This summer I was lucky enough to be selected for a two-month teaching stint in Remagen, Germany. While some poor misguided souls would be content to just gawk at the stunning Rhine River vistas and eat their body weight in schnitzel, I opted to do all that AND visit some theme parks. First up is Phantasialand, the second-most-visited theme park in Germany. Located in Bruhl, just outside of Cologne, this small, compact, and impressively themed park can easily stand toe to toe with its much larger brethren and should make anyone’s European-tourist list.
One of the more enjoyable surprises of visiting European theme parks as been both their relative affordability and their crowd levels. Perhaps I just have been lucky on the last few trips, but the crush of patrons never seems to hit any parks in Europe like they do in the USA. Considering its small footprint and denseness, Phantasialand should feel claustrophobic. Instead, with its distinctly themed lands, many shops and restaurants, the crowds seem to disperse nicely. Pricing depends on the day you visit and ranges between $60-70 for a visit in May and June. The food in the park was a step up from traditional theme park fare and once again lacked the exorbitant price gauging you often find at Six Flags. High quality German beer can be found at numerous restaurants and kiosks throughout for $5-8.
Phantasialand’s greatest strength is also its main weakness - size. It is only about half the size of the original Disneyland, and due to building and noise ordinances, most of the park is built below street level. Because of such constraints, Phantasialand must be very creative with their ride placement and theming, and in that they succeed beautifully. From an architectural viewpoint, it is breathtakingly intricate. With 3-4 rides all share space together seamlessly, diving around the others yet still managing to stay within the correct theme. For example, while I rode a mine train coaster, one of the banked turns had us go right behind a similarly western-themed drop tower and then swing directly above a log flume in a mountain, only to enter a tunnel that was also used by the water ride that contained animatronics.
I cannot even pretend to understand the immense amount of planning all of that took. While every inch of available space is used to its utmost, it is still a small park and just does not have the number of rides and shows other parks can offer. In addition, since many attractions are built down, there are a ton of stairs to navigate throughout the day. My trusty pedometer claims I walked up 25 flights of stairs in the 7 hours I spent in the park. This was not a bad thing as it was a necessity to work off all the good beer I was drinking for “research.”
Phatasialand is broken up into several distinct themed lands that run the gamut from a dark and brooding medieval village, “Klugheim,” to the steampunk themed “Rookburgh.” Like all good theme park aficionados, we arrived before rope drop and were ready to go when the park opened at 9am. I came to learn, however, that while the park itself opened the rides would not start running until 10am. No matter, as this gave us plenty of time to arrive at the park’s newest land and check it out.
Titled “Rookburgh,” this section of the park has a meticulously crafted steampunk aesthetic and included a restaurant, bar and Hotel Charles Lindbergh, which has a cool aeronaut 1920s theme that nicely works in the larger steampunk vibe. These hotel rooms are just feet away from the zooming coaster trains. Incredibly, this is one of three themed hotels in the park. Each one allows guests to enter through a private entrance.
But all of this is secondary to the E-ticket attraction in the land, F.L.Y. This is Vekoma's next-generation flying coaster. The loading process was very smooth and after getting a wrist bracelet that open mandatory lockers, you empty your pockets and board seats in a sitting position similar to the Forbidden Journey ride, but then the track flips and you’re suddenly facing straight down in a “Superman”-type position.
To sum up the experience of this ride in a word: “Intense.” Because we arrived early, I was able to snag a coveted front row seat and the exhilaration of flying around the steampunk town and narrowly whizzing by structures was an experience not for the faint of heart. Fair warning to all - from the outside, the coaster does not look like it is moving all that fast, and I vastly underrated the intensity and even tried to talk my long-suffering wife, who is more of a “Flying Hippogriff” kind of gal, into riding it. She wisely refused my request and knew the choice was correct when she saw my pale face at the exit. Nonetheless it was a great ride, with a compelling theme, and I would ride it again.
The main street area was simply titled Berlin and had all the obligatory sweet shops, restaurants and stores we all expect but also sprinkled in a couple of interesting attractions. The “Crazy Hotel Tartuff” or the much more intimidating in German “Das verrückte Hotel Tartüff” is an old-school funhouse complete with tilting room, room of mirrors and a slide. Nearby was the “Maus au Chocolat” which must be one of the cutest dark ride shooters around. Patrons enter a fancy chocolate factory and learn that mice have overrun everything. Each ride vehicle arms you with a pastry bag and you are tasked with shooting the mice with frosting through a series of staged screens. The ride had an excellent blend of practical and visual effects, and it was fun watching the hundreds of mice mock you as they devoured all the pastries. Both my wife and I actually preferred this ride to its more famous cousin, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.
The “Berlin” area was also home to two of the parks signature shows. "Pirates 4D" featured Leslie Nielsen as Captain Lucky and Eric Idle as his first mate. This show, which has appeared in dozens of theme parks and is over 20 years old now, was still bringing in guests. I am also chagrined to say this was the first time I had ever seen it. It is a bizarre combination of the Three Stooges meets Home Alone with a Pirates of the Caribbean theme. The much more modern and adult themed "Nobis" was featured at the Wintergarten Theater, and it was an incredibly impressive acrobatic show with an interesting German bondage vibe. Definitely not something one would find at Disney, but the performers were absolutely superb at their craft, and we both enjoyed the show.
The least interesting area was “Wuze Town” - the children’s themed land. This area had a quaint little lake, which unfortunately was closed during our visit, and several kid-friendly flat rides. The signature attractions here included Crazy Bats, an indoor coaster that had been updated to include VR goggles and featured an insane story line of cartoon bats riding a block of ice through an old mansion? While I appreciated the uniqueness of the attraction, the VR element mixed with an older roller coaster increased the queasiness factor too high for my taste. Also, of note here was Winja’s Fear and Force, a pair of dueling spinning coasters. This was a really clever ride that looked like a wild mouse coaster but featured some solid drops and a cool elevator mechanic.
The dark and Nordic themed medieval village “Klugheim” housed a food court with a nice indoor restaurant that served traditional German fare such as schnitzel and several stalls with different kind of beers. Diving around this area was the signature roller coaster “Taron.” This is one of the finest Intamin coasters I have ridden, and it had several launches throughout. The track dove, climbed and twisted around itself 116 times and reached a top speed of 70mph. A fast, smooth and utterly awesome addition to my top five roller coasters in the world. Rounding out this area was a rapids ride that utterly drenched its guests, and Mystery Castle, which was a surprisingly fun indoor drop tower.
The last three areas in the park were all themed to portions of the globe. We first visited “Mexico.” This area very much reminded me of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Fiesta Village. This area had some incredible interplay between rides and they all seamlessly shared space together. Colorado Adventure looked like a mild-mannered mine train coaster, akin to Big Thunder Mountain. It was even billed as a family ride. Apparently, German families are way tougher than I could imagine as this ride was fast. My wife normally likes such attractions, but this was far too intense for her, and she was white knuckling the whole time. I enjoyed it but will admit that it was significantly faster and more intense than it looked. The signature ride here is “Chiapas.” This features the steepest log flume drop in the world and had some really amazing looking Mayan temple sequences, but it was closed for most of our visit, and we didn’t have an opportunity to ride. I really hope to return to Phantasialand, and this would be the priority.
“Deep In Africa” had a 19th century colonial West Africa vibe and featured war drums playing in the distance, and mud dwellings. It featured several shops, the 2nd of the in-park hotels, Matamba, and a very smooth and tall B&M inverted coaster that featured some very low to the ground sequences and near misses as it swung through the valley. While the theming was very detailed, it was walking a very thin line between cultural respect and outdated African stereotypes.
What felt like the smallest of the lands was “China Town.” The final of the in-park hotels, Ling Boa, is located here. All the buildings have the immediately recognizable Chinese roofs, and the area had several food kiosks. Bizarrely enough most of them were either selling Japanese dishes or German style sausages. Only two attractions were found here: a well-themed but unremarkable Madhouse ride, Feng Ju Palace, and Geister Rikscha. The latter “Ghost Rickshaw” was simultaneously bizarre and awesome. This obvious Haunted Mansion clone had numerous tropes such as doom buggies, singing head projections and even a hitchhiking ghost sequence. But the theme was extremely unique, Chinese Mythology. There were demons torturing prisoners, a ghost cemetery, warriors fighting a dragon. It really was quite the spectacle. This ride is notable for being both the longest dark ride in Europe and the oldest attraction at Phantasialand. While some of the animatronics had clearly seen better days, this was a highlight of the visit.
Ultimately, Phantasialand was a sleeper hit. Until a few months ago I had never even heard of it, but I think it easily ranks in my top five theme parks now. The reasonable prices, high quality food offerings and convenient location make it a great choice. But what really separates it from other smaller regional parks is its absolute commitment to immersive themes and an almost supernatural ability to use all available space to its utmost potential. The Rhine River region is calling....
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