Hi! It’s Annie!
A while ago I mentioned my absolute dream theme park. This being Efteling, a fairytale theme park located in the Netherlands. If you’re a fan of 80s fantasy movies; such as Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ starring David Bowie (my favorite movie of all time), ‘The NeverEnding Story’, or even ‘Lady Hawke’, then I highly recommend this park. It appeals to both lovers of that and fairytales from all over the world. Many of which most people aren’t familiar with anymore. So if you’re thinking that this sounds like an old park; that’s because it is. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been kept updated and that it isn’t modern. In fact, Efteling has made many major modern advances in the past years that no other park has kept up with. Though, some of this modernization was a long time coming. I’m going to go over the changes Efteling has made and what makes this park so modern even if it was originally opened quite a while ago.
The original idea for Efteling was only the large portion of the park called the Fairytale Forest. This was the first part of the park built, and it was built to be as environmentally friendly as possible. The cottages, smaller buildings, and statues used to tell these fairytale stories were built in between existing greenery in the area. The natural trees in the surrounding area that were taken down ended up amounting to a very small number. And this has kept going. Though more of the natural trees were taken down as they added to the park; the park still aims to keep as much of the natural scenery as possible. Which is much more than most worldwide theme parks can say. The nature also serves to cover the skyline so that the park feels more immersive. You can’t really see the outside world beyond the park; so you almost feel as though you’ve been transported somewhere completely new. This is a trick that Disneyland uses, and I always appreciate a park more for the simplistic things it does to really make the guests feel immersed in another world.
Before Disney finally listened to the fans and opened a ride within their castle at Shanghai Disney, Efteling had already responded to the interest in the possibility of a ride actually being located inside the park’s castle years before. ‘Symbolica’ is a dark ride, but it’s also very interactive and completely trackless. And yes, Efteling did come up with and fully utilize this trackless system before Disney did. ‘Symbolica’ follows the mascot of Efteling, a magical jester of sorts, as he takes you through the palace of fantasy. There are three tracks on this ride; the Hero tour, the Music tour, and the Treasure tour. There is only one difference between each of these tours, which is the major interactive scene in the ride. On the Treasure tour you interact with a box of treasure, on the Hero’s tour you can make two heroes fight each other, and the Music tour allows guests to experiment with different musical sounds. The ride is also complete with a ‘Dark Crystal’ style observatory, a very adorable whale, and a waltz at the end with stacks of pancakes. The only party worth attending, in my opinion. And all of the effects are practical for the most part. I am personally a huge fan of immersive entertainment, and as much as I enjoy digital effects on rides sometimes, I don’t usually find them to be particularly immersive. This opinion seems to be growing in popularity with theme park goers. So when maybe a couple years ago the digital effects would have been considered modern; I think the trackless style here accompanied with practical effects feels more modern. I prefer something to be right there in the room with me, rather than just on a screen.
Now this… I am really not hyping up the park for in any way. I think theme parks in particular have been some of the worst about dragging their feet regarding negative stereotypes depicted in their parks. We’re all looking at you ‘Splash Mountain’. Seriously, the fact that it still hasn’t closed for Disney to change it yet, is making me just a bit angry. But Efteling was definitely on par if not worse. The park once held a teacup style ride entitled ‘Monsieur Cannibale’ after a song and story of a similar name. Efteling first opened in 1952, so over the years they have been slowly taking out several racist caricatures that really shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But, bafflingly, no offensive imagery has stayed as long as ‘Monsieur Cannibale’ had; a ride where the guests get into boiling pots and the cannibal is portrayed as a massive racist caricature. It really doesn’t help that, glaringly awful racism aside, the story and song accompanying this ride is REALLY not kid friendly. The song (or poem) is very sexual in nature. I think most park goers were surprised at how long it took them to get rid of, or at least re-theme, this ride. Finally a couple years ago they closed the ride down for good and released art for the re-theming. But the fact that it took them that long is still baffling. It wasn’t like the ride was subtly racist; it was glaringly so. But at least Efteling closed the ride immediately even if it meant they weren’t quite ready to do construction on it. That’s more than I can say for Disney. But that really isn’t saying much at all.
This show is probably the most insane show I’ve ever seen come from a theme park. Many people who have vacationed with their families at Disneyland California might recall also using their vacation time to attend ‘Medieval Times’. A dinner and tournament not too far from Disney and located right next to Knott’s Berry Farm. This dinner experience is a completely immersive show including live falcons, real sword fighting, and a storyline to go along with it. With a story and show this immersive, it makes sense that it would be a business all on its own. But in Efteling, you don’t have to look outside of the park to find this kind of immersive experience or show. Though, admittedly, ‘Raveleijn’ is more like a twenty minute show rather than the hour-ish long experience you get at an actual dinner show; it includes all of what I mentioned above. Real sword fights, live birds (though ravens instead of falcons), and a storyline to boot. This storyline even includes statuesque knights who fade into the river and beneath the water once defeated. Though this show doesn’t run year round often, it’s an insane addition to the park.
I’ve been mostly proving the modernization of this park by comparing it to practices of other parks, so I might as well keep going. Disney has been known to get rid of original pieces that were well loved in the park (NOT ‘Splash Mountain’). I am constantly baffled when Disney takes out a well loved ride and then keeps ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’. A ride where you quite literally end up in hell at the end. Efteling is really good at expanding on what they already have and taking out what they need. Though they aren’t very timely about taking out what they need. Efteling has kept their Fairytale Forest in a similar fashion to what it was, but just amps it up so that it doesn’t age badly. Also, one of their most popular rides, ‘Dream Flight’ is very original but is kept up wonderfully. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold all the charm that it used to. Efteling sees what works and improves on it, rather than replacing.
I know I’ve been making some pretty pointed digs at Disney (and Universal a little) all throughout this post, and I am not saying that I don’t like Disney! Disneyland is one of my favorite parks and I grew up going to the location in California. But I feel as though Disney often feels like they have no competition or goes a cheaper route because they feel that something can’t be done any better than the way they’re doing it. And Efteling is a clear example of something being completely amazing and doing things differently. I am a complete geek over immersive experiences and Efteling became my top choice of theme park to go to because it checks off so many boxes for me in that regard. As you can tell, I want to go very badly! Not just because it’s escapism, but because this entire park feels almost like a work of art. I would love to see this passion again in other parks too and even more of a dedication to immersive entertainment!
See you across the pond!