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Sunday
Feb032013

Visit to France

I just got back from Paris for some design consulting. I can't say much about that, but I'll tell you mostly about two other things there: a political protest march and Disneyland Paris.

The Protest March

I was walking around the streets of Paris with a friend and I saw one street blocked off for seemingly no reason. A single policewoman stood guard. I didn't think much of it until a bit later when we encountered some sort of parade. It seemed to be a protest by the young socialist party. At the front and rear of this small march were a few police cars. There were also three policemen (including one old man with gray hair) in full riot gear. The protesters had various signs and a float (you know, like in a parade) and they all seemed pretty happy. Music was playing. One sign mentioned worker's rights while another was rainbow colored (gay rights, it seemed). It was a fun novelty to see the little event. I wondered how the police were so ready for it though. Did the protesters apply for some kind of permit to march? And if they were turned down, wouldn't they march anyway? I don't really know how it works.

Then I looked at other various shops and landmarks, and accidentally encountered the parade a couple more times. Paris is designed around a big circle, so the city blocks are triangular (or trapezoidal) rather than rectangular, so that can kind of throw you off. It was no big deal though, there were plenty of other ways to go so it's not like my path was really blocked. (Not like the dreaded Mainstreet Electrical Parade in (USA) DisneyLand. That thing will block you like nothing else.)

I encountered more and more police. Police vehicles along the sides of streets. Vehicles across an entire intersection, blocking all of it. It looked like some kind of command center. There were 20 or 30 policemen with full riot gear here (wearing armor and padding). It seemed like an excessive number, but I guess they wanted to be prepared. That said, there were also more and more protesters. And then more and more police. Then I had encountered over 100 police. It was at this point that I realized how many policemen were really on the streets of Paris: ALL OF THEM. I imagined some sort of Batman villain who staged all this in order to commit crimes in another part of the city.

At this point, I needed to cross the bridge over the Seine river, but there was no way there other than through all the protesters. I had little choice but to be swept up with them. There were so many of them...more and more and more of them. All of Paris seemed consumed by them at this point.

The vibe was not like you might imagine a "protest" to be. I didn't see any anger from anyone. Loud pop music blared, people cheered and marched while holding their signs, floats rolled by, there was even a marching band in there somewhere. They weren't so much protesting as *celebrating*.

By now, I realized what they were marching for. A rainbow sign here and there. "No discrimination" said another sign. "Jesus had two dads too" said another. "The Vatican are homophobes" said another. "Our couples are less sterile than the church's ideas" said one (maybe that doesn't translate so well). It was all about gay rights.

I tried to guess how many were marching. At first I saw dozens, then hundreds. By the time I was at the bridge, it must have been thousands. After that, I couldn't even estimate anymore without a birds-eye-view. Then I realized how funny my earlier thought was about the police presence being "excessive." By this point, the police were mere drops in the ocean. The march ended in a public square, and here there were many paramedics on the sidelines who had set up tents nearby to treat any injuries. The medics waited, ready for action, but there was none. There were no fights, no riots, no incidents, and no one even unhappy that I could see. Over the loudspeakers, someone gave a very short speech thanking everyone for coming, then the crowds started to disperse.

I later read in the news that 125,000 people marched to support gay rights that day. As impressive as that is, the event stood in the ominous shadow of another protest that happened just two weeks earlier in Paris. At that previous protest, 340,000 people marched on the other side of the issue, in order to discriminate against gay people and make sure they are treated as less than straight people. Even though over 2.5 times as many marched to suppress the rights of gays than the number who marched to support them, the polls showed between 55% and 60% of Paris favored gay marriage at the time I was there. This was all leading up to some big legal thing that would decide the fate of gay marriage there.

Disneyland Paris

To sum up DisneyLand Paris succinctly, I would use the term "half-assed." I think that must have been the guiding vision behind a lot of the decisions that made it how it is. I didn't really get any sense of half-assing things from the actual employees though. This is all stuff that comes from management. Let's go over some of the attractions.

Pirates of the Caribbean: CLOSED

Main Street. Part of the experience of Main Street is the smell of popcorn. I don't think Disneyland cares that much about how popcorn they sell (though more revenue is great and all) because the smell of popcorn is pungent and pleasant and it's very intentionally part of Main Street. Except...not at Disneyland Paris. There was no popcorn, nor were there any other vendors at all along the street. In the US parks, Main Street also has various janitors who incessantly sweep up even the tiniest piece of trash into those trash bins on a stick they carry around. But there were no janitors there either. There were also no horses clomping around, no balloons being sold, nor music being played. You name it and it wasn't there. Main Street was as barren as it could be. It's like they built what the blueprints said, but didn't capture the point of the place at all. If there was anything to cut, it was cut. HALF-ASSED.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If Walt Disney were alive now, I think he'd be more upset about this ride than anything else in the park. The US version is quite technically advanced. It's sort of a roller coaster thing, but you ride in these very custom made cars with 4 wheels that give it the appearance of an actual car rather than a roller coaster thing. The cars have pretty advanced suspension that lets them rock around in carefully designed ways. The ride itself tells a story and that story starts all the way back in the line. Even the line is pretty entertaining and we get to see the transition from exploring the jungle to entering the temple, along with lots of foreshadowing about how things are going to go wrong. I think they really went the extra mile on this ride...in the US. In France? It's a shitty standard roller coaster with no story, a regular line, and really nothing to even distinguish it from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The reason Walt would be so upset is that Disneyland proved that it could set the quality bar really high for this ride, then the Paris version did the worst possible job that can be done by making a completely different ride with the same name that is the absolute bare minimum. HALF-ASSED.

The Haunted Mansion. Outside the Haunted Mansion (in the line) are a bunch of tombstones, all with various jokes, puns, and plays on words. Will the Paris version translate them literally or come up with their own? NEITHER. It's just blank and empty. All the places around the mansion that have tombstones in the US version are just a dirt ground in the Paris version. How much more can this park be phoned in? Do they just not care at all?

They did at least have (French) voiceover for the part at the beginning where the narrator tells us that "the chamber you're in has no windows and no doors...which leaves you with this chilling challenge...to find...A WAY OUT! hahaha!" He also told us in French that the mansion is "home to 999 happy haunts, but there's room for a thousand, any volunteers? FINAL arrangements can be made at the end of the ride." Yay.

In one part of the Haunted Mansion, there is crystal ball with a spirit woman inside who talks to us. She said some things in French and some in English in the Paris version of the ride. But something was missing. In the US version she says things like "Ghoulies and Ghosties from last Halloween...show us a sign ON YOUR TAMBOURINE!" and "Witches and Warlocks from regions beyond...give us a sign by RINGING YOUR GONG!" Then a tambourine or gong or whatever she said is lit up above us, glows, plays its sound, etc. This part was missing from the Paris version. It was just a dark black zone above us instead. Nice. Then later in the ride, statues sing the theme of the ride ("Grim Grinning Ghosts"). In the Paris version, they kept this to a minimum which is somewhat understandable because it's in English. I thought it made for a better experience in the US version that the song is more pronounced through more of the ride.

The Haunted Mansion ride ends with a cool thing where the cars (that you're in) go past mirrors and you can see a yourself in the mirror but there appears to be a ghost in the car with you! The voiceover says you may have picked up a ghostly hitchhiker. As should be no surprise by now, the Paris version did not show the ghosts in the car. It was so conspicuous of an omission that I will have to guess it's a technical difficulty rather than an actual intentional omission. Even they can't HALF-ASS it that badly.

Buzz-Lightyear. This is a great idea for a ride. It's a shooting gallery that you get to actually participate in. Each car seats two people and you can rotate your car and each person has their own laser gun to shoot at the various targets. It even keeps track of your two scores separately, then there's a grading system at the end. It's the only time I've ever wanted to go on a ride again TO GET BETTER AT IT. One thing that's pretty frustrating about such a ride though is when some of the targets' sensors are broken. Someone could say it was user error on my part, but I really don't think so. There were times when a few targets were really close to me and I could shoot one of them repeatedly, easily, like 10 times in a row. Yet the other was just impossible to hit even with a dozen shots at pretty close range.

Restrooms. I was standing outside of a restroom waiting for my friend. It was getting dark so there were various lights on. I counted 18 large light globes outside the bathroom, of which 4 were burnt out (so 22%). Several of these globes were really dirty on the bottom (like inside, where dirt was pooling at the bottom). Also, one of the main buildings had white Christmas-style lights along its edges and 6 or 7 of those were burnt out just on the corner of that building that was near me. The drinking fountain also had trash in it.

Closing Time. The park closed at 7pm that day. Why so early? I really don't know. They had been having 20 Year celebration stuff for the park in previous weeks, so maybe this is reduced hours from the time of year, and to recover from that, I'm not sure. Anyway, there weren't any spectacular fireworks of course (the Disney fireworks shows are generally amazing), but what's more strange was that 7pm wasn't even really the closing time. By 6:20pm (and I suspect it was really around 6pm) they had roped off the entrances to everything past main street, prevent you from actually doing anything. You might think that if lines were long enough that you wouldn't able to get on things before 7pm, that would make sense. But actually, lines were between 5 and 10 minutes for everything, so that's not the reason. It's more like they decided to close an hour early at 6pm instead. That is really ridiculously early and frankly it's false advertising too.

Oh yeah also Splash Mountain, The Matterhorn, and the comedy stylings of The Jungle Cruise aren't there at all. They're replaced with: basically nothing.

Even a thoroughly disappointing Disneyland is still pretty fun though. So it's not like it sucked or anything. It's just that having seen a much better version of it beforehand really highlights the issues.

Other

USA ("land of the free") vs France:

Being beyond the reach of stupid FAA rules about turning off your iPad (that is already in airplane mode) as the plane is landing: great

Being beyond the reach of stupid TSA rules about taking off your shoes at the airport that exist only for "security theater" reasons: great
(Editor's note: # of shoe bombs on airplanes in countries that don't screen for shoe bombs: zero.)

At the office where I did consulting, the guy I worked with (who is happily married with kids) said he kissed his manager (a woman) every day as a greeting. I said in the USA he would be fired for sexual harassment. He said, "In France we are more open about things, it's no big deal." Indeed.

Various other stuff about Paris:

Cheese: A+

Other foods: A

People being rude: I did not really encounter this.

The best word in French: "pamplemousse" (it should really be a colorful children's show friendly monster)

Nice trip. Glad to be back.