For some people, the idea of a family holiday to Disney might make them wake up in a cold sweat. Add in staying at a Center Parcs and you’re in full-on nightmare territory.
Yet that is exactly what we chose to do for our first trip away as a family of four last year and I wouldn’t change a single thing – it was the perfect week away.
My wife and I both went to Disney World and Disneyland Paris with our families when we were younger but neither of us would consider ourselves to be Disney fanatics. We initially dismissed the idea of a holiday at the House of Mouse, assuming there would be very few rides that our daughters - both a few weeks off their first and third birthdays - would be able to go on.
But, after a lot of holiday research (I love a spreadsheet…), we started to realise that it was potentially the exact trip we were looking for. A short flight, at good times, with a short transfer, a wide variety of things for the children to do and plenty of accommodation options.
I know. This is turning into the most commercial holiday of all time.
There were only two things that we were looking for with accommodation – access to a swimming pool and somewhere with a living space so we didn’t have to sit silently in the dark, willing our insomniac children to remain asleep.
In and around Disneyland Paris, there are lots of options, all ranging in price. At the higher end of the scale there’s the official Disney hotels, a short shuttle from the park. The impression I got from a lot of them was that they were geared to shorter breaks than a whole week – two or three nights seemed almost reasonable - but seven days took it way out of our price bracket.
There are also a lot of Disney affiliated hotels where you can make real savings and plenty of Airbnb options too – but nothing jumped out at us until we found Villages Nature.
A co-venture between European Center Parcs operator Pierre et Vacances and Disney themselves, Villages Nature opened in 2017 on disused farmland about four miles away from the theme park.
If you’re a regular Center Parcs visitor, then quite a lot of it will be familiar – massive swimming pool, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, restaurants and an overpriced on-site supermarket. The Aqualagon is incredible, with indoor and outdoor heated pools and sections for children. There’s also some ‘extreme’ slides if you’re feeling braver - or in the case of our children - significantly taller.
The indoor play centre, themed around a milk farm (named Lait’s Play, for some world class punning) is probably one of the best we’ve ever been to, the kids absolutely loved it, along with the petting zoo next door. There’s another playground built into the forest aimed mostly at slightly older children and overly-enthusiastic parents that our eldest adored running round in.
There’s no sports hall, but plenty of space to walk around – and if you’ve brought your car, use it to head to a nearby supermarket off site as the prices here made the UK Center Parc shops look reasonable. For those who arrive vehicle-free, as we did, there’s a regular dedicated bus route that goes from the main entrance to Disneyland for just two euros, or a discounted price if you buy a book of tickets from reception.
Initially, prices for Villages Nature can look incredibly expensive, but there are a couple of clever ways to try to bring the costs down. Once you choose your dates and see the accommodation options, there’s a drop down menu that allows you to apply a family discount – but it’s not super obvious, so we missed it the first couple of times. You can also usually get things even cheaper if you book on the French Center Parcs website, rather than the UK one – and also still apply the family discount (look for Jeunes Parents in French).
Disneyland top tips
Extra Magic Hours – if you’re staying at an official Disney hotel, you can take advantage of an early entry to the two parks, something you can also do if you’re an annual pass holder. When you check in, you get given an Extra Magic Hours pass so you can head straight in with your tickets. This was such a great way to start our day at Disney – getting on some of the busier rides and in the queues to meet characters before the park filled up. Up until very recently, despite being listed as an official hotel, Villages Nature insisted guests weren’t able to use Extra Magic Hours and didn’t issue the passes - we heard from a few people that showing your Center Parcs wristband and telling them where you stay let you in, and we got in early on each of our three visits. Since our stay, we’ve since discovered that Disney now promote that Villages Nature is eligible for early entry – so you can now avoid those crowds and queues each morning along with all the other Disney hotel guests.
Character Meets: There’s a few ways you can do these. Gone are the days you might remember from your own trips to Disney where the characters roam around in a bit of a free-for-all. They’re now available to meet as specified times and places – you can get all the details on the Disneyland Paris website in the weekly schedules – with only a couple of random additions appearing at non-advertised times. For some of the characters at the Studios Park, the only way you could meet them was by signing up for the Lineberty app – kind of like a virtual deli counter ticket. It meant we had an official appointment time for Woody and Buzz so didn’t have to spend hours queueing – but be prepared as the slots go very quickly and you can’t just turn up.
The other way you can guarantee to meet some of the characters is through a breakfast or lunch in the park – but they do come at a price. Our children are obsessed with Winnie the Pooh and the whole gang and we hadn’t met Tigger yet, so booked a breakfast to spare disappointment. However, the wonderful thing was, Tigger was spotted loose in the park one afternoon so we got our photo, made a quick cancellation and saved ourselves a fortune.
Food – There’s no two ways about it – food is incredibly expensive at Disneyland Paris. We overheard someone spending over 100 euros on hot dogs, chips and drinks for a family of six. There’s a McDonald’s outside the park, for a slightly cheaper approach, but we took lunches with us most days. One thing they’re very good at is helping with allergies – each of the restaurants has a multi-language allergens folder, informs the kitchen staff of any allergies at the time of ordering and a couple of the sites bring in meals prepared off-site in controlled circumstances.
Prams – You can hire them on site, but you’re probably thinking of taking one anyway, and that’s the way to go. Although the park isn’t that big, little legs struggle, and when you’re dashing from one side to the other, it’s that or shoulders. However, there are a lot of reports of prams being stolen – we took a bike lock that made us look incredibly uncool but delightfully practical.
Rides – There’s actually a surprising amount of rides that young children can go on – only a handful of things that our eleven month old daughter was too small for. Kids will love It’s A Small World, or the Dumbo ride and our eldest was obsessed with the Buzz Lightyear ride (or, as she insists on calling it, the Buzz Lighthero ride, which if you think about it, is a much, much better name).
That said, if your child is of a slightly nervous disposition, don’t excitedly tell her to ‘look how high it goes’ while you’re waiting for the Toy Story Soldier Drop, or you’ll find yourself reversing out of the queue with your tail between your legs.
But what if you want to give your thrillseeking side an adventure? Well, the FastPass system allows you to reserve a spot for a fixed time later in the day, and although you can pay a premium for multiple passes, you can get one at a time for free with your standard ticket. There’s also the single rider queue, as one of you will probably have to supervise your child as well, but we used this to make sure we got a go on Space Mountain each day. One thing we didn’t get a chance to try is the Rider Switch, a system where one parent gets to have a turn, while the other looks after the children before you swap, without the need to queue up two times.
Shows and Parades – The big parade at the end of the day sees the park come to a bit of a standstill, so if you’re not fussed for that, it’s a good time to go on some of the rides. It’s a good chance to see all the characters without queueing for the meet and greets, so might be a nice way to get a rest. There are fireworks and a spectacular light show as the park closes each day - but we skipped these as the September sun meant a late finish for the girls who were already flagging.
There’s also a lot of themed shows throughout the year as well. In the early months of 2020, there’s one based on Frozen, which I guess may appeal to some children… In summer 2020, there’s the return of the Lion King and Jungle Book festival, with a condensed Cirque du Soleil style version of the Lion King musical and a massive show in the centre of the park based loosely on some of the songs from the Jungle Book, which was spectacular and which both of our kids loved every second of and still insist on watching the You Tube footage.
While we’d never thought that our first trip away as a family of four would be to Disney, it was the best place we could have gone. Our youngest was already walking at eleven months and with two children constantly on the go, being able to plan out fun activities each day and have a steady mix between quieter times and full-on days at the theme park gave us a week we’ll never forget. Our fears that they’d be too young to enjoy it were dismissed instantly – and with free entry to Disneyland Paris for children under three, it might just have been the perfect timing.
Written by Tom O'Brien
Tom is a digital producer and lives in North Manchester with his wife and two young daughters, aged three and one. A language student at university, he used to live in Dijon in France and has heard every possible mustard-related joke going. His favourite places on the planet are Paris, New York, Sorrento and Liverpool and he dreams of finally going to Japan one day.