KAATSHEUVEL, The Netherlands — Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers... from here at the world's best theme park.
Last summer, Theme Park Insider readers collectively voted The Netherlands' Efteling as the world's best theme park in our annual Theme Park Insider Awards, dethroning five-year-consecutive champion Tokyo DisneySea. An independently-run park in northern Europe, Efteling cannot call upon the deep pockets of the Oriental Land Co., nor the intellectual property of Disney. But it does draw upon Europe's rich tradition of fairy tales, the artistic genius of creative director Anton Pieck, and an obvious commitment to great customer service.
Pieck, who lived from 1895-1987, designed Efteling, which opened three years before Disneyland, in 1952. His work endures in Sprookjesbos, or, "The Fairytale Forest," a walk-through collection of scenes from 29 classic fairy tales. Some are simple, static installations, while others are now multimedia productions, including animatronics and Pepper's Ghost effects.
This isn't some quick walk-through. My daughter and I spent nearly 90 minutes taking in everything in this delightful forest. This is the heart of Efteling, an attraction that defines the park and should command your attention on a visit.
Don't skip the unfamiliar tales. It's a shame that most Americans' knowledge of fairy tales are now limited to those stories that Disney has transformed into animated films. Fortunately, Efteling introduces each of its fairy tale scenes with a plaque describing the tale, in four languages. Some of my favorites here were not the familiar, Disney-fied stories, such as the tale of the Indian Water Lilies.
So many European fairy tales were created to frighten children into staying in line. But they endured because they often delivered moments of irreverent fun, too — such as the "Table be Laid," which includes a donkey shooting coins from his backside. Naturally, we had to drop 50 cents to make this happen. (It's the only element in the attraction that costs extra money — but you get to keep the souvenir!)
Love all the rides and the decoration, but this might be the most Efteling thing ever. pic.twitter.com/XXRTZvr2A5— Theme Park Insider (@ThemePark) November 23, 2017
As delightful as the Fairytale Forest was, Efteling has much more to offer global theme park fans. Our first stop this morning was the park's newest attraction, Symbolica, which Ben Mills reviewed for us so well when it opened last summer: "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."
After experiencing Symbolica in person, I agree on all counts. This is a masterwork of theme park attraction design, well deserving of the Thea Award it picked up last week at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. (It missed our eligibility deadline for Best New Attraction last year by one day. So look out in 2018!) The on-ride video that we produced from the park's feed last summer cannot do this experience justice, for there's simply too much detail to take in a single viewing, whether that be through a camera's or your own POV.
Symbolica draws upon the park's tradition of creating world-class practical dark rides, including what might be one of the world's darkest dark rides, Fata Morgana. Themed to One Thousand and One Nights, you ride in the POV of the protagonist, who makes his way through the king's armory, his menagerie, his treasury, and eventually, his harem. But, unlike the author Scheherazade, you are not going to get away with fooling the king. A searing glance from a killer serpent, and it's all over for you.
Offering a somewhat lighter note, Droomvlucht [Dreamflight] flies you through a world of fairies and elves, evoking much of the style from the Fairytale Forest, and which is also called back by moments within Symbolica, as well.
Thrill fans, Efteling has not forgotten you. Joris en de Draak [George and the Dragon] is a GCI racing coaster that offers just enough airtime to keep you from feeling the full effect of its wooden track.
But the thrill highlight of the park (IMO) is Baron 1898, a delightfully themed (!) Bolliger & Mabillard dive machine. It's nowhere near the tallest, fastest, or longest dive coaster out there, but its theme and decor make it wonderful fun.
With the temperatures in the 40s (F) and rain for much of the day, we declined the chance to ride the park's splash track roller coaster De Vliegende Hollander. By the time we'd made it over to that side of the park, we'd finally dried out and were in no mood to get wet again.
Even with walk-on queues throughout the park, we could not come close to experiencing everything Efteling has to offer in one day. (Granted, the park opened at 11am and closed at 6pm.) Trading more time for more lines, this is probably a two-day park for a first-time visitor. But it's definitely a must-see. Getting to Kaatsheuvel can be a trick — much less getting to The Netherlands for many Americans. (We took two trains and a bus from Maastricht, where my daughter is in school for the semester.)
A Walt Disney World fan who wants to plan a dream trip to Disneyland Paris would do well to add a trip to Efteling, and then Europa Park, to make it an Orlando-style, four-park vacation. You might even discover yourself thinking that Efteling does a better job of living up to the ideal of what a Disney theme park ought to be than the Paris parks do. I know that I feel that way.
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