The Magical Landscapes of Disneyland Paris

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There is something especially delightful about going on a holiday that one hasn’t organised. Perhaps it’s the element of surprise, or the ability to shirk responsibility for anything that goes awry. Either way one can sit back and – quite literally in the case of my recent holiday – enjoy the ride.

I am a bit of a control freak and tend to take charge of arrangements rather than endure that queasy feeling I get when someone else is holding the reins. So usually I’m chief organiser. However when it came to planning a trip to Disneyland Paris I had to concede that my lack of expertise in anything child / Disney / princess related made me a very poor choice of tour leader. My sister took up the challenge uncontested and did an excellent job. Everything went perfectly smoothly; even the weather was kind to us. There were moments when I struggled not to wrestle back control, but on the whole I was happy to go with ‘le flux’.


The Disneyland Hotel


I had no preconceptions about what I might discover in terms of plants and landscaping at Disneyland. In fact I hadn’t given this aspect of my holiday a second thought. If I had, I might have expected some fairly decent, park-style planting – mature trees, manicured shrubs and lashings of cheerful carpet bedding – and I would have been right on all counts. What I would not have predicted is how plentiful and pleasant the landscaping would be, nor how carefully it would be tailored to each of the park’s themed ‘lands’. The longer I spent at Disneyland Paris the more details I noticed and the more impressed I was.


One of two mirroring Japanese-style streams flanking the main fountain basin


By the end of the first day I realised that everything I knew about Disney films could be written on the back of my entrance ticket. Somehow I never have the time or inclination to watch films, probably because I am always in the garden. Hence every time I asked a question about this character or that, a look of utter horror would pass across my four year old niece’s face, followed by the familiar exclamation ‘Silly Uncle Dan!’ There are things an uncle should just know – latin plant names are not among them. It quickly dawned on me that I was probably the only person vaguely interested in the park’s plants, save for a Japanese family I spotted scrutinising an especially fine rhododendron near our hotel one morning.


Rhododendrons abound at Disneyland Paris


Disneyland Paris is twenty-five years old this year and much of the landscaping is reaching maturity. I read somewhere that thirty years is all it takes for a garden or park to appear fully fledged and I’d say Disneyland has a few more years left to go. Nevertheless the park’s original designers must feel extremely proud to see their vision realised, especially in spring when everything is bursting with vitality.

The first thing one deduces is that the soil must be acidic, permitting lavish use of rhododendrons, azaleas, pieris and skimmia. I love to see these under-appreciated shrubs used for landscaping as they suit being planted en-masse. Why plant a laurel or a viburnum when you can choose one of these flamboyant beauties? Underplanting graceful acers and hornbeams, they exude the class one associates with the US Masters course at Augusta and the style of a Japanese inspired garden.

The second nuance one notices is that flowers are limited to the colour palette of plastic childrens’ toys – all shades of pink, white, lilac, violet-blue and occasionally red, orange or yellow. There appears to be a big focus on spring-flowering shrubs, perhaps because summer colour is provided by bedding. In autumn the park’s acers must be an absolute picture.


Mature hawthorns, rhododendrons and spring bedding flank the entrance to the Disneyland Hotel
Tulip ‘Dream Touch’ amid pink forget-me-nots and coral aquilegia


Within the park, plants are used primarily for storytelling, whether it be vines espalier-trained against Cinderella’s house, lofty bamboos sprouting from behind Jack Sparrow’s galleon (The Black Pearl, that much I did know) or bright pink Judas trees flanking a Wild West saloon. Most visitors will not consciously notice these touches, but subconsciously they greatly enhance the sense of place that the park’s designers were trying to achieve. On top of that, appropriate choices of flowering and foliage plants introduce seasonal colour as well as disguising the park’s inner workings. No detail, hard or soft, is left unconsidered. From the style of paving to the finish of the timber, everything is thought through.


A Judas tree, Cercis canadensis


What is interesting from a gardener’s point of view is how frost-hardy plants are deftly employed to create or amplify a specific mood. In Frontierland around a dozen tree and shrub species are all that’s needed to artfully emulate the Wild West. These included Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape), Hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn), Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud), Amelanchier lamarkii (snowy mespilus), Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’, tamarisk, Populus tremula (quaking aspen), Cedrus deodara (deodar cedar), Pinus montezumae (Montezuma pine), Yucca gloriosa (Spanish dagger), Rosa glauca, Sequoia giganteum (giant redwood) and Pinus nigra (Austrian pine). Although many are not American natives, the effect is highly convincing.


Pines and yuccas at the entrance to the Big Thunder Mountain ride
The lake within Frontierland is home to several families of mallard duck
Big Thunder Mountain


A tighter palette still furnishes Adventureland, which spans Africa and The Caribbean. Here one finds bamboos, Prunus laurocerasus (cherry laurel), Fatsia japonica (Japanese aralia), Eriobotrya japonica (loquat), Campsis radicans (trumpet vine), Aucuba japonica, (Japanese laurel), Hedera colchica (Persian ivy), Catalpa bignonioides (Indian bean tree), Callistemon citrinus (crimson bottlebrush) and Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan palm), mimicking both rainforest and desert conditions. Without hard landscaping and heavy propping the impact of plants alone would not be so great, but in combination they create a convincing scene for derring do.


Adventure Isle and The Black Pearl


Achieving the desired look is as much about the maintenance regime as it is about the choice of plant. In places shrubs are tightly clipped to accentuate a curve or lead the eye towards a focal point. In other areas they are permitted to drape, cascade and move freely in order to give an impression of wild abandonment. The whole landscape is carefully calculated and calibrated to heighten the visitor experience.


A pleasantly shaded walk, off Disneyland’s Central Plaza


At the end of my five-day experience I find that most of my preconceptions about Disneyland were affirmed: it’s a little bit tacky, although done so well one has to let it go (you see what I did there?) and inexcusably expensive. Overall, it would not be my bag were it not for the pleasure I derived from spending time with Martha and my sister. But I did heartily appreciate all the effort that had gone into the landscaping, maintaining it well and making the park as attractive to wildlife as it was to humans. Because of that, I can now furnish the other side of my entrance ticket with the list of plants I spotted, which technically doubles what I know about Disney. TFG.


An artfully sculpted Fatsia japonica on Adventure Isle


Categories: Flowers, Foliage, hotels, Landscape Design, Large Gardens, Parks, Photography, Plants, Theme Parks, Travel, Trees and Shrubs

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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24 comments On "The Magical Landscapes of Disneyland Paris"

  1. Brilliant post Uncle Dan, thank you for embracing the whole ‘Disney’ thing. Martha is very very lucky to have an Uncle with such knowledge to share with her as she grows up, and in return she can teach you all about Disney Princesses!

  2. Love this post – so good to get out of our comfort zone from time to time! I really hope the gardeners at Disneyland get to enjoy your comments…

    1. Do you know, I didn’t see a single gardener Jean. I guess they must do their work when the park is closed, but that still doesn’t give them terribly long as it’s open 8.30am – 10.30pm.

  3. You might be perhaps the first person to write about Disneyland without including any of the real reasons for going there, but I did enjoy reading about the gardens. I especially liked the garden with the tulips at the entrance to the hotel. I have to say that if a garden becomes fully fledged in ‘only’ thirty years, I am going to run out of time!

    1. I think that’s more about the trees and their rate of growth in our climate. Your climate is warmer so it should take less time. Anyway, most of the fun is watching your garden grow.

      I was very glad of the distraction of the gardens as there’s an awful lot of queuing involved. I know the British are supposed to enjoy queuing, but there are limits!

  4. How fabulous….five days! I am sure you got to explore lots of different gardens during this time and are now familiar with numerous Disney characters as well. Great to hear how plants are used to accent a theme and create atmosphere appropriately. May not be a garden visit of your choice, but always interesting to see another perspective. Lovely post Uncle Dan…. x

    1. Thanks Helen. I am glad I’ve been once. Kat and I agreed it was only something we’d do again if it were Martha’s dearest wish when she’s a bit older. And then I think I’d want to visit the original so that I could compare and contrast. X

  5. I always enjoyed the gardens, landscapes, and architecture of Disney World Orlando. Hubby and I used to visit often when we lived in Orlando and enjoy the historical theme parks, such as Colonial America and the 1890s-1910s. You mentioned the US Masters course at Augusta and all those exuberant azaleas and rhododendrons banked under and among pines. I love seeing that area on television and miss that part of the South so much it aches. (We live in Washington state, the dry central area.)

    1. Ah, yes, rhodies and azalaeas like plenty of moisture. I expect every attention is lavished upon them at Augusta. We always want to grow the stuff we aren’t suited for, don’t we?

  6. Martha is a lucky girl to have such a talented and artistic uncle! She may not realize it now, but hopefully will in the future.
    Thanks for your knowledgeable and fun posts!

    1. My pleasure Leslee. She loves me really. I hope she will come to love my eccentricities too. We currently share a great passion for ‘toilet humour’. I find that always resonates with children!

  7. You area very good uncle and brother. I cannot imagine much worse than five days (FIVE DAYS!) in Disney Hell. Well done, and poor you, and don’t go back.

  8. Much Kudos to you, Dan. I’ve never taken my three (who are now 18, 16 and 14) to Disneyland although they would all have loved to go when they were younger. The 14-yr-old probably still would! Really interesting to see the landscaping – it looks far nicer than I thought it would (particularly like the Frontierland planting).

  9. Thanks for this, Dan. I grinned through half of your post! Can just picture Martha
    rolling her eyes…
    Never been to Disneyland myself but this reminded me of my only outing to a theme park, years ago: I was an intern then at a gardening mag and the editor felt his team deserved a day out as a reward for good sales figures or some such. They chose said theme park and to disguise the “day off” from management higher up, it was presented as a “research trip” into the gardens/ planting/ landscaping of this park… We did have a guided tour by the head gardener (and I remember being as surprised and impressed as you were), but it wasn’t really what the team had come for 🙂 .

  10. What an odd selection of material. It sort of makes you wonder how they decided on what to use in their landscapes. So much of it seems to be so American.

  11. Hi Dan, I’m glad you got to see some gardens you wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and I appreciate your eye for their merits. I did a similar post on my own blog a few years ago about Universal Studios park in Orlando, FL, which you might find interesting:
    My photos weren’t as beautiful as yours, but I was similarly impressed with how much creativity and maintenance went into the landscaping there.
    Best, -Beth

    1. Great post Beth. I think I’d be very at home in the Jurassic zone (in terms of plants, not age!). If I ever go to another theme park, it will be to one of the ‘proper’ ones in the USA.

  12. Thanks for opening my eyes a bit. Being a total themeparkophobe, I’ve never had the slightest inclination to go anywhere near Disneyland but now I’m wondering whether a short break (if there is such a thing) just to look at the planting might be worthwhile.

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