IN the dark, humid bowels of Euro Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, a French-speaking pirate is beckoning a group of Spanish tourists to step aboard a little boat and take a ride.
But the Spaniards fail to understand the directions, so they stay put at the head of a long line that snakes out into the brisk French spring. The pirate makes a valiant try in broken English, but he is still not understood.
Finally, another smiling pirate arrives at the Spaniards' side and succeeds in getting them to their boat, through gestures and a little nudging. The whole incident lasts only a matter of seconds, yet it expresses one of the strengths as well as the challenges of the recently opened Euro Disneyland - the world's fourth Disney park.
If the mix of languages heard at the park one day during opening week is any indication, then the project is already an attraction and meeting place for all of Europe. At a time when attempts to create Euro-television or Europe-wide consumer products are proving particularly difficult, the success of a European attraction on the scale of Euro Disney would be significant.
"I certainly don't feel like I'm in France with all these languages swirling around me, but it's not disagreeable," says Anna Paillarguelo. She smiles and pokes her husband, Francois: "He's [the one] who wanted to come, it didn't interest me much," she says. "But now I'm very happy I did."
Still, the elderly couple from Montpellier in the south of France agree that the long lines they've encountered - nearly an hour to get in at the front gate, almost another hour at Pirates of the Caribbean - have been a shock.
The long lines are a recurring theme, and all day this reporter witnesses situations, whether in fast-food restaurants or the attractions, where confusion and hesitation stemming from the mix of languages lead to a longer wait. It's a challenge for Disney officials, who hope people will understand the interaction as part of Euro Disney's character.
"This is not Florida, this is Euro Disney. We want people to see and hopefully appreciate the difference," says Maria Sheehan, a Euro Disney spokeswoman. "Here we're dealing regularly with six languages. Seventy percent of our [employees] speak French, and with the other 30 percent, we tried to get two other languages."
Euro Disney is still what its name promises - a Disneypark much like those in Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and Tokyo. There's Frontierland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland, over which everybody's favorite Dumbo still flies. There are impeccably clean promenades, the pansies and primroses planted to form a smiling Mickey Mouse. But the park also has its distinctly European touches. In Discoveryland's Visionarium, visitors view a film that features France's own Jules Verne, played by popular French actor
Michel Piccoli, traveling forward in time to learn about the supersonic Concorde, France's Very Fast Train, and a Renault race car. Another attraction specific to Euro Disney is Alice's Curious Labyrinth, a green labyrinth in the European tradition made of 2,000 bushes.
Euro Disney's opening has caused a flurry of criticism and reaction from certain segments of French society (see story below). Yet in many ways France seems the perfect site for such a project.
The French are accustomed to grandiose projects with heavy state participation, and the government played a central role in the $4-billion Euro Disney. Among other things, the government has: provided 5,000 acres (one-fifth the size of Paris) at a low price; granted nearly $750 million in low-interest loans; extended the Paris suburban train system to the park's front gate; and granted a special reduction in the country's value-added tax.
Disney's master plan for the future of the Marne-la-Vallee site includes a Disney-MGM Studios park, film production geared to the European market, hotels in addition to the 5,200 rooms already built, office and retail buildings, and residential projects. By early in the next century the site should represent a major new French city - something not altogether foreign to the decades-old French concept of "new cities."
Euro Disney's arrival in France seems appropriate for another reason: France holds dear its role as a leader in Europe's drive for integration, so it is only fitting that with the EC single market taking full effect next year, a major project reflecting Europe's budding integration should be located here.
While it may not fit the image every Frenchman or European has of the culture he envisions for Europe, Euro Disney already embodies some of the elements, particularly of popular culture, that will make up Europe's future.
"When we go home we'll still be French, but I don't think it's bad if coming here causes people to change their mentality a little," says Eddy Gacoin, who is one of 640 high school students from Reims visiting Euro Disney for the day. "Most of the people here, not just the French but other Europeans too, they don't know how to have fun," he says. "If they can forget their self-consciousness and enjoy the spectacle, I think they'll learn something."