Late one evening in the stressful spring semester of my freshman year of college, there came an unanticipated knock on my apartment door. Not expecting visitors, I peered suspiciously through the peephole to see my handsome future-husband standing on the shadowy doorstep with something indistinguishable in his hands.
While others may prefer chocolates or a bouquet of flowers when it comes to being cheered up, he had come to surprise me with something sure to make me swoon: a digitally remastered edition of Walt Disney’s Cinderella that had just come out on DVD for the first time.
Truth be told, I would have fallen head over heels for him right then and there if I had not done so already.
For as long as I can remember, I have been captured by the magic of Disney’s animated fairy tales. Cinderella was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and her story has always been my favorite. To this day, it is still the one I turn to after an especially trying day… or a lonely night when my husband has to be away.
Fast forward 11 years, half a decade of that with the military, and two beautiful boys later, my husband is still winning my heart and cheering me up with the magic and whimsy of Disney.
Earlier this year, he asked me to pick a place for us to visit for my 30th birthday, and Disneyland Paris was the obvious choice. I could have picked anywhere in Europe, but I wanted to go somewhere we could all enjoy together as a family. Since I had never been to a Disney theme park, and I have been dreaming of going since I was a little girl, Disneyland was already at the top of my list. Paris is only a few hours away from our current duty station, and I knew the boys would have a blast seeing all of their favorite characters come to life! When we found out Cinderella has her own restaurant there where you can dine with her and a few of the other Disney princesses, the deal was pretty much sealed!
Disneyland Paris was everything I had hoped it would be… and more.
It is definitely not your average theme park; think classic Disney with a dreamy Parisian twist! Even though it may be considerably smaller and less extravagant than the State-side funfair, where else can you find delicate French macarons in every color of the rainbow, authentic ratatouille at Bistrot Chez Rémy, and postcards depicting Mickey and Minnie holding hands beneath the romantic Eiffel Tower? If you have time on your trip, you can even take an excursion into the heart of the City of Love to see the real thing– the train to Paris stops right at the park entrance!
Now that we’ve made it back from one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever taken, I have compiled 7 of my best tips to help you plan an unforgettable family vacation to Disneyland Paris.
Consider opting to stay in a partner hotel
Just like Disney World in Florida, Disneyland Paris can save you some money if you choose off-site lodging at one of the partner locations. Accommodations such as Vienna House Dream Castle, Vienna House Magic Circus, and Algonquin’s Explorers are just minutes away from the parks and offer amenities such as free Disney parking and shuttle services at reasonable prices. With our boys in mind, we chose to stay at the pirate-themed Explorers Hotel, and I’m pretty sure they now think we’re the coolest parents ever!
Splurge a little to enjoy a meal with your favorite Disney characters
If you or your little ones dream of sharing French breakfast pastries with Mickey and the crew, a three-course meal with Cinderella and the Disney princesses, or dinner with surprise guests at a Victorian-themed eatery, I’d highly recommend pinching your euros elsewhere so you can splurge on an exclusive dining experience at one of the participating Disney restaurants. The food at any theme park is expensive, but for a little extra, you can create unforgettable memories for your family…and you won’t have to waste precious park time waiting in line to meet your favorite characters! Breakfast at Café Mickey and lunch at Cinderella’s restaurant, Auberge de Cendrillon, were definitely the highlights of our trip.
Please note: It is recommended that reservations be made as early as 2 months in advance for character dining; however, tables for Breakfast with Mickey can only be reserved 3 days ahead of time.
Wait to purchase your tickets at the gate
Although it may not be advertised on the official Disneyland Paris website, generous park discounts are offered to service members and their spouses with valid identification cards, but only at the gate. Simply present your ID at the on-site ticket counter to receive the special rates.
Get there early
The parks may not open to the general public until 10 AM, but the crowds start arriving as early as 8 AM. Head to Disney Village– the shopping center just outside the gates-– as soon as you’re up and ready to go in the morning. Order a latte from Starbucks if you’re in need of a pick-me-up, check out the colorful Lego store, grab a pair of Mouse ears that suits your personality, and shop for souvenirs for your friends and family in the States while you wait!
Bring a stroller
Even if your older kiddos poo-poo the idea of being pushed around in a stroller at first, you’ll be glad you brought it along come naptime. Until then, use it to cart around your souvenirs, snacks, and diaper bag.
Take advantage of the free Fast Pass kiosks
Knowing which rides you want to go on will save you time, as well as your sanity! Just outside the park’s most popular attractions, you’ll find a Fast Pass kiosk that is free to use. Just feed your ticket into the machine and receive a pass to present at the ride within a specific time frame. If it’s not valid until later in the day, head out to do some exploring or check-off the other attractions on your must-see list. You still might have to wait for a short time when you come back, but I’m telling you, once you see the other line, you’ll be glad you planned ahead!
Brush up on your French
Even though many of the park staff members speak excellent English, learning a few words in the host country’s language is a great and easy way to show respect. Yes, it might feel a little awkward, but try using simple phrases like bonjour and bonsoir (good day and good evening), monsieur and madame (Mr. and Mrs.), S’il vous plait and merci (please and thank you) and pardon or excusez-moi (excuse me) for a more authentic and enjoyable experience.
Also, don’t forget to pack your passports, camera, any outlet adapters you may need for your electronics, layers of clothing for the unpredictable European weather, and comfortable walking shoes.
When you get down to it, the everyday challenges and stress of military life can do a number on morale, leaving us feeling weary and disconnected. Rekindle your family relationships as you come together in a joyful, care-free atmosphere where familiar childhood fairytales come to life! Whether or not you have little ones, a tiny bit of Disney magic, whimsy and pixie dust goes a long way when it comes to helping even the snarkiest adult feel like a kid again.
Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys, graduate student, and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has a heart for our troops and their families and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.