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The problem for me as a closted queer kid in rural Britain, was that my parents weren’t Disney parents. Bragging rights at school always belonged to the kids with families who would fly to Orlando each year – bringing back gut-wrenching stories of riding Space Mountain, Big Thunder and Tower of Terror. Instead of fixating on jealousy, I turned my energy to convincing my parents to take us. When that didn’t work – I had to find a way to make my Disney holiday dream come true.

When I was 14, I managed to convince my mum and dad to let me go to Disneyland with my best friend. The conditions were set; I was to write a formal letter to Disney to ask their rules on unaccompanied teenagers. If we were allowed, I had to call home twice a day from City Hall and we were never to leave the resort. I remember the excitement when Disneyland Paris confirmed we could, indeed, come with our parents’ permission. The trip was booked with money saved up from my weekend job. I was going to Disney. 

The memories I made on that first trip will stay with me forever. It was the summer I came out. Disneyland, for me, represented a place free of fear and judgement. I didn’t quite know why, but there was something very reassuring about the place. 

My child-hood visit to Disneyland Paris in 2009. Photo by William Howell-Jackson.

On returning, however, those same jetsetting friends couldn’t help but tell me Disneyland Paris was the ‘less good’ version of Florida. It was Disney, sure, but it is Disney-lite. 

I remember quickly developing a fierce protection for the European Disney resort. I obsessed over videos from the 1992 opening. I wrote an email to one of the (then called) Euro Disney Imagineers from the park’s opening. He responded by sending me a book detailing the building of the Paris park, signed, which only brought me closer to feeling a part of it all. Although you can’t argue Disney’s foray into Europe was a rockier one in the 90’s, the place has a charm and level of detail unrivalled in the ‘Magic Kingdom’ parks globally.

A decade later, I became the CEO of GAY TIMES. A company with its own rich history in helping people explore and find their true inner-self. So – on the eve of our company’s 40th anniversary, a fair few years on Disneyland Paris, I decided to celebrate my 29th Birthday at the resort. I wasn’t sure what to expect by my return to my childhood home away from home but I was as excited as I was all those years ago.

Paris' Big Thunder Mountain is a fan-favourite. Turbo-charged for thrill-seeking European visitors.

Diehard Disney fans know the European parks have had a fascinating history behind the scenes. Under then CEO, Michael Eisner, Euro Disney opened in the middle of a continent-wide recession, with a corporate structure that appeared, at times, too complex – the holiday destination was unique in being publicly traded on the stock exchange, rather than solely controlled by The Walt Disney Company.

Since my last visit, the park was purchased back from private owners and brought back into the fold by The Walt Disney Company – a move widely applauded by fans. CEO, Bob Iger, orchestrated the change and immediately set about prioritising its future. The impact of this move was evident from the moment we stepped off the train at Marne-La-Vallée, the transport hub right outside the park.

The resort, compared to the one I visited 10 years ago, still has that same magic, but has undoubtedly seen more love and attention in recent years. The resort has just celebrated its 30th Birthday – only a year older than me. Every building looks flawless, every ride is open with every on-ride detail present and correct. Even that pesky popcorn lighting that trims the edges of buildings on Main Street is illuminated and shining brightly (seriously, we couldn’t see one bulb not working!)

For the workers who make Disney, Disney, called ‘Cast Members’ – it’s clear all this recent love and attention has allowed them to focus less on the politics of running a park, and more on the place and people they serve. It’s that sense of make-believe that allows guests to really immerse themselves into the magic, where the outside world becomes temporarily non-existent.


I’ve always maintained that Disney has long reflected on identity. The idea we can all become a better, truer version of ourselves. Watch any of the nighttime spectaculars or listen to any of the parade songs and you’ll often hear motivational phrasing about being who you are, aspiring to achieve your dreams and making memories with loved ones. It’s in this that the rare exception of encouraging the ‘outside’ world to come in has happened. 

Walking down Main Street to ‘Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant’ 10 years later, I notice hundreds of Cast Members proudly wearing LGBTQ+ badges (or ‘pins’ in Disney parlance). I couldn’t help but think, in the absence of visible pride ten years ago, I perhaps felt that overwhelming sense of belonging amongst LGBTQ+ working folk – not that I knew it.

Disneyland Paris' world-first Ratatouille ride, a technologically advanced attraction for all ages.

This time, the display of their out and proud identities were right there on their lapels. Coming back to the park in the capacity of a leader at a world-known LGBTQ+ company meant conversations with Cast Members were frequent, and more often than not, very touching. Hearing the workers talk to me about their pride not only in their roles, but in being able to proudly share who they are at work (in the place of make believe, no less) clearly went beyond anything they could have imagined as their younger self.

We were very fortunate to have been organised a tour guide for our stay. Our guide, Sascha, reflected back much of what I was sensing with my own experience. He too visited Disneyland Paris as a kid. He too found it an important part of his experience in learning who he was. A multilingual french-born cast-member, he gained the most sought after and prestigious job in Disney Parks by not just a keen love for the park, but his keen understanding of why it meant so much to people.

In spending well over 10 hours together in the resort, we had much time to reflect on why Disney has long been a loved place for queer people, why the Cast Member population has long over-indexed on LGTBQ+ representation and why we, as people, felt so at home there. 

We arrived at a theory that Disney has long created a space where any possibility, any ambition or dream has felt achievable and real. The feeling of possibility is one that many queer folk have often felt robbed of in their upbringing or later life. (To note, in more obvious ways, Disneyland Paris was also the first Disney resort globally to officially recognised Pride.)

Meeting numerous Cast Members, seeing the park more beautiful and thriving than ever (keep in mind we even visited in so-called low season, in wintery February) – I couldn’t help but reflect on those kids at school telling me I was in love with the less impressive sibling. 

As in any family, some kids are the childhood prodigy. Some command high-school and some flourish at university. However, sometimes the path to prosperity is a little rockier through those formative years. For some of us, and for many in the LGBTQ+ community, life feels a little more complicated when our peers are popular on the sports team or seemingly easily able to make friendships or relationships.

It’s not uncommon for queer folk to only find a sense of personal understanding, acceptance and belonging later in life. Serendipitous – perhaps – but whether it was my full-circle-moment re-entering my childhood dream in the vastly different feet I now step in, whether seeing the out and proud cast members across the parks since then, or whether seeing this coming of age first hand, personified in our tour guide, Sascha – it’s clear Disneyland Paris is entering a new era. An era where it knows who it is, it knows its own power and it knows its winning

At the end of our trip, we sat next to an American family at lunch. Judging by the numerous pins and mickey ears, they were true Disney fans. “This is our favourite Disney resort we’ve ever visited” they proudly told me. “It’s not as big as Orlando, it’s not the original in California…but…there’s just something about it” 

That ‘something’ – for me – all stems from its unique history. It’s history as the Disney park that had to persevere through numerous challenges, the park that had to often convince sceptics, the park that had to live up to its radiant older siblings. It’s a maturity, a self-knowingness and confidence that reflects its uniquely European setting and its love among queer guests and staff alike.

It may not be the biggest, it may not be the most-visited, but for me – it always has been the best. Now it’s time to share that with the world, as for Disneyland Paris, life truly has begun at 30.