‘This is gonna be AWESOME,’ yells Zac, at 11 the youngest of my three boys and – unfortunately for me – a rollercoaster addict. I’ve never been a big fan of coasters and I somehow managed to avoid going on anything too energetic when I visited Disneyland as a child. So imagine my horror at becoming a dad to three boys of whom none share my trepidation when it comes to heights, sudden acceleration and G-force.
I give the sedate merry-go-round a wistful look as Zac leads me towards Baron 1898 – a ride that mimics a gold mine with a few supernatural surprises. Too soon we’re being harnessed into our seats and propelled up the lift-hill to a point 37.5m above a black pit churning with vapour. Where the ride jerks to a stop.
For a few seconds we hang there, and then, to the sound of frantic train bells, we plunge vertically into the abyss at 90km/h.
"This winter sees the world première of Fabula, a life-affirming 4D cinematic adventure starring a grumpy bear and a squirrel – a collaboration with Aardman […] It’s short but packs a big emotional punch."
You’ve seen one theme park, you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong. Efteling in the Netherlands is one of those places where the attractions seem to possess something extra. Maybe it’s the sense of history – the site began life as a sports park in the 1930s before opening its fairytale forest in 1952. Maybe it’s the family-friendly atmosphere, with younger children catered for with moments of wonder while older kids can feed their need for speed on a cluster of excellent white-knuckle rides. Or maybe it’s the impression you get that it refuses to rest on its laurels. Despite its many awards and its popularity, Efteling is constantly changing and looking to improve.
This winter, for example, sees the world première of Fabula, a life-affirming 4D cinematic adventure starring a grumpy bear and a squirrel who go on a journey of transformation – the result of a collaboration between Efteling and Bristol-based animation geniuses Aardman. Uniquely, the film takes place in two locations: first you stand in a space that gives the illusion of an extension to the cave featured on screen, where in a pre-feature introduction the cast is established and the characters’ motivations are set up. Then you move to at first seems like a conventional cinema but comes with number of 4D surprises. It’s a short film but it packs a big emotional punch and offers a simple message, subtly delivered.
The adjoining cafe is Fabula-themed, with animatronic characters from the film watching over you while you tuck into a burger, meal box or salad from one of the habitats inspired by the film: jungle, ocean or savannah. It’s this kind of attention to detail and the way the attractions are thoughtfully planned out that sets Efteling apart.
The park is set to expand, but there's so much to see and do as it is that a single day at Efteling isn’t quite enough. Like us, you might choose to stay on-site, at the enchanting Holiday Village Efteling Loonsche Land, where family rooms come with a double bed and three bunks, and where you can eat the likes of spring baby chicken with home-grown vegetables at dinner and a buffet breakfast including heartwarmingly fresh bread.
Highlights for Zac included the Joris en de Draak (George the Dragon), a bone-rattling wooden rollercoaster with (thankfully) sofa-soft seats; the fairytale forest, a meandering path through the woods taking in scenes from many famous stories; Fata Morgana, a dark ride on a boat through a forbidden city; and Python, a very smooth but fast rollercoaster with multiple loops and corkscrews.
‘You’ve got to admit, that was great,’ Zac beamed, when we wandered back to our hotel at dusk, shaken but intact.
‘Yes,’ I said, a little breathlessly. ‘Yes it was.’
Find out more about Efteling and book your tickets or weekend break online. A one-night, two-day stay at Efteling Loonsche Land Hotel starts from £269 for a five-person hotel room and includes breakfast and unlimited access to Efteling.