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.

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Replies (36)

June 30, 2017 at 8:23 PM

Symbolica looks wonderful! It's great to an original dark ride of this scope.

July 1, 2017 at 2:04 AM

You can make the Animatronics during the ride speak english, dutch, france or german with the touchpad in front

July 1, 2017 at 5:20 AM

I have to get to the Netherlands to see this! Truly I believe that the smaller non-Disney/Universal have taken up the mantle of great dark rides and storytelling. These parks are becoming more Disney than Disney at this point.

July 1, 2017 at 8:06 AM

I'm amazed about what the creative team managed to do with this budget.
The interactive elements where a nice surprise and I'm also impressed how they dressed the roof when you look on it from the Pagode. They integrated solar panels and decoration to make it look like a roof garden.

July 1, 2017 at 8:19 AM

This is a very nice review and the reason I visit TPI every day. Good job, Ben! Although internet videos do a poor job in capturing the complete experience of any attraction, the videos for Symbolica are very impressive and show a keen attention to detail that one finds synonymous with Disney and Universal parks. So Efteling has something very special here. But I would quibble with the statement in this review that Efteling was an inspiration for Walt Disney. At the time Disneyland opened, Efteling was three years old. According to his biographers --
especially Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas -- Disney drew some of his inspiration for Disneyland from a visit to Tivoli Gardens, the Danish amusement park that would have been open for several decades by the time Walt was there. Thomas made no mention of Efteling.

- Brian from Florida

July 1, 2017 at 8:19 AM

The creative team needs to be congratulated for having ideas that are creative. Not a rehash of "what worked before" attitude. To bad UO and other theme parks can't figure out how to make an attraction without multiple screens/projection. Kudos Efteling!!

July 1, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Absolutely stunning! Everybody in the world seems to behaving as if hate was something new. We need beautiful things like Symbolica right now.

July 1, 2017 at 12:10 PM

That sounds amazing!! Definitely need to add Efteling to my list of places I've got to get to....

July 1, 2017 at 2:41 PM

Going the end of August. Can’t wait to ride this.

July 1, 2017 at 4:39 PM

Another site posted a video of Symbolica's short pre-show, which is amazing. Right afterward, the queue leads to a series of stairs, akin to one going down into a basement or cellar. When I saw that video, I thought of the young gentleman Daniel who used to post here about his love of theme parks, but also his concerns in navigating them because of mobility issues. (I think he used a wheelchair.) Can Ben (or anyone else who has been on Symbolica) let us know whether this ride is friendly for wheelchair users? This is something that Disney, Universal and other major park operators here in the U.S. do pretty well. I'm wondering if theme park operators in the E.U. follow similar norms.

- Brian from Florida

July 1, 2017 at 7:54 PM

Wow, that was beautiful, amazing, and magical. Wish Universal had done, or will do, something as incredible as this with its rich physical sets for Harry Potter.

July 1, 2017 at 9:49 PM

Yep, that definitely looks better than 90+% of the dark rides built in the past couple decades. With destination parks becoming extremely reliant on IP, I think they've lost sight of what makes a truly good ride, as few modern attractions hold significant appeal beyond their subject matter. While not my #1 European park to visit, Efteling is certainly one I hope to visit someday.

July 2, 2017 at 4:10 AM

AJ, out of curiosity, what would be your top European parks? I'm always intrigued to know what people abroad hear about.

July 2, 2017 at 4:58 AM

Let's see what Efteling has in store for the coming new ride they promised before 2020. I can't wait to go to Symbolica, at least when the waiting time is become bearable (under 30 minutes). After Droomvlucht and Fata Morgana a great add to the parc.

July 2, 2017 at 9:30 AM

Efteling is the most beautiful themepark in Europe. I prefer it above Disneyland Paris. The dark rides are world class. The scenery is magical. And the theming of all the rides are very detailed.

July 2, 2017 at 1:32 PM

Ben, I'd say the following are my Tier 1 Priority European parks (not necessarily in this order):

-Alton Towers (this park has always fascinated me as they've got some really unique rides in a great setting)
-Blackpool Pleasure Beach (another park with very unique rides, plus I remember playing the Roller Coaster Tycoon version of this a ton)
-Europa Park (most people I know who have visited this park say it's the best non-Disney park in the world)
-Grona Lund (I'd like to visit Stockholm, and this park also intrigues me with so many rides packed into a tight space)
-Heide Park Resort (this one is mostly for the coasters, plus it also has the RCT effect)
-Phantasialand (to me, this seems like the most elaborately themed park in Europe...I've heard it rivals most destination parks)
-Wiener Prater (this one is mostly because it's famous and because of visiting Vienna...the park itself reportedly isn't that great)

My second tier list includes places like Adventure Island, Efteling, Liseberg, Oakwood Theme Park, and Toverland (among others), which are parks that have a couple specific attractions I'd really like to try but don't offer enough as a whole to make them a priority. Disneyland Paris is not included because that is the one European park I've actually managed to visit, and while I wouldn't go out of my way for a return visit I'd definitely include a day there if my trip took me to Paris.

July 2, 2017 at 5:16 PM

@Brian from Florida, yes Symbolica is friendly for wheelchair users. Symbolica has a special platform for wheelchair users. They don't have the pre-show, and came in from ground floor.

July 2, 2017 at 5:23 PM

Looks awesome. I wish they would build an Efteling in the U.S..

July 3, 2017 at 12:07 AM

Having experienced many of the parks listed by aj Hummel and being a U.K. Resident, Honestly I'd flip most of that list on it's head. Efteling is in my top 3 parks in the world. And i would rank it above both Europa park and phantasialand. But it's interesting to see what would be a priority for a none European.

July 3, 2017 at 12:42 AM

@ A.J. Hummel: I come from Europe and can recommend you to skip Disneyland Paris and most of the rest on your list. Put Efteling and Europa Park on your nummer one destination. Those 2 are absolutely the two best en most beautiful themeparks in Europe.

July 3, 2017 at 1:50 AM

AJ, definitely a good list. I'm very pleased Phantasialand made it - while smaller than many parks, it has a similar approach to Efteling in that it really packs a punch with what resources they've got. It isn't quite destination park standard thanks to their much smaller budget, but there's some brilliant stuff there - and they're getting more creative and ambitious every year.

Liseberg too definitely shouldn't be overlooked - Helix alone is worth the admission price. And their horror house attraction is possibly the best I've seen anywhere.

Funny that you mention Toverland... I went for the first time yesterday. Currently halfway through typing up some thoughts for here - hopefully get that up today. While you're right that it's not a Tier 1, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

I'd certainly consider adding Miribilandia to your list too - iSpeed is quite possibly my favourite launching coaster in the world, and Katun is also impressive.

July 3, 2017 at 2:27 AM

The whale scene has screens (the breaking glass) but it's done vert, very well.

July 3, 2017 at 2:47 AM

@ O T: The breaking glass effects are projections. They only use screens in the last scene, the gallery. In the paintings you see all the characters from the ride (moving paintings) and a photo from you and the people in your ride vehicle.

July 3, 2017 at 4:33 AM

@ Brian from Florida: yes, Symbolica has one or two vehicles and a special entrance for wheelchair users. The only downside is that these people won't be able to see the preshow, but there is a private space in the station area, separated from the boarding platform where they have all the time to place themselves in the vehicle, without other people watching. After boarding, the vehicle accompannies the other riders.

July 3, 2017 at 6:30 AM

OT - yes, you are right. There are actually a few moments of projection, but these are mainly to create a kind of textural effect that brings the room to life, rather than being 'sit and watch some story' kind of things.

Brian from Florida: yes, Symbolica is wheelchair-accessible. I'm not sure quite what access is like to the pre-show room - given you go up to reach it, then back down to board the ride, it might be that you skip that particular room.

EU regulation on accessibility is some of the most through in the world, thankfully. But I agree, it'd be good to hear from more people with first-hand experience. Daniel's contributions here are very much missed.

July 3, 2017 at 7:58 AM

My work has a location in the Netherlands. I need to apply for the position where training takes place in the Netherlands so I can go to this park. Lol

July 3, 2017 at 3:01 PM

Excellent review Ben Mills. I'm from the Netherlands and follow the world wide theme parks. Specially the Disney and Universal parks. In Europe only Efteling and Disneyland Paris build world class dark rides. Europa Park tried it. But does not come close in finishing and details. All the other parks in Europe don't have good dark rides. They miss the opportunities and financial aspects to build them. About Symbolica... The characters in Symbolica are very good too. The servant O.J. Punctuel that welcomes the people with his cynical tone of voice is really brilliant! In the queue he speaks to the people with all kinds of comic statements. In Dutch, English, German and France language. In the pre-show and end scene you'll find him as animatronic made by Garner Holt. And also there its a brilliant comic character.

July 3, 2017 at 8:45 PM

As a fan of the Efteling, the on-ride videos don't really excite me yet. It looks well made, but anything after the whale just seems a bit.. eventless?

July 3, 2017 at 9:53 PM

Ben, Mirabilandia is definitely a park that intrigues me, but it is probably tier three (out of about five tiers) because of its location and because I've ridden so many coasters. I'm sure iSpeed, Katun, and presumably Divertical are excellent rides, but are they significantly better than rides like Alpengeist and Maverick that are much easier for me to get to? That is one of the reasons why I don't have many non-US parks on my list purely for coasters...they have to offer something truly unique to be a priority on an international trip. As far as location goes, there just doesn't seem to be a whole lot near Mirabilandia that I'd like to check out as I've already seen that part of Italy to a certain extent. If I happened to be in the area, I'd definitely stop by, but it's probably not a park I'd go out of my way for.

To the anonymous posters above, note that I am more of a ride person than anything else, so I'm going to pick a park with a number of good rides over one with a few good rides and really nice theming/landscaping. I also know far less about Efteling than some of the other European parks, and while I've heard the park is beautiful with excellent theming and several great dark rides, I've also heard a lot of the non-dark ride attractions are somewhat lackluster for the traveling enthusiast. Truthfully, it probably won't make much difference as I'll most likely include all the Germany/Netherlands parks in one trip when I do get a chance to go, but for now you can think of it like this: If I was going to Europe and could only visit one park, I'd pick somewhere on my Tier 1 list. However, if theme parks are intended to be a significant part of my trip, pretty much every Tier 1 and 2 (and maybe some Tier 3) park in the area would be included.

July 4, 2017 at 12:06 AM

@ A.J. The thrill rides and coasters in Efteling are very nice. Baron1898 B&M dive coaster, Flying Dutchman water coaster, Joris and the dragon woody, Bird Rok and Python (vekoma). But you are right if you're searching for more airtime and height. The rides in Efteling mostly build for the family's like Disneyland Paris. For the better coasters are Europa Park, Phantasialand and Alton Towers a very good choice. Efteling is more similar to Disney parks. Aimed at fairy tales, theming and storytelling. They also have height restrictions for buildings and coasters. In the new area for 2019/2020 they can build higher and larger coasters. I expect certainly another B&M coaster in that area.

July 4, 2017 at 9:17 AM

Brian from Florida the efteling is way onder then 65 years.
It officialy opend in 1952. But it started as a sport en recreation park in 1935 and evolved from a playground into the efteling in 1952 with the : sprookjesbos (fairytailwood)

July 4, 2017 at 1:14 PM

Hello " Brian from Florida"

Answering your question about wheelchair mobility in the attraction :
100% !
There is separate entrance provisions made for wheelchairs, and the system has not less then 2 ride vehicles especially equiped to accomodate the wheelchair. There is even a separate staffed ride vehicle boarding corner for those !

December 11, 2019 at 8:14 AM

There is "no franchise" indeed, connected to this attraction... at least, when we look at a classic buy-in of IP material.
Because, actually, the attraction is connected to IP ! But, it's in house Efteling TV-production material. (Efteling DOES have a production house for TV-series, musicals and a radio station !)
It is the older Symbolica TV series, about the 17th century inspired kingdom on the planet of Symbolica .. :-)
The thing is, this story is not known in the USA, but this does not mean there would be no film IP at the base of it ! :-)
Pardoes (the king's wizzard) and Pardijn (the king's daughter), are the official mascotte characters of the Efteling park, by the way. The main boulevard from the entry plazza leading to the centre of the park, also is the Pardoes Promenade, and has lantern poles where Pardoes is sculpted in. Since a long time.
The pancake restaurant "Polles Keuken" aside of the king's palace, also is part of the theme. It has a themed kitchen inside that comes magically to life 4 times/hour in a funny musical-magic way. An attraction in it's own right but not mentioned on the official lists :-) (Reserved to see for the diners) PICTURE :
Need to see it when it comes alife ! :-)
By the wy, pancakes are important in Symbolica, there is a scene with the pancakes kitchen boy, in the darkride as well :-)

You could meet-&-greet Pardoes and Pardijn almost anywhere in the park as well. They drive around in their Pardoes-mobiel :-)

So... for Efteling, and the Netherlands, the IP stands strong. Even if unknown abroad :-)

Picture from the original TV series :

(Other IP from Efteling includes :
"Sprookjesboom" (fairy tale TV program for little kids, and the huge story telling animatronic tree stands in the Efteling Sprookjesbos section.)
"Raveleijn" (Story behind the big life show with the horses and the mechanical dragon > book and TV series)
"Laven" (Storytelling and very extensive merchandising, connected to the Lavenlaar village section, at Efteling)
In the "Music tour" in Symbolica, there is a very funny reference to Lavenlaar ! The Laven-organ is here, playing the actual Laven-tune, interactive with the ride vehicle choice pads ! :-) ... (>>> for die-hard Efteling insiders)

July 4, 2017 at 2:29 PM

@ A.J. Hummel: If I read well, you made a priority list of "Thrill"-parks, not "Theme"-parks... :-)
I know, the word "theme park" has been abused since over 2 decennia in the parks industry. But the general term is : Amusement parks. Theme parks (the very few real ones) are at one extreme of the spectrum, iron thrill parks, the far other side.

My interest in thrill is near to zero ! I'm a 999% storytelling, poetry and exploration minded person. I look for theatrical & exporation experiences. With all levels of emotions , excluding thrill.
So, there evolves my top list of (real) theme parks in Europe :
Efteling, Pairi Daiza, Puy du Fou, Disneyland Paris, Astrid Lindgren's World, and quite a range of very small parks, well hidden.
The mix-up genre parks (Themed + still a high focus on thrill) come as second list :
Asterixparc, Phantasialand, Toverland, Europa Park .. and more. However, Europa park was SO extremely shameless rip-off in their darkrides attemps, that I would like to drop them... They do have only ONE medium-to-top level quality darkride exprience now : Arthur.
Tivoli Kopenhagen, stands apart.
The classic thrill parks, as said, can be forgotten, in my personal opinion.

July 5, 2017 at 7:18 AM

It's very inspirational to hears about what is going on with experiential, immersive theatre. Ever since I was a kid, I spent time imagining, and later, designing projects that lean in this direction. For me, it is frustration to think of my limitations in being able to implement things like this. In this sense, it really does take copesaetic cooperation to make these projects manifest. I spent years doing haunted hayrides and legit theatre, but this kind of theatre is really thanking it to a new level. I hope to build some sort of theme oriented/immersive/experiential presentation which I plan on getting to through miniture cycloramas. The technology requires an extensive degree of knowledge and resources to achieve, but I most certainly believe that the presentation needs to have substance which is enhanced by the technical externals of implementation. If it's basically all sense oriented experience without the story and character development that is inherent in good theatre, then I think the viability is questionable, at least in the long term. But then it is true that there are many, many people who will respond to sense experience without the substance of intellectual and emotional uplifting. I think though, that in the long run that would impair growth of the audience. Sort of like "a flash in the pan". Arthur Greisiger/Image of the Mind Studios

July 6, 2017 at 11:58 PM

I was at Efteling at the end of May this year, and I have to say I am already thinking about going back next year. The park is so amazing, and I had such a wonderful time there. A for sure MUST DO if youre planning a trip to the Netherlands/Europe. Unfortunately missed out on Symbolica as it wasnt finished yet, but will definitely be returning to check it out!

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