Symbolica is a richly-themed adventure with not a screen or franchise in sight
June 30, 2017, 6:52 PM ·
KAATSHEUVEL, Netherlands — This weekend sees the opening of Symbolica: Palace of Fantasy at Efteling, the most-attended park in the Netherlands. We were invited to a sneak peek for the press launch today, for a chance to experience the ride and speak with the team behind it.
Efteling made their name with charming attractions and dark rides based on the art work of Anton Pieck. You'll rarely find high stakes battles here, just immersion in beautifully drawn fairy tale worlds.
As such, it's very much considered the theme park designer's theme park. Tony Baxter lovingly referenced it in an interview with TPI - and even Walt came here when planning Disneyland. It might not be widely known by the general public, but in the theme park industry, a new dark ride here is the stuff of legend.
Plans for the new ride - once called Hartenhof - began a decade ago, with designers considering modifications of the Pandora's Box and Kuka Arm (as seen in Universal's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) ride systems along the way, before settling on its final form.
It's following in some big footsteps by using trackless ride tech - probably the hottest model for dark rides at the moment, used in Disney's Mystic Manor, Ratatouille and Pooh's Honey Hunt attractions. At a cost of €35 million - and as the park's first dark ride in 24 years - expectations were high. So how does it fare?
Situated at the end of the park's entrance concourse, it already feels like the park was designed around it. It's a gorgeous palatial façade, erring more toward charming detail than epic scope - setting up the nature of the experience that awaits inside.
After climbing the slope to the building - one of the best example of forced perspective I've seen outside a Disney park - we are ushered into the lobby for a quick animatronic pre-show. I'd be lying I said I entirely understood quite what was going on (language is predominantly Dutch, as it is throughout the park) but the general gist is of a palace tour hijacked by Efteling's mascot, palace jester Pardoes.
A clever set trick later - the surprise of which is best experienced in person - and we're off into the bowels of the palace, where our ride vehicles await. We're given a choice of three different tours to choose from - Hero, Music or Treasure. They're largely the same, but a couple of unique set pieces and some details along the way distinguish each enough to make it worthy of repeat rides to see it all.
I'll hold off from a spoilery breakdown of what happens once the vehicles take off (that's what POV videos are for anyway, right?) but it's less a linear narrative journey and more a sequence of magical happenings.
In this sense, it's very reminiscent of Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland in both tone and execution. (The fact the crossover in audience is going to be almost nil renders that similarity irrelevant, but the thought lingers for those who have ridden both.)
It uses the trackless technology well. These rides are particularly good at moments designed to simulate dancing, as the opening flourish of Ratatouille demonstrates, and Symbolica provides the best example of this so far. The climax of the ride revolves around such a moment, and it's a lively, joyous scene that sends you out on a high - yet wouldn't work with any other ride system.
The trick it misses is that of the 'reveal' move that Mystic Manor does so well. But this is designed to be particularly young-rider friendly, so perhaps anything too jolting or surprising was intentionally omitted.
On that note, Symbolica particularly excels. It offers enough beauty, detail and play to engage riders of all ages, but is especially well designed for small children. Efteling understand how to thoroughly engage that age group without making attractions bland for older riders, and this is perhaps their best example of this yet.
The interactive elements for instance offer an amusing distraction, but seemed to captivate the five- to ten-year-olds I saw riding. At a few moments in the ride, the touchpad on the front of the vehicles kick into life, showing buttons that have an effect on pieces of set in front of you.
If I have one criticism of this, it's that giving these touch pads to the front row but not the back did mean that we felt a little excluded. But I'd hope ride operators would ensure children got a seat up front - and it's such a minor part of the ride that it was no big deal in any case.
The ride lasts a good seven minutes - like all of Efteling's dark rides, it's a full experience. This is mostly an attraction of intimate detail, although there are a couple of 'big' moments that are done brilliantly. I did wish there were more of those - but again, that might not have been entirely appropriate for the audience. (Plus, that €35 million has already been stretched quite remarkably.)
Efteling holds an immense cultural value in the Netherlands. Aside from the original Disneyland, I'm not sure there's another park that is lovingly 'handed down' from generation to generation in the way that Efteling is, one where otherwise cynical teenagers will happily embark on fairy tale adventures alongside the rest of their family without a hint of irony.
Symbolica is undoubtedly one of the finest dark rides we've seen this decade. (And by shunning screens, drops and blockbuster franchises, feels like an almost-revolutionary call to arms for the great classic dark ride.) It'll no doubt continue the park's tradition within the country - and hopefully raise its profile further afield too.