Efteling is uniquely Dutch. And completely wonderful for it.
A huge fantasy/fable/folklore theme park close to the Belgian border, it claims to be the oldest theme park in the world, predating Disney. Set deep in the woods, there’s something old fashioned and innocent about it, notwithstanding the odd roller-coaster here and there.
The first thing you notice is that its so much less hectic than many of its European rivals. Even in the height of Summer there’s a refreshingly relaxed pace. It also feels profoundly less commercial than Disney or Legoland, having more in common with the marvellous Tivoli in Copenhagen though Efteling feels more spread out and better for younger kids. There are hardly any stalls and shops flogging branded merchandise, but what you will find is free trolleys to wheel kids around – a godsend, and something that I wish was more common in parks outside of the Netherlands.
Staying in park accommodation gives you longer to explore. Early risers and late-leavers benefit from strolling onto the most popular rides and exclusive use of boats, carriages and trains. We stayed at the hotel for a night. A slightly tired but quaintly old fashioned experience which the kids loved particularly with somewhat odd character appearances and photo opportunities at breakfast.
For those staying a couple of nights, there are sweet self-catering houses and apartments based around a village square or on the water’s edge and this summer sees the opening of new accommodation including houses elevated on stilts over a lake as well as tree-houses (a dream for my kids) and cottages in the sand dunes.
The heart of the park itself is the Fairytale Forest, a chance to wander through the trees encountering mostly familiar fairytale scenes and the odd completely unfamiliar one. For those who have waited patiently in a queue (albeit unlikely out of the high holiday season) its great for stretching restless legs or ideal for wheeling buggy-based little ones. Younger kids adore this area it but you’ll struggle to keep older ones away too. Oh, and watch out for characters with open mouths (below) – they are rubbish bins that talk and ask for trash – never have my two been so keen to find something to dispose of!
Other firm favourites were Carneval Festival (Efteling’s version of It’s A Small World with similarly relentless song); Fata Morgana (an Arabian Nights boat ride much like Pirates of the Caribbean) and Droomvlucht or Dream Flight – probably the most popular attraction in the park in which visitors are seated in small cabins suspended from ceiling which then “fly” in dim light through a dream world of forests, castles, fairies and trolls accompanied by twinkling lights and sweet smells. It’s weird at times but magical and kids can’t get enough of it.
Other particularly popular attractions for our boys were the Piranha River Rapids, a chance to cool off but not get completely soaked; the steam train which circumnavigates the park; a little monorail; a huge and captivating diorama with model trains; the boats on the lake and even the playgrounds.
There are of course roller coasters for older kids – even those are presented in a relatively traditional style – and live shows featuring horses and dragons but for our two aged 4 and 5 the biggest appeal came from running around, exploring and revisiting their favourite attractions several times over. Oh and food, which consisted of Dutch pancakes for dinner and chips with mayonnaise for lunch!
I haven’t even mentioned the huge pagoda which rises over the park, the haunted house, or the Aquanura evening fountain and light show, all of which add further magic to the memories that are made here.
Although the boys have been lucky enough to visit EuroDisney and Legoland they remain utterly charmed by Efteling and often ask to return. I have a feeling that before too long we will do exactly that.