It’s a running joke that Tom married into a Friend family curse – when it came to holidays we were rather doomed.
In 2017, the year we got married, we were due to go on a Caribbean cruise which was cancelled due to the terrible hurricanes that year. Then we got all the way to the airport gate when we were told our original mini-moon plans to Hamburg were cancelled and even regarding our honeymoon, it looked touch and go with Bali’s volcano erupting. (And this year our India trip was postponed due to COVID-19.)
Undeterred we thought we’d head to Paris for our second wedding anniversary and we took the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Marne-la-Vallée. It was a smooth ride and I’m definitely converted to train travel; no luggage waits, no terrible airport security.
We opted to stay in Paris’s outskirts in Marne-la-Vallée, which is home to Euro Disney if you’re a 90s child. We stayed at the four-star Relais Spa Val d’Europe (£390 for 4 nights) in a premium room which featured all the usual mod-cons plus a small kitchenette, that allowed us to store provisions for breakfast. The hotel breakfast was quite pricey – an additional €25 per person per day! We even cooked dinner in our own room one night.
The hotel was ideally placed just minutes from the metro station – 10 minutes from Disney and 30 minutes from the centre of Paris. But on arrival, the concierge informed us that a general strike across Paris would be taking place affecting the public transport network. Friend family curse strikes again!
Marne-la-Vallée has changed a lot since the last time I visited as a child; then I remember staying in a singular hotel, miles from anything except Disney.
Now it’s grown up into a modern, yet charming, suburb of Paris – it’s like a much better version of High Wycombe. Clearly lots of Parisians have moved to the area due to its great transport links and I suspect for more affordable housing.
And due to its proximity to the core local attraction, it has plenty of hotels which supply regular trade to a variety of restaurants and bars. The architecture is beautifully French – new apartments with ironwork railing, wide large boulevards and cobbled pedestrianised squares.
However, as much as I really loved the location, it’s not really the sort of place you’d opt to spend the best part of 5 days. Unless you’re there for a conference (and it’s definitely conference central) or for Disney, you are left with La Vallee Village (French Bicester Village), Val d’Europe (the main shopping mall) or the Sealife centre.
We’d definitely intended to spend at least one day at Disney, but in the end we had three. So we ate every night in Marne-la-Vallée and I thought I’d share our extensive guide to its eateries, plus our experience at Disneyland Paris at Christmas and the one day we managed to get to the Louvre.
Day 1 – Arrival at Relais Spa Val d’Europe
We spent the afternoon orienting ourselves around the local area, having a wander through the shopping village – stocking up on French Lush products and having a pancake. After unpacking, we started our week in true style with steak frites at Hotel L’Elysee.
The steak was delicious but there seemed to be a bit of a mix up with desserts, we didn’t actually order any but were presented with a selection nonetheless – so ended up with an unintended freebie!
Day 2 – Our first day at Disneyland Park
Disneyland Paris actually features two parks – there’s Disneyland Park (basically Orlando’s Magic Kingdom) and Walt Disney Studios Park. We had no problem getting to and from the Disney Parks because the hotel operated a free shuttle rather than needing to go by public transport.
We had a Christmas wedding which means our anniversary will be forever in the festive period, so Disney was the ultimate yuletide treat.
I’d learnt from our trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando in 2013 to utilise the app. It has an impressive app which allows you to book restaurants and get your FastPass in action. Disneyland Paris also has an app, but it’s by no means as extensive. What it does do is give you a virtual map with rides mapped out and crucially current queuing times for rides. The Peter Pan in Flight ride was perpetually busy with a wait time of over 90 minutes!
Any Disney fan will tell you that the trick to the Parks is organisation. First off, every standard ticket is entitled to fastpass entry to the main rides – this basically means you get an allocated slot for a ride which helps reduce the queue time. You get these by heading to the individual rides and scanning your ticket.
As we felt this would be our only day at Disney, we packed in all the Christmas activities. With two hot chocolates we picked a spot outside the castle stage, which was the ideal place to catch both Disney’s Christmas Parade, the first parade of the day, and then the show ‘A Fairy Tale Waltz with Disney Princesses’ (yes, I am about seven), without having to move location. My god we were frozen by the time that had all finished.
The first ride we did was Big Thunder Mountain as it was a ride I was too short for in 1997. And we managed to fit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, La Cabane des Robinson, Pirates of the Caribbean – essentially we covered Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland pretty thoroughly in one day.
The one thing I would say about Disneyland Park is that the food is pretty boring. If you’re after junk food, you are covered. There’s a couple of buffet style restaurants, but you have to book these in advance via telephone. We had shawarmas at counter service restaurant Hakuna Matata, which was pretty decent in comparison to other options. If it had been warmer, we’d take a picnic.
Disneyland is as you would expect completely decked out with Christmas decorations including a ginormous tree in Town Square. Last year was the first season to feature the new ‘Mickey’s Magical Christmas Lights’ before the Castle Illuminations. This was popular and people started gathering around the tree a good hour beforehand.
Essentially one of the characters pretends to break the plug to the festive lights and Father Christmas comes to save the day. It was cute to watch the first time, but if you’re there more than one day as we were – it’s also a great time to go round the shops at Main Street which are totally empty as people watch the show.
We also stayed for the Castle Illuminations which are the last hurrah of the day. For us, it has been a pretty misty cold day which wasn’t ideal for the projections which celebrated some of Disney’s classics – Little Mermaid, Lion King and Frozen.
Thoroughly frozen, we couldn’t bring ourselves to venture too far for our dinner so we warmed up at the hotel’s Relais Restaurant. Tom had duck, I had pasta, they were both satisfyingly tasty.
Day 3 – Walt Disney Studios
We missed the handful of trains that were running into Paris on day 2, so we headed to Walt Disney Studios which is smaller than Disneyland Park. Its big focus is on Disney’s groundbreaking animated films from the classics to Pixar’s blockbusters like Toy Story, Ratatouille and Finding Nemo.
It’s quite easy to make your way around the Studios Park in one day and it has its fair share of big rides. Our favourite was Ratatouille: The Adventure – you wear 3D glasses and sit in a mouse cart whilst whizzing round the kitchen floor attempting to avoid the feet of a giant virtual chef! The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was something I’d do once but not again, I was not a fan of the sharp drops from a height.
I always thought that when Dory and Marlin rode the Eastern Australian Current during Finding Nemo, that this was destined to be a ride – and sure enough, you can now join in through Crush’s Coaster.
It was quite rainy during our day at Walt Disney Studio, but when the weather broke we decided to go on the Studio Tram Tour: Behind the Magic at the last minute – we were actually going to give this one a miss, but I’m really pleased we did! It’s a great ride that shows you a number of props from films (mainly Dinotopia?) and then to a set designed for special effects – a lorry bursts into flames and then gets inexplicably flooded. It’s surprisingly good!
I think we saw the best Christmas Show at Walt Disney Studios – Mickey’s Christmas Big Band in the Animagique theatre. It’s a slice of old Hollywood, with Broadway tap dancers and singers doing Christmas carols and classic crooning hits. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Daisy all make appearances of course!
And oddly, the food at Walt Disney Studios was infinitely better than that of its older sibling. The gourmet stands running through Toon Studio are only there for the Christmas period but we slowly made our way through them all – crepes, beef bourguignon, pretzels and even mulled wine! Yes, alcohol! We kept saying that the main Disney park is definitely missing a trick not serving mulled wine during the festivities – especially as it was minus two degrees.
The Toon Studio area is definitely the nicest place at Christmas in Walt Disney Studio, with its mock Paris street festooned with fairy lights and Christmas decorations. Other areas in comparison seemed quite empty like the back lot.
Despite eating all day, we still managed to have a pizza over the road at Solo Pizza Napoletana. We were too hungry for food photo taking but Tom recalls this pizza as ‘one of the best he’s ever had’.
Day 4 – Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries Christmas Market
On this holiday, we really did have to take each day as it comes. We’d originally planned to go into Paris the day before and had even booked a timed entry to the Louvre. As a result of the strikes, our plans were all up in the air. Each night, the local station manager would print out which trains would be running the next day and stick up the limited timetable in the window.
On Saturday, the first train into Paris was around 10.30am and the last train home was 6ish. So we decided to get our act together and have a day in the capital, as it might be our only chance to do so.
We spent about four hours comfortably in the Louvre Museum, which houses thousands of artworks from Mesopotamian, Egyptian to Greek and masterpieces by da Vinci and Rembrandt.
I’d recommend booking a ticket online in advance, to save standing in the almighty queue. We managed to skip the queue by showing the tickets I’d bought a day before with timed entry to the wardens who let us through. We then had to buy another official ticket to enter the exhibitions.
I bought the Louvre’s official app to act as a tour guide – especially as we had great success using the one for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The app holds several laid out routes and we attempted to follow the masterpieces trail, which we did successfully seeing the Mona Lisa of course and until we hit the Venus Di Milo and then we got terribly lost and decided just to wander through the Eygptian wing.
At Christmas, Jardin des Tuileries hosts Paris’ largest Christmas market, La Magie de Noël aux Tuileries, which was recently moved from the Champs-Elysees. It has a distinctly alpine feel with 120 white wooden chalets, selling a whole range of crafts and gifts made in France.
The market also featured a giant ferris wheel, skating rink and other fairground rides all bedecked in white snowy Christmas trees. It was busy, but manageable and the gourmet food stands were definitely our favourite part – you could even order a whole tray of fresh oysters with champagne (of course!) We had freshly sugared beignets and hot bowls of truffade, French Tome cheese with hot potatoes, bacon, onions and cream.
Day 5 – Finishing off Disneyland
Well, we didn’t expect to be back at Disneyland for a third day, but I wasn’t disappointed. We finished off the Discoveryland area which features a new Star Wars ride and Hyperspace Mountain.
Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain wasn’t actually open on our first day, so this was an added bonus. Now that Disney owns Star Wars, the theme has been retrofitted to Space Mountain which seemed less successful than the purpose built Star Tours: The Adventure Continues.
One thing the ‘Imagineers’ do well is create interesting areas for visitors whilst they stand and queue for rides. During Star Tours, C3PO and other characters explain the back story. Our other favourite ride was Buzz Light Year’s Laserblast – Tom thrashed me at shooting a laser gun at targets through the ride. We also watched the Let’s Sing Christmas at the Discoveryland Theatre, which featured a choir in Victorian costumes doing traditional carols with Mickey and chums. It’s a good place to get a hot drink and take a load off.
I took Tom through It’s A Small World which was my absolute favourite ride aged 4, to be fair, it’s still charming.
On our way home, we opted to have a couple of hot dogs at Casey’s Corner in Main Street. We had to tag-team it with one of us getting dinner and another hunting for a table, but actually there was plenty in the arcade area which is a good spot for hitting up the shops after.
Day 6 – Homeward bound
We had quite a late train home on Monday afternoon and were able to have late check out from the hotel. This meant we had a chance to enjoy the spa facilities and do last minute, non-Disney related shopping. We also had a Korean BBQ for lunch at Shinla Galbi which was my favourite meal in the whole trip – hot spicy beef bibimbap.
I’d add here that although the hotel was really helpful in offering late checkout, with a luggage store and operating a free shuttle to Disneyland, they don’t offer a drop off service to the Eurostar station which is in the exact same place as the park entrance. This was less helpful when the public transport was down, a taxi is about 15 euros.