Suzanne Dent travelled to the French capital in search of rollercoasters - and discovered that Paris has much more to offer families than theme park thrills
The harness is pulled over my head and locked in place. I cling to it, wondering why such a robust restraint is needed. Then it hits me: they are going to hang me upside down. I doubt I’m the first parent to view a trip to Disneyland as a form of torture that must be endured if the little darlings are to have a full and happy childhood.
That being said, having submersed myself in the world of Mickey and friends, I'm relieved to report that a Disney holiday isn't just about stomach-churning rollercoasters and mouse ears. If you stay at a hotel outside the resort and take time out to explore the city and the pretty Parisan countryside, you'll discover that a Disneyland break can be just as much fun for mums and dads.
Having been to Walt Disney World Florida, I assume I will find exactly the same collection of rides in the Paris park. Indeed, when I arrive at my old favorite, Big Thunder Mountain, the same ruggedly dressed cowboy directs me to my seat (except that this one speaks with an elegant French accent). However, to my surprise, I also find rides in Paris that are not offered at Disney’s American parks.
The recently opened Ratatouille ride takes us on a magical ride around Paris as only Disney could. Zipping through a Parisian restaurant, the ride becomes a fully immersive experience – we’re blasted with cold air as we pass through the giant freezer, and kids of all ages squeal with delight as the champagne corks fly overhead.
Wearing our obligatory Mickey Mouse ears, we squeeze into the crowd and peer anxiously down Main Street, waiting for the famous parade to begin. Never mind the rides, the evening shows are where the family bonding really happens. The Disney ballads we all know by heart are infectious and before long everyone is singing and waving at the breathtaking floats that roll by, carrying fairytale princesses and mythical creatures.
If your kids can cope with staying up past bedtime, the spectacular after-dark show is a fitting finale to a fantastic day. After a breathtaking firework display, families leave hand in hand, still humming the final tune.
We head to Paris, but unlike our previous visits, we opt out of putting in the legwork to explore the city on foot. Little legs demand another option and luckily for us, we discover a faster and more fun alternative to the typical bus tour. Innovative tour company 4 Roués Sous 1 Parapluie run open top 2CV cars for a customized trip round Paris – ideal for a family of four. With cushions and lap blankets provided in colder months, it’s like touring the city from the comfort of your own two-seater pastel sofa. Our charming guide Julie gives a jovial explanation of the sites tailored to our interests, and to our delight, she treats us to a hair-raising sharp turn down a narrow lane.
Having arranged a rental car from the Sixt desk in the lobby, we are ready to head out into the beautiful French countryside that we have so far only peaked at from our hotel window at Magic Circus. We pull up to the Muse de la Grande Guerre, on the outskirts of the pretty town of Meaux, and what we find is not what I expect from a war museum. Although it sits on an First World War memorial site, the museum is a modern building, containing plenty of video clips and plaques encouraging the kids to explore and touch. If you haven’t had enough history for one day, then take a walk into Meaux to see beautiful architecture in the gothic Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace.
Four-star hotels Magic Circus and Dream Castle are minutes from the Disney gates and Eurostar station, thanks to frequent free shuttle buses. When you've had your fill of all things Disney, both hotels are well-placed to be the family’s base from which to explore the world outside the theme park gates. Paris is only 45 minutes to the east and you’ll find a scattering of charming chateaus within short driving distance.
Magic Circus and Dream Castle may not be Disney hotels, but they make sure kids don’t miss out, by offering their own brand of fantasy. I’m often under-whelmed by hotel kids’ clubs, but looking around, I realise that the entire lobby in the Magic Circus hotel is one big kids’ club - with rides, games, and even a ball pit, right in the middle. This isn’t normally something I would welcome in a hotel, but here it seems to work. The red and yellow circus theme continues in the family-style hotel room. As if finding bunk beds aren’t enough to make the kids giddy with excitement, a circus tent-like curtain surrounds the bunks and – joy of joys – they even get their own telly.