Efteling – the best kept secret in the Netherlands
Efteling is a theme park in the Netherlands that was unknown to me – and yet it welcomes over 4 million visitors a year, and is just fantastic (click on all coloured links for more information). It opened on the 31st of May 1952 as a Fairytale Forest – and it is still that, with Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel and at least 28 other fairy tales represented and ready to be explored. It is continually growing and changing and improving. "Fun for all the family and all ages" is a well worn phrase but it certainly applies here.
For us here in the north of Scotland, Efteling is surprisingly easy to reach. There are direct flights from both Inverness and Aberdeen to Amsterdam Schipol, airport, with the railway station being under the airport. There are around 6 trains per hour to Tilburg (with one cross-platform change) taking 1.5 hours. Tickets from the airport include the buses too (The Dutch believe in making public transport easy) and are not expensive. At Tilburg the bus station is outside the front door of the railway station with 6 buses an hour going to Efteling (which is close to the small town , population around 16,000 people, of Kaatsheuvel), which takes about 15 to 20 minutes, right across the road to the door of the hotel. To go by car is also easy. The DFDS ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam goes nightly. From Amsterdam it is 108 kms – 67 miles – to Efteling by a direct motorway, and takes 1.5 hours approx.
As well as the huge park, Efteling has its own accommodation for visitors. There is the magnificent four star hotel. This opened in 1992. It has 122 rooms and is a fairytale building, with towers and is set in a moat. The standard of accommodation, welcome, food, cleanliness, and facilities is just first class. Of course, being primarily aimed at children, you could be concerned about noise – but the rooms are totally sound proofed, and a nice touch is a separate room off the dining room for children. They can be dragged out of there for their meal, and run back in again between courses to let off steam. Then there is the holiday village called "Bosrijk". This has 104 detached woodland cottages, 64 terraced cottages, 78 apartments and 8 "homesteads" for groups, all round a lake with a large sandcastle in the middle! There is something to suit everyone, including a "A" status 18 hole golf course with driving ranges, practice and training, especially for youngsters.
Efteling grows outside its park too, with its own children’s radio station, TV programmes, DVDs, books and toys. This makes it very well known in the Netherlands. To describe all its attractions would take a very long article, so I will tell you of some that particularly caught me up in the wonder of it all. Entering from the special hotel entrance, the first area is for tots, with a special ground covering so children will land softly and bounce should they fall. This gentle area is contrasted by the nail biting roller coasters. There are four! One exits from the tower of a fairytale castle to zoom and twist around and finally swoosh down into a lake with water cascading high into the sky. Another wooden one has tandem cars whizzing around in all directions, another is a corkscrew, while the latest one is The Baron 1898. This cost 18 million Euros and opened in 2015. It is called a "Dive Coaster" because that is what you do! The legend is about a nasty Baron who owned a coal mine here. You enter the mine building and the car takes you up to the top of a typical mine headstock, there you pause, hanging face down looking into a smoking mine shaft! The car then drops vertically 123 feet, 37.5 metres, reaching 50 mph! The car disappears down the shaft to reappear further over and twist and turn before arriving back at the mine building – the screams of the passengers are constant!
Much calmer is the radio controlled boats, the "Gondoletta". Forty of these cruise for twenty minutes sedately around the waterways, you just have to sit back and relax. Then you can always go onto the pirate ship. Once secured, the ship starts to rock forward and back, gathering momentum until it is swinging in a complete half circle! There is also a bobsleigh ride, a monorail ride in and out of fairytale houses, and a favourite since it opened its tracks in 1954 – a peddle railway. You sit inside a small locomotive and ride around the tracks, from the station, through a tunnel, past a windmill, over level crossings and round sharp bends. One dad had a little child on his lap while he peddled like mad with a big grin all over his face.
I said at the start that there is something for people of all ages, and the ride that really caught my attention is the 60 cm gauge real steam train that runs for 3.5 kilometres all round the perimeter of the park, including a long bridge, approx. 75 metres, across a lake. There are two grand stations, and the six bogie carriages were always full. It is a great experience to travel around with that old familiar smell of steam, and hot oil from the engine. There are several open level crossings, and with so many people, especially children, about, the train has to go slowly across them of course, but the system is very safe. For many children today, this may be the only time that they have seen a real live steam engine, they all seemed to be fascinated, and dads were too of course!
There are many other grand buildings. One is Raveleijn. Up to 1,500 people sit in a staged grandstand facing a fairytale castle. The performance runs several times a day. There is also a full service restaurant here, so you can dine in style and watch the performance. There are trained crows, egrets and falcons all helping to rescue the princess who is attacked by sword wielding baddies, daredevil horseback riding, enormous dragons rising from a pond breathing out huge plumes of smoke and flames, it is a real spectacular. It is in Dutch but English language head sets are available – just ask. There is also the Efteling theatre. This is a "real" theatre which opened in 2002. It is one of the largest in the Netherlands. It gives award wining performances.
Each evening, the park closes with Europe’s largest water show, the Aquanura. This is held in the large lake near the entrance, and so naturally draws people towards the exit. This water show is just wonderful. There are over 200 fountains, all choreographed to give the spectacular, with 900 lights and even vast bursts of flame from the water. It is such a fitting end to a wonderful day at Efteling. Although I was there for one day, it was really not long enough. There is so much to see and experience, I’m sure that a week would not be too long. Originally I wondered if it would be a place to be when it rains – and the answer is yes! Although of course there is a lot of walking around, there are so many covered attractions and events that rain would not be a problem.
Efteling is open 365 days a year. It is very, very environmentally active and aware. It has won many awards for its care of nature, water, wildlife, and recycling. I was sitting on a bench watching the roller coaster splash down into the lake. On an adjacent bench a family were having a snack, and gathered their things up and moved off – leaving an empty crisp packet under the bench. Just a minute or two later, a uniformed lassie popped over with a pair of tongs and a plastic sack, swiftly picked up the crisp packet and discretely disappeared. This is typical, despite the thousands of people; there was never any litter about.
There are eating places from the Raveleijn restaurant to cafes and snack bars and even self service machines in the station, so you will not go hungry. Toilets are everywhere and immaculately clean and tidy. English is everywhere, as is normal in the Netherlands, but some of the shows are in Dutch, so English language audio hand sets are available. The entry price includes just about everything available, apart from food and drink. Although there will be thousands of people there, the park is so huge and there is so much going on that you will never feel crowded. It is very well organised for car parking, buses and public transport. It is ideal for families of course, but also for adults. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive of going to a children’s theme park – but I was totally captured and would go back again tomorrow.