Anytime you franchise your business, you run a risk of damaging the overall brand. Franchisees tend to focus more on the day-to-day solvency of their business, rather than on your "global reputation" or whatever. Disney's non-US parks are, in a way, franchises; they're owned and operated by partner companies, who work with Disney to operate the park - in theory - to Disney standards.
As a frequent visitor to Disney's US parks, I have some specific expectations when I visit - and I naturally expect those to be met when I'm abroad, too. I don't regard that as cultural; Disney's operating standards are far from what most US companies would consider normal. Little things like pointing with two fingers, continually picking up trash, that kind of thing doesn't go on in most US businesses.
On a recent visit to Disneyland Paris, however, I discovered that's Disney's "standards" can vary pretty widely.
An Incredible Parc
First, Disneyland Paris - the actual "Magic Kingdom" park - is incredible. It's like Disney looked at every sub-optimal element of the three Magic Kingdom parks in existence (Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Disneyland Tokyo) and sought to correct everything. Paths are wide. Buildings are over-the-top gorgeous. The castle has a built-in stage to the side, where it doesn't interfere with the sight lines of guests entering the park. Even simple attractions like Dumbo are elevated with extensive landscaping, waterfalls, and more. It's just amazing. It seems as if every building is themed to within an inch of it's life.
Adventureland is utterly unique. It's huge, encompassing this park's version of a Tom Sawyer Island, called Adventure Isle. It has an African section, and a richly-themed Middle Eastern entry area. There are relatively few attractions (and no Jungle Cruise), and they're each fairly widely spaced, giving them each their own identity and presence. Pirates of the Caribbean is enormous, and makes you truly feel like you're in a Spanish fortress. The Blue Lagoon restaurant, attached to the ride in much the way Blue Bayou is in California, is amazingly themed.
Discoveryland successfully executes the "past vision of the future" that Imagineers tried to overlay onto California's Tomorrowland - and later rolled back. It's a Jules Verne vision of the future, with a cannon-equipped Space Mountain, dirigible dock (in Videopolis), and more of that rich theming throughout. Even the Star Wars-themed area for Star Tours fits in well.
Fantasyland is... well, it's Fantasyland. Many of the attractions here - Snow White, Peter Pan, Pinnochio, Dumbo, and so forth - are carbon copies (or close to it) of their US predecessors. The scenery in Fantasyland is better than in the US parks. There's more room to move, the castle actually encloses Fantasyland more (walls extend from the castle across the breadth of the land), and so on. It's a good-sized land - blink, and you'll miss Storybook Canal Boats, Casey Jr. Circus Train, and so forth.
Frontierland is an interesting twist on the US version. It has relatively few attractions, one of them being "Phantom Manor," which is a much more serious version of Haunted Mansion that lacks on-ride narration (probably to make it more accessible to speakers of various languages). There are several restaurants (we joked about it being Foodland) and carry-away spots. Big Thunder Mountain is what you'd expect, and is incredibly well done - with massive wait times.
Next Door: Less Incredible
Disneyland's neighbor, the one-of-a-kind Disney Studios Parc, is less successful. For one, it's tiny. Tickets here are always sold as 2-park hoppers, which means Studios is, for all intents and purposes, simply a beyond-the-berm extension of Disneyland itself, which is more or less out of room for expansion. The park, however, seems to have been built on the cheap. Theming is minimal and inconsistent. There's little shade (notable on a rare August day when the temp exceeded 90F). It tries to have the spirit of Disney Hollywood Studios in Florida, but comes off as a Six Flags - each ride placed close to the next, with no attempt to blend theme or identity.
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, featuring Aerosmith, is an example. Gone is the "recording studio" pre-show and the "we need to get you to the concert on time" theme. Now, the band has a confusing and inexplicable 30-second intro that I think explains how they've invented a new roller coaster, which we're about to ride. Well, gee. Inside, the building is completely dark, filled with fog, and any thrill comes from a few colored beams of light projected from the center of the room. That's it. Add ten times as many lights, turn up the soundtrack (which was barely audible), and you might have a unique experience. As-is, I've ridden better at Six Flags.
Weird - and Fun - Differences
Some jarring differences are, in fact, cultural, and can't be held against anyone.
Character names change, too. Chip and Dale are referred to as Tic and Tac; Lightning Mcqueen is now Flash. These differences are actually kind of fun to spot, and you can occasionally engage a cast member who can help you understand the differences.
It's odd for an American to see people strolling through the parks with a cigarette in their hand; we haven't permitted that in a decade or more, I'm guessing. Every trash can in DL Paris has a cigarette receptacle in the side. That's cultural, though, and I don't mind that the French (especially) seem to chain-smoke - it's legal, and it's their country. But it's definitely different.
You see less use of Disney trademarks. For example, while FastPass is offered, it's never shown with the familiar US logo. That may be due to foreign trademark laws. The system works the same as in the US, it's just not played up as much, and it doesn't use the familiar branding.
PhotoPass doesn't exist, which is a bloody shame given the photo opportunities in this park. Several rides offer the usual on-ride photo, but there's no PhotoPass or even anything like it. The closest alternative: The Main Street photo shop will, for a fee, copy your photos from your camera's storage card onto a CD, so that you can free up space in your camera for more pictures.
Communicating in English is easy - if you can find someone fluent in English (or your language), of course. Despite what many folks will tell you, not every Disney cast member speaks English fluently. Some are downright awful, and many comprehend the words but not the meaning. It means an especially tough time at food counters, where often as not you end up with the wrong items because the CM misunderstood. Worse, the English translations on many menus can be even more confusing. One sign offered, "child's meal in a collectible Disney box" for about 8 euro. Come to find out, at the register, the box actually cost extra. Various "menus" are offered - not unlike numbered meals or value meals in the US - but at the serve-yourself counter places, it's not clear which items belong to each menu. Rather than someone handing you a tray with "meal 3," you're left to assemble it on your own - often with inaccurate results and much back-and-forth from register to food stations. It really slowed down the checkout process for everyone.
Anyway, back to the language barrier and the non-English of many CMs: I initially didn't mind this, because it is France, and as a visitor I made a special effort to try and get by in my horribly-accented, awful-grammar French. It's only polite, when visiting another country, to mangle their language rather than expect them to speak yours. After a couple of days, however, the language thing became frustrating. I'm clearly speaking English; if a cast member understands, "may I have a park map, please?" why would she hand me one in Dutch or Spanish? English was far more commonly-understood, and well-spoken, in central Paris, which was the opposite of what I'd expected.
In fact, after a week in Paris we didn't run across a single rude waiter - in fact, everyone was encouraging. They'd often answer my bad French in their excellent English, so that they could practice the language, but continued to encourage me to try and speak in French. They were helpful, polite, and intelligent. I saw a lot of rudeness and flippancy in the Disney CMs - the one place in France where I shouldn't have seen that.
And Now for the Bad News
The most jarring differences - and the ones I can't accept - are the unimaginable departures from Disney standards. Here, I don't accept "cultural differences" as an excuse; as I pointed out, Disney's standards are hardly cultural norms in the US, either. Those standards exist to make Disney a better-than-normal experience; when those standards go missing, you're left with an amusement park, not a Disney theme park.
Cast members point with one finger - if you're lucky. Janitors also point with extended brooms, almost bashing nearby guests. Sometimes you'll just get an, "over there" with the nod of a head. That's assuming you can find someone to ask.
Not everyone has a costume - unless you consider "black park-logo tee-shirt and name tag, with jeans" to be a "costume." This was especially eerie. We even saw cast members without name tags, which was like heresy for me. I knew they were cast (who else would be carrying spray bottles and mops in the park?), but to not see a name tag or a discernible costume - bizarre.
There are no spare cast members. In a US park, open a map and often as not a CM pops over to ask what you're looking for. In Paris, you're hard-pressed to find a CM, except operating an attraction or a shop or a food service location. The lack of (or inconsistent use of) costumes also make folks like street sweepers hard to identify.
The dearth of cast members is keenly felt on some of the lower-capacity attractions, where one CM might be responsible for checking the seat belts on, say, every horse on the entire carousel. The labor shortage, whether intentional or due to market conditions, really slows down some of the rides. Couple that with an inherently low-capacity ride - like most of the kid-specific ones - and you've got some long wait times ahead of you.
Hotel front desk staff are lethargic and apathetic. They just stand there staring unless they're actively engaged with a guest, and even then they're little more than efficient. We checked in when there was almost nobody else in the lobby, and while the process was quick, it was also pretty impersonal.
CMs will correct guests, too - often harshly. Being told "no" isn't unusual. While you can purchase beer and wine in the France parks, you can't walk around with them; they must be consumed where they were purchased. Walk-up kiosks don't sell alcohol for that reason. There are, however, absolutely no signs or notices or anything to clue you into this. We watched a CM stomp up to a British guest and take his beer from his hand and throw it away while yelling at him. Astonishing.
On the other hand, it was nice (if irritating) to see hosts in the shows, equipped with flashlights, enforcing the "no photos" rule. I hate that people just ignore that rule, especially when - as in a dark show - a flash can truly be dangerous for the performers. It was nice to see the cast given the power and responsibility to enforce the rule. It'd be nice if they had to do it less often, but people will be people.
There were very few managers visible at any time. The one we saw - name tag, smart skirt, sport coat - was dashing through the park, eyes down, avoiding not only eye contact but any chance to be distracted from her mission. Not making eye contact is something we noticed a lot of. It may well be cultural, but it's such a departure from Disney norms - where mirrored sunglasses are banned specifically because they interrupt eye contact - that we found it a bit unsettling.
I've become accustomed to the legions of Disney Research survey-takers as you enter and exit a park. Not so, here: One lone guy with a tablet computer, on one day, is all we saw. If any of Disney's "missing practices" are upsetting guests, they'll likely never know it without those surveys.
I want to point out that - again - I don't buy the "cultural" excuse for these differences. We found that the waiters and shop workers in central Paris acted more Disney-like than the Disney CMs. They were more polite, more engaged, and so on. I'm sure Disney pays less, and gets a lower quality of worker in exchange. But management's job is to bring those kids along and enforce standards - something that clearly has been abandoned here. After all, Disney in the US is hardly a top-end employer when it comes to pay scales. One Irish CM we spoke with at a bar (in Disney Village) said that it was the "general sense of entitlement that the French have" (her phrasing, not mine). They pay exorbitant taxes by US standards, but receive a vast portion of life's necessities free of charge from the government - like health care and numerous other services and benefits. She suggested that that level of entitlement made it easy to find employees who simply didn't believe they needed to work that hard, or to follow rules. I've certainly run across that "entitled to a paycheck" attitude in the US, especially from younger workers, but rarely at Disney, where management works hard to maintain standards. That hard work starts with casting, where the company tries to find employees who are enthusiastic, and who will want to maintain the desired on-stage standards in the first place.
The only US-consistent experience, CM-wise, were the characters. All of the "face" characters - princesses and the like - had American accents, though, so I think I know why they acted in a more familiar fashion. Disney may, in fact, insist that characters be hired from the US, since the characters are one area where Disney rigorously enforces its standards.
As in the US, maintenance is a problem, likely due to penny-pinching. In Paris, everything is certainly kept neat - if not exactly clean. Dust and cobwebs were noted in most of the restaurants we visited, along with fallen curtain hems, frayed carpet edges, and so on. It's an especial shame here, because they've started with such beautiful, extensively-themed buildings... and just not kept up with the little stuff.
And the pavement. Now, I recognize that the area between Disneyland and Disney Village is likely not Disney-owned or -maintained; it's a train station. The pavement there is in bad shape. But the pavement outside the parks, but still well within Disney's control, is appalling. Massive potholes. Huge chasms. It's freaking incredible. I've truly never seen such ugliness in any guest-accessible area in any Disney property, ever.
Restrooms tend to be pretty disgusting. Again, they're initially beautiful - huge, well-equipped, and so forth. But through a combination of poor maintenance, gross cultural habits like not wanting to flush toilets, and what I suspect are poorly-designed fixtures, the bathrooms tend to smell like outhouses. Ick. They've also switched entirely over to hand dryers, which I'm fine with, especially the Dyson "Blade" dryers. However, if you have a men's room with ten urinals and ten stalls, and five sinks, one hand dryer ain't gonna cut it. They need to triple up on the hand dryers if that's the direction.
One note: While exterior theming in Disneyland Park is 100% amazing, the interior theme sometimes falls down. In Space Mountain, for example, we were herded through some pretty generic, metal-girder-clad rooms. It's like the budget ran out when they hit the insides of the rides, and so they just punted. It's jarring - you're firmly "in the story" when you walk up to the attraction, and then you're jolted out of it when you're walking through what is clearly the load area for a roller coaster. Meh. The lack of interior theme isn't universal; some attractions and restaurants - Silver Spur Steakhouse is notable - include deep and detailed theming inside as well as out.
Don't even get me started on the European guests. While they're certainly not Disney's fault, they do impact the experience. Man, you think the folks in the US can be pushy, rude, and inconsiderate.... We're told that this is fairly common, especially with visitors from specific countries who - culturally - are more prone to pushiness, rude behavior, and so forth. The only upside is that ECVs aren't popular in Europe, so we at least weren't being run down by inconsiderate scooter-drivers.
As a note, prices in Disneyland Paris are about the same as in the US parks. 8 will get you a lunch, a bottle of wine is 30 or so, and dinner can easily run 60 or 70 for two people. Note that I'm not using an currencies there. An $8 lunch will cost about 8 euro. If you're ultimately paying the credit card bill in dollars, just expect to pay a 30-50% surcharge depending on the exchange rates at the time. Don't try and do that math when you're in France, though, because it's an artificial thing. France's internal valuations are consistent with the French people's income - a job paying 30,000 USD pays about 30,000 EUR, in other words. Conversion rates are a just a fact of life.
Visit. You'll Enjoy It.
None of this should deter you from visiting Disneyland Paris if you can. The "Magic Kingdom" park is truly wonderful. It's a combination of Florida's large-scale design and the more organic, charming layout of the original Disneyland. It's truly the best Disneyland, design-wise. Just come prepared for a less-than-Disney customer service experience. Don't try to be the "ugly American" and yell/threaten/bully your way to whatever you want, because the cast here won't respond to that. Be polite as possible, don't expect to have that politeness returned, and you'll likely get through fine. Come prepared with some basic French words (there are apps for that, if you've got a smartphone). Put a credit card down at the hotel and use the room charging feature for all of your on-property purchases, rather than messing with Euro. Yes, expect prices to be theme park-grade (meaning a tad high for what you get), but don't try to do the Euro-to-Dollar conversion in your head. It'll make everything seem more expensive. Yes, you're ultimately paying in dollars - but you need to accept it, and not complain to the cast about the pricing.
And don't be afraid to get a little pushy with your fellow guests. Apparently, it's acceptable.