Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sweet Dreams in Disneyland

I’m writing this in a medieval castle. Sitting in my turret room, I look out over lush gardens resplendent with topiary and a lake. There are servants dressed in flowing uniforms. The idyllic style winding its way through the entire castle conjures memories of times long past. The walls are adorned with beautiful frescoes and the building itself is an expression of the most important elements of French history.

Those last two sentences are not mine, of course, but quoted straight from the brochure of the Dream Castle Hotel in Disneyland Paris. A dream castle that’s probably my worst nightmare. I have a fleur de lys wallhanging in my room next to a picture of a princess kissing a frog. Built in 2004, it’s one of several “theme” hotels that have sprung up around Disneyland. This one is a cross between King Arthur and The Three Musketeers. Joanna and I have brought Sam and a 10-year-old classmate to celebrate the start of the summer holidays. Last night we endured “culinary delights in a historical environment, an authentic buffet selection of French and European regional cuisine”. I think you get the picture: all you can eat for 25 Euros. Last night was “Italian night” and Mussolini must have been turning in his grave.

Why is it that hoteliers assume that if you cater for children you have to throw style, quality and good cooking out of the window? The Italians have it sorted: from the cradle children accompany their parents to proper restaurants in the evening. They eat adult food or they starve. We British only feel comfortable with our children in “family” restaurants, where we are forced to eat bland overcooked food which we accept because the kids are having such a ball. The consequence is, our children end up with picky tastes, don’t eat their vegetables, and this morning Joanna and I have indigestion. I guess the Dream Castle Hotel can be forgiven, though. It is owned by Austrians, so it’s unlikely that they’ll ever allow haute cuisine to permeate its castle walls. Austria: home of schnitzel and strudel. Enough said.

Sam’s friend is vegetarian, which is a bit tricky in a chicken nugget laden place like Disneyland. I felt rather sorry for him as he pushed his “authentic” cheesy pasta (more flour than cheese) and soggy broccoli round his plate. I just hope there’s a decent vegetarian alternative to “Cattleman’s Chili” at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show tonight.

I wouldn’t know what to do if my child turned vegetarian. Boarding school, probably. My eldest daughter has contracted the disease, but thankfully she waited until she left home. Like all flesh-eating parents, I still hope it’s just a fad, and whenever she stays I provocatively cook bacon in the morning to try to awaken her comatose taste-buds.

Scotland cured my first wife. Jilly had been a veggie for six years before we met and all my attempts at healing had been in vain until one summer we went to the Edinburgh Festival with our first born. Ben was just six weeks old, and we were staying on the top floor of a rather smart hotel overlooking the Castle. On Sunday lunchtime we carried the baby in his Moses basket down to the Carvery. While Jilly inspected the cauliflower cheese, I sliced off a solitary doorstep of Aberdeen Angus. That did it. She took one look at the beef, and dived in. After six huge portions she hauled me back to our hotel room to sleep it off. It was two hours later that we realized we’d completely forgotten the baby. We dashed downstairs to find him still happily sleeping in his basket under the restaurant table.

With another baby on the way – my fifth and Joanna’s first – I regret this won’t be my last trip to Disneyland. I’m not sure I’ll be doing Space Mountain at 65, but I guess there’ll be at least one more of these theme hotels to suffer. Unless someone has the bright idea of creating an adult-friendly hotel at Disneyland, complete with Gordon Ramsay restaurant and a swimming pool they don’t allow children to urinate in. Now that really would be a dream castle.

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