Christmas is a special time to share precious moments with the ones we love, and the same is true at Disneyland Paris. To celebrate the holidays, Imagineers and cast members at the park have decided to share their most cherished Christmas memories – starting with Yves Ben Yeta, creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering.
When was your first Christmas at Disneyland Paris?
My very first Christmas at Disneyland Paris was in 1992. We had barely recovered from finishing the construction and opening the park when before we knew it, we were drawn into that dreamlike holiday mode! What a wonderful memory, but I especially remember the following Christmas where we participated directly and were asked to conceive a taller and more striking tree. Its metal structure was designed in Florida and when it arrived, I was impressed by its monumental dimensions. Just to be sure and in preparation for the future, as is often done at Disney, the engineer in charge of it made it gigantic. Today, although the tree decorations have changed, the same structure is used.
I was in charge of the lighting design for the Disneyland Paris Christmas tree. It was very different from the one we have now and sparkled in the same way as the Sleeping Beauty Castle did during that time. There were very few colors, mostly white like the star at the top of the tree. At the time, there was no programmer to be found on the market who was able to control all the bulbs – there were so many! so, solutions had to be found to do things differently. I started with the light strings we all have at home: almost all of the light bulbs are normal, except for the one that contains a small device breaking the circuit intermittently, allowing the light bulbs to flash. This gave me the idea that our tree should only have bulbs with breakers and in that way, we wouldn’t need a programmer. Each one was independent and flashed at its own pace. It was really beautiful. It was an experience that left a lasting impression on me. After all, you don’t get to work every day on a tree of this size!
Those first Christmases at Disneyland Paris were full of emotion for me. Everything we did, or almost everything we did, was new. Like the decorations on Main Street, U.S.A. When we went to the manufacturers to tell them how much material we needed, they had a hard time believing us. I recall that the number of garlands in the park alone represented enough to make a round trip from Paris to Disneyland!
The luminous arches of Main Street, U.S.A. are still among the most striking decorations in the history of Disneyland Paris! Can you tell us more about them?
These Christmas arches were inspired by the Italian tradition of the “Luminari” and made here in France. The motifs were directly linked to the Christmas tree, and in particular, the patterns of the snowflakes. The tree was lit first, and then went on to the arches reaching all the way to Central Plaza, touching the Sleeping Beauty Castle. This allowed for the two ends of Main Street, U.S.A. to be linked and create a single show. It was magnificent!
Another nice Christmas project was the “it’s a small world” Celebration.
We called it “Celebration” because we had noticed that at this time of the year, almost all the people of the world celebrate light. In winter, the days get shorter but around Christmas time, the trend is reversed. Everywhere on the planet, people light bonfires or candles to reassure themselves: it’s Diwali in India or Hanukkah in Israel. There is a bond throughout all of humanity, whether we like it or not. Everywhere we see people divided but we prefer to focus on what can connect them, unite them. It was a complicated project because we didn’t want to make any mistakes. We contacted the cultural representatives of the embassies involved and collected authentic information about the various celebrations. The Costuming department did a remarkable job in making all the dolls’ outfits according to their respective local traditions.
You have worked in several Disney Parks around the world, including Tokyo Disneyland. What is Christmas like there?
Even if it is not their tradition, Christmas is celebrated in an exceptional way. In Tokyo Disneyland, much like the city of Tokyo, you can attend spectacular light shows. The Japanese will line up for several days just ot be sure to be able to take part in the park celebrations! In the United States, it’s wonderful too. I once celebrated Christmas in California. What was the most different there was the temperature! Much warmer, so an interesting experience for those of us who are used to cold weather Christmas seasons. There are things that were created here at Disneyland Paris that have inspired the American parks. For instance, our first Christmas of ice, blue, and white quite inspired Disneyland Resort!
What moves you most about Christmas in the parks?
During this period, I love going to the park very early in the morning. The sunrise is absolutely heavenly. The sky is beautiful and the sun outlines the silhouettes of the buildings like you’ve never seen. These are magical moments that I enjoy capturing with photography.
And there is also a nostalgic side of me. You know, from time to time, my job leads me to walk in the park in order to look at the scenery and the lights. But when I come at Christmas as a guest with my family, for me, the show is no longer the décor or the lights. It is the face of my granddaughter. Looking at her reactions, the twinkle in her eyes, the lights that illuminate her face… it’s just so very moving. I see my daughter in my granddaughter – I took her to the park for Christmas almost 30 years ago and now, she’s reliving it all again, via her own daughter! For me, it’s a moment of marvel and nostalgia… an integral part of the magic of Christmas at Disneyland Paris.
What exactly is the secret of this Christmas magic, unique to Disneyland Paris?
I will tell you a personal anecdote. Several years ago, when my son was a little boy, I was lining up with him to take a picture with Santa Claus in a shopping center. He was very excited. We were moving forward little by little and at one point, when we were almost there, he said, “Let’s go!” I was very surprised. We had waited half an hour and I was not going to leave now. However, he insisted, “It’s not Santa Claus! Look at his shoes!” Indeed, “Santa” had all the rest of his costume, but my small little guy had noticed that his shoes did not go with the rest. So for him, it was obvious that it wasn’t the real thing.
This story explains my attention to detail when it comes to creating the magic at Disneyland Paris. It is a constant preoccupation. Magic is all those little details that change and mean everything. Case in point, we are fortunate to have a park that is particularly abundant with lights, especially Main Street, U.S.A. This is as much due to the large Christmas garlands as it is to the small lights that run along the rooftops. They are discreet and simple, but they make all the difference.
There are also all our chimneys and fireplaces. With all of the fireplaces in the stores, restaurants, and the chimneys on the rooftops, it was the designers’ strong desire to have as many as possible because they create a warm and friendly environment. During winter, when it’s cold and we arrive at someone’s house, we take off our coats and are offered a hot chocolate while we warm up in front of the fireplace. This is a detail, but it is also essential to bring the magic of Christmas to life.
What is your Christmas wish?
For me, it’s pretty obvious: good health, ending this crisis as quickly as possible and returning to a normal life to enjoy the simple things. Being able to see your children, your friends, hugging your loved ones, walking in the park… A crisis like this one teaches us that what we take for granted, what seems natural and obvious to us are in fact, not to be taken for granted. That’s why we need to refocus on what is really important. Starting with… Merry Christmas!