What De Efteling? The best European theme park you've never heard of
Done Disney? Perfected PortAventura? Darragh McManus takes his family to De Efteling in the Netherlands...
The night is dark and the air claustrophobic as our boat glides along a river. We've gone through a rough part of town. Men stare over balefully, calling out threats, giving us the dread-eye. We pass a prison, an army barracks, a marketplace. Music plays in the distance. Someone asks, from what seems to be a pirate ship: "Are you English?"
We involuntarily lean into the centre of our boat. This place is dangerous, exotic, almost otherworldly. And what in God's name is that up ahead? It looks like, but it couldn't be… a genie? Arisen from its sleep inside a lamp, goggly-eyed and hideous, the thing leans over us...
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Then double-doors open, the boat stops and we reach the end of our ride. Cheerful staff, speaking Dutch and English, help us off, and the next group settles in for their journey through the Forbidden City. This is the 'dark ride' Fata Morgana, inspired by the famous Arabian story 1001 Nights, and it's just one of several tremendous attractions at De Efteling, a theme park in the Netherlands.
It's not just any old theme park, mind you. Efteling, first opened in 1952, pre-dates even the original Disneyland by three years. It's the third most popular park in Europe, after Germany's Europa Land and Mickey Mouse's Parisian home. And it is out-of-this-world brilliant.
It's also bafflingly unknown in these parts. In fact, I'd never heard of Efteling until my wife Majella, having read about it, suggested going there.
Thematically, it's all about those classic Mittel European fairytales (with the odd Middle Eastern and Far Eastern outlier) familiar from our youth: not so much House Of Mouse as Three Little Pigs. We figured our children - Fiachra, nearly nine, and six-year-old Samhain - were still young enough to be captivated by that atmosphere of magic, witchery and the deep, dread forest.
As it turned out, Efteling has something for just about everyone. Smaller kids will love the fairytale elements, teens can spend all day on the dozen-plus fast rides, and parents - channelling submerged childhood memories of spooky fairy stories - will likely do both.
The sense of enchantment begins the moment you step through the thatch and timber-beamed front gates. You enter a spacious, airy plaza: tree-lined avenues stretching off in different directions, the Efteling theatre to your right, a lake in front with water spewing from the mouths of giant crowned frogs. And there's music playing: elegant orchestral sounds drift across the air. It feels like the set of The Princess Diaries (yes, I've watched it).
The park is fairly large - 72 hectares - but very manageable, even with children. It's roughly square in shape; at a brisk clip, you'd walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. If the nippers are too small or get tired, you can rent cute little hand-drawn carts to ferry them around. Don't worry about navigation, either. I have possibly the world's worst sense of direction, but armed with a free map given out on entrance, even I was able to plan out a course.
Be warned: planning ahead is a good idea as there is so much to see in Efteling. We had three days and just about covered everything, including some repeat visits (Samhain must have taken us back to Fata Morgana four times).
The park is divided into five main parts. First up on the left, Marerijk: home to the wonderful Fairytale Forest, the trippy Villa Volta revolving house, a diorama and museum, and Droomvlucht, another 'dark ride' through a realm of fairies, sprites, elves and goblins.
Marerijk is also where Raveleijn is staged twice-daily: a properly thrilling, all-action show with pyrotechnics, a mechanical dragon, trick-riding, stunts, fights, disappearing acts and even some trained ravens.
Top-left finds you in Reizenrijk, with the viewing tower, gondola rides, waltzers, with the hilarious name of Monsieur Cannibale, a pitch-black rollercoaster, and Carnaval, an around-the-world-with-puppets ride. In the middle of Efteling is Fantasierijk, where you'll enjoy Symbolica - one of the flagship rides: think Harry Potter meets steampunk in pre-Revolutionary France - and, in the evening, Aquanura, a lovely 30-minute water and lights show.
In the top right corner is Ruigrijk, where most of the 'faster' rides are gathered: the giant swing-boat Halve Mein, a wooden double-rollercoaster, a splash-into-water rollercoaster, a steel rollercoaster and the absolutely terrifying-looking Baron 1898. Most of these are fine for kids, by the way, though there is a height limit of 1.2 metres.
Being of nervous disposition and delicate stomach, I leave the high-speed thrill-seeking to Majella and Fiachra and head for the last section of the park, Anderrijk, where Samhain and me try Pirana (a river rapids ride), a haunted house, a bobsleigh ride and a 4D animation.
Everywhere you look, the detail is ridiculous: an ATM machine designed as a giant money box; wastepaper baskets are the faces of fat men hollering "Paper here! Paper here!"; kitchen utensils in Polles Keuken pancake restaurant jiggle and dance as though they're in a scene from Fantasia.
Staff are crisply uniformed and unfailingly helpful (in four different languages). There are good restaurants, cafés and food stalls throughout, decently priced and to a variety and standard you don't expect in theme parks. A smart 'single visitor' system shortens the queue for solo riders, while the Efteling app allows you to track line times. And though there are gift shops, they're not centred on pop-culture brands, nor constantly giving it the hard-sell on merchandise. That's refreshing.
What makes the place truly special isn't the technology and clever organisation, but the overall air of relaxation, friendliness, beauty, nostalgia… and yes, a little enchanted wonder. We finish our stay with the 80-minute Caro, a feast for the senses that blends music, sets, dance, acrobatics, comedy and pure circus. It's as good a piece of physical theatre as I've ever seen, and a suitably magical and dreamlike way to the end the trip.
Take three: top tips
For small kids
The Fairytale Forest is a fantastic assemblage of painstakingly crafted scenes from some 20 fairy stories. There are also playgrounds, a maze and some gentle funfair rides.
Test their nerve on Baron 1898, an insanely vertiginous rollercoaster which plunges towards earth at furious speed. Spookslot haunted house is both corny and scary.
The Pagode is a slowly spinning, up-and-down viewing platform with fab views of the park. The old-style Stoom Carousel is charming and will evoke childhood memories.
We flew Ryanair from Dublin to Eindhoven, taking a train to Tilburg and a bus to Efteling - about a two-hour journey from airport to park. Shuttles bring visitors between the park and various accommodations in the larger Efteling 'campus'.
Park day-tickets cost €35-€40, which you can bundle with accommodation (self-catering or various hotels) from €265 per night for two adults. See efteling.com/en.
Read more:10 Do's & Don'ts for Disneyland Paris: How to get the most out of your fairytale trip