I never thought of myself as the type of man who could be moved to tears by a theme park. Yet here I am, doing my best to conceal moist eyes from a crowd of parents and children. Thank goodness it’s dark in here.
On the other side of the window before us is a miniature, snow-covered corner of Victorian London. And down on its cobbles sits the impoverished Little Match Girl, whose animatronic form must now be just an empty shell, for moments earlier we’d witnessed her hologramatic spirit leave her body and jump into the arms of the ghost of her beloved grandma.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m here with my own four-year-old Match Girl, but I find the whole scene unexpectedly moving. My pregnant girlfriend is similarly affected. At least she can blame it on hormones.
We emerge from the little house and begin exploring the rest of Efteling’s Fairytale Forest — a series of charmingly rendered fairytale settings, ranging from Sleeping Beauty’s castle and the witch’s house in Hansel & Gretel, to scenes from more obscure tales such as the Indian Water Lilies and the Chinese Nightingale.
Some renderings, like the Little Match Girl, are feats of technical wizardry. Others date back as far as 1952, when the park first opened, and rely on the artistry of their design for impact. Our visit is wonderfully timed, as it coincides with the peak of my daughter’s fascination with fairy tales. At this particular point in her young life, the Forest is her idea of heaven.
Despite frequent bouts of ferocious rain, this is one of those days where parenting feels easy: walking at a relaxed pace, happy in the knowledge that around every corner there’ll be something to surprise our daughter — be it the harpsichord music emanating from a knee-high toadstool, or the sight of an animatronic prince zigzagging up Rapunzel’s hair.
And while her choice of favourite scene changes by the minute, she’s particularly taken with Sprookjesboom — the eerily realistic mechanical tree which tells children’s stories in a deep, booming voice. The fact that these tales are in Dutch doesn’t bother her at all, and during our two-day stay, we seek him out on three separate occasions, once during a torrential downpour.
To my mind, the best thing about Efteling is that the fairytale atmosphere extends to the rest of the park. The spell is never broken by jarring modernity or crass commercialism. Everything feels as though it’s been curated by the Brothers Grimm, from the themed restaurants and shops to the costumed staff and piped classical music. And while there are enough high-octane rides to appease older kids — several rollercoasters, a swinging ship, water rides, even a bobsleigh — the park’s trump card is its ability to cater to a younger audience, from the countless carousels and fairground rides, to areas such as Laafland, the kingdom of the animatronic Laaf People, who go to school, make music and bake bread while children peer down on them from a monorail.
The highlights of our first day include the effects-laden Raveleijn show, which features an eye-catching, three-headed, fire-breathing dragon, and the early evening water show, during which all three of us get absolutely drenched.
Then, as afternoon turns to evening, we depart, not through the main gates into a muddy car park, but instead through a quieter exit, reserved for guests of the Efteling Hotel — an odd-yet-appealing cross between an office block and a fairytale castle, just a two-minute skip from the park.
All hotel guests are given free tickets to Efteling, plus priority entry half-an-hour earlier than ordinary paying punters. And so it is that the following day we awake in our fairytale beds at a civilised time, make short work of the buffet breakfast and head back into that quiet corner of the park, with just a handful of fellow guests for company.
A quick spin on Monsieur Cannibale — Efteling’s version of the teacups is tribal cooking pots — is followed by the Dream Flight, a charming chairlift ride through a twinkly fairy kingdom. From there, it’s straight back into the forest, to see our favourite storytelling tree. On our way, we pass the Little Match Girl’s corner of Victorian London. My daughter runs straight in. My girlfriend hesitates. It seems this time I’ll have to brave it on my own.
How we did it: Entry to Efteling costs €34 (£24) if booked online (free for under-fours). We made it the first part of a three-stage holiday, which also included a cultural break in The Hague and a seaside holiday in Scheveningen.
Getting there: Overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, sleeping in a family cabin on the Stena Hollandica.
The Hague: Don’t miss Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis gallery. We stayed at the family-friendly Suite Novotel Den Haag City Centre.
Scheveningen: In this North Sea resort on outskirts of The Hague, we found Mediterranean-style beach cafes on huge expanses of sand, carousels, ice cream stalls and fish and chips. We stayed at The Carlton Beach Hotel — at the end of the promenade.
Published in the Winter 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)