Let Them Eat Funnel Cake: A Napoleon-Based Theme Park for France

Feb 17, 2012
Originally published on February 17, 2012 5:45 pm

No celebrity can be truly world renown unless they have their own theme park. Mickey Mouse and Disney have theirs. Now, Napoleon might get his chance too.

Christian Mantei the head of Atout France, the tourism group supporting the endeavor, once told the The Economist that "bosses at Disneyland Paris once said that only Napoleon had the stature to take on Mickey Mouse".

Well, that epic battle may become a reality. The proposal calls for a 250-acre amusement park to celebrate the French Emperor, one that could "conquer the land of Mickey Mouse".

The Guardian reported that "Napoleonland" will be built near the town of Montereau, the site of a Napoleonic victory in 1814 and located only one hour from Paris... and Disneyland.

All the details about the project are scheduled to be revealed on Saturday, the 198th anniversary of Napoleon's battle at Montereau.

Current plans are to recreate some of Napoleon's famous battles through reenactments, including his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. If reenactments aren't your cup of tea however, other options are a water show documenting the Battle of Trafalgar or even a ski slope where skiers are transported through a simulated scene of Napoleon's disastrous campaign through Russia while skiing through "frozen corpses of soldiers and horses".

But, the attractions wouldn't be limited to Napoleon's battles. The Guardian and an artists' representation of the possible park details how visitors could experience famous moments of the French Revolution. Starting with the storming of the Bastille, where audience members would relive the progression of the revolution up to the beheading of Louis XVI at the guillotine.

For Yves Jégo, the project's creator — Montereau's current mayor and former French MP — the concept was not only about honoring Napoleon, but stirring economic growth.

Jégo told us that "the idea for the park came about as a way to create jobs and attract economic growth in the region". He predicts that the park could create almost 3,000 jobs and attract between one and two million visitors in its first year of operation.

In a recent blog post on his website, Jégo wrote that the estimated cost of the park would be 250 million euros with investments coming from a public-private partnership yet to be named.

For Jégo, "Americans had success with Disney, why not France with Napoleon?"

(Xavier Lacombe is a intern on NPR's Social Media Desk.)

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Talk about French leaders. It's two centuries since the heyday of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the man can still arouse powerful and conflicting sentiments. In 1803, Beethoven dedicated a symphony to the French conqueror, whom he saw as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution. But when the composer learned that Bonaparte had crowned himself emperor, he furiously scratched Bonaparte's name off the title page and later renamed it the "Eroica."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EROICA")

SIEGEL: Well, if you can't have a Beethoven symphony named for you while you're alive, how about a theme park a couple of hundred years after you die? In France, a member of parliament has announced plans for a theme park that's been dubbed Napoleonland, on the outskirts of Paris. It would feature both historical reenactments and some Napoleonic-themed rides: something aquatic for the Battle of Trafalgar, some pyramids for Egypt. Historian Peter Hicks works with the Napoleon Foundation in Paris. The foundation would likely authenticate what's done at the park. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PETER HICKS: Hello. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And from what you've read, would this thing that's been called Napoleonland be a fitting commemoration for Bonaparte?

HICKS: Well, I think it's a very interesting thing. It's been slightly put - they've shown it with a rather tongue-in-cheek way. They've portrayed it as a rather bit of a joke. And I think it's a bit more serious than that. The idea is it shows Napoleon and Napoleonic battles, namely, in a way that you can watch, so you're like having a history lesson while you sit and watch a historical show, as it were.

SIEGEL: How do the French regard - how do they teach the story of Napoleon Bonaparte? Is he remembered as the spirit of liberty across Europe or the dictator, the man who's sometimes mentioned by others along with Attila the Hun and Hitler?

HICKS: Yes, indeed. Unfortunately, that's the rather strange comparisons, but yes. In the national curriculum, in the books that they produce, it's a rather Republican view of Napoleon, Republican in the French sense. In other words, a discourse which shows Napoleon as a man who rendered France less than it was before the revolution, a man who caused lots of conscript soldiers to die in wars outside France, a man who bankrupted the country, a rather negative view. This is the sort of traditional view that comes out of the school books.

If you look at other books as slightly more, perhaps, right wing approach, then Napoleon is seen more as the bringer of glory, the man who brought a structure and order to France, who brought legal codes to Europe and who almost, despite himself, brought the, what they call the advantages of the French Revolution to places like Italy and Germany and Spain.

SIEGEL: Is he sufficiently of the distant past now, so that if there were a roller coaster that very imperfectly alluded to the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, it wouldn't be too much of a sacrilege?

HICKS: Oh, no. I think that would always be sacrilege. I think that's an interesting point, but I think, basically, this park is going to be living history. It's a place that will have reenactments of battles, for sure, but it will also have reenactments of bivouacs, so you can wander round the bivouac and see people dressed as soldiers of the period. You'll be able to see people reenacting - I hope and I expect - milk maids of the time, people reenacting just simple people of the time.

Houses. Seeing the context so that the whole thing is a larger-than-life historical lesson. This is certainly the way the (foreign language spoken) works. It's a medieval theme park that has jousting shows and I'm assuming that that's what this Napoleon theme park is going to resemble.

There's not going to be a roller coaster with Napoleon on the front or Josephine on the back. I mean, we at the foundation, I think we wouldn't be too impressed with something that was just like a - rather like a sort of historical Disney. That would be not quite what we want.

SIEGEL: And if it really snows in the winter, it can be Russia.

HICKS: Well, the (foreign language spoken) only operates in the summer, so I imagine this is probably an idea. That's the model they'll be using and so they'll be opening in April and closing in September. I imagine that's how it'll work. I don't know if you know, but in Europe, every year at Waterloo and various other Napoleonic battle sites, they have reenactments of Napoleonic battles and they're very popular. Thousands of people go and watch these things.

SIEGEL: Well, Peter Hicks, thanks very much for talking with us.

HICKS: It's been a delight. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Historian Peter Hicks is the director of international affairs for the Foundation Napoleon, the Napoleon Foundation in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.