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Sunday 28 May 2017

Puy do Fou: A theme park that will blow you away

Vive la France!

Puy du Fou, France
Puy du Fou, France
Puy du Fou, France

Conor Power

When I heard about the existence of a theme park with absolutely no queues, it was all I needed to know.

The Grand Parc du Puy du Fou is such a theme park.

Aside from the fact that it doesn’t have any queues, it’s also an attraction which scores a consistent 98pc satisfaction rating from its visitors and was recently awarded the title ‘Best Theme Park in the World’ by Californian-based Thea Classic: high praise indeed coming from the land that invented the very concept of the theme park.

Located in the middle of the countryside in the Vendee, Puy du Fou didn’t start with one billionaire’s set of blueprints to try to build the best theme park in the world. It began life over 30 years ago as one modestly wealthy man’s wish to put on a show involving local people and organisations, teach some local history and entertain a local crowd.

Since that first season in 1978, the project has gone from strength to strength. Today, it is the fourth most popular attraction in France, with more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Its success is down to a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that it turns the blueprint of the theme park on its head.

Instead of a series of three-minute attractions running continuously and which are experienced on a first-come-first-serve basis, it consists of a series of spectacular live shows that each last around 45 minutes. There are five main shows and about seven more minor ones. It might all sound a bit hit-or-miss, but each of the main shows is stunning and is worth the price of admission in its own right.

We arrived en famille as soon as the doors of the Parc opened at 10am. With two adults and three teen/pre-teen boys accustomed to the standard theme park model, we made for a tough crowd — on paper at least.

The order of the programme of shows changes from day to day according to factors unknown (presumably the weather has something to do with it) and the first show that day was the ‘Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes’ (The Dance of the Phantom Birds). My wife led the way, running excitedly ahead, followed by me and three sceptical-looking youths. We arrived at what looked like a film set of fake ruins with two large all-seater stands on either side.

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Puy du Fou, France

With a storyline revolving around the site of an ancient castle in the park grounds, it was all an excuse for pageantry and special effects on a large scale, involving knights that arrive on horseback with huge eagles on their back and hundreds of birds of prey appearing as if from nowhere and filling the sky; some of them circled down in formation from a hot-air balloon — all to a pumping soundtrack that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand out.

Afterwards, a thoroughly satisfied crowd filed away from the stands in search of the next show. I did a quick poll of the family members: My wife was beaming from ear to ear. I asked the boys what they thought: “Brilliant!”; “That was great!”; “Yeah, brilliant!”

It was only 11am and we were already blown away.

Read more: Brittany still oozes beguiling old world charm

In addition to the shows, there are themed villages around the park. There’s a mediaeval one, an early 20th-century one and an 18th-century one. Each of them is worth a look for the level of detail of the set-up. For example, at the 18th-century village, real working farriers answer questions about their trade, or you can buy bread in its bakery which uses wheat that’s grown in situ.

The show that I was most looking forward to was the Roman-era ‘Le Signe du Triomphe’ (The Sign of Triumph). Looking at the website beforehand, it appeared to involve an actual Roman arena seating thousands of spectators, with chariot-racing, gladiatorial battles and real lions. I expected that this must be the showpiece spectacle and wondered if the reality would be a much toned-down version of what I had seen on-line.

But no — there it was, as real as Croke Park: a fully rebuilt Roman amphitheatre. By this stage, it was the boys who were running ahead excitedly to get the best seats. The show was simply extraordinary. They had chariot races, including wheels that come off in full flight. They had real live lions, bullying local Roman delegates, unfortunate Christians and press-ganged gladiators.

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Puy do Fou, France

Read more: Brittany: Relax in the shade of standing stones

The other three shows were The Vikings (including a lot of burning and fighting and a full-length Viking longboat that emerges from the lake complete with its crew on board), The Secret of the Lance (worth seeing for the stupendous levels of horsemanship alone and which also involves a rotating castle) and the indoor show Richelieu’s Musketeer (an indoor stage with horses galloping over water, anyone?).

Every night, there is a terrific sound-and-light show (The Organs of Fire), that’s included in the price of admission, thus completing a 12-hour entertainment period for your money.

The mother (quite literally) of them all, however, is the weekend-only high-season night-time spectacular — ‘La CineScenie’. This show is an enormous production involving a cast of thousands of people, horses, bulls, sheep and geese and a massive arsenal of fireworks. It fills the 14,000-seater arena twice a week during the summer and is booked out for months in advance.

It is what the very first show in 1978 has grown into and all of the cast of 1,500 performers are locally-based volunteers (unlike the Grand Parc itself, where everyone is working on a professional basis). Behind the scenes, there are five “villages” of these voluntary actors, ranging in age from 18 months to veterans in their eighties. People living in the communities in the region queue up for the chance to be part of the night-time extravaganza and the actors’ villages themselves are models of harmonious communal pride.

A senior Puy du Fou guide, Patrick, told me that the spirit of enterprise here was down to the strong spirit of independence in the Vendée (the only region in France where there was a popular counter-revolution against the French Revolution), citing a local unemployment rate that is about three percentage points below the national average.

As we filed out of the park after a long day and night of entertainment I did one last check on how that positive spirit might have rubbed off my own little community. The result was unanimous … 100% satisfaction.

Read more: Celebrate a rich tradition of surf and turf in Brittany 

Puy do Fou Factfile:

Get there: Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie) runs a weekly seasonal service from the end of March to October from Cork to Roscoff, from where Puy du Fou is a 4.5-hour drive.

Where to stay: Like most Irish families who visit the Puy du Fou, we stayed at a coastal campsite — Le Bois Dormant in St-Jean-de-Monts. It’s an excellent four-star campsite with a sister parc situated across the road and close to magnificent beaches. For details, see www.siblu.ie.

Where to eat: The only grey mark in the whole Puy du Fou experience is that the food is of surprisingly bland quality for a high price. But it is very picnic-friendly and this option would be recommended.

See www.puydufou.com for information on tickets, times and accommodation.

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