Getting to the Efteling by public transport was pretty straightforward, though the journey from Amsterdam Centraal Station takes around two hours including transfer time so it's probably a bit much to do all in one day. The journey involves getting the train to 's-Hertogenbosch, before changing to the 300 bus which drops you off right outside the main entrance.
We opted to stay at the Efterling Bosrijk, a holiday village in the woods. This worked out at around €100 cheaper than the hotel and gave us the option to self cater if we wanted to. The total cost of our stay for two nights, which included unlimited park access, tourist tax and reservation fees was €537, for three people.
However, when we got off the bus outside the park entrance, we couldn't see any signs for the Bosrijk Village. There was a large, heavily themed building to our left so we headed that way, thinking it was the hotel and that we could ask for directions from there. It turned out we had walked smack bang into head office. Now, I've never worked for a theme park so I've never seen any back of house areas, but let me tell you this was niiiiice, all fancy furniture, large fireplaces and shiny floors. Anyway, a bemused but very kind receptionist pointed us in the right direction, which was right up to the park's entrance, then a small forest trail to the right. The only reason for the lack of signs I can think of was that most people arrive by car, but this does seem at odds with the Dutch people's eco-sensibilities.
In any case, we got there in the end. Check-in was easy, every staff member we encountered spoke fantastic English, and, due to most of the visitors being from neighbouring countries, everyone seemed excited to chat with us and curious to know how we had heard of the Efteling.
Our apartment was situated in the Mansion House, at the rear of the property. It was large and well equipped, with a double bed, living area and kitchenette in the main area, a 'kids' bedroom with bunk beds and a cot (which I assumed comes as standard as our booking was for three adults), and a bathroom with a separate WC. What struck me was the quality of the building materials, something I know is important in the park itself, but I was impressed to see that it spread to the accommodation, with heavy wooden furniture, quality kitchen and bathroom fittings and marble window sills.
I love free stuff and I know a lot of theme park fans do, too, and the Efteling Bosrijk does not disappoint. The receptionist had told us about the Sandman (or in Dutch, "Klaas Vaak") and his upcoming visit to the village that evening. This theme had been continued into the accommodation with Klaas Vaak bedding, sleeping hats and a story book. The hats and the book are a gift that can be taken home with you, but more importantly, worn that evening as the Sandman tells his bedtime stories.
Other free stuff includes a Bosrijk tin, which contains a welcome pack of tea and coffee and your room key card with your name printed on the back. The staff are keen to stress that these are gifts, which makes it all the more special.
The Park – Finally!
After exploring our accommodation we ventured off to the Efteling. The first thing to note is the entrance plaza, which, like almost everything in the park has a story of its own. The enormous thatched roof structure has five peaks, each representing one of the five senses. Designed by the now retired creative director Ton van de Ven, it reminded me of the Nordic buildings in How To Train Your Dragon and provides a majestic entrance to the park, separating the real world from the magical world of the Efteling.
The park was relatively quiet when we arrived late on a breezy Monday afternoon in April and we had earmarked the rest of the day for exploration, opting to save the rides for the next day.
The first thing we did was head for the Pagoda, a 'flying temple' that raises guests 60 metres into the air and provides a 360-degree view of the park. I'm not going to lie to you, at this point in the trip I started to get a little worried. The Efteling looks vast from the air and, although beautiful, it doesn't look like there's that much there. My mum and sister had dutifully followed me to the middle of the Dutch countryside for what looked like a couple of train rides and some pretty gardens.
I panicked. Babbling something about Droomvlucht being considered one of the most beautiful dark rides in the world, I tried to persuade them that our trip wasn't in error. Convinced that we were just hangry (hungry and angry), I looked to the Efteling app for advice on where to eat. As a vegetarian, my experience of theme park dining in mainland Europe has been uninspiring to say the least. I had higher hopes for Holland, having visited Amsterdam several times and always found it very accommodating to a veggie diet. The app informed me the 'Vegetarians will be over the moon with our vegeburgers' at Burger Backerij so off we set in search of said veggie burgers. I feel bad even writing this as the server was obviously horrified about it, but our veggie burgers were still frozen. My mum and sister, who are much more obliging than I am, chowed down anyway, fearful of upsetting the poor guy. I'm much more of a complainer, so I took mine back. He was really apologetic (I can only assume no one ever orders them so he'd never had to make one before) and made me a fresh one, this time hotter but not more inspiring.
After a not-great start to our trip, we decided to call it a day and try again tomorrow. Hoping to visit a small shop in the Bosrijk village to get some snacks to see us through the evening, we were disappointed to find that there was only a small area with a few essentials next to the reception desk. We purchased as much as we could (some milk, crisps and teabags that the receptionist assured us were 'close' to English tea) and headed back to the apartment. On the discovery that the teabags were in fact liquorice flavour my mum (a true British tea lover) went into full-on melt down mode, trying to work out a way to ration the three bags of black tea that were in our welcome pack. Luckily with a little help from Google Maps, my sister and I summoned up enough energy to walk the thre-emile round trip to the nearest supermarket and save the day. On the way there we encountered Mr. Sandman's helper meeting families and leading them to a small storytelling area, where Mr. Sandman himself was reading bedtime stories to a large group of children.
Again, this probably harks back to most families arriving by car and coming well stocked, but it feels like a real missed opportunity for the Efteling not to be selling more provisions, at the usual inflated theme park rates. One nice touch, however, is the fresh baked goods that can be delivered the following morning (this also provides another free souvenir opportunity – if you spend over €5, you get a free Efteling shopping bag). There is also a stone-baked pizza delivery service available, brought to your door by bicycle.
Anyway, as the sun rose on our second day at the Efteling, our spirits were high as the chilly April breeze had been replaced by full sunshine. Buoyed on by the weather, we headed to the park, ready to make the most of our trip. My favourite time of day in a theme park is early morning, when everything is just waking up and the day ahead is full of exciting possibilities. The lake that lies just past the entrance, welcomed us with a water show reminiscent of Disney and we headed off to Anderijk, the alternative realm, to ride Fata Morgana.
Fata Morgana, the Efteling's equivalent to Pirates of the Caribbean, totally won us over. Any lingering doubts we had from the previous day disappeared and we were back in the zone. It was eight minutes of truly immersive action that dare I say it, was as detailed as Pirates and a touch scarier. Anderrijk is also home to a solid Swiss Bobbaan coaster and Spookslot, an actually scary haunted castle show featuring creepy Monks and Haunted Mansion style dancing ghosts. I was especially excited to see the haunted castle, once the largest in the world, due to this pretty great video of Kate Bush dancing outside it in 1978.
Next we went for a good look at the Efteling's new attraction for 2015, Baron 1898. Sadly not due to open until the summer, all we could do was stare over the railings at what is sure to be an amazing ride. The track appeared to be completed, as did the load building, though the grounds were far from finished and there we lots of people busy planting shrubbery as we watched. This shrubbery, and many other flower beds in the park, must have been dosed with a fresh lot of fertiliser overnight because the park had acquired a rather 'interesting' new aroma since the previous day.
Ruigrijk, the Adventure Realm, was next up on our agenda. Part of our disappointment from the previous day was from discovering that Python, the Vekoma roller-coaster was down for maintenance until the end of the week. Despite my suspicions that it's probably a bit of a head banger, I hate to miss out on a coaster especially as this is (currently – here's looking at you, Baron 1898) the only looping one in the park. Luckily, Joris en de Draak was on hand to help us get over the disappointment. Based on the legend of George and the Dragon, this duelling coaster has two tracks, water and fire that race against each other. Wooden coasters are not my favourite (too many past injuries sustained on Blackpool's Grand National) but Joris en de Draak, proved me wrong with both tracks providing a thrilling, yet smooth ride. If your side wins, flags come down from the ceiling and cheering is piped in. If you lose, you have to hang your head in shame as you exit to the sound of angry boos.
Despite most of the queues being nicely themed to the rides, there was a distinct lack of organisation, with no staff member on hand to help organise people into efficient lines. As we didn't queue for anything for longer than 30 minutes, this didn't matter too much, but I could imagine this being frustrating on busier days, as often the carriages leave half empty.
De Vliegende Hollander, the Flying Dutchman, was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. It manages to combine dark ride, coaster and a splash ride all in one, whilst having some of the most immersive theming I've experienced outside of the central Florida parks.
After our lacklustre encounter with the food the previous day, we opted to head back to our apartment for lunch. One thing that is definitely worth noting is how lovely the Bosrijk Village actually is. Though the apartments are divided between two buildings, the Gate House and the Manor House, parties of six or more have the choice between a 'Village House' or a 'Woodland House.' Each building seems to have been designed slightly differently, which gave the overall feeling of a picture perfect postcard village.
After refuelling, we headed back to the park late afternoon, this time in the direction of Reizenrijk, the travel realm. Vogel Rok, is an indoor coaster that tells the story of a giant mythical bird with onboard music and plenty of stomach dropping turns in the dark. Other rides of note in this area are Carnaval Festival, the Efteling's nod to It's a Small World, and Monsieur Cannibale, a spinning teacups ride that's themed to make it look like you're in a cooking pot, being boiled alive. It's rides like this that truly remind you that you're in one of the oldest theme parks in Europe, especially if you take the time to read the English translation of the ride's theme music.
Over in Sprookjesbos, the fairytale forest, we were treated to interesting renditions of classic fairytales. Designed originally by Anton Pieck, the illustrator whose work still influences the look and feel of the park greatly, this is a particularly lovely area to explore with little ones and highlights the true magic of the Efteling.
The last part of our day was spent in Marerijk, the Fairy Realm, where I finally got to ride the legendary Droomvlucht. It didn't disappoint. Even an old cynic like my mum was won over by the cheeky sprites taking a shower in the waterfalls. My favourite bit involved some particularly beautiful planets that had castles seemingly growing on them, though of course I also loved the speedy ending.
Villa Volta, a well themed haunted swing style ride, provided some good old-fashioned illusion-induced nausea which I enjoyed especially as my younger sister had never experienced a ride like this before and was very confused as to why we weren't wearing seat belts.
Another brilliant surprise came with the Raveleijn Park Show. I asked one of the park employees as we entered whether we needed to understand Dutch to know what was going on. She assured me that it was a very visual show, never the less I quickly (thanks to the parks extensive and very speedy free wifi) googled the plot line. The story is a simple, good versus evil tale of a tyrant who takes over the town of Ravelejin with the help of his henchmen and large robot dragon. Luckily five siblings, who each have a special characteristic (similar to the five senses back story of the entrance plaza) turn up and save the day. The show is pretty spectacular, with ravens, horses and the odd illusion trick thrown in for good measure.
The rides close at 6pm, so we followed the crowds for the Aquanura finale. The show was pretty good, with a back story involving princesses and frogs, not a patch on Disney's finale fireworks, but a pleasant end to the day nonetheless.
On our last day, we checked out of our room early and headed to reception to ask where we could leave our bags. Surprisingly, there is no designated luggage room, merely a few shelves in the main reception area for people to leave bags on. Undeterred and certain no one would steal our tatty old luggage anyway, we left our things and headed out to soak up our last few hours in the park.
We treated this last day as a 'highlights' package, riding our favourites again. As we had checked out already, we had no choice but to give the food another go and were pleasantly surprised to get a rather tasty yellow tofu curry from the Toko Pagode food stand. As our time at the Efteling drew to a close, we took one last walk through the Sprookjesbos and purchased a few souvenirs. I'm certain parents of young children would be pleased with Efteling's merchandising layout, they don't go for the in-your-face approach often taken by theme parks and aside from the 'exit through the gift shop' policy, it would be easy to avoid any shops at all.
With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to the Efteling and went to collect our bags. The buses run every 15 minutes and trains run direct to the airport every half hour, costing just under €20 each way. The journey was easy, the tickets and accommodation cheaper than Disney Paris and the staff much more friendly, so I know I'll go back. See you soon, Baron 1898.
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