Europe’s grand old theme parks
At Barcelona’s Tibidabo theme park, the Museum of Automations has about 40 figurines considered by some to be priceless. (Shaney Hudson)
While most people assume amusement parks are an American invention, their roots are in fact grounded in the Old World. Many of Europe’s best-known theme parks are centuries old, evolving from upper class “pleasure gardens” -- public spaces that included recreational activities in the 18th and 19th century -- to established tenants of local culture.
Even Walt Disney travelled to Europe in the 1950s, searching for inspiration for what would become the world-famous Disneyland, his first theme park project in California.
The oldest operating theme park in the world, Bakken, opened in 1583, just outside Copenhagen in Bakken, Denmark. In the summer months, crowds would flock to the area to drink from a spring that promised health and vitality. This attracted performers, vendors and hawkers, and eventually a fair was born. Today, the park is filled with modern amusements as well as the Rutschebaren, a wooden friction rollercoaster built in 1932.
While Bakken is still popular, better known is Copenhagen’s 169-year-old Tivoli Gardens. In addition to having gut-churning rides -- including one of the world’s oldest rollercoasters, the Bjergbanen, which opened in 1914 -- the park is also surprisingly highbrow, featuring a concert hall and a theatre.
The key feature of Tivoli is its manicured gardens, which are illuminated at night by more than 120,000 lamps, swelling to more than two million lights during the winter Christmas markets. The fairytale-like design of the eight hectare gardens were said to have inspired Walt Disney when he designed Disneyland.
In the 1950s, Disney also made repeated attempts to purchase the antique penny arcade collection at Barcelona’s Tibidabo amusement park, which opened in 1901. Called the Museum of Automations, the collection of 40 automated figurines collected between 1890 and 1950 are still in pristine working order and considered by some to be priceless. Some automatons are familiar, like the fortune-telling gypsy bearing an eerie resemblance to the one from the Tom Hanks film, Big; some are not very politically correct, like the automaton from the turn of the century that raises the French flag as a man is guillotined; and others in the ballroom-turned-museum are simply spectacular. With a push of a button, a curtain pulls back to reveal a stage filled with life-size dancers and musicians performing a jig.
Tibidabo perches in the mountains overlooking Barcelona and is accessed by a rickety, 100-year-old funicular. While the park has added newer amusements, most visitors come for the vintage attractions, including a two-tier carousel built in 1921, the Talaia, which raises guests with a rickety metal arm to a height of 550m above sea level, and the iconic Avio ride, modelled on the first plane to fly between Barcelona and Madrid. Opened in 1928, the plane simply rotates in a circle powered only by its noisy propeller. Sitting inside the wood-panelled, red leather interior, the ride offers amazing views of the city and the sensation of being on an airplane -- an incredible thrill in the 1920s. By today’s standards, Avio is fairly tame, but the simplicity of it is charming.
Some of Europe’s lesser-known parks include the Efteling in south Holland, Recently the Netherlands visitor and conventions bureau named Efteling the most popular day out in Holland, beating the country’s famous Van Gogh museum by three million visitors. Developed in the 1950s around the theme of European fairytales, it so well loved in the community that some staff continue to volunteer there after they retire.
The key feature of the park is the 15-acre fairytale forest filled with electronically animated scenes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White, along with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl and The Little Mermaid.
The Europeans were also responsible for the establishment of many modern-day amusement park staples. The carousel, for example, evolved from machines designed to help princes learn to ride ponies in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
The world’s oldest Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, is located in Vienna’s Prater Park. The 212ft structure has been synonymous with the city since it was erected for Emperor Franz Jospeh’s Golden Jubilee in 1897 on the old Imperial hunting grounds. The wooden, wagon-shaped gondolas rotate on a large steel frame offering panoramic views of the city and surrounding fairground; the interiors are covered in graffiti left by lovers and rebels over the decades.