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Locals long for Disney magic as shuttered Paris park hits jobs

Noemie Olive and Sarah White

Reuters

Val d'Europe, France  /  Tue, December 8, 2020  /  03:33 pm
Locals long for Disney magic as shuttered Paris park hits jobs

A view shows the closed restaurant Auberge Saint-Nicolas in Chessy near Disneyland Paris theme park, near Paris, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, on December 3, 2020. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Sleeping Beauty's castle stands empty at Disneyland's theme park outside Paris and the giant twirling teacups and other rides have ground to a halt until at least mid-February due to France's COVID-19 restrictions.

In neighboring towns, where hotels have sprouted over the past three decades, the silence is just as eerie - and locals are starting to fear for their jobs.

"As long as Disney doesn't open up again, as long as there are no tourists, there's no point crying victory even if we were able to open tomorrow," said Tomica Vajic, who owns four restaurants near the park.

Three of his eateries are running with reduced staffing, serving only takeaways for residents. Vajic and his wife Milena have tapped state-guaranteed loans to tide their business over but say they will have to put off their retirement by several years now they have taken on debts.

Two lockdowns to combat the coronavirus in France this year have pummeled the hospitality sector. Restaurants, for instance, will only be allowed to reopen by Jan. 20 at the earliest.

In Val d'Europe - a grouping of small towns around the Disney site, which also straddle several shopping centers and are home to about 50,000 people - the fallout is extensive.

Disney employs seamstresses for costumes, security staff and electricians among its range of more than 15,000 workers in France, said Philippe Descrouet, the mayor of one of the towns, Serris, and the head of Val d'Europe.

"Obviously it's a disaster right now," he said.

Including the malls, Val d'Europe and Disneyland Paris welcome more people a year than the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower put together, according to local authorities.

Despite reopening between lockdowns, visitors to the theme park dropped to 5,000-6,000 on some summer days compared to peaks of 60,000, Descrouet said.

Read also: Disneyland Paris to close again as France orders second virus lockdown

Empty streets

According to unions, Disney is in talks on around 1,000 departures or job conversions, as it steps up changes to shows it had envisaged even before the crisis.

Disneyland Paris did not comment on any talks with employees. A 2-billion-euro ($2.43 billion) plan to expand the theme park with new areas - including one based on Marvel superheroes - is on track, a spokesman said.

For now, most employees are on furlough schemes. Some said they were concerned that not all Disney hotels or attractions would reopen in February and a return to business as usual could be a long way off.

Even the area's population has shrunk.

"Many of the performers in the parades and shows were British and have gone home," said Valentin Markowski, a resident who once worked at the theme park. "The streets are empty."

About 25 million euros in tourist taxes collected in the area have evaporated this year, Descrouet said. He wants Disney to freeze some planned property developments on local land as authorities cannot keep up with the spending on infrastructure.

Frederic Reith, a 41-year-old environmental consultant sporting a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, said he would usually visit the park several times a week as a meeting place with friends.

"We normally hear a dozen different languages being spoken around us," said Reith. "We miss the diversity."

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