The Efteling Theme Park is a fairly well-known Dutch attraction, and can be found in the part of The Netherlands between s'Hertogenbosch and Breda, at a location called Kaatsheuvel in the region of Loon op Zand. It has somewhere around 3.2 million visitors every year, 700,000 more than Alton Towers in the UK. And yet when at the park, the visitors seem to disperse and disappear, giving the illusion of it being much quieter than it really is.
#~~~ BACKGROUND AND HISTORY ~~~#
The original 'Efteling' was actually a very small nature park opened in 1950, which by 1952 had developed into a small amusement park for children, with a Fairy Tale Forest (Sprookjesbos) designed by Anton Pieck depicting various well-known fairy tale scenes using clever lighting, sounds and mechanically animated dolls.
Over the decades since 1950 the site has been expanded and developed, but still mostly in keeping with Anton Pieck's vision and ideas. It now covers an area of 160 acres and boasts attractions for old and young, with a wide variety of rides and amusements. It is officially the largest theme park in The Netherlands.
It is thought that Walt Disney may even have got some of his inspiration for his famous theme parks from his visits to the Efteling, as the Efteling is older.
#~~~ MY EXPERIENCE AT THE EFTELING ~~~#
I have visited the Efteling three times over the last two years, and once when I was very young, and on each visit came away counting the days until I could go back. The atmosphere is so different to what we get in the UK - here, most theme parks are simply large collections of fancy rides, interspersed with overpriced retail outlets. At the Efteling though, the layout is such that everywhere you walk and look there is something to grab your attention and to watch or do. Although the size of the whole park is not enormous, because of the high density of amusements, rides and attractions, it still takes a long time to get round and see everything.
The simplest way I can convey the idea of what it is like is to take you on a virtual walk round the park, as seen from my viewpoint and with my opinions, so here we go!
#~~~ EFTELING TOUR IN WORDS ~~~#
After walking along a gravelled avenue listening to the Efteling theme music (the Pardoes Promenade), you arrive at the entrance gates and are amazed to see a weird looking structure with a five spiked roof. This is the House of The Five Senses and was built to symbolise the whole Efteling experience. This is where you pay, and in my opinion, the entry price is not bad, after Alton Towers prices! The third time I went I had pre-booked online (at www.efteling.nl) and so saved myself a couple of Euros, with an entry price of 28 Euro per adult or child over 4 in 2009. If you go to the website look right at the bottom and click the UK flag symbol to get the site in English.
Once you've paid, walk in and depending when in the year you go, you might be greeted by a lively four-piece jazz ensemble entertaining the patrons. Keep walking and across a miniature level crossing. This is where the steam train crosses the main entrance path - you might even see and hear the train coming. Unlike many parks, I was surprised to find that the locomotives used here are actual steam engines with a driver who must also shovel coal onto the fire.
At the level crossing, you have a choice of directions. We will carry straight on to get to the main central square of the park (actually a circular area with a fountain). At this central junction you can access the four main areas of the Efteling park, which are the Adventure or Rough Realm (Ruigrijk), the Travel Realm (Reizenrijk), the Alternative Realm (Anderrijk) and the Fairy Realm (Marerijk). My favourite area now would probably be the Adventure Realm as that's where most of the 'grown up' rides are, but as a child it would have to be the Fairy Realm, which is where all the Fairy Tales can be found.
#~~~ THE TRAVEL REALM ~~~#
We will turn forward and left and visit the Travel Realm first. The first thing to notice is the enormous Pagoda - this is a giant circular area which gets slowly lifted up and down and gently turns at the same time, giving you a panoramic view of the park. I found this mildly disappointing because the whole of the Efteling is so heavily forested, giving a great spooky and atmospheric feel when on the ground but hiding it all when you try and see it from above.
You'll then encounter the Gondoletta, this is a gentle 'ride' consisting of 40 or so small boats which circle a large lake, giving you good views of some of the Efteling's attractions. It took until the third visit before I decided to go on this, as it takes quite some time (about 15 minutes) but is good for relaxing if you've been hurtling about on the rides.
Next up is the small Maze - this is strictly for children only as the hedges are too low for adults to be able to enjoy it, but the kids love it.
You'll already be able to hear the merry music coming from Monsieur Cannibale - a great fun ride which is basically a glorified tea-cup ride. If you go on this you can try pulling or pushing on the centre wheel to spin your 'cup' round faster.
If you now look to your right, you'll see a large waterfront hotel and restaurant, ideal for a relaxed (but expensive) meal or drink by the lake, and a little to the left of that is the first of the large rides, Bird Rok. You can't miss it as the entrance is under a giant sculpture of a bird of prey - having said that, I only found this ride on my most recent visit to the park, so I managed to! It is a steel rollercoaster ride which is completely in darkness except for a few fancy lighting effects, and was opened in 1998. I very much enjoyed this ride, slightly reminiscent of the now-gone Alton Towers Black Hole, and went on it a couple of times.
For children, this part of the park also has Carnival Festival, a big indoor attraction of puppet shows, and a small playground. If you're hungry or thirsty, as well as the previously mentioned hotel, there's a couple of snack areas and a cafe serving a Dutch speciality called 'poffertjes' which are tiny pancakes. Delicious served with syrup, icing sugar and butter! I should mention that you need to have a fair amount of cash (or a credit card) with you, as the food and drinks all around the park are quite expensive, just as with all theme parks.
If we now go back to the park's central circle, we can then head for the next area, definitely aimed at children but fun for all, called the...
#~~~ THE FAIRY REALM ~~~#
Anyone who knows even just one of the standard mainstream fairy tales will probably be entertained in this part of the Efteling.
You first of all encounter a large old-fashioned market square, with some extremely ornate buildings, one of which houses the fabulous and famous Steam Carousel. This is an indoors set of galloping horses (and other animals) accompanied by a fully working fairground organ playing popular tunes. While the children ride, you can sit down at the adjacent cafe restaurant and enjoy a drink or something to eat, while listening to the music.
Afterwards, exit the hall and turn right and you will find the Water Organ. This incredible spectacle consists of water fountains, timed and synchronised to organ music while changing colours and patterns. Again this is indoors so if the weather is bad it is no problem to enjoy yourself here. I stayed for several minutes watching the Water Organ and I don't think I saw the pattern repeat itself in that time. There are benches so that you can sit down.
Coming out, head straight forward and you'll reach the Laaf People. This is a small village, called "Lavenlaar", inhabited by the so-called Laaf People. As you visit you can walk around and enter the houses, among which there is a bakery, a brewery, a windmill and a nursery. If you don't mind the height, you can also get on a monorail which winds its way around the village for around 1/3 of a mile. I went on this, apparently it used to be pedal operated when first opened but people kept crashing into each other! Anyway it's still quite fun and now perfectly safe.
In the Anton Pieck square which is just by the Laaf village, there are a couple of small rides for children, including a small carousel.
If you now head across to the left, you'll see the Villa Volta haunted house. This ride is very similar to the one at Alton Towers called Hex, but the Efteling was the first place to build this type of ride. After lots of scary introduction (unfortunately all in Dutch so a little bit wasted on English visitors) you enter a room, sit down, and then the room starts to rotate. Or so you think: actually its the part of the room with the benches you're sat on. It's a very clever illusion and one of the few rides that made me feel slightly queasy afterwards!
Exiting this ride, if you keep going right you'll get a chance to relax on the enchanting Dreamflight ride. In this ride, you fly through a dream world of forests, castles, fairies, and trolls, while seated in small open cabins hanging from the ceiling. The ride goes past five different scenes in about the same number of minutes. Definitely a ride to be enjoyed by the whole family, even Granny aged 90 could go on this one without any problems. At the end you come out into a well-stocked shop where you can buy some of the fantasy and fairy items you saw.
Keep going right, and you finally get to the original and oldest part of the Fairy Realm, where all the fairy tale scenes can be discovered. You can see the Fakir, flying on his magic carpet, the Indian Water Lilies where little fairies dance on the lily pads to music (well worth going out of your way to see, by the way, it's very cleverly done), and the story of the Chinese Nightingale. Several other fairy tales are there - how most of them are presented is behind a large glass pane, where there is room for several people to stand and watch, and the animations and sounds come to life on a cycle of about once every 5 minutes.
There are a lot of smaller and less extravagant presentations too, for example, when walking through the Fairy Tale Forest, you can look left and see Rapunzel letting her hair down the tower, or the Ugly Troll under the bridge, or the Dutch Long Neck lifting his head up higher and higher, or the fire breathing Dragon who roars at you if you try and lift up his chest of treasure. Much of it just happens as you walk past, some of it is interactive and requires you to do something, but all of it is something fascinating and quite unlike any other theme park I've ever been to in the UK.
It is very easy to get lost in the Fairy Realm (yes, I speak from personal experience here) but let's assume you've managed to get back to the central circle with fountain. The next realm to visit is...
#~~~ THE ADVENTURE REALM ~~~#
This part of the park is the closest in appearance and feel to, say, Alton Towers, as it has several big rides and not much in between other than refreshment kiosks and benches. Therefore young children would quickly get bored here I think, but for adults it's probably the most interesting part.
The first ride you'll get to is the Flying Dutchman. This one is seriously scary the first time, but after that it's pure fun. You step onto a large wooden boat which has about four rows of seats, each with three seats. You float along, enter a black tunnel and get hoisted up with loud scary noises and smoke effects. Then suddenly, you stop, then plunge down a steep decline into a lake! Water goes everywhere, and if you're lucky misses you but soaks everyone else. There's lots of spectators watching you on this ride as there are outdoor cafes and seating areas all around the small lake.
Queues on this ride were virtually non-existent on all of my visits, but I haven't been to the park in the summer. Judging by the amount of queue space allowed, I would say you could be looking at an hour or more of queuing when the park is busy.
Next up is Pegasus, a nice wooden rollercoaster which doesn't damage too many of your brain cells on each visit. However at the time of writing this has been closed permanently and will be replaced by another wooden rollercoaster called George and the Dragon.
Python should be your next point of call - especially if you have fond memories of the now extinct Corkscrew at Alton Towers. Python is very similar, and you can choose a photo of yourself at the end (or in my case, go on again to get a photo without my eyes screwed shut!). This ride is most definitely not for the faint-hearted (or Granny aged 90).
There is a children's ride nearby called Polka Marina, which is a small wooden ship circle ride, very gentle but something to keep them occupied and reduce the cries of 'it's not fair' when they can't go on Python. Also close by is a small radio-controlled boats attraction for children, and another ride called 'D'Oude Tuffer' which is a winding flat ride where children sit in model cars and get to steer themselves.
While they do that, you can maybe go on the Half-Moon Pirate Ship. This is the only ride I didn't go on, as I just don't like the way my stomach feels afterwards! Suffice to say, this is a typical pirate ship ride, though very large indeed and possibly one of the world's largest. Instead I went on the Chairoplane ride, a bit more civilised - or you could try your hand in the Game Gallery, a series of different fairground game arcades and shooting style games.
From here then, you can walk back to the central circle, or if you're feeling lazy, maybe use the nearby railway station to have a ride around the park on the steam train, which takes about 15 minutes in total. I sat right behind the locomotive and could see the driver feeding coal into the fire as we went along (he also seemed to be enjoying listening to his mp3 player, ahem!) Let's go and look at the last realm, which is the...
#~~~ ALTERNATIVE REALM ~~~#
From the central point, the first attraction we encounter is the Haunted Castle. This is not a ride but simply a walk-through scare-fest. The entrance hall is dimly-lit, with some suitably spooky items dotted around. Quite startling is an effect where dogs lie behind a door, and rattle their chains an bark when someone touches the doorknob. When you enter the main hall, there are several scary statues, and a big glass window allows you to look into the inner court which has a ghostly graveyard and ruins. A violin starts playing the Danse Macabre and the graveyard comes to life with all types of different scenes being played out in the ruins.
After that, you might need an ice-cream - well there's plenty of refreshment kiosk owners who will be happy to serve you in the vicinity.
You might want to have a look at PandaVision while at the Castle, as it's very nearby - this is a indoor cinema with a very short 3-D film about the loss of wild animals, and afterwards you get the chance to donate money to the (I think) World Wildlife Fund or purchase items from their shop. I found this a bit boring to be honest and perhaps not the most suitable attraction for a theme park.
Much more exciting is the Bobsleigh Ride - you'll find it easily enough, just follow the screams. This is built to resemble a normal bobsleigh run, except that the walls are steel not ice, and the cars run on wheels. There are some very steep drops and sharp bends in this ride, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Unfortunately it was temporarily closed for some of my most recent visit, presumably some minor fault fixing.
If you're feeling dehydrated, now's the time to go on the Piranha Rapids ride. Very similar to those in other theme parks, you sit in a round rubber edged floating dinghy and whizz off down the river, hoping to avoid getting wet from the mischievous spray fountains and waterfalls along the route, but usually failing miserably! And as the seats are already wet from the previous journey, you're wet right from the start. There is a camera along the river and you can get photos of yourself afterwards.
Finally, and still with water as it's central theme, there's the Fata Morgana ride. This is a very gentle and family friendly ride, you sit in a gently rocking boat and glide around an indoors canal, looking at various Asian scenes playing out along the edge, including Elephant Training, Tigers, Street Markets, Banquets and lots more. I feel this is a ride that could be much improved by adding laser guns to the boats and targets on the various objects along the way, but that's just my opinion. When you leave you again go through a large shop selling all kinds of weird and wonderful souvenirs based around the ride.
Now if you're very lucky (and I haven't been yet) you might find the Rowing Lake open - a chance to work off some steam and enjoy the open water. But every time I have been there it's been closed, much to my annoyance.
As you wend your weary way out of the park, don't forget to pick up your souvenirs. The Efteling offer a very useful service which means as long as you buy your souvenirs before 3 p.m, you can ask for them to be taken to the exit shop, where you can pick them up after 4 p.m. Saves carting lots of stuff around the park all day, especially on the bigger rides where you're not allowed to take items with you.
#~~~ POINTS TO NOTE ~~~#
If you're at the Efteling when it's quiet, the staff there are very friendly and relaxed, and will often allow you to stay on a ride for a second or third trip round, which is great.
On the other hand, in the off-peak season, many kiosks are not open, the Rowing Lake is rarely open, and the Steam Train doesn't always seem to run.
To sum up - if you go to The Netherlands, make sure you go to the Efteling. You won't regret it!
#~~~ HOW TO GET THERE ~~~#
By car, follow signs to Loon op Zand and then Efteling. Parking will cost you extra. By train, you can get a shuttle bus from s'Hertogenbosch or Tilburg stations, but do check times and availability beforehand.
If you do use the bus, make sure not to do what I did on one visit and end up on the all-stops service bus. It took over an hour to do the return journey to s'Hertogenbosch instead of 20 minutes by express bus!
If you have questions, the Efteling website is a good place to start, and if you email them they will email back in English. Very helpful.
On a recent trip to Holland my husband and I decided to treat the kids to a visit to De Efteling. We went on the recommendations from some Dutch friends who said to expect a great family day out. We took our three children aged 7, 3 and 18 months. After a little hold up at the entrance we paid £75 for a family ticket. Bearing in mind that children aged 3 and under are free we thought this a little steep, after that however, all the attractions are free to go on.
Once inside however, we all agreed the place is amazing... so much better than the theme parks in Britain. All the park is beautifully themed into the Hans Christien Anderson stories such as Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel, and the small attention to detail makes you believe you are really in a fairy land. The whole park is split into different zones or villiages, each with its own sub-theme. There was a good mix of rides and attractions to suit everyone from extreme rollercoasters for my husband, to carousel rides, waltzers and little train/car/boat rides for the youngsters.
Most of the queues were reasonable, around 10 minutes, apart from the most popular rides and 3 large rollercoasters which had queues of around 40 minutes. (Though my husband said they were well worth the wait.) My children had the most fun riding the carousels which had no queue and you could ride as many times as you wanted. They also enjoyed going around the character villiages which had moving displays and fun things to do such as mazes, playgrounds and stepping stones.
There was a good selection of eating places ranging from kiosk type hot dog stands to full sit down meals. We opted for a burger bar option and the service and value for money was excellent.
The park shuts at 6pm and we had tears from the children as we had only managed to scratch the surface of all the things to do and see, we could have easily spent a second day without repeating any activities, and still not been bored. All in all, this place is well worth a visit regardless of age, its an amazing and beautiful day out!