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Europa Park Trip Report - April 2015 - Part 1

Europa Park Trip Report - April 2015 - Part 1

Europa Park is Europe's second most visited theme park resort, after Disneyland Park. It drew in 4.9 million visitors in 2013, beating Walt Disney Studios park by half a million visitors. Considering the park is not open year-round, this is an impressive figure. Europa-Park is larger than both Disneyland Paris theme parks put together. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about so this week I went to check out the competition in Rust, Germany with six friends from work for Europa Park's 40th anniversary celebrations.

Getting There:
There are many ways to get from Disneyland Paris to Europa Park including a flight from Paris to Strasbourg, a train from Marne la Vallee to Strasbourg (then a bus from Strasbourg to Europa Park) or a straight five hour drive. We chose the driving option primarily because it allowed us a lot of flexibility in terms of timing, and it was also the lowest cost option. Tolls will cost you about 30-40 euros each way from Disneyland Paris to Europa Park.

Europa Park Pricing and Opening Hours:
Before we even stepped foot in the resort, we knew that there was a very different kind of pricing strategy going on at Europa Park. A one-day ticket is €42.50 and a two-day ticket is €80. We couldn't find any mention of a three-day or longer ticket. An annual pass is affordable at  €175 for adults, and €150 for children. Unlike Disneyland Paris, however, this will not pay for itself in one stay - this is how an annual pass pricing policy should work.

As mentioned earlier, the park is not open year-round. The Summer season runs from the end of March to the beginning of November. The park then closes for a couple of weeks and then reopens for its Winter Season from the end of November to mid-January. The park is this closed for about three months until the Summer Season begins again. As such, Europa Park is open for around 8 months per year which is long than most theme parks but not quite as long as the likes of Disney and Universal.

Standard Summer opening hours are 9:00am to 6:00pm, and in the Winter the hours are 11:00am to 7:00pm. This gives you 8 hours of park time per day. However, the park extended its hours according to how busy it is so even though the park may sit it officially closes at 6:00pm you may find that is is open until 8:00pm or 9:00pm. Unfortunately, this is no way of knowing the time the park will be closing in advance, the decision is made on the day and signs are put up at the attractions with the closing time. This was one of the things we disliked most about the park.

For the two days we visited, a Tuesday and Wednesday in April the park closed at 6:00pm. Considering that Disneyland Park in Paris was open from 10:00am to 10:00pm every day throughout our visit (plus Extra Magic Hours for hotel guests) it would have been nicer to see slightly extended opening hours. Speaking from a money perspective, however, I can completely understand the decision - Europa-Park was empty and they have no need to wait for night to fall like Disneyland Paris does to present its nighttime show.

Europa Park has five onsite hotels, though only one (the camping resort) was available during our visit. Having looked at accommodation prices, they are very well priced and much cheaper than Disney. The hotels are full on resorts with great theming and leisure and dining activities. We, however, opted to stay in a lovely 8-person apartment at Pension Marianna (booked through Booking.com) located less than a 5-minute drive away. The staff were extremely friendly and definitely gave us the best customer service we experienced in all of Germany. The place is affordably priced too, and everything was in great condition. We couldn't have been happier.

Arriving at the Park and German customer service:
Parking is priced at a very affordable €5 per vehicle per day. Unlike at Disneyland Paris, you do not pay on the way in. Instead, you get a ticket, park and then you go to a machine and validate your ticket before you leave. It works very similarly to most parking lots in city centres in this way. This prevents huge queues both entering and leaving the park, as at some point throughout the day you will need to pay for your parking. Instead, this moves the queues from the parking entrance and exit to the parking ticket booths.

With the help of the new travelators (this was listed as if it were a new attraction in all publicity) we were soon at the park entrance. We walked to the turnstiles and were in the park within seconds. Here we our first taste of German customer service as we said "Bonjour" and "Hallo" on the way in, only get no response from the employees as they efficiently scanned our ticket. I thought the French were direct but nothing could prepare me for how blunt some of the Germans can be. It is not them meaning to be rude, however, it is just the way their culture is. More than anything, however, as seven Disney employees we were clearly comparing the entire trip to a Disney theme park. The fact that Courtesy is our number two priority (after Safety) at Disney was probably what shocked us most. The Germans are efficient but being courteous is not one of their priorities.

The Park Entrance and Layout:
Like most theme parks, the park begins with a sort of "Main Street" which in this case is a mix of different cultures in one place. I was immediately blown away by the theming: I can't think of anything that really stunned me but it was probably that I wasn't expect it to be as well themed as it was. (History buffs - you can see a part of the Berlin wall on this street). This entry area very quickly blends into the theme of Italy and the entrance to the Italian area of the park is where you are held until official park opening time. This is a similar to Disneyland Paris which allows you entry into their Main Street 30 minutes before official park opening time. The actual rest of Europa Park opens in a strangely abrupt manner - this is no announcement, and the rope holding you back is simply removed at 9:00am sharp, after which you can explore the entire park. In order to give you an idea of the quality of theming, here is a look at the Italy area:

As you may have guessed, Europa Park's "lands" or areas are based around Europe. This park is a Mack family product which was heavily inspired by Disney's EPCOT park in Florida. Although, Europa Park is technically older than EPCOT, it was a hearing about and a visit to EPCOT by the Mack Family that inspired them to create 'an EPCOT for Europe'. You will see that many of the themes, architectural styles, and even attractions throughout this park are inspired by Disney attractions.

I think this is a good time to take a look at the map, which in itself in't overly complicated - the problem is the park layout does not lend itself to easy discovery and with a central icon for the park getting you bearings can be difficult. Even the huge observation tower can very easily be lost in view behind certain buildings. The result is a park map that looks like this rather than Disney's hub-and-spoke design:

The Attractions - France:
One of the star attractions of the park is Silver Star and this is where we headed first (73 metres in height and a speed of 127km/h). Unfortunately, we took a rather long way round - I've made a little graphic to show you to quickest way to get silver Star in the morning:

The Purple arrow in the park's equivalent of Main Street, you walk up this area and then are in the main German area of the park. Here you will need to follow the red arrow to the archway and the Italian area - this is where guests are held until the park opens. Once the park is open, you will need to go straight ahead and follow the blue line, you will go through a narrow passageway and enter the French area of the park and go through some small Parisian-style streets. Soon you will be faced by the giant geodesic sphere (the golf-ball shaped thing in the image - and clealry a clone of spaceship earth). Here you turn right and will see the main entrance to Silver Star.

The wait time was posted as 3 minutes when we got to the ride entrance and before I knew it we were on the ride. The ride has one of the more modern restraints where you simply have a lapser style restraint that holds you in, with no over the shoulder harness. The most impressive thing about this ride is definitely the lift hill which in interminable, and gives you a stunning view of the park and the surrounding area. The first drop is great too and you really get a rush, though the rest of the ride is pretty same-y.

Having done the ride in a few different positions, the front (not the actual front, but second row) gives you a lot of air time on the higher portions of the track and was actually very thrilling. I didn't have a chance to ride the front row (there's a separate line for that) but I imagine the first drop to be terrifying with nothing holding you in.

I was looking forward to the Universe of Energy thinking that it might be a clone of Ellen's Energy Adventure ride at EPCOT. It was an omnivore ride about dinosaurs, so they have taken that part of the ride from EPCOT and then completely ignored the over 80%. I was thoroughly disappointed and baffled at this attraction. The exit pathway also has giant holes in the ground which considering the place is not well lit is prone to causing accidents. Why you would deliberately do this in a theme park is anyone's idea.

Eurosat is the park's Space Mountain and was over longest wait of the trip at about 25 minutes. The most unique thing about the ride is that the lift hill is a long rotating tube that carries the ride vehicles upwards for a couple of minutes whilst you hear techno music play. The ride is then a series of fairly unexciting spirals downwards. With no loops or inversions and with it being a rough ride, we only did this once and vowed not to return.

Magic Cinema was showing a 4D film about Euromaus (the park's mascot) to mark the park's 40th anniversary. There was a lot of 4D here including seat movements (which became a bit repetitive), springs of water, and jets of air. The 3D aspect of this was very well done, and the animation and music chosen was well done. Almost all the film was in German with about 5%-10% being in French though we did seem to get a gist of the storyline.

Finally, Euro Tower rises to 75 meters (about the height of Silver Star) and gives you a panoramic view over the park. This was a pleasant ride bar the recycled air and the fact we waited for ages for more people to load onto the ride before the operators actually dispatched it. Suddenly you get a scale of how large the park really is.

The view from Euro Tower.
Part 2 looks at more of the park's attractions, as well as general thoughts on the way the park is run.

Working at Disneyland Paris - Day 153 to 314 - 6 months of updates

Working at Disneyland Paris - Day 153 to 314 - 6 months of updates

Day 153 (5th November 2014) to Day 314 (15th April 2015)

So... it has been an eternity since I last updated you. Almost six months to be precise, oops. Here I have attempted to do a resume of all the things that have happened during this period. Be warned, this is a LONG post so you may want to grab yourself a coffee.

1. Christmas season starts
The Christmas season started at Disneyland Paris in November and went all the way through to the start of January. It is notorious for being one of the resort's busiest times. The resort, of course, looked beautiful with a new Disney Dream of Christmas show (which I really enjoyed), a Christmas parade (which had a catchy theme tune) and the tree lighting ceremony (which was my favourite event of the day during this season). That's of course in addition to all the Christmas decorations up and down Main Street, including a giant Christmas tree and the ice lights on the castle - there really is something magical about the Christmas season at Disneyland Paris. We saw some record-breaking guests and we soon discovered how many people we can handle in a day. Read on for more. Quick side note: The week between the end of Halloween and the beginning of the Christmas season was very, very quiet.

2. Evacuation training
Overall, November and most of December are quite quiet seasons and during the weekday almost all rides are walk-ons all day. It is a great time to visit for guests. It is cold, but nothing like January. The parks take advantage of the quieter periods of the year to do evacuation training which is where each attraction is tested after park closing hours to some extreme circumstance - such as a fire, or a loss of power at a critical moment. The Cast Members at that attraction have to do a full scale exercise including getting the firemen involved, etc. Other attractions Cast Members also get paid to be the "guests" during the evacs, which is cool as you get to see lights on versions of the rides and walk through them. I ended up being evacuated off Snow White and Pinocchio (both are terrifying in the pitch black with just sounds and no lights), and Peter Pan (which is an interesting evacuation with ladders to get guests down from the boats - the interior is interesting with the lights on too!).

3. Carte Vitale and Social Security Number
In a bit of boring news before we get to more exciting things, I finally have my carte vitale (for reimbursement of medical charges) and a social security number. I even have chosen my GP, and my housing aid (APL) for 2015 is sorted too.

4. The busy weekends
The weekends in November and December took everyone by surprise as we hit some record figures and I saw guest levels similar to how they were at Walt Disney World most of the summer. One day we had twice as many guests as were predicted enter the park! On one particular day I remember that Fastpass hadn't been planned for the ride that day (as happens during low frequency days), and therefore we had to tell people all day that we didn't have Fastpass because the park wasn't busy enough (or at least wasn't predicted to be busy enough), meanwhile... the wait time above our heads topped 80 or 90 minutes. People were not happy - understandably.

Photo: @InsideDLPairs (Twitter)
The reason behind the parks being so busy was that promotional tickets from French companies with links to Disneyland Paris all had end dates in December before the busy Christmas weeks, and families take the opportunity to visit with these discounted tickets. But the problem is everyone has the same idea and same availability, so weekends, particularly Saturdays in November and December as a no-go and as I saw the busiest I saw the parks. Even busier than on New Year's Eve. They even put up big "Parc Saturé / Park Satured" signs saying that although the theme park wasn't closed, it was very, very busy.

5. Anna and Elsa have proven popular
Anna and Elsa (from Disney's Frozen) became meet and greet characters for the first time this Christmas season at Disneyland Paris. I thought people in Europe weren't as crazy as our American theme park counterparts. Then I saw the wait times increase for the Frozen, again and again, until they topped 330 minutes. That is 5 and a half hours. To meet characters. When there are 60 attractions in the park, it is a shame to spend half of your day in one queue line, especially as most of it was outside in the cold. Crazy! It seems to have been very successful for Disneyland Paris though and an entire Frozen Summer event has been announced for 2015.

6. Christmas cast member exclusives
As is customary in France, many companies have special benefits for employees in the run up to Christmas. Most of these, however, rely on you having been at the company for a certain amount of time. Out of three forms of bonus available, I was technically not eligible for any. So, I was surprised when I got a pro-rated version of one of them - I was set to miss it by just 9 days so having some sort of Christmas bonus was nice. It was given to Cast Members to thank us for our hard work and in anticipation of the 'difficult times ahead' as we prepare for the 25th anniversary - until then lots of the park is going to be undergoing construction work.

Another thing that happens twice a year are the annual staff parties where there is live entertainment, free food and even gifts. This year the Christmas party was at the Studios. It was good but, honestly, after a while you've been there and seen and done the theme parks - especially when there are only two. The Cast discount was also increased during the pre-Christmas period at shops and restaurants which was nice.

7. Family came over and Friends too
Over the Christmas week I had my parents and brother come over, and then for New Year's I had my Fantasyland friends over who I worked with at Walt Disney World. It was really nice to see some familiar faces, and it was nice to show off the parks. Especially to my family, as it had been three years since my parents had last been at DLP.

8. Experiencing the Christmas season
Nowadays I only really visit the park once every two or three months - every time there is a new season really. The change in stage shows, parades and characters are really the only things that change but they are welcome changes and it saves us doing the same rides again and again. Yes, I never thought I would say this, but there are only so many times you can do Big Thunder Mountain, Rock n Rollercoaster and Ratatouille. Space Mountain, however, is a different story. They are still fun, but the novelty factor has definitely worn off.

Anyway, this is all to say that at the beginning of November I went to the parks to experience some of the Christmas offerings. Part of the Christmas offerings, was meet Merida (from Disney Pixar's Brave). I usually try to be quite logical, so when I saw that Merida only appeared for 45 minutes each day, I said to myself that the maximum I could wait would be 45 minutes... Well, it turns out the 45 minutes time is how long they let people into the queue (and then they were still open beyond those 45 minutes anyway, so gosh knows what the point in having a schedule is!?).

The result was that we eventually got to meet Merida after 1 hour 30 minutes. And then because everyone spoke French to here, she had very little to say...as many of the characters at Disneyland Paris when you speak to them in French. The interaction was very minimal, and nothing more than hello and then a photo. It was nice getting the photo, but I was disappointed. I would never wait that long for a character again. I think more than 10 to 20 minutes is really too much. The interaction was nowhere near as good as the Jack Skellington we had met during the Halloween season...or any of the Halloween characters for that matter.

However, we did get to meet Santa who was nice although a half an hour wait for that was still a bit too long for me. The non-waits for the Beast, Minnie, Gepetto and Stitch were more my style - and I got all four photos in about 10 or 15 minutes which was great. The Beast was huge (and apparently he's a rare character too)! I still haven't managed to meet Anna and Elsa which I would like to do, but I am definitely not waiting an eternity for that - they've left now anyway, so we'll see what it's like at the beginning of June!

9. "Why is Disneyland Paris so ghetto???"
That's the title of the following Youtube video, where American guests see how Europeans guests behave in the parks at Disneyland Paris. I agree with them.

I have also seen an incredible rise in the number of stickers being stuck everywhere in the park - it's disrespectful and rude.

10. The Discovering Magic Tour
A few months ago I got to take part in an 8-hour tour that is exclusive to Cast Members. It is free and goes behind the scenes to show us how the magic is made. No photos were allowed so I'll do my best to illustrate with words what I can. Our tour guides were the new company ambassadors who were very friendly, and a pleasure to meet. The tour started off in the costume making department - this is the department which creates costumes for characters. We were told that a princess dress takes three months to create, for example. I was surprised at how big it all was and how traditional the work was - every single thing is made by hand. There is a big team working non-stop on this year's things as well as next-years.

Inside the costume making department - Source: Mirror.co.k
We then visited the parade costuming department and saw all the different outfits that all the characters have - everything from hats to shoes is all kept in one place. Apparently it is going to be expanded so they have even more space as over 20 years they have accumulated a lot of stuff.

Next, we went to tour Central Shops which is where all the mechanical side of things happens. There is a separate "open day" event held yearly for this building, so we merely saw some of the highlights as we went through. Again everything is made specifically for the company from scratch - they don't just buy pre-made parts. We saw a whole host of things including animatronics up close, rollercoaster car chassises, carousel horses being repainted, and we even saw an Indiana Jones train being cycled (the process where they take a train apart entirely and rebuild it piece by piece). It was cool to see as working in operations this is a world you simply do not get to see. Next, we had a break and then went into the parade float hanger which is enormous and contains parade floats including things like the Casey junior train that is used seasonally, the current parade floats and even some old nighttime Fantillusion floats. It was nice seeing those floats as it was a great parade.

After lunch, it was time for the part of the tour I was most looking forward to - looking at the rides from the inside once they had been shut down for the night. The line-up was great so I was really looking forward to it.

We started off with a ride that I had always wanted to step inside of - Phantom Manor. The attractions section of the tour was led by Imagineers that work on and/or designed the rides. We started off in the load area when you get onto the Doombuggies. With the ride show stopped and the house lights on we were able to see many effects that I had never noticed before, including the lightning flashes in this scene and the fact that most of the staircase set in completely flat. We then walked the ride backwards and up the very steep ramp which leads to the unload area - I had always wondered how far apart these two sections were, and they are just around the corner from each other. We looked at the ghost mirrors section and we told how complicated it was to get it working, and then walked through the graveyard scenes and learnt a bit about the singing busts. We were told how the projector technology had evolved and been upgraded again and again over the years, but that Disney needed to be careful not to change the quality of the image too much - they want visitors from today to get the same experience as they would have when the park opened. I was surprised at how quiet the animatronics were in general with the audio turned off - I thought they would make a lot more noise.

We then walked along the track tot eh ballroom scene as viewed from the cars. It is remarkable how quickly you move from scene to scene when you simply walk the track and how short the actual track is. Here the imagineers talked about the importance of lighting as the scene uses a pepper's ghost effect. They have to get it just right so that you can see the ghosts appear and disappear, see the ballroom, and make sure that you can't see the two panes of glass separating you from the scene.

It had always been a dream of mine to step foot inside Phantom Manor and I was loving the guided tour, as we walked downstairs to see the animatronics spinning to create the ghosts for the ballroom scene. The ghosts were actually quite terrifying looking things as they had to have certain paint jobs to show up in the dark. It was at this point that I truly got a sense of the scale of how enormous the building was.

We then walked round to the ballroom scene itself and walked around inside. I was so happy at this moment, you can't even imagine. Again, the scale of things really came into perspective here as everything was in fact full size in the room - there were no perspective tricks. This was a real, full-sized table with cutlery and dinnerware laid out on it, a Phantom animatronic in the rafters, an animatronic of Melanie the bride, and much more. I even noticed several details like the sofa and collapsed bannisters that I had never paid attention to before. The spiders' webs are apparently made from stretched glue and then painted or given a matte finish. It was interesting looking from the room outwards, and seeing the ride track in the middle with animatronic ghosts both above and below the track to give the full effect. It was all very, very cool.

We continued the tour and see the back of the knocking doors scene, and show the show scenes are really very much back to back to keep the ride building as compact as possible (and if you use Google Maps you will see it is still massive). I really got a scale of all the mechanisms necessary to make even the smallest of effect work, and how much happens backstage to keep it all running. We unfortunately didn't get to go round to the Madame Leota crystal ball scene which was a shame as we ran out of time. Overall, I am sure you can see how exciting this all as for me.

Next, we walked on stage through Frontierland and Adventureland and were told to look at the floor and listen to the music and see how it changed from area to area, even within the same land to reflect the storyline. It was then time to go into Pirates of the Caribbean for a backstage look. Even though I worked in the same land, I had never actually been inside the building before. At Pirates, we walked through the pump room to see how much water was needed to power this immense ride (by far the biggest attraction in the resort - both in size and capacity). We walked onto the set itself and stood on the scene where the men are bidding for a woman. It was cool to see the animatronics all working up close - they look very powerful and every tiny detail is synchronised to perfection. We learned a bit about how at Disney the things closest to the visitors are all real but the further back you go the more fake things are. So, the buildings in the distance for example do not have real walls, but are rather very well painted scrims. Fascinating.

It was then time to cross the park and venture inside my favourite ride in the park - Space Mountain. We started off by going backstage, and immediately I learnt something - the ride is half underground. We walked around the bottom of the ride and looked and the immensity of it all - our loop at Indi can't even even begin to compete with the sheer size of Space Mountain's. We were told all about how the projection effects are triggered according to the positioning of the trains (these were the first HD projections in any Disney ride apparently) and how black screens are used to make sure you don't see things when you shouldn't. We were then shown how the star effect is accomplished - in fact there are a huge amount of disco balls on the ground and light is shone onto them, and in the dark these look like stars. We climbing the staircase to an area inside the show building above the queue line and then waited. The Imagineers turned the lights off for a minute and we just stood there, mesmerised in silence watching the stars swirling.

At the end of the tour, we gave back our safety hats and we got given commemorative pins to say we had done the tour, and we given sheets to provide feedback. It was truly a fantastic tour though I would have liked to have looked behind the scenes on several more attractions rather than going to the costume-making building for example. It did, however, really give us a scale of all the work that goes into making the park as perfect as it can be for guests every day. I really feel that this is an experience that regular guests would pay a premium for and hope that one day this will be something that is offered for everyone - it was an unforgettable experience, especially with an Imagineer explaining things, and by stepping into Phantom Manor one of my dreams came true!

11. Visiting the Disneyland Hotel Castle Club
I got to spend an evening in the Castle Club lounge in December with one of my friends who was staying there - this is one of the most exclusive areas of the Disneyland hotel. It was an incredible experience and I can truly understand paying for the extra benefits. The main benefit of the lounge, apart from the complimentary non-alcoholic drinks, is that you get a perfect view of Disney Dreams out of the windows - all this in the warmth without the need to wait around and with the music piped in. Unfortunately, it was exceptionally foggy day so we couldn't very much but it was still a really nice experience.

12. The transition of the seasons
After Christmas, the park went through the very, very slow month of January where guests were few and far between and every attraction was a walk-on. This also meant tonnes of ride refurbishment, of course, to take advantage of the low number of guests. Saturdays were much busier, as they are year-round, due to all the annual pass holders coming. I took the opportunity to go back to London for a week to get away from the Disney bubble for a while which was very much needed. It's amazing how a week-long break can change your mindset.

The New Mary Poppins Show - Swing into Spring 2015
In case, you're wondering it is now the Spring season which has brought with it lots of new entertainment, and in 6 weeks it's time for a "Frozen Summer".

13. I'm a Pirate of the Caribbean
I am going to end this update with my favourite bit of 'news' since the beginning. After having worked on Indiana Jones for over six months, I had got to the point of being tired of the attraction. I know how it works inside and out. I have seen every kind of technical problem, heard every guest question and understand the attraction well. In early January, the team leaders were looking for people to cross-train (being trained on other attractions) and I put myself forward strongly. At the beginning of February I went through the 7-day training process for the attraction. I had already made the step up from Casey Junior to a rollercoaster, and now I was making the step up to a 10-minute flume ride with the largest capacity in the park.

Training was great and I am now "checked" the attraction and most weeks I split my week and work a few days at Indi and a few days at Pirates. They really are two very different attractions. Pirate is a behemoth of an attraction for people of all ages and the interaction with guests is hugely different if only because of the costume - guests compliment you on the costume (which is by far the most beautiful in the park), they take photos with you, you sign autographs, they have tonnes of questions, they start themed conversations with you: "Hey Pirate", "Hey shipmate" and you can see that the theming and the show aspect of the ride really gets people immersed. Plus, you get a lot of interaction with kids which is a change from telling them all that they are too small.

Every day at Indi...
Technically the ride is much more complex. There are lots of things you can control where as at Temple the ride regulates automatically, at Pirates you get a surprisingly huge amount of control from the tower. You are responsible for many, many more people in the ride at once. Evacuations are huge ordeals. The disability boarding system is in a whole complex league of its own, and working indoors in the dark (but with air conditioning and climate control) really is a different experience. The whole experience is still relatively new to me and I am loving it.

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