By Jo Biddle
Pailly, France - It's a plot straight out of one of the Asterix comic books, with the plucky Gauls battling the foreign invaders and beating them at their own game.
This time the Gallic village in the form of the compact Asterix theme park just north of Paris is taking on the Americans in the guise of the sprawling Euro Disney site to the east of the French capital, and coming up trumps.
Whereas Euro Disney has struggled financially since its launch in the early 1990s despite attracting 13-million visitors a year from all over the globe, the smaller Asterix park, opened in 1989, has turned in a profit since 1999 and that with a mainly French clientele.
|'The Americans are very difficult'|
"We have the advantage of not being too in debt, and also of dealing with completely different volumes," the director of Asterix park, Alain Trouve, told reporters.
With its two million visitors a year, 85 percent of which are French, the park registered almost 67-million in turnover in 2004 and again turned in a profit.
Euro Disney on the other hand has already had to restructure its finances twice as it struggles to service a 2,4-billion.
Trouve links the Asterix park's success to the Asterix comic book characters who are anchored in French popular culture and a rigorous management of the park which only opens for 160 days a year.
"The idea was to bring the characters on the page alive as well as their spirit. To refind the humour, convivality and the strength of the characters and to put that all in a park," he said.
|'And you know the Gauls like to fight'|
Thus Asterix park has many of the usual white-kuckle and water rides aimed at the young and fearless, but also includes a representation of a Gallic village in 50 BC where actors mingle with the public leading to hilarious mayhem.
Another difference to Euro Disney are the shows put on in Asterix park with everything from musketeer sword fights, to birds-of-prey, to pure slapstick comedy and acrobatics.
This year a new magic show has been introduced, as the park, part of the Grevin and Compagnie group, consolidates its budget forseeing larger investment for several planned new attractions in 2006 and 2007 - partly in response to plans outlined by Euro Disney.
For visitors it is a magic formula which seems to be working.
"It's more real here. I'm a big Obelix fan and I think it's less expensive here and there are more attractions. It's more alive and less commercial," said 21-year-old Vanessa Fricheteau from Seine-et-Marne.
Her boyfriend David Dubief, 24, readily agreed, saying they came at least once a year to enjoy the atmosphere, but said that it was a shame there were not more foreign visitors as "the comics have been well-exported".
Schoolgirl Catherine Jones, 14, on a trip with her school from south Wales, was enjoying the lack of queues, and said she did not find it off-putting that all the signs were in French along with the shows.
"I think it's really good here. There are more rides and different types of attractions that I enjoy here compared to Euro Disney," she said, admitting she only knew the Asterix characters from the videos.
Trouve said the park management was working on trying to attract more Europeans, but acknowleged the pool of affluent Americans and Japanese tourists who roam Europe remained elusive.
"The Americans are very difficult because the characters are not as well known there, or in Japan," he said, adding that thanks to sites owned by Grevin in the Netherlands and Britain, the company was "gaining a better understanding of the markets there" in the hope of attracting more northern Europeans.
Blacksmith Jacques Gauthier has worked for the past 10 years in the park's forge showing visitors the tricks of his trade after deciding to quit life in industry.
The park, which employs 180 permanent staff and 1 200 temporary staff for the season, had made a difference to the local economy, he said.
"It's a huge company, and this gives me a window to try to recycle my skills to others," said the 54-year-old from nearby Pont Saint Maxence.
But not everyone was satisifed.
Sophie Dellerie, who had brought her two young sons from the northern Pas-de-Calais region, said she was unimpressed by her first trip and would head back to Euro Disney next time.
"There are not enough signs and we keep getting lost. Plus I think there is more to do there."
Trouve remains nonplussed about the competition saying it was very good to have the world's number one theme park on his doorstep.
"The fight is even stronger. And you know the Gauls like to fight. We like to have a Roman to hit from time to time, so from time to time we say bad things about Euro Disney. But it's very, very motivating."