Hands up who’s heard of Efteling? For many Brits, it’s not on our radar but Emma Kirkham discovers why that’s set to change…
We were off on a four-country road trip to discover what Holland’s largest theme park is all about. I had never taken the children abroad on my own in the car, but I am always up for a bit of adventure.
So, with stacks of snacks, and Annie, 10, listening to Spotify on the car stereo and Ed, eight, ensconced in his ‘2,000 best fun facts in the world’ annual on the back seat, we set off. Even with busy half-term traffic, we whizzed through the Eurotunnel and, before we knew it, we were through France and into Belgium and the city of Antwerp.
Ah, Antwerp, how we don’t love you! The traffic was horrendous around the ring road, so make sure you time your trip better than we did to avoid the rush hour. We made it to our hotel in Breda, southern Netherlands, just before nightfall.
The next morning, Annie navigated us through the city centre towards the cathedral, only sending me down one bike-only street, which I consider a triumph. Breda is an arty university town with canals running through it, and a good place to stay, less than half-an-hour from Efteling.
The next morning was spent admiring the amazing street art and eating the best bagels we have ever tasted (bagelsbeans.nl), while people-watching. We found the most incredible bookstore with a giant Miffy hanging off the balcony. The Grand Theatre Bookstore (grandtheatrebreda.nl), as the name suggests, used to be an art deco theatre.
It is now a community hub, bursting at the seams with books. Back in the car, we headed north on the motorway and were soon at the gates of Efteling. Well, the gates of Loonsche Land Hotel, to be precise, our home for the next couple of days. Efteling’s new family-friendly holiday village opened this year and resembles a giant ski lodge, with oversized horns towering over the top of the building, plonked in the middle of a forest.
We were staying in the hotel, but there were loads of cute weatherboard chalets, ideal for bigger families, as they hold up to 12 people. The children excitedly scrambled to our room, and it was a delight. I was pleased to see not one but two top bunks built into the wall, so no arguments about who was going to nab one.
But we weren’t hanging around to admire the scenery – we had rides to check out. The park was apparently 20 minutes from the hotel, strolling along a forest path, but we made it in 10 as Annie and Ed couldn’t get there quick enough.
Efteling opened in 1952 as gardens, a fairy-tale forest and tearooms, but has now expanded to become Europe’s third-biggest theme park, with more than five million visitors a year.
Even though the park is huge, the magic of the fairy tale is still alive, especially in the original Sprookjesbos (fairy-tale forest). Classical music, piped from toadstools, accompanied us as we wandered through the maze of woodland paths to 29 different fairy-tale life-sized dioramas, some familiar – Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – and others less so – The Six Servants and Mother Holle, anyone?
The animatronic displays were mesmerising, even though the stories they told were in Dutch. Ed’s favourite was the talking tree – we had no idea what he was saying, but he loved it all the same. The forest is not just a delight for young children – we noticed couples in their twenties, grandparents and teenagers all enjoying this very Dutch experience.
To get a real idea of the size of the park, we took a ride on the flying Thai pavilion, where you are cranked up to a dizzy height and spun round. It looks sedate, but both Annie and Ed came off looking slightly green. Next stop turned out to be Ed’s favourite, Droomvlucht, a dark indoor ride surely dreamt up by someone spending too much time in Amsterdam’s coffee shops – think trolls pole-dancing in a fantasy forest world, cavorting unicorns and forest animals swinging from sky-high vines. We visited this ride six times and he still wanted another go.
The great thing about Efteling was that, apart from the new Symbolica ride, we didn’t have to queue for longer than 15 minutes for any of the rides. Sometimes we were even allowed to stay on for another turn.
The clever Dutch have split the country into three different regions, with staggered school holidays, so apart from high summer, the crowds and queues are generally manageable.
The Dutch do seem to be ahead of the game with some pretty wonderful ideas, one of my favourites being Holle Bolle Gijs, the paper gobblers – troll-like talking rubbish bins that call out ‘Papier hier!’ whenever you pass by. The children love feeding them and the bins even thank them. This competitive litter-collecting keeps the park sparkling clean.
Efteling may be fairy-tale-themed, but the rides are not just for little ones. There are some impressive rollercoasters that Annie and I were dying to test out. We made use of the ‘child swap’, where Ed could stand at the side of the attraction as we rode. The winner for us, hands down, was the Baron 1898, one of the newer coasters, a 90kph freefall into a mineshaft that had us both whooping and hollering.
One good reason to stay overnight is an early pass into the park the next morning, and first dibs on the brand new Symbolica ride, housed in a turreted Disney-esque castle. It cost a whopping £35 million pounds to build. They turn up the theatrics to 11 on this one. You’re ushered into the ‘Palace of Fantasy’ and introduced to the world of Symbolica by Pardoes, the court jester. After that, we had absolutely no idea what was going on as the proceedings were all in Dutch, but it was an enchanting ride nonetheless.
The ornate stairway we were standing in front off suddenly split in two and we were invited through to choose one of three adventures. We went with the Schattentoer, the treasure tour, the only reason being that the queue was the shortest. This is another of Efteling’s dark rides. There were no tracks on this one, though, and we had no idea how it actually worked. Annie and Ed luckily picked the front seats with the interactive screens, which gave them control of the carriage, then we were off.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers here, so let me just say the ride was pure magic, seven minutes of escapism packed to the rafters with floating planets, an aquarium, butterflies, and even a royal banquet with champagne corks popping. After all that excitement, and with the sun finally coming out, we thought this would be a good time to return to Loonsche Land and take out our hire bikes. As you would expect with Holland, it’s a dream to cycle around.
The bikes took a while to get used to, as the children’s bikes had back-pedal brakes. But it wasn’t long before we were pootling along, out of Efteling and into the Dutch countryside proper.
It was then that I wished we could have kept on cycling and made a week of it. Three days in Holland was not nearly enough. Amsterdam is a mere hour’s drive away, but it was sadly time to leave.
Ed managed to sleep through the whole of Belgium on our drive home. I eventually shook him awake as we neared the Channel Tunnel. So what was the best bit then, Ed? ‘The mini pancakes and the bikes.’ And Annie? ‘The Symbolica ride and not having to sit next to Ed in the car!’ For me, it was forgetting the reality of life and being in the make-believe world of Efteling where everything was just fine, thank you very much
A two-night stay in a room for two adults and two children in the Efteling Loonsche Land Hotel, including breakfast and three days in the park, costs from £455 (early booking)/£535 (standard).
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle runs up to four departures per hour, with daily crossings from Folkestone to Calais. Return Eurotunnel Le Shuttle tickets are priced from £46.
Bikes are available to hire at the hotel, from £7 per day for adults and £4.50 per day for children.