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Why For was the Euro Disney project built in France rather than in Spain?

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Why For was the Euro Disney project built in France rather than in Spain?

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Earlier today, Chris sent me a note which read:

Hi Jim

I am loving the daily why for entries. I heard that when planning a european park the original plan was to construct somewhere is Spain. if this is true why for did Disney feel the need to build it in France? As a Britt, I can say that the amount of family trips to Spain must exceed those to France, mainly due to the better weather. If you could shed some light on this it would be much appreciated.

The Euro Disneyland construction site in the late Fall / early Winter of 1991.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Many thanks


Chris --

Thanks for your kind note. As for the Euro Disney in France rather than Spain ... I actually got the answer to this question straight for Roy Disney himself. Back during the early, early days of his "Save Disney" campaign, Roy gave me a call at home one Saturday night. Which I have to admit was a trifle bizarre.

Roy E. Disney (in the grey suit) stands with Phillipe Bourguignon (black), the then-newly
installed CEO of Euro Disney) stand in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle on April 12,
1993 as the Euro Disneyland theme park gets ready to celebrate its first
anniversary. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway ... During our 20 minute-long talk, he and I covered an awful lot of Disney-related turf. And eventually the topic of the then-still-struggling Parisian theme park and resort campaign. And Roy (as you might expect) laid the failure of that project right at Michael Eisner's feet.

"We should have built Euro Disney in Spain. The site that the Imagineers had chosen there had far better weather. More to the point, this area already had a strong tourism-based economy in place, a pool of  people going-on-holiday that we could have pulled our Guests from. Plus a great rail system," I remember Roy saying. "But the French offered Eisner  far better financial terms. They were willing to give the Company all sorts of  financial incentives and tax breaks if we built this project in France rather than in Spain. So in the end, Michael chose the scheme over the dream."

Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse at the February 2001 opening
ceremony for the original version of Disney California Adventure theme park.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And even though it's almost been 10 years now since Roy and I talked, I still often think about that part of our phone conversation. Choosing the scheme (i.e. the numbers-driven plan. Letting the sharp pencil boys decide what parks get built where, how much money gets spent on which attractions. Making how-soon-will-we-get-a-return-on-our-investment the final deciding factor when it comes to what Walt Disney Parks & Resorts does) versus the dream (i.e. doing what Walt did. Going with your gut. Rolling the dice. Betting it all on something as unlikely-sounding as a family-fun park built out in the middle of an orange grove in Anaheim, CA. Or worse yet, building a theme park & resort on in the middle of a Central Florida swamp) . More importantly, how embracing this sort of mind-set was often what got Eisner in trouble during the latter half of  his reign at Disney. Doing the First Phases of projects like Disney's California Adventure & Hong Kong Disneyland on the cheap. Which is why the Company was then forced -- after the fact -- to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to turn these underwhelming theme parks into true Disney-quality experiences.

Thankfully those days seem to be behind the Walt Disney Company. Now there are folks like John Lasseter in place at the Mouse House who understand that -- while Disney is a publicly held multi-national corporation which has certain financial responsibilities when it comes to its investors -- you should never put the scheme ahead the dream. That -- at the end of the day -- what really matters at Disney (or Pixar or ESPN or Marvel) isn't "Hey, look at this brilliant business plan that I just crafted,"  but "Wouldn't this be a great story to tell?" or "Wouldn't this be a killer Guest experience?"

John Lasseter and I chatting at the D23 EXPO back in August of 2011.
Photo by Florence Doyle

I mean, John is definitely a dream-over-scheme guy. When I (and a handful of other lucky Disney-related bloggers) got  the chance to sit down with Lasseter back in August of 2011 for a private interview session at the D23 EXPO, Lasseter related this story about how -- during a recent meeting at WDI -- someone had suggested a way that the Company could save some money on an attraction that they  then had in the works for the Parks.  As this suggestion got floated, John literally turned to this guy and said:

"Okay, are you going to take it upon yourself to stand at the exit of this ride and explain to everybody who gets off the ride why it's successful because we stayed within the ridiculously low budget? Are you? If you are, I'm good. I'm in."

John Lasseter at the July 2009 ground-breaking for Cars Land. Where The Walt Disney
Company bet that a $600 million new "land" for Disney California Adventure would
help turn this troubled theme park around. And as the huge crowds at DCA this
past summer proved, that bet paid off in a big way for Disney. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Needless to say, that exec quickly backed away from his budget-cutting suggestion.

One other quick note here about France versus Spain when it came to choosing the proper location for Euro Disney. Roy shared a pretty funny story with me about why the French government was so really eager to get Disney to build its theme-park-and-resort out in this particular part of Marne-la-Vallée.

A theme park and a resort rises up out of what was once a relatively
flat portion of the French countryside. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Those nice, flat sugar-beet fields that Disneyland Paris is built upon? That's the route that the Germans sent their tanks over as they made their way to Paris in World War I & World War II," Walt's nephew laughed. "So by convincing The Walt Disney Company to build there, the French government now finally has something in place to slow down the Germans. So as far as French officials are concerned, Euro Disney isn't really a resort. It's more of a speed bump."

And speaking of speed ... I'm sorry that JHM has fallen behind schedule with its five-Why-For-stories-in-a-single-week experiment. But at the very last minute last week, I was offered the opportunity to  meet with the folks who are putting together the "Walking Dead" maze for this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida.  And then ... Well, let's just say that Nancy & my  return trip to New Hampshire turned out to be something of a horror show unto itself. With my plane flight back to Manchester on Sunday night getting cancelled due to extreme weather. Which meant that the only way to get back home was to first catch a flight to Logan, rent a car once we got on the ground at Logan after midnight last night and then driving back up to New Hampshire.

Greg Nicotero, the co executive producer & special effects make-up designer
for the hit AMC series, and I try to hold back the zombies in "The Waking
Dead: Dead Inside" maze. Which is sure to be one of the high points of
this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida.
Photo by Nancy Stadler

Which is why Nancy and I are both kind of operating at half speed today. But don't worry. Once we each get about three cups of coffee (as well as figure out how we're going to go about returning the rental car to Boston as well as reclaim our  own car. Which is still parked at Manchester Airport), we'll get things sorted out here. And I'll then get something written up about our behind-the-scenes adventures at Universal Orlando as well as answering yet another one of your Why For questions.

Speaking of which ... If you'd like to get one of your own questions answered in an upcoming Why For column (which I'm now thinking I'll turn into a twice weekly, possibly a three-times-a-week item on JHM. So that I'll then still have some spots free for posting pieces about other aspects of The Walt Disney Company), please send those queries along to [email protected]

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  • Just visited Carsland about two weeks ago . . . it was *amazing*.  Mater's was so much fun, and I had a great time on Luigi's . . . Radiator Springs Racers is such a cool ride, and the dips and turns are so much more thrilling than Test Track.  The whole look of the place is really what makes the land special, I mean, its on a whole different level from Big Thunder pass and Matterhorn in that you are in complete awe of how real and gorgeous it looks.  Its like Disney did their own version of the Grand Canyon and beat Mother Nature at her own game.

    I still can't believe it happened, a run-down pier side amusement park gets Carsland, and BVS Street.  DCA wrecked Disney's brand, Carsland and BVS might actually turn DCA into something as popular as Disneyland, and the success will trickle down into other areas of the business.  After all, who would want to book a Disney cruise or go to that Disney resort in Aulani after getting bitter after taste in their mouth from DCA 1.0.  Really, Lasseter's perseverance has paid off big time for the company, the brand is stronger than ever.  

    How come a guy like Lasseter who could be sailing down the highway on cruise control has more common sense and creative ambition than a lot of the folks at the company today?  A lot of the other executives seem out of touch and sort of clueless about the parks . . . it's not like Walt's formula failed, it worked when everybody bet against it.

    A bad movie like John Carter is soon forgotten, a bad amusement park (DCA) dragged down the brand for almost a decade and made Disney the laughing stock of fans everywhere.

    Tourism will boom when the economy comes back, and as world population grows, Disney needs to add more attraction/lands on the level of Carsland and attractions just to keep pace, unless of course they don't want to grow the business?

  • I've heard this story a little bit differently.

    I heard it was WAY more complex than "the scheme vs the dream".

    BOTH France AND Spain offered financial incentitives, but France offered to improve transportation.

    France is MUCH more centrally located than Spain and is within a short train ride of 30 million people. (I heard that there was also some incompatiblity between Spain's train system and the rest of Europes).

    France was considered more of a tourist destination than Spain. Roughly 50 million tourist visit France each year. Plus the "Chunnel" ends a short distance from Disneyland Paris.

    An argument could be made for both locations. To assume that Spain was a better alternative and that Eisner was a jerk for choosing France, is not fair. There are LOTS of reasons to hate Eisner, but choosing France over Spain isn't one of them. The failures of Disneyland Paris are more related to overspending and debt than to it's location.

    I suggest reading "Once Upon an American Dream: The Story of Euro Disneyland" by Andrew Lainsbury for a more complete story.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Just to reiterate, JediTed, this is Roy E. Disney's take on the France / Spain decision, not my own. And given that Walt's nephew was on Disney's Board of Directors and was privvy to a lot of the discussions leading up to that Fall 1986 decision to formally go forward with the development & construction of a theme park & resort in France ... Well, I'm kind of inclined to believe that Roy had some insights about the proposed Spanish construction site -- as well as the inner workings of the deal for this project -- that you won't find by reading "Once Upon an American Dream."

    I mean, don't get me wrong. Lainsbury's book is an excellent history of the early, early days of the Euro Disney project. But given everything that's gone on over the past 11 years, I keep hoping that Andrew will eventually get around to writing a revised & expanded version of this University Press of Kansas book. But since Mr. Lainsbury is supposedly very busy these days managing the communications & marketing side of General Mills ... Well, it may be a while before we finally get "Once Upon an American Dream 2.0."

    Mind you, Euro Disney S.C.A. just published "20 Ans de Reves (20 Years of Dreams)," a 192-page limited edition coffee table book which does a really great job of looking back at the past two decades. If you're looking for even more insights about the inner workings of this Resort, JediTed, you should try and chase down a copy of Jeremie Noyer's book.

  • It’s a shame that the park ended up in France in the end, while there may have been financial perks to building it there Spain would have been a far more popular location. As Roy Disney said there is a pool of existing holiday makers to draw from. I am Scottish and I can say that Spain is a far more appealing holiday destination, at least from a Europeans point of view, especially due to the beaches and sunshine. Disney could have really capitalized on a Spanish site. A Downtown Disney built on the shore could have been brilliant, so much fantastic local cuisine that could have been incorporated into the parks and the country’s history with pirates could have made for a fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

    I have never had an urge to visit Disneyland in Paris as it always looks wet and gloomy in photos and videos I have seen but a park in Spain with scorching sun, and beaches and oceans to play in? my arm could be twisted into that.

    Thanks for answering my question Jim, I was genuinely excited to see it as the top story.

  • I, for one, am very glad it was built near Paris.  I would NOT have gone to Disneyland in Spain, but have gone to Disneyland Paris a few times.  The charms of Paris and France are out of the stratosphere compared to what Spain has to offer.  Lots of Brits go to Spain because it is cheap, not because it is good.  I think that a Disneyland in Spain would have taken on that cheapness associated with other travel offers into Spain.  Whereas, a Disneyland in Paris has taken on the elegance and charm of the local environs.

  • It sounds like Eisner WAS following Walt's footsteps. Why did Walt build parks in orange groves and swamps in out-of-the-way cities no one had ever heard of? Because that's where he could find cheaper land and a more cooperative local government. He used an "if you build it, they will come" mentality, and it worked. Walt originally had plans to build Disneyland in Burbank where the ABC building currently stands, where he would've been much closer to the tourist attractions in Los Angeles and Hollywood (not to mention the famous carousel bench where he dreamed up the whole project), but when the city of Burbank provided resistance he instead chose the orange grove an hour outside the city.

    With Euro Disney, it sounds like Eisner made the same decision. Instead of putting the parks in the middle of an area with a "strong tourism-based economy in place", he chose to put them in the out-of-the-way beet fields in Marne-la-Vallée where the financial and political aspects of the project were more favorable.

  • Where in Spain?

  • I have been twice to eurodisney and never again. Cold, wet and most importantly the rude french staff.

    I travel to wdw instead which is further but at least I get the friendly American staff. I'm from the UK.

  • Rude French Staff? (Cast members!)

    Come on! This cliché IS really old!

    Actually, the Cast Members of Disneyland Paris are from ALL OVER EUROPE, not France mainly!

    I have worked for WDW Co for many years and there are RUDE Cast Members there too and they are not at the France Pavilion, believe me!

    Spain was NOT politically and financially stable!

    Look at the European economy now ...

    Besides, Disneyland Paris is #1 tourist destination and attraction #2 in France just after the Eiffel Tower!

    France was NOT such a bad choice after all!

  • I understand that this is Roy's view. However, I think the decision NOT to build Eurodisney in Spain was right: Europeans have a lot more holidays than Americans, who hope to find quality family time squeezed into one week Disney World. Europeans staying a whole week at a Disney resort is very unlikely since they have more time to spend their holidays and travel to more different locations. A Disney resort located near the beach would be difficult to fill since there already are so many hotels to choose from.

    I find it funny that the ones complaining here that Euro Disneyland wasn't build in Spain are mainly Brits. Europe consists of many more countries for whom Paris is much more central than Spain. Spain and the rest of Europe (except for UK) is seperated by a high mountain range. To reach the projected Disney area near Barcelona by car would have been almost impossible since there are no highways through these mountains. Although flying to Barcelona has become cheaper compared to the 1990ies, it is still more expensive than other destinations. Moreover flying continental is far more expensive than in the USA.

    Having worked in DLP myself I can only say that language barriers are big issue. The French don't speak English, but neither do the Spanish, the Italians or the Greek, to name some southern countries with moderate climate and beaches.

  • As annual pass holders to Disneyland Paris, we travel frequently from Germany.  We've taken many friends and they have all had a terrific time.  Yes, the French can be rude but so can many people in the USA - we just spent some of the summer visiting Universal Hollywood...  We love the atmosphere here and spend time talking with some of the staff.  Many staff members are not French but have been working for Disneyland for years.  We even met a young man who had been brought over from Orlando to help with teaching great customer service. Even when things go horribly wrong, there are people who will try to give a "Disney experience" - we recently were invited to a private photo session with the cast of "Tarzan" when an event for annual pass holders turned into a big disappointment a few months ago.

    Yes, Spain can be warmer but for a small park, which Disneyland Paris is, it's great to have other options for more than a weekend vacation, like visiting a champagne factory, seeing how brie is made, or traveling into Paris (40 quick minutes) for a tour of the city.  There is even a terrific outlet mall down the street to quell those shop-a-holic needs.  We are looking forward to Terrorific Night 3, the new Halloween celebration - we've been the last two years and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  We'll let you know how things were or, better yet, join us!

  • The source of the question is suspect - the Brits hate France and the French. When I worked at Disneyland I many times encountered guests from England and asked them if they had ever been to Disneyland Paris. I never met one who had been there or wanted to go.

  • I'm a Brit and I'm so pleased Disneyland is in France not Spain. Not only is it much easier to get to, I find the Parisian climate much more conducive to theme park touring than Spain's. I went to Port Aventura a few years ago and it was too hot to be out in the day! I think all regular DLP guests have at least one CM story, but the only time I've ever complained about Disney service was in Orlando. The guests at Port Aventura were enough to put me off.

    I've lost count of the number of trips I've made to DLP (also an AP holder), there's no way I'd have made as many trips if the resort was in Spain. As another comment said, in Europe DLP is a short break destination. I've been countless times for just 1 night as the resort is within decent driving distance or just a few hours by train from London. This would not have been possible if the resort were tucked away in Spain. This applies to lots of European countries.

  • Some facts that Disney for sure considered when going to Paris rather than Barcelona or Madrid:

    - Paris is in the center of Europe and has extremely good train (TGV) connections to other big cities in France and Europe such as Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Stuttgart, Brussels, London, Frankfurt, Strasbourg etc etc.

    - Paris is the most visited city in the entire world

    - France has more tourists than any other country in Europe

    - London - the largest city in Europe - is only a 1 1/2 hour train ride from Paris

    - Europe's economic powerhouse, Germany, is France's neighbour: a train ride to Paris from the financial hub of Frankfurt is just 3 hours 50minutes.

    - Europe's capital, Brussel, is also just a couple of hours by train

    Those arguments would have convinced me as well....

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