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Documentary : Giving Euro Disneyland a Whirl : * An American girl finds plenty of joie de vivre at the troubled park near Paris. Prices are another matter.

January 18, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARNE-LA-VALLEE, France — My daughter Katie gripped the controls in gloved hands and, with a cold rain spitting in our face, we soared above the gray wintry tableau of Euro Disneyland on--what else?--Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

Down below, families in matching yellow Disney rain ponchos ($4.50 at shops everywhere) gamely strolled through the puddles. Cheerful Christmas music, and the scent of popping corn and baking cookies, wafted up from Main Street U.S.A.

And, through the mist, we could see Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty's castle. And wasn't that the Evil Queen from Blanche-Neige et les Sept Nains, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, watching us from one of the balconies?

Hearing my 5-year-old's delighted giggles, as Dumbo leaped up and down at her touch, I had to admit we were having fun. Dressed in corduroy pants, woolen hats, heavy coats and rain gear, to be sure. But having a good time, just the same.

Later, climbing onto a docked pirate ship, and probably speeding from infusions of chocolate and sugar, Katie said: "People like Disney, don't they, Dad?"

Indeed, they do. Of course, I didn't have the heart to tell her that Michael D. Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., had only a few days earlier said Euro Disneyland might close unless European banks agreed to restructure its $3.7 billion in loans.

Disney has agreed to keep its European subsidiary, which owns 49% of the shares, afloat for three months. And Eisner is playing the kind of economic hardball that a youngster probably wouldn't appreciate.

But the paradox of Euro Disney is that the park itself, from Thunder Mountain to Star Tours, and the Mad Hatter's Tea Cups to the Pirates of the Caribbean, has been a success, by almost anyone's measure. More than 18 million visitors have spun through the turnstiles since the opening in April, 1992, making it the single largest tourist attraction in France, far surpassing even the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

"People in Europe said it wouldn't work. They said this wasn't Florida. They said it was too cold. But, in fact, it works," said Jean-Marie Gerbeaux, Euro Disney's vice president of communications. "That was the first big challenge--to demonstrate that we could draw people. And that's been very important to us."

Even Le Monde, the influential daily newspaper, admitted recently that "we (French) had rather taunted this improbable transplant" of American popular culture, calling it a "cultural Chernobyl" and a "conservatory of nothingness."

"Euro Disney provoked from the beginning a reflex of rejection among the intellectuals," the paper noted. "And then, with time, even the most hostile have accepted it."

Accepted it, in large part, because it boosted the region's beleaguered economy. Euro Disney has generated tax revenue and paychecks in abundance--8,500 new permanent jobs and 46,000 other jobs linked to Disney's existence. In fact, Euro Disney is responsible for half the new jobs created in France since its opening.

So what's the problem?

Well, the economic recession in Europe has brought France 12% unemployment and hurt tourism everywhere. The 5,500 rooms in Disney's six hotels had an average occupancy rate of 55% last year, well below the company's expectations. Then a weak real estate market thwarted Disney's plans to begin selling off some of its hotels last year.

Euro Disney suffered an operating loss of $300 million last year and took an additional $600 million one-time loss for staff cuts and pre-opening expenses. It is in debt up to Mickey's ears and can't make its loan payments. Now 60 creditor banks are trying to decide what to do.

Katie and I had waited and waited for a sunny day to make the first of what would be two visits to Euro Disney. When the sun appeared on New Year's Day, we bundled up against the 42-degree temperatures and boarded the train, which takes 40 minutes from downtown Paris to the park in the eastern suburbs.

We paid the high-season rates that apply over the Christmas holidays--about $45 for adults and $30 for children--and joined more than 30,000 other "guests," as Disney calls us.

We wandered through the park, which is laid out along the same lines as its older sibling in Anaheim, with wedges of the circular pie devoted to Discoveryland, Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Main Street U.S.A..

Our first stop was for chocolate chip cookies at the Main Street deli, a personal favorite of Katie's homesick Mom and Dad. Then we headed for Katie's favorite attractions, remembered from her last visit to California's Disneyland.

"It's a Small World," sponsored here by the French state telephone company, was Katie's first choice, followed closely by Alice's tea cups and flying Dumbo. The lines were fairly long, with waits ranging from half an hour to 90 minutes at the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.

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