking stained glass; the Conciergerie, with Marie Antoinette’s pre-guillotine cell; the excellent, relatively new Branly, with its collection of African art; the Centre Pompidou modern art museum; the Towers of Notre Dame–to more than offset the cost. Even if you ignore those, you have to ask yourself: what’s your time on vacation worth? So little that you’re willing to spend hours queuing in the hot sun or pouring rain? C’mon, people.

With this in mind, here are three ways to have a better time in Paris without breaking your wallet:

Get the museum pass. It’s 42 euros for two days, 56 for four, 69 for six. Kids under 18 usually get free admission (although we did have to pay a small entrance fee for them at the sewer tour. Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s interesting, although alas you no longer get to ride down the sewers in a boat). Buy your pass at one of the less popular sites to save yourself a long line. The Crypt at Notre Dame is a good place (while you’re there, check out the interactive screens that let you view the cathedral’s construction and the surrounding town from various angles) or the aforementioned Branly, which is between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Stores like FNAC also sell them, and you can check online for other sites.

Use public transport. The downside to Paris’ subway and bus system is that it’s so good, everybody uses it–which means it can be packed. Still, it’s a fast, cheap way to get from site to site. You’ll be using it enough that it makes sense to get a pass if you’re staying more than a couple of days. The tourist pass is easy to get but more expensive; Navigo passes (what locals use) are a little more hassle to get but make riding pretty cheap.

Dine for lunch, picnic for dinner. After several lengthy, heavy French dinners in a row, we decided our stomachs and our wallets would do better dining out at lunch and having lighter meals or picnics with cheese, meat and bread for dinner. Use TripAdvisor to find good places to eat; its reviews are far more robust than Yelp’s (meaning more places reviewed and more reviews per restaurant).