The Netherlands’ largest theme park may be little-known in the UK but it’s certainly worth considering. MAMA visits Efteling
Words by Pendle Harte
There’s something magical about waking up somewhere when you’ve arrived in the dark and have no idea what you’ll see from the window. Especially when you’re staying in a theme park. We open the curtains in our third floor hotel room with no idea of what to expect – and we’re rewarded with a dreamy rustic scene: small wooden huts clustered around a clearly man-made lake. It’s very controlled and clean and slightly surreal. We love it immediately. An eager queue is already forming for the shuttle bus: hotel guests are offered VIP early entry tickets to the rides, which means breakfast at 7.15am. We’ve missed that slot, but as it turns out, anyone who has survived Legoland has nothing to fear from Efteling’s queues.
What is it?
Europe’s fourth-largest theme park remains virtually unknown in the UK but in the Netherlands a visit to Efteling is a rite of passage. Conceived in the 1950s by children’s illustrator Anton Pieck, it’s a theme park with heritage and a strong fairytale tradition that sets it apart from the heavy commercialism of some of these places. When we arrive it’s teeming with Dutch grandparents, parents and children groups, many of the oldies reliving their childhood memories with their grandchildren. But that’s not to say that Efteling’s appeal is historical. The original Fairytale Forest remains, but there are enough new daredevil rides to appeal to the seasoned theme park enthusiast (and frighten their grandma).
The Fairytale Forest is where we start and it is actually magical, and not just if you’re five. This is a large woodland inhabited by animated installations retelling lots of classic fairytales, and our daughters – aged 12 and nine – are as entranced by it as they would have been when they were five. Some of it is dark and genuinely scary, like when the Little Match Girl dies and becomes a hologram, and when the wolf wearing grandmother’s nightie and lying in her bed turns out to be breathing heavily, and when a convincing mist envelops the pathways. There are talking trees and fairytale touches at every turn; memorable exhibits include Rapunzel letting down her hair, Rumpelstiltskin chanting eerily and the hilarious sedan chair nudity of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It seems that we’ve missed a few of the classic tales: The Gardener and the Fakir leaves us baffled (it turns out to have been specially written for Efteling) and we had never encountered The Chinese Nightingale before, so the Dutch narrative remained impenetrable.
But Efteling isn’t exclusively about cute. We queue for probably 40 minutes to try what is reputedly the park’s scariest ride, the Baron, described as a ‘dive coaster’ and with a minimum height requirement of 1.4m. From the queue we can hear people screaming and if we had could have seen the vertical drop they were screaming about, we’d probably have abandoned the idea. This ride is pure terror – or pure joy for people who like that kind of thing. Happily, we weren’t in the front row, and even more happily, it’s over very quickly. Less extreme rides include the Bobsleigh and the Vliegender Hollander, which are rollercoasters of a less terrifying variety, and several narrative-based rides include the ‘dark ride’ Symbolica, which is a sort of interactive magical dreamscape, and the Villa Volta, a cursed house that spins around you – or maybe you spin around it – leaving you dizzy and confused.
What we like most about Efteling is its easy infrastructure and size. It’s small enough for one day to be enough – we don’t manage absolutely everything, but we do most things – and spacious enough not to feel crowded, and the queueing isn’t overwhelming. In egalitarian northern European style, there are no fast track passes for sale, but there are shorter queues for people on their own (filling up lone seats) and the Python even allows you to book a time slot via the Efteling app at no charge. There aren’t as many souvenir shops as there could be and the problem of rubbish is solved ingeniously. Ask a Dutch person for their childhood memories of Efteling and they’ll probably mention the bins: these are huge grinning faces with wide open mouths. When you throw your crisp packet in, a friendly voice thanks you. This inspires children of all ages to run around voluntarily litter picking – an instant solution. Except of course there aren’t crisp packets everywhere, not just because the Dutch are tidy and have a sense of civic duty, but because there’s a notable lack of junk food at Efteling. Sure, there are sweet shops, but there are also fruit stalls, and the restaurants offer relatively healthy fare.
At the end of the day we take our seats for Caro, a new circus performance with a touching narrative and lots of acrobatic spectacle that turns out to be – we think – better than Cirque du Soleil, before heading back to our family room at the surreal yet comfortable Loonsche Land hotel, where the children retreat to their bunkbeds gratefully. Efteling, we love you.
A two-night stay at Hotel Loonsche Land in February 2019 starts at €605 for a family of four, including breakfast and three days’ unlimited access to Efteling.
Efteling is 100km from Amsterdam/90km from Antwerp and easily accessible via train or car