Paris: Beautiful, but Not for Me

By Drew Curran

Recently I’ve been noticing how many people in the United States are creating their own realities. Individuals listen to one political news channel or point of view. They watch Netflix and the shows that are only curated to what they like. They don’t talk to anybody unless they know them. In supermarkets and public spaces, most Americans give off a closed-off vibe so other people do not approach them. I think this is terrible for our society as a whole. I truly feel that this leads people to hold manufactured animosity. If people listened to all viewpoints and other people’s experiences, they would see that humans are more alike than they are different.

Walt Disney World in Florida has always been my family’s favorite vacation spot. We go there almost every year because of its general atmosphere and accessibility policies. It is always clean, welcoming, and this adds to its magic. I had always enjoyed the Paris area at Epcot in Disney World. I thought it symbolized what I like best about French culture. In that area of the World Showcase, they have beautiful French music, some from the Disney movie Ratatouille, but not all, and a very good French restaurant that gives you the French fine dining experience. They just opened a crepe cafe next to the Ratatouille ride. It’s now my favorite restaurant in Epcot. As always, the people who work in the French area are all from France. Everybody who works in the World Showcase at Epcot is from the country that they work in. They are always super nice; friendly and willing to talk to you if time allows. Everyone works hard wearing a smile. My idea of Paris was a city of mostly friendly people with lots of music playing and beautiful surroundings. This was not what happened to me when my wheels finally touched the Paris pavement.

When my mom first told me that we were going on a Mediterranean cruise in Europe, I had a request and that was to see Paris and London. Those were the two places that I hadn’t been in the world yet that I really wanted to visit. We departed on May 16, 2023, to backpack through Europe for the three weeks prior to the cruise. We spent most of that time in London and Paris before traveling to Barcelona to get on the Disney Dream.

The first night we arrived at Disneyland Paris, we stayed at Disney’s three-star hotel, the Hotel Cheyenne. It was a Toy Story-themed hotel. Woody, the main character in the movie, is a cowboy doll, and the hotel is laid out in the theme of an old western town. They have a saloon and a horse corral, where children can take pony rides.

At the Hotel Cheyenne, we were told that an accessible room was in the first building to the right of reception. My mom and I went to this building and proceeded to have to go all the way around it to find the ramp. The ramp not only looked old and rickety, which would be the way it was supposed to look, but actually was old and rickety. When we got to the top, my mother noticed that there were no rails on the decks. At Disney in Florida, there are always rails every time you see a raised platform, but here, when we wanted to open the door I had to back up almost to the edge of the deck without any railing. Then, we proceeded to go through the doorway, which was not electric, so my mom struggled with the weight of it. We had to walk a long way down the hall, which, again, not only looked in disrepair and dirty but actually had paint coming off the walls and was not cleaned properly. Our room was lightly cleaned and barely accessible.

The following four nights we stayed at a nice accessible apartment next door to Disneyland Paris. It was on the top floor of the hotel but was styled differently than I thought it would be. The lobby and first two floors looked like a regular nice hotel you would see in the United States, but the other floors’ hallways were somewhat beat up and the lights only went on when they detected motion. Some of the hallways didn’t light up until I was already halfway down. The apartment was sparsely decorated and looked like we were in a Communist country. However, as far as convenience and accessibility, it was suitable.

We went to Disneyland Paris the following day. Most attractions were the same as Disney World. The Lion King show was uniquely French. It was as good as a Broadway show. During the musical numbers, some of the performers did acrobatic displays in the air, just like Cirque du Soleil. The hyenas’ costumes also had a French appeal. I was a little surprised when the costumes were almost see-through. I turned to my mom and said, “I really like this Disney show.”

In Paris, I detected the same closed-off vibe that I do in the United States. Most people went about their business; not talking to anyone unless they had to. The friendly people who helped us were the exception and not typical. Unfortunately, manufactured animosity is not limited to the United States.

The third day we spent in central Paris and saw most of the Louvre. The entire museum is so long it takes up a few city blocks. It’s funny when you talk about the Louvre in Paris. Everybody knows where it is because it has its own area of the city. My mother and I entered the museum through the glass pyramid, and it was even cooler than the pictures online. The elevator that travels down to the bottom floor of the museum is just a big platform that raises and lowers people up and down all day long. It is right out of a sci-fi movie. I think this kind of elevator is the way of the future for people with disabilities because you don’t have to deal with doors. It was also very cool because when traveling down you could look back up through the glass to the exterior at the beautiful blue sky. It was a work of art in itself.

The Louvre requires a lot of walking for people who don’t use a chair. There are many staircases around the museum as well, though there are also elevators. It takes days to see the entirety of the Louvre. We spent about five hours there and saw only two out of four floors.

Like most tourists, my mom and I went hunting for the Mona Lisa. Every time we passed through a different room and admired the paintings, we asked the tour guide how to find the Mona Lisa. All the staff we met at the museum were very nice. The tour guide was usually sitting down making sure no one touched the artwork. Every one of them gave us complicated directions on what elevator we needed to take in order to find her, and which galleries and hallways to travel through. When we got closer to our target, the hallways got even more packed with people.

We had now spent about an hour looking for the Mona Lisa. Before giving up, my mom decided to ask one more time. This time the young tour guide we met, whose name was Rose, offered to take us herself. After learning how long it would take to travel up the elevator and across the museum again, my mom said could she please show us how to exit? She said sure but decided to escort us through the ancient antiquities gallery, which was much less crowded and Rose said it was her favorite part of the museum. I found it very interesting. When we came out of the museum without having seen the Mona Lisa and passed a pizza place, there was an exact replica of her I could see through the window, on the wall.

After the Louvre, we found the Tourist Information Center for the city of Paris. It was physically challenging to get inside because they had an iron garden gate across the entrance. That was the way to get to the wheelchair ramp so I had to use this to access the front door. It was so narrow I bumped my elbow on the gate. Then it was difficult to turn to get up the ramp. When we made it inside, a tour guide helped us understand the bus route around the city. Her English was impeccable, so this was helpful as well.

I asked her what shows there were to see in Paris. She came back with the brochure for The Moulin Rouge, which was the one show I already knew about. When I went over and examined the brochures myself, I was surprised to see Moulin Rouge was the only show available in Paris other than Disneyland. I love going to see a play and I thought theater would be a bigger part of French culture.

We decided to take the riverboat cruise for dinner on the Seine. It was inaccessible to get on board but four men, including the maitre’d, placed down a ramp over the stairs leading to the boat so I was able to get on. The men attempted to keep my chair on the ramp when I was driving up it, but it was nerve-wracking. The boat was fairly large, holding at least two hundred people. It was similar to one deck of a cruise ship in size. When we finally started moving down the Seine, twilight was falling. It was beautiful.

I had heard on the Travel Channel that a Parisian cafe is like a French person’s living room. When they need to talk with friends they sit in cafes during the day and go to the riverbank at night. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before. There were hundreds of people along the riverbank for the entire length of the dinner cruise until the very end of the line when the boat turned around in an industrial area and headed back up the Seine. Our server was friendly but a little standoffish. At the end, when people started dancing, the server got a little friendlier. She began dancing with some of the customers.

On the way back we were headed towards the Eiffel Tower. It was nine in the evening. As we approached it, I stared at the tower along with everyone else on the boat. When it suddenly lit up with golden lights and silver sparkles, it was a magical moment. I’ve seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower at night. The images don’t compare to when you’re there and it first lights up. Its blue searchlight dances gracefully in the clear night sky.

After the riverboat cruise, it was almost eleven p.m. We already knew that Paris did not have accessible taxis, so we decided to take the subway back to our hotel near Disneyland Paris, which was forty-five minutes outside the city. That night was a little colder than usual. When we got to the counter for the subway, they gave us the tickets. The ticket agent talked to a large man who was going to help us. He then came out from behind the window to escort us to the platform.

My mom had asked if they had a ramp before but she didn’t get a straight answer from the ticket agent, so she attempted again. The man said in broken English, “No ramp. Just me,” as he pointed to his chest. I had to do everything in my power to hold back from laughing. The man said, “What if I get three guys to help you on the train?” My mom said, “Thank you but the chair is too heavy for any number of men to lift.” He spoke to the engineer of the train when it arrived who communicated to him that there were actually three subway companies in Paris. His company did not have ramps for any of their trains. We ended up going back down to the ticket booth and the ticket agent gave us a bus ticket. She told us that if we walked over the bridge there would be a bus shelter where we could wait for the bus.

My mother and I traveled along the side of the Seine like most Parisians. However, our memories weren’t calm and peaceful ones. I was concerned because we had been walking all day and by that point, my battery power on my chair was getting low, almost to the point of an emergency. I turned it off whenever we weren’t moving to conserve power. After getting lost once, we walked over the correct bridge and waited at the bus shelter for about twenty minutes. By this time, it was 12:30 a.m. and bus 91 was the last one to arrive for the night. When the bus finally came, the driver looked at us and kept driving. My mom frantically waved her arms for him to stop as he continued to drive past us. My mom ran after the bus a few feet as she yelled in a defeatist tone to please stop. By then the bus was out of sight.

At this point, I was getting nervous. Not only was it late into the night, but the street lamps were dim and there was no one in sight. After walking a little bit further, we saw a hotel so we decided to stop and get a room for the night. When we got to the door of the hotel, my mother tried the door and it would not open. It was one of those doors that you had to push the button and push the door in while you were holding the button down. It seemed to me to be too complicated to be a door of a hotel. When we finally made it through the door triumphantly, we were immediately greeted by an escalator. There was a mall on the level we were on and a hotel on the second floor. At this hour there was no one in sight to assist us or answer any questions.

I waited in the mall area while my mother went up the escalator to speak with the hotel receptionist. I enjoyed watching people try to get the entrance door open. It was very funny to watch. By the time I would make it over to help them, they had already figured it out. About twenty minutes later, a family who looked like they were as tired as I was, came in and gave me a smile. I was relieved because I was no longer alone. My mom finally arrived back, after more than half an hour, sharing with me that the receptionist felt bad because we already had a hotel. The rooms he had available were costly so he came up with another arrangement. After about twenty more minutes, he came down and said he had a friend with a handicapped van who was willing to take us back. When the van arrived, my chair fit inside it but I had to lie back the entire ride because I was too tall to sit straight up in my chair. Finally, we arrived forty-five minutes later. We thanked the man profusely for driving us. He said it was no problem and he was happy to do it. We paid him and said goodnight.

I have come to the conclusion that the Paris tourism board is the best in the world. Every movie that I have watched, whether it was made in France or America, has made Paris look like one of the can’t-miss destinations on Earth. It is a lovely city, and I’m glad I went there once, but I would hesitate to go back. In travel shows they never show you the many challenges or difficulties anyone might have; especially a person in a wheelchair. Before this trip, I would never say I preferred a manufactured environment to reality. There is a first time for everything and, in this case, I found the magic of Epcot was preferable to the reality of Paris.

As we readied to travel on to London, I hoped that commercialism didn’t cloud reality as it did in Paris. After seeing what passes for accessibility in Paris, I was more grateful to the United States and its people who fight for better accessibility. I feel horrible for the people with disabilities who have to live in countries where they don’t address the needs of the physically challenged.

In 2024, the Paralympic Games will be held in Paris. I have no idea how the city will hold the Paralympics, which take place the week after the Olympic Games in the host city. Thousands of disabled people will convene in Paris, and the city is nowhere near ready for that. Traditionally, the Paralympic Games have been an event that moves the disabled community closer to the inclusive world that most people would like to see. It remains to be seen if Paris will add to this legacy or be a barrier.

5 November, 2023