Most of us start planning for Christmas a month or two before the big day. Not Disneyland Paris. It decides on its decorations by March at the latest and that’s not a day too early.
A brass band, wrapped in bright-red winter woollies, plays classic Disney tunes from the bandstand and the smell of popcorn wafts through the air
An eight-storey Christmas tree sets the scene in the flagship fairy tale-inspired Disneyland park. The tree sits at the foot of the park’s Main Street which is themed to early-1900s America and leads to the centrepiece Sleeping Beauty Castle. Tinsel and candy canes hang from the ornate shop fronts lining the street and snow scenes, with models of Disney characters, fill the windows.
A brass band, wrapped in bright-red winter woollies, plays classic Disney tunes from the bandstand and the smell of popcorn wafts through the air. Just when it couldn’t get any more Christmassy, snow begins to fall.
A few swipes at the white stuff reveals that it is actually soap suds which are sprinkled down from hidden jets on the shop roofs. It stops everyone in their tracks and waves of “oohs” and “aahs” ripple down the packed street.
It’s a mesmerising and heart-warming experience, but the real magic is that guests don’t see the months of hard work which went into creating it.
“As soon as the Christmas season starts at Disneyland Paris, we are already working on next year’s seasonal elements,” says Hugh Wood, vice president of marketing development. “We make all production decisions by March at the latest to allow us eight months to build and produce.” Crunch time comes at the start of November.
“The biggest challenge to our creation and installation process is the small window of time we have to transform the park from Halloween to Christmas. In total, there are only four to five days to do this and the majority of work is done overnight to minimise disruption to guests’ time at the park,” he says. With such sprawling facilities, a huge team is needed to give the resort its festive sparkle.
It takes 54 people and external suppliers to transform Disneyland Park and its neighbouring movie-themed Walt Disney Studios Park. Many of the staff are needed just to put up the tree which is 24 metres tall, weighs more than 24 tons and has 17,963 branches dripping with tinsel illuminated by more than 500 light bulbs.
Staff are known as “cast members” due to the role they play on a themed set and this is perhaps more apparent at Christmas than any other time of the year as the entire resort is draped with decorations. “All our divisions, including merchandise, food and drink, hospitality, entertainment, costuming and even landscaping, are involved in Christmas at Disneyland Paris,” says Mr Wood.
“Decorations are installed in each of our themed hotels and restaurants to ensure an all-round festive experience for guests. For example, we install a gingerbread house in the lobby of Disneyland Hotel. Select restaurants will put on special Christmas menus on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, including an exclusive Disney character four-course lunch experience at Disney’s Hotel New York and a redesigned Christmas menu at The Steakhouse in the Disney Village.”
Each year 250 new costumes are created for the Christmas season by 45 cast members. The overlay and decor are developed by ten people with a further 39 performing in the daily Christmas parade along with Santa himself. “Mickey and Minnie play a huge role at Christmas, and appear in specially designed Christmas costumes during the parade,” says Mr Wood.
Disney’s famous duo reappears at dusk in a show which sees them turn on the tree lights with Santa as their guest. “This lights display kicks off the Christmas festivities in the park and the guests are invited to sing along with traditional carols,” Mr Wood adds.
It culminates in a son-et-lumière show unlike any other, entitled Disney Dreams of Christmas. This is an emotional tour de force involving fireworks, lasers and flame-throwers timed to scenes from Disney blockbusters which are projected on to the castle. Through technical wizardry, the projections appear to be flat despite being beamed on to protrusions, balustrades and turrets. Movie scenes are even beamed on to mist screens formed from fine fountains which fan out from the foot of the castle.
Characters from Toy Story appear in a scene performing their own version of The Nutcracker and there is good reason for this. “Toys make a natural association with Christmas,” says Mr Wood. “A lot of Disney characters and their stories are family orientated and celebrate Christmas, so we naturally bring them into our celebrations.”
Disney’s characters are renowned the world over and this is crucial at Disneyland Paris due to its international mix of guests. In 2014, 48 per cent of them were from France, 17 per cent from the UK, 9 per cent from Spain, 6 per cent from Belgium and Luxembourg, 6 per cent from the Netherlands, 3 per cent from Italy, 4 per cent from Germany and 7 per cent from the rest of the world.
“To ensure that all our guests, from all corners of the globe, enjoy the magical Christmas atmosphere at Disneyland Paris, we install decorations which are universally associated with Christmas,” says Mr Wood. “For example, we use snow, Christmas trees and traditional festive colours, such as green and red, for our all-encompassing Christmas decor. We also use universally recognised Christmas-related music throughout the park.”
Even though the Christmas theme is timeless, Disneyland Paris is still updating its celebrations. “In 2014, we introduced a new special festive engagement experience, Royal Christmas Wishes, where guests can watch performances with all their favourite royal character couples, including Aurora and Phillip from Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella and Prince Charming from Cinderella.”
Mr Wood adds: “This year has also seen the addition of the Frozen Sing-Along, with sisters Elsa and Anna back to sing the family favourites.” It is wowing the crowds, but the Disney executive has only a moment to stop and take it in – his eye is already on next year.