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A Question of Atmosphere

A Question of Atmosphere

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"Atmosphere, atmosphere, est-ce que j'ai une gueule d'atmosphere?"

So runs possibly the most famous line in French cinema history, from Marcel Carne's Hotel du Nord. Roughly translated as "Do I look atmospheric?" it's a question that could easily be applied to the Walt Disney Studios Park outside Paris. The answer, sadly, would have to be "no".

An awful lot has been made about the dire lack of attractions at DLRP's beleaguered second gate, and rightly so, but a lack of things to do is only half the problem. The other main cause of the parks failure is, quite simply, a lack of things to see. A lack of atmosphere, in other words.

Let me explain: when the Imagineers first started designing the park, they decided to take a different approach to the one they had taken with the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida. Whereas in the Disney World park the emphasis was firmly on having the guests step "into the movies" and a vision of a Hollywood of days gone by, it was decided that the Parisian offering should look and feel like a real life, working studio complex. Guests enter with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the art of movie making take place around them.

Personally, I think this is a fine idea as it put a brand new spin on an established concept and ensured that the park was not simply a clone of its American counterpart. At least, it's fine in theory. Sadly, even a brief foray into the park reveals that it is suffering from what could be called "DCA Syndrome" -- a significant lack of the theming and detail that used to characterise the Disney brand. But if you thought California Adventure had it bad, Walt Disney Studios looks like a terminal case. It's clear that the "real life studios" idea has been used as a cheap excuse to cut corners, both financially and creatively.

The three "Production Zones" that make up the main body of the park -- Backlot, Production and Animation Courtyards -- are little more than a series of interconnecting tarmac spaces, lined with viciously ugly steel pylons and ringed with attractions. There are no visual hooks or icons to distinguish one from the other. There aren't even any signs to tell you which section you are entering. Even the attraction buildings themselves are uniformly bland and anonymous, all following the same basic colour scheme. Officially, this shade is called "Californian Sunflower" but what it really equates to is beige. Only the buildings in the Backlot are any different, being made from plain grey corrugated metal. Hardly pleasing to the eye.

The Imagineers have responded to this argument by stating that real movie studios always look functional and plain. But -- and forgive me if I'm wrong here -- most guests I've met don't come to Disney in search of gritty reality. They want to be wowed. The Imagineers also claim they wanted to create a park with a completely new feel -- something more open plan and less partitioned than the neighbouring Disneyland Park. That would be fine, but you can't help feeling the park is a little too open in places. For example, standing in the centre of Production Courtyard, one can see virtually the entire park, not to mention the looming structure of Disney Village's new multi-storey car park beyond the perimeter wall. Riders on the Flying Carpets in Animation Courtyard are awarded a fine view of the Costuming building and car park, not to mention the large patch of waste ground marked out as a "future attraction." A third car park is visible from the stands of Moteurs... Action! Stunt Show Spectacular, (surely a new Disney record) along with a clutch of distant warehouses and admin buildings that serve both parks. This is allegedly deliberate, as the guests are supposed to see such buildings and think they are extensions of the studio complex, thereby creating a greater sense of scale and authenticity. Believe me, no one is fooled.

It wasn't meant to be this way, of course. Even after construction had begun, Imagineering's plans were somewhat more ambitious than those finally realised, but as the already modest budget was scaled further and further back, a great many good ideas had to be abandoned. According to the concept artwork, the facade of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster was to have been made up of a network of huge lighting rigs, bathing the Backlot in a synchronised light show. Not only would this have been spectacular, it would have given guests an idea of what to expect of the ride itself. In its place, all we have is a large cardboard cut out style billboard and a bunch of plain grey walls.

Similarly, the Animation Courtyard was going to be a lively, brightly coloured yet intimately proportioned section of the park, dominated by two enormous paintbrushes thrusting upwards from the Animagique building. There is little evidence of that today. Those atrocious steel pylons march across it and the brushes have never appeared, although the blue spiralling supports to hold them up have been in place since opening day.

Only one section of the park seems to be pointing to a possible way forwards, and that is the Front Lot, which seems to belong in a different park altogether. Grand in scale and rich in detail, it is everything the rest of WDS should have been. All right, so the Studio 1 building is really just a straight copy of Hollywood and Dine at DCA, but what the heck, it works. All the park's visual flair is here, as well as its most easily recognisable iconography. No wonder it's virtually the only thing to feature in the park's promotional material.

So, to conclude, how much does a pair of giant paint brushes cost? Or a few more lights for the exterior of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster? Once Euro Disney SCA recovers from its financial malaise and if, as we are all hoping, it is given a new injection of funds, perhaps they will be able to splash out a little. New attractions will be the priority of course, and will certainly garner most of the public's attention, but such projects always take time and, as I've already said, may not solve the entire problem.

So in the meantime, let's look forward to the return of a little Disney detail, because if anything is going to help the Walt Disney Studios in the long run, it's a healthy dose of atmosphere.

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