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
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.
Prater Park’s amusements
also include a toboggan slide from the 1950s and the Praterturm, the world’s
highest carousel swing ride, twirling guests 117m in the air. But the use of
live ponies in a merry-go-round-style carousel, a traditional ride from the beginning
of the 20th Century, is one of the less charming historical
features, drawing criticism from those who see using live animals as out-dated
However, what remains
most significant about these parks is that they exist at all. Most of Europe’s
amusement parks survived extreme circumstances: the Prater Ferris wheel was
slated to be demolished but the city ran out of funds to level it; Tibidabo
survived both the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and bankruptcy.
The 20th Century
was not kind to Europe. The Great Depression and two World Wars shook the continent
to its core, and rapid industrialisation and urbanisation saw the need for
space in cities at a premium. The survival of these antique, vintage and old-school
parks is evidence of a society’s need to preserve a sense of fun and also the
public’s nostalgia for a simpler age.