Ideas for families

A guide to the Fairy-Tale Magic of Efteling

For a family holiday, Jae Hopkins re-discovers Efteling in the Netherlands - one of the oldest theme parks in the world.

Family holidays in the Netherlands and re-discovering Efteling

Returning to the site of happy childhood memories is always risky, but when those memories are of a magical, fairy-tale land, and your return is over three decades on, with a bunch of hard-to-impress, eye-roll-ready teenage lads, it could be considered foolhardy.

Thankfully my trip down memory lane to Holland’s largest theme park, Efteling, was an unmitigated success – both for me, and for my strapping sons!

In the 1980s my family used to swap houses with families in Holland, so Mum, Dad, my little sister and I made a few visits to Efteling over the years. I have fond memories of the big, wooded park, with rides we could go on as many times as we liked, but my key memory is of bins that spoke to us! For the last three decades I’ve always been able to summon up the sound of a bin saying “papier hier” and then “dank je wel” as my sister and I scuttered around trying to find anything to feed these odd, anthropomorphic trash cans with.

Driving to Efteling with Eurotunnel

Fast forward a few decades and hubby, David, and I loaded the car with Oscar (17), Milo (14), Ivor (11 – and the only one still shorter than his mum!) and Poppy the yellow lab. In another car was James (our best man from 22 years previously) with his wife Tessa, and son Charlie (15). We met in the main terminal building to pick up European driving kits from the AA shop, and give Poppy a last run around the pet exercise area before driving through passport control.

Boy and dog, in the back of the car on board a Eurotunnel shuttle

We’d booked Flexiplus tickets so we stopped in the lounge and the kids ate fruit, pastries and ice cream for breakfast – signalling the start of the sort of lax parenting that I know they hope for on holiday! We were given a bag of dog treats for Poppy, so everyone was ready for the journey ahead.

Just over an hour after meeting up we were driving off the shuttle onto French roads and heading towards Holland. The sat nav predicted the journey would take 3 hours 15mins, and it was about right. We made one stop to stretch everyone’s legs and arrived at Efteling less than four hours after leaving Calais.

Efteling accommodation

Very efficiently, we had already been sent a pack in the post which contained key cards for our accommodation (which also worked the car park barrier), a map of Bosrijk Village where we were booked to stay Monday to Friday, the number of our house, and tickets for entry to the theme park.

Woodland house accommodation in Efteling theme park

We drove through the heavily wooded village and found our house backing onto the lake, and about 10 mins walk from the entrance to the theme park. The six-bedroom Woodland House we were staying in was perfect for two families – with a large, bright kitchen/dining/living area, and another lounge area off it. There was a huge terrace with outdoor dining furniture, and a smaller outdoor lounging area under the roof to one side of the house. The bedrooms were all spacious, and the three loos, two shower rooms and a bathroom were clean and modern.

On that first afternoon the four boys dashed off to do a theme park recce, while we unpacked the cars and drove them to the car park. Cars are only allowed in the village on the days you arrive and leave. The rest of the time the small roads are traffic-free, save for the mini train that takes you up to the theme park if you don’t fancy the walk, the odd staff vehicle, and bicycles like the ones that delivered our pizza order that evening, and the bread and croissants we ordered for breakfast in the morning!

Efteling theme park rides

Over the next few days we worked out that the Efteling app is fantastic for working out which rides to go to at which time – the queue times on the app were pretty accurate, and on the big rides anywhere between zero and 30 minutes depending on the time of day. The boys worked out that the best times to go for the big roller coaster rides were first thing in the morning, when Bosrijk residents get in half an hour before anyone else or after 4pm.

Python rollercoaster with loops and corkscrews at Efteling theme park

The ride with the best review from everyone in our group was the Baron “Dive Coaster” which has an exhilarating freefall drop into what looks like a smoke-filled mineshaft. I found it even more exciting than the multi-looping Python which the boys were absolutely thrilled to be allowed to stay on a few times when there was no queue. We also loved the Water Coaster and, surprisingly for me, the retro-style, dragon-themed Wooden Coaster was a huge hit with our whole gang, and much-missed when it got closed for maintenance.

I can’t name them all but there were plenty more rides and attractions. One that demands a mention is the mind-bending Villa Volta. At the start of it there were a couple of rooms of listening to a story in Dutch which was a little dull for us, but once we sat in the main hall in what feels like rows of pews, we loved the physically and visually confusing onslaught of the senses, which I’m sure has many younger children feeling like they really have been upside-down, and all-the-way-over, by the end. It provoked quite the discussion about the power of the mind! There’s also a small, indoor swimming pool for people staying in Efteling accommodation, and that provided an hour or so of fun when the park was busy.

Efteling restaurants & shows

We’d all agreed before we went on holiday, that we’d cook two nights, eat out on one, and get takeaway on another. Teenage lads have hollow legs in my experience, so filling the fridge with bits and pieces they could help themselves to for breakfast and lunch, then sticking to our dinner plans, meant we had a bit of variety without demolishing our bank accounts.

Polles-Keuken, one of the lively restaurants in the park

On the Tuesday Tessa and I took all the boys to Efteling’s circus-themed evening show, “Caro”. It is 75 minutes long, and extraordinarily professional. Performed in-the-round in a purpose-built theatre, the staging, props and performers all surpassed my expectations and, whilst it was mainly visual, when there were spoken parts they were given in Dutch and English so we all kept track of the occasionally-bizarre storyline. Entry to the show is heavily discounted for people staying in Efteling accommodation and was well worth the €7.50 each that we paid. When we returned to the house, it was to steaming bowls of pasta carbonara and salad that David and James had whipped up and laid out on the outdoor dining table looking over the lake. We sat out there eating, chatting, drinking and playing games until very late. A perfect holiday evening.

The night we ate out, we had planned to drive to a nearby town, but ended up booking a table at Efteling’s Eethuys restaurant. Main courses were a little steep for families at around €17 each (there is a kids menu if you have younger ones), but the food was good and the service was fantastic. We went back to our house for ice creams previously purchased from the local supermarket (see top tip).

There was one bedroom on the ground floor of the house we stayed in, which was perfect for us, as Poppy knows she’s not allowed upstairs in houses. We put her bed on the floor of our bedroom and she slept soundly throughout the holiday. She got lots of walks around the woodland and lake – dogs are not allowed in the theme park itself and must be kept on a lead in the village – and enjoyed spotting the red squirrels, rabbits and ducks who have made it their home. There are a few very small fenced exercise areas where dogs are allowed off the lead, and poo bags are provided. I’d definitely recommend it as a good holiday for people taking their dogs (see top tip for pet travel info).

Two families standing outside their holiday accomodation

Efteling theme park review

On the Thursday David and Oscar did a day trip to Amsterdam (see top tip for travel info). They left with a list of museums and galleries they wanted to visit and returned with fabulous photos and a bag full of tacky Dutch food and souvenirs for everyone in the house – all wrapped in windmill-covered blue and white paper. A perfect pre-dinner activity before we sat down to our last supper of the holiday.

We stayed from Monday to Friday, and that felt just perfect to me. The boys all loved the big rides, but also liked the peacefulness of the house we called home for the week, and its pretty surroundings. I never thought I’d stay at a theme park and say that “peacefulness” was one of the advantages of that holiday; the contrast is well-curated, and was much appreciated. I have already recommended Efteling to friends since I’ve returned – it would work well for younger families too.

CARO -  a circus-themed live show

Most importantly, younger children may well be more captivated by the talking bins which still chat to parkgoers all these years on. My sons’ eyes definitely rolled when I spotted one this time and said, “ooh – that was my favourite thing about Efteling when I came here as a child.” But I think that may have been the only eye-roll we got amongst lots of chatter and excitement, and that’s quite the accolade on a holiday with four teens.

Top Tips

Getting into the theme park early: The park opens for residents half an hour before day visitors are allowed in, but the point at which it “opens” is quite a walk from the residents gate linking the park to Bosrijk Village, so I’d recommend leaving your accommodation about an hour before the day visitor opening time, to make the most of the exclusive access.

Stocking up at the supermarket: The Lidl in Kaatsheuvel is just a few minutes drive from Efteling and is big and very well stocked. We hardly took anything with us and found all the food we could want here. As you can only drive a car through Bosrijk Village on arrival and departure day, I’d recommend doing a shop the afternoon you arrive, so you can drop the bags directly at the house, before putting the car in the car park.

Exterior of Symbolica at Efteling theme park

Pets and vets: It’s compulsory to get a vet to administer a worming tablet to dogs before bringing them back into the UK. There are plenty of vets around Efteling, and we booked an appointment at a clean, spacious vets called Dierenkliniek de Langstraat, just 15mins drive away – they were friendly and efficient, and Poppy appreciated the free treats on the counter. It cost us €44 for the appointment and the tablet (you can provide your own) which we had to pay in cash as their card machine didn’t take Visa.

Other things to see & do at Efteling

Day trip to Amsterdam: ‘s-Hertogenbosch Station is about 25mins drive from Bosrijk Village and regular trains go to Amsterdam in about an hour from there, making a day trip very easy.

Droomvlucht: This is the most famous attraction at Efteling. You haven’t really visited unless you go to the Droomvlucht, so make sure it’s number one on your itinerary. Enter this dark world and float seamlessly through dreams. You’ll fly past floating castles, elves and stars that shine like polished diamonds. The best part? You’re in just as much wonderment as the children!

Fill up on traditional Dutch pancakes: It’s probably wise to leave the scrumptious treats until after you’ve been on the rollercoasters! When you’re all tuckered out from slaying dragons and loop-the-looping, head over to Polles Keuken for Dutch pancakes (sweet and savoury), and indulge in gigantic royal desserts, fit for a king. It’s the perfect place for very hungry adventurers!

Experience the entertainment: To leave reality behind and enter the land of make-believe, you need a good dose of entertainment. From Europe’s largest water show, an exciting show of stunt horses, magic tricks, and yes, more dragons! There is a show for every age, so make sure that you put aside enough time in your day to go.

Top image credit: Efteling

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About the Author

I’m a mum of three teenage sons, and enjoy travelling both with and without them. I used to work in adventure travel, and will always have a love of a mountain summit, or woodland trail as a result. I started running when I hit 40, love parkrun, and have now done a few marathons.

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