It goes without saying that we at Touring Plans are pretty big fans of the theme parks produced by the Disney and Universal corporations, as they they typically represent the current pinnacle of the genre. But every so often it’s important to take a step outside the Orlando box and experience a different type of attraction, if only to gain some perspective on other cultures, and a deeper appreciation for the art and history that informed the parks we love. With that in mind, take a step through the looking glass with me now for a bizarro Best Week Ever, as we explore a place that shows us what a Disney park might look like if only Walt’s vision had been a whole lot darker, creepier, and quirkier. Welcome to Efteling, the anti-Disneyland of The Netherlands!
Located about 2 hours by train and bus from the city of Amsterdam, Efteling (or “De Efteling” as the locals call it) celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012, which means it predates Disneyland — often referred to as the “first theme park” — by a good 3 years. There have long been rumors (some propagated by the park’s PR department) that Walt himself found inspiration for Disneyland during a visit to Efteling, but there’s no hard evidence to support that story. Even so, it’s fascinating for a frequent Disney guest like myself to see the striking similarities, and sometimes surprising differences, between the resorts.
Efteling is an enormous attraction, with a sprawling organic layout that resembles Busch Gardens Williamsburg or or Tampa more than the exactingly engineered Disney and Universal parks. I spent two days there and felt like I just scratched the surface; while I got to experience Efteling’s insane selection of dark rides and the brand-new Baron 1898 roller-coaster, I sadly had to leave several E-Tickets (including the dueling wooden coasters and hybrid dark/coaster/water ride) for my next European vacation.
Unlike the Disney parks, whose designs were the product of dozens of talented Imagineers, Efteling largely reflects the artistic vision of two people: artist Anton Pieck, who created the opening day attractions, and Ton van der Ven, who took over from the 1970s through the turn of the millennium. The result is a charming and idiosyncratically personal consistency to the characters found throughout Efteling’s attractions; imagine if every Disney animatronic was designed by either Marc Davis or Mary Blair. While Disney still employs some name-brand artists (chiefly Joe Rhode), and there are virtues to the modern “design by committee” method that tends to smooth over the individuality of the mega parks, at Efteling you can practically still see the fingerprints of the craftsmen embedded in their creations, making it a amazingly intimate, personal experience.
Without further ado, here’s a small selection of the seriously surreal sights to be seen inside Efteling. Please do not attempt to adjust your computer — images in your monitor may be even weirder than they appear!
Let’s start with the first two Efteling rides I experienced. Reizenrijk (or “Travel Land”) is located near the exclusive park entrance for guests of the official Efteling Hotel, were one night stays include breakfast and 2 days of park admissions for significantly less than the cost of a night in a WDW deluxe resort. The rooms are quite comfortable (if a bit small by American standards) and are filled with themed touches like mirror messages, a custom board game, and even a hidden non-Mickey mouse!
My first Efteling ride was Carnival Fantasy, a blatant “homage” to it’s a small world that replaces Disney’s gentle plea for world harmony with broad humor and politically incorrect ethnic stereotypes.
Next stop was Vogel Rok, Efteling’s answer to Space Mountain. This Vekoma-designed indoor roller coaster opened in 1998, and features some attractive scenic and lighting effects, along with a dramatic in-vehicle soundtrack (one of the first on a non-Disney ride) to support a slim storyline involving the eggs of an enormous bird. It’s not as good as California’s Space Mountain, but the first half of the track has an exhilarating sense of speed that I preferred to Orlando’s shaky Space Mountain.
Two rides in and it’s time for our first snack! Hot dogs are ubiquitous at every theme park, but I’ll bet you probably haven’t had a dog smothered in Calve sauce, which seemed to be a blend of mustard, mayonnaise, and herb relish. Yum?
Ok, so far things have been a little quirky, but here comes the first dose of creepy that I alluded to. As a theme park history junkie I really enjoyed this museum dedicated to Efteling’s past. But if these decommissioned dolls and ex-animatronics don’t give you the willies, I don’t know what will…
The museum also displays these “original artifacts” of “real” fairytales, like the Princess’ pea, Cinderella’s shoe, and Snow White’s poisoned apple.
Displays like these are a major attraction throughout Efteling. One of my favorites was this massive model train diorama depicting a mountain village.
In the same building is as the diorama is the park’s oldest attraction, a carousel that dates from the late 1800s. To my knowledge, this is the world’s only steam-powered carousel still operating for the public. Try to ride on the pigs if you can, but they are very popular!
Every park has a First Aid station, but the signage at Efteling’s is a little…different.
Hold onto your hats, folks, because here is where stuff starts to get seriously strange. The soul of Efteling is in the park’s fairytale sculptures, which are often grotesque, scatalogical, or just plain kooky.
Have some trash to dispose of in Efteling? Just look for the open-mouthed figures shouting “paper here!” They’ll happily swallow your litter for you.
Or if you can’t find one of those, wicker baskets like these are located throughout the park. No sign of PUSH here, however…
In the Leaf People village, you’ll find animated figures inside the fantastical houses, which you can glide past on a monorail.
We must pause here for a moment to recognize one of the greatest attractions in the history of theme parks. Behold, BENCH: THE RIDE!
(Yes, I know the “real” Bench ride is at Europa-Park, but Efteling’s is even more of an epic non-event.)
It may not look like much, but for legal liability reasons you’ll probably never experience something like this in an American playground.
Speaking of something you can find in America, Villa Volta was the world’s first Vekoma MadHouse attraction. I used to love Six Flags Great Adventure’s Houdini-themed version of this twist on the classic haunted swing ride, but that one is long gone, so it was great to be able to revisit the ride system (even if I had no clue what the lengthy preshow was about).
Now it’s time to take a Droomvlucht, or Dreamflight, to fairyland. Efteling’s answer to Peter Pan’s Flight is much longer, larger, and loonier than the Disney classic, and the high-speed spiral finale has a surprising kick. This one is not to be missed!
It’s showtime! Ravelejin is a large-scale arena stunt show involving swordplay, horsemanship, and a fire-spewing steampunk dragon than makes Festival of Fantasy’s float look like a tiny toy. The plot is pretty much expendable, and the climax goes a bit too long before the big finale. But if you like Medieval Times and IOA’s Sindbad show, you’ll love this.
The very heart of Efteling is the Fairy Tale Forest, a winding wooded walkthrough with imaginative incarnations of over a dozen classic children’s fables. Originally simple static sets, they’ve been upgraded over the decades with some sophisticated Pepper’s Ghost and projection effects, though the character animations are still quite elementary. These aren’t the watered-down, Disneyfied versions of these stories that most American kids are familiar with, either. You’ll find all the sadness and horror of the original Brothers Grimm tales here; even if you don’t understand Dutch, I defy you to watch the Little Match Girl show without welling up. Yet the little ones I saw seemed to take it all in stride…
Did anyone say World of Color? Efteling now has its own evening water spraying spectacular, designed by Bellagio fountain builders WET Design. The show’s technology is nearly as impressive as that used in DCA’s nighttime show, but because it doesn’t get dark in the Netherlands until after park closing, the colored lights and flamethrowers aren’t nearly as effective here.
There weren’t many walk-around characters at Efteling, but we did have breakfast at the hotel with the park’s mascots. They seemed quite confused as to why I’d come all the way from Orlando to the Netherlands, but then I explained about “humidity.”
Ok, coaster fans, here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! Baron 1898 is a brand-new B&M dive coaster similar to Busch Gardens Tampa’s Sheikra, only with exquisite steampunk theming. It features and elaborate load building with two high-quality preshows, during which projection mapping and audio-animatronics are employed to warn you against the ghostly “white women” who protect the mine’s golden treasure.
Unfortunately, while the ride looks amazing, it has an absurdly low carrying capacity of around 750 riders per hour, with one 18-passenger car departing every 90 second or so. And while its aesthetics are impressive, Baron’s ride is significantly less intense than similar coasters, with only one relatively short dive and two mild inversions before the all-too-soon final break run.
I arrived at Baron shortly after hotel guests (who get 30 minutes of early entry at select attractions) were permitted to start queuing, and waited about 20 minutes as a single rider. By the time I exited, day guests had stretched the line to several hours, and it never diminished significantly during the day.
Efteling’s other world-class dark ride is Fata Morgana, a 1001 Arabian Nights-inspired spin on Pirates of the Caribbean. Though not quite good enough to top California and Paris’ PotC attractions, I liked it much better than WDW’s Pirates, and the scale of the animatronic-filled sets is stunning by any standard.
Here’s a glimpse of Spookslot, Efteling’s Haunted Castle. Inside, a Pepper’s Ghost-fueled animated display depicts a “Danse Macabre” with floating ghosts and flying ghouls. It’s just a shame that overly-bright exit lights create reflections of the audience on the glass walls, ruining the phantasmic effects.
Think that’s odd? You ain’t seen nothing yet! This is Efteling’s famous pooping donkey. Put some spare change in the slot, and the animal will lift its tail and expel a golden coin from its rear end, sending kids gleefully chasing after the gelt. I shi- … um, KID you not!
Last, but certainly not least, here is the most controversial attraction in Efteling, and perhaps all of Europe (putting aside ones created by Banksy). At Disney parks, the Mad Tea Party is a familiar staple, but here the carnival spinning cup ride has been raised to ridiculous new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective).
In this version, guests become victims in the cooking pots of an African cannibal, whose offensive caricature commands attention in the center of the swirling cars. While the vehicles spin, a catchy Dutch ditty tells the tuneful tale of a European explorer who goes native and joins a tribe of man-eaters.
This type of insensitive racial depiction would never fly in today’s big American parks, but in The Netherlands (which has a more diverse and multicultural population than you might expect) it seems to be taken in stride as “good clean fun.” So the next time you see something strange at Disney or Universal and wonder “how on earth did they get away with that?” just remember that things are infinitely weirder at Efteling!
Join us next week for my first ever visit to the world’s most beautiful Magic Kingdom (at least according to Tony Baxter), Disneyland Paris!