Uncle Walt, Parlez-Vous Français?
By JT LeRoy
"Cheese! It's hailing cheese!" We cover our heads. Our 8-year-old, Thor, cowers beneath
us - his parents, Astor and Speedie, and me, a surrogate brother, sister, wannabe parent -
as we form a shield between him and the miniature cubes pounding down on us. This is
France, so it was only a matter of time till the cheese blasted us; we didn't expect it at the
Tour de France, though.
We arrived two days before the tour's end. It was all anyone talked about as soon as we
opened our mouths and revealed our furtive identities as Americans, noticeably scarce in
Paris right then. A man in the lobby of our hotel, the Monna Lisa - situated two blocks
from the Champs-Elysï¿½es, where the tour would wind up - informed me as I was
struggling with a map that I was there for the tour: "Ah, you are here to see your Lance
"Well, we came to go to Euro Disney."
His face crumpled, he folded his paper and, in an unyielding tone, rectified my faux pas:
"You mean to say, 'Disneyland Paris!'"
By the threat in his tone, I instantly capitulated. "Yes, uh, Eur - Paris of Disney. What you
said." After this happened a bazillion other times, I finally got the drift that the antipathy
toward outfitting Disney with the "Euro" prefix could have something to do with its being
the equivalent of "Dollar Disney." I started pronouncing it "Disneyland Paris" and received
no more looks of vile disgust. Well, at least not for that.
The man in the lobby leaned back in his chair, snapped open his paper again and nodded,
eyes now squinting suspiciously: "You can drink wine at ours."
"O.K.," I agreed, slowly keying into the secret politics of an American company trying to
claim French ground.
"And you come to see your Lance win!" He waved his hand, a peace offering. I quickly
gesticulated my arm in accord, "Yes, our Lance!"
"Last one. Then we win." He smiled, teeth bared, and returned to his paper with a crack.
Going to France to watch someone be a blur on a bicycle is O.K. Going to France to be a
blur on a G-force roller coaster is not. Disney is a destination in and of itself in the United
States, so when I told Americans that we were going to France to go to Disney, they looked
confused, but nodded with intrigue, and usually said, "You'll have to let me know how that
is." But to tell a Parisian that is why you are there, well, you might as well laugh in his face
about mayo on freedom fries. As with asking for a doggie bag for leftovers, as I
indiscreetly found out, it's just not done.
They take it, well, personally. So it had to be, "Yeah, here to do Paris, and, ya know, while
we're here, so much to do, can't imagine how we will ever fit it in, but we'd like to check
out Eur - uh, check out Disneyland Paris."
And it is hard to go to Paris and just go to Disneyland. I was in Paris before, but on a tour
for the French release of my book "Sarah," and they kept me on a strict schedule and a
tight leash, which had its comforts. Now, being able to come and go as I pleased - no
interviews, no photo shoots - usually meant sleeping past the museums' hours of
Thor had one day at the Louvre, to check out the "Mona Lisa." He was already acquainted
with the painting, as he'd grown up with a magnet on our fridge with Mona holding a
winning poker hand. And in every room of our hotel, like some spooky ransom note, was a
framed section of the portrait. We had a mounted strip of Mona's breast, which helped
Thor duly note that Mona is racked.
To get to the Leonardo lass, you have to pass walls of divine torture. The breathtaking
masterpieces made me want to cover Thor's eyes, as when we sneak and watch "South
Park" together and there is stuff he really, really shouldn't see.
"Why are they nailing that man up on every page there?" he said, pointing to the endless
funhouse-mirror-like effect of reiterated crucifixions that we dashed past.
"You're a Jew, you don't have to worry about it that much," his mother whispered in his
"Oh, look at that!" I said, and pointed to a far more inspiring, almost equally popular
image of a rather adult-looking baby nursing at an overample bosom.
"Oy," Thor's mother said, and tugged us along faster.
We squashed past the sweaty mass of tourists genuflecting in front of the Mona Lisa,
which is caged in thick glass, and stood before her.
Baffled, Thor asked, "Where's her cards?"
When I was in Paris last, I never took the Mï¿½tro. I heard vague stories of its danger,
happily nested in the taxis I was ferried around in. But with no publishing-house budget,
we braved the French underground. On San Francisco's Muni, I've watched quadriplegic
seniors pointedly ignored by teenagers in seats for the disabled, burdened with the
handicap of too many shopping bags. Now, on the Paris train, I was startled as gangster-
type fellas shot out of their seats, standing at attention, at the first sign of crowding.
Our faces all registered incredulity as the doors on the train did not bother waiting for the
vehicle to stop before opening. "Wow," said our shocked son, who's used to our culture's
litigious regulation of all things moving and not. In Paris, crosswalks seem to be
suggestions. And in the playgrounds, there are structures that would compel American
lawyers to fight for adjacent office space. In Paris, kids fall, they cry, they gush blood, and
life moves on after some wine, which comes with most meals, even at McDonald's.
It's easy to turn Disneyland into a vague, goofy abstraction when you're in Paris. We took a
tour of the sewers, and I was gratified that I was the only one who enjoyed it. Everyone
thought the sewer for tourists would be an old, out-of-use section; but by the stench of it,
and the flow beneath us, it was as active as it gets. As the others covered their noses, I
was startled by how that moist, moldy cesspool odor is such a part of my past, the smell
of a West Virginian mountain shack, with straight pipe plumbing. I was teased for how I'd
rushed through the Louvre, but in the sewers, I wanted to stay. It was because of the
Underground, unlike in the museums, there were huge panels that gave a detailed history
of how the sewers came to be, what life was like without them; stories like how one lord
had so many castles that when one moat became crammed with waste, he simply moved
to another castle. Or how Victor Hugo researched this underground realm for "Les
In the Louvre I lingered over a letter that Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister-in-law from
prison and that a friend of ours translated for me: how she mourned the loss of her
children, despaired for their fates. I stood there transfixed, worrying about her son, the
dauphin, the same age as Thor, imprisoned - and then all I could think about was his
story. It was excruciating to know so little of the facts, and in their absence, I was tortured
filling them in.
At the airport in San Francisco, the check-in person had commented that my bag was
heavy. "Well, I came armed," I said. My luggage was whisked in one direction, and I in
another. "Books!" I howled as I was led off.
"How many Rick Steves's guides to Paris do you need?" a special agent had commented
while swabbing my collection for explosives.
Apparently, more than I had, because not one of my guides told me an effective way to get
a traveling caravan to Disneyland from Paris. I just assumed it would be similar to the
United States, where if someone has a fungus-covered football that slightly resembles the
Virgin Mother, it's a destination and therefore will attract hundreds of tour operators
whose sole mission is to get you there comfortably and quickly. And there is an easy,
cheap, fast, direct way to get to Disneyland Paris. The R.E.R. train goes right to the park,
not even a shuttle needed. But as Americans, we were packed for every type of weather
and food shortage, ruling out navigation of the Mï¿½tro. And so, like Americans, we rented
As we drive up to Disneyland Paris, I am filled with an excitement that shocks me. Seeing
that familiar castle is like recognizing someone on the street, though you're unable to
place quite where you know him from. You're certain he's a friend, the association is
agreeable at first; then you realize he's a newscaster. The Disney castle that opens every
ad is so ubiquitous that there's a way I've moved into it psychically. To me, it represents
safety and care, in such a palpable way that my body relaxes, and I feel giddy.
When I was a child, my mother worked the strip clubs outside Orlando, Fla., and weeding
out the Disney dollars from legitimate tender stuffed into her G-string was my job. The
Disney money annoyed her because no matter how hard she tried, for any exchange rate,
her dealers would not accept it. I was thrilled, and hid it, my stash for secret trips to
Disney World with some of her customers. As a teenager, I hustled on the streets of Los
Angeles. My friends and I would panhandle along Sunset Boulevard, mocking the tourists
clad in their matching Mickey wear. Occasionally, we'd take a day trip there. It was
supposed to be a joke: get high and go to Disneyland. But it really was a sweet reprieve
from the streets, and after a long session of sarcasm, our group would hush as we stood
on line for the It's a Small World ride.
I often went alone, attaching myself to families whose loud tourist get-ups matched my
street attire. No one looked at me funny. With my frayed, stained clothes, I could be the
insolent teenager of the Midwestern clan I was trailing. I'd wait in line with my unaware
adopted family for the rides and climb into the car behind them. I'd follow the family into
an arcade, or ice cream shop, every now and then my shadowing detected: father's asking
me loudly if I have a problem or mother's nodding and buying me a cone with the rest of
As soon as we get to Disneyland Paris, we leave our luggage at the hotel and go. We have
arrived late, with barely time to do some rides before the fireworks start. We are all under
an exhilarating spell. The park feels empty, and we hit what in the United States is called
the Haunted Mansion but in Paris is Phantom Manor. It's in Frontierland and has a Boot Hill
cemetery, which reminds me of the ranch where the HBO show "Deadwood" is filmed.
The ride begins with a story, and tears of joy stream down my face. And that's when I
realize what I love about Disney: even the haunted house has a story. It is not random
horror; there is a tale to it. Paris Disney embraces this even more.
Soon, the fireworks start. We find a spot near other Americans, where there isn't a blue
haze. Americans, it seems, are pretty good at following the rules, sticking to the
designated smoking areas. We watch an employee repeatedly point out to families who
had blatantly scrambled over a chain-link fence that the railing was meant as a barrier.
The employee tells us he has worked at the American parks, where they can set down just
masking tape as a boundary for a parade, and the Americans will pay heed.
I feel an odd pride. Popular European opinion is that Americans troop all over the world,
doing whatever they desire, without regard for others. But now I protest: our folks have
more respect for adhesive tape and the sacrilege of smoking all over Disneyland than do
the Europeans. Just try tacking down Scotch tape in Iraq and watch what happens.
I was expecting the usual fireworks display, maybe some music with synchronized booms.
But this is another story, projected with video and lasers onto the Chï¿½teau de la Belle au
Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty Castle), fireworks accentuating a tale centered on wishes,
which is what Disney is all about. Jiminy Cricket sings: "When you wish upon a star, makes
no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires will come to you."
The lesson is made clear: wishes can come true if you believe in them with all your heart.
And the adult cynic in me gets going on how dangerous and maybe cruel it is to tell kids
this. So, if the cancer-patient kid's dream of health doesn't come true, it's because he
didn't believe with his heart?
I check in with Thor after the show. He's a savvy kid, and sentimentalism tends to irk him.
"So what'd ya reckon on that wishes thing?"
"I really wanted a new PlayStation Portable, and I got it, so, ya know, works for me."
Our hotel, the Disneyland, is right at the park entrance, and when we wake up and open
the curtains, Sleeping Beauty Castle is directly ahead of us, and all of Disney awaits in
sparkling pastels. Breakfast is included with our room, which is a good deal because they
also put out platters of smoked turkey, cheese and rolls and baguettes, which we abscond
with back to our room.
We hit the park, using our handy FastPass to skip the line snaking into Pirates of the
Caribbean, which again suggests more "Deadwood" than Mickey Mouse. I rejoice in the
scenes of drunk, bawdy pirates trading captives, burning and pillaging villages; the good-
natured debauchery warms my punk-rocker heart. Compressed air explodes from under
the water, simulating a cannon strike and making me jump. But Thor only sighs. He's
taken many baths with the family dog, Ketchup Head.
There is no monorail in Disneyland Paris and no sky buckets to ferry you across the park.
The idea of walking does not seem to be shocking here. Wandering around the park, I
suddenly get the joke about what's better about French Disney: no Americans. There's no
frantic rush to the next ride, or to the next show. Folks tend to move at an almost
annoyingly sedate pace. Don't they know they have to maximize their day? Get every last
euro penny's worth? Standing around smoking won't do it. Also missing is the constant
parade of howling children dragged past exhaustion to do more, more, more. The noise
level, aside from the roar of the rides, is amazingly low, though punctuated intermittently
by the folks waiting on line, who cheer those about to begin their rides, joyfully singing
the bullfighter olï¿½ song.
There are no throngs of obese Americans searching for fried Ding Dongs; no talking and
singing animatronics, like the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Country Bear Jamboree. There is
a startling dragon that lives under the castle in a cave, but even that operates in French
waiter time. The dragon leisurely awakens to roar, but the pace is a slow unfurling, so you
are required to stand there and take in the details - the way the dragon's claws twitch like
a dog chasing a stick in a dream; the way the eyes roll and the breath and sound are
perfectly in sync. This is artistry on display, with a respect for the pacing of a fable. The
dragon is allowed his characteristics; his stirring is story enough.
Great detail is spent on the appearances of the buildings, primarily castles, having a whole
heck of a lot more meaning to Europeans than to Americans. The same guy who worked
on the renovation of Notre-Dame created the stained glass in Sleeping Beauty Castle. The
tapestries depicting the story of Princess Aurora are handmade in Aubusson, a French
town that has been practicing the craft for hundreds of years. I don't think they'd bother
putting this kind of handiwork in the American Disney; we'd just assume it was plastic and
made in Taiwan and charge off to the next ride.
And there, far from the open-ended miseries of Paris, I am surrounded by these beautiful
stories with their comforting endings. I don't have to toss and turn wondering what came
of Pinocchio, as I did of the poor dauphin in jail, because I can go on the ride. I experience
his redemption. I'm there to testify he's all right; his dad made him out of a log, but he's a
real boy now, and the talking cricket seems just tickled pink about it all. Even the Blue
Fairy is proud.
The only time I feel betrayed by Disney is when the story fails. I step on the Indiana Jones
and the Temple of Peril roller coaster, whose only story is your memory of the film. It's
Disney's compliance with the demand for G-force entertainment. I wrap my elbows around
the thick padded bars that cage me and stick my fingers in my ears against a painful
clanking noise. The ride is jerky; its sudden loops jam my head down. It banks awkwardly,
and I am hurled side to side, banging my arm against the bars.
I climb off the ride nauseated, with a headache, and a growing bruise on my arm. I feel an
I expect Disney to be safe, like the Four Seasons of amusement parks, to anticipate and
correct all foreseeable dangers and discomforts. Uncle Walt would've wanted it that way,
don't you think? Disney is where, as a kid, I could not only wish for a parent who really
cared but also expect it. They secure the safety belt, smiling, ruffling my hair. My bruise is
a betrayal, a sellout. I don't go on any more roller coasters.
That night we have a great dinner at a buffet, the Plaza Gardens Restaurant. It's some of
the best nonartisanal food we've had, and since it is a buffet, I can have as many ice-
cream cones as I want. They sell for up to 4 euros in the park, so if I eat five of them, well,
I'm almost coming out ahead - though I don't see many Europeans using that kind of
stratagem. The table of Spaniards next to us looks somewhat disgusted by our endless
jousts for supplementary servings. Guess they're not used to maximizing their value and
leaving a restaurant sickeningly overstuffed.
Back at the Disneyland Hotel, nearing midnight, we look down from an open-tiered floor
at an island of parents sipping nightcaps in the lobby while a posse of boys, Thor among
them, runs around shooting each other with their various armaments. Nobody bats an eye,
the waiters gracefully dodging the kids. Nobody even winces as one little girl keeps
getting shot point-blank. I can't imagine this happening back home. The little girl, sick of
dying, borrows a shotgun and gets busy. A piano player serenades us with Queen covers.
We drive to the nearby ancient town of Senlis. I never imagined that places like this still
existed outside period films. In the Restaurant Scaramouche we dine on more very rich,
very intricate French food. I find myself staring out the window across the deserted
cobblestone square to the breathtaking Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Senlis, which was
begun in 1155. The owner of the restaurant answers our questions about the area,
explaining how, in 1429, Joan of Arc battled the Duke of Bedford, how there are still
Roman ruins around the corner and a saint buried in the church.
We walk around the noiseless village, and my head is quickly filling with visions of battles,
plagues, raw-sewage dousings, all the stories that possibly were, and I can't locate the
resolve to face them. I close my eyes and picture being on the Peter Pan ride, sitting in a
miniboat that flies out of the Darlings's window and sails into the sky, above it all. The ride
does a usual Disney maneuver, making it appear as if you're about to slam into a wall, but
then a door swings open and at the last second you are safe.
As a kid, I wished with all my heart that life would be like that, that in the last moment I
would know, as Joan of Arc believed, that there is a force, and it is on my side, protecting
me. Like a parent should, and at a point - sometimes sooner, sometimes later - just
cannot. I rub the subsiding bruise on my arm and wish Walt were still around.