France: Jardin d'Acclimatation. From Human Zoo to Disneyland Avant la Lettre

Smile! You're on camera!
A kids' entertainment park in Paris that's a lot more fun than Uncle Walt's Magic Kingdom.

Why visit?
Kids are kids. And the temptation to take them to Disneyland Paris can be strong. But don't waste your time, we say.

Why take them to a faux-American experience (and pay through the nose for the privilege) when you can have a splendid day out in a very Parisian leisure park, with 150 years of history?

The Jardin d'Acclimatation offers rides, activities and kids' fun- in true Parisian style. And with a dirty little secret to boot...

At the north end of the Bois de Boulogne, on the west side of Paris. Next door to the new Fondation Louis Vuitton. Map

WHAT'S IN A name? The 'Garden of Acclimatisation' may not be an obvious name for a children's leisure park. When Napoleon III opened the Jardin at the height of the Second Empire, this was a botanical exhibition, where plants and animals from France's ever-expanding colonies could acclimatise and get used to grey, rainy skies. 

The Parisian bourgeoisie showed up in droves to gawk at giraffes, camels and bamboo shoots. There were no Mickey Mouse ears for sale, but it was a fun and adventurous day out for the whole family. 

But the fun didn't stop there: like Disney, the park regularly added new attractions and in 1877 a new exciting attraction was opened: an ethnological garden, or, less prosaically, a human zoo. Why look at wild animals when you can ogle human 'savages'? Suddenly, Disney's crass commercialism doesn't feel quite as evil...

Collections of Nubians, Inuit, and later Hottentots and Amerindians attracted massive crowds. It was a blockbuster success that would have made Disney Corp envious: in its first year of exhibiting humans, visitor numbers doubled to one million. 
The human zoo continued until 1931, when political correctness had progressed far enough that it was no longer deemed appropriate to put humans in cages for entertainment. 

Faced with this disappearing stream of revenue, the Jardin embarked on a rebranding strategy and positioned itself as a family-oriented leisure park- well before Mickey and his mates ever settled on the opposite side of Paris.

There are still animals- pampered city kids can come and look at exotic birds and massive cattle, and frequently complain about the solid stench emitted by the otherwise friendly goats.  
We have no idea what kind of bird this is but it sure looks wild and exotic. 
There are plenty of rides- none of them with famous cartoon characters but with lots of old-fashioned character. For little-ones that need a shot of adrenaline there's a zip line, a mini-rollercoaster and a swing ride that's wild enough to make grown-ups sea sick. A oldie-but-goodie is the Rivière Enchantée (Enchanted River) ride, which must have been a thrilling event when it was opened in 1927. It can no longer be considered hair-raising but is a favourite with many younger kids. 
Get me out of here already!

Zip-sliding away.
Apart from all these fancy rides (which require tickets) there are plenty of playgrounds, and if you come on one of the five sunny days that Paris sees every year, there's a water playground that cannot be resisted: do bring some dry clothes. 

The Jardin is also an informal center of sorts for the city's Japanese community. The focal point is the Kiso house, a 150-year old Japanese house that was transported here. There are regular performances- various Japanese festivals are observed, in particular the Japanese tradition of Hanami, picnic under the cherry blossoms, which takes place in April. 
A Japanese festival featuring giant puppets. 
And to provide a bit of Yin to the Japanese Yang, there's a Korean garden as well. 
Seoul-ful gardening. 
There's plenty of other stuff to keep your rug rats busy- from pony rides to splash painting, from crepe stands to trampolines, more than enough to make your kids forget about Disneyland- and if you're like us, you won't remind them either. 

Oh, if your kids (or you) are art & architecture buffs- you can't miss the spanking new Fondation Louis Vuitton, a curvy, glittery Frank Gehry building funded by the gaudy handbag emporium. The general consensus is that the building itself is much more interesting than the art it hosts, but keep an eye out for special exhibitions. (A warning for our Chinese shoppers: there are no handbags for sale here.)
No handbags here. 

Getting there:
The Jardin is walking distance from Les Sablons metro stop on Line 1. For the full-on experience (and to preserve the energy of Grandpa and Grandma before reaching the garden) there is the Petit Train, a mini train that runs from Port Maillot (Allée des Erables, the north-east corner of the Bois de Boulogne) straight into the Jardin

There's also a handy shuttle from Charles de Gaulle-Etoile (corner Ave Friedland) straight to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, from where you can enter the Jardin through the backdoor, so to speak.  

A note on cost: there's a small entrance fee of €3 to enter the garden. All the playgrounds as well as the mini-zoo are free, but the rides require payments in the form of 1,2 or even 3 tickets. Tickets are sold at the entrance and at various points throughout the park (but not at the rides.) A single ticket costs €3.90 but it's a much better deal to buy a carnet of 15 for €35. 

There are plenty of food stalls and restaurants throughout the park but you are free to haul your own food for picnics. 

Useful links:
The official website.
Fondation Louis Vuitton