14 Apr 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
Sign up for FREE ezine

Attractions Management
2024 issue 1

View issue contents

Leisure Management - Fons Jurgens


Fons Jurgens

As fairytale-inspired Dutch park Efteling enters a new era with the construction of the Efteling Grand Hotel and major new attraction Danse Macabre, Magali Robathan speaks to its CEO

Fons Jurgens was appointed CEO of Efteling in April 2014 Image: © Efteling
The new Efteling Grand Hotel will be located near the park’s entrance Image: © Efteling
The design of Efteling Grand Hotel was inspired by the history of the park Image: © Efteling
Rides include the 1800s mine themed-Baron 1898 coaster by Bolliger & Mabillard Image: © Efteling

In 1951, Mayor Van der Heijden of the Dutch municipality of Loon op Zand challenged his brother-in-law, film director and inventor Peter Reijnders, to find a way to attract more visitors to the newly established Efteling Nature Park in Kaatsheuvel, the Netherlands.

Reijnders turned to Dutch romantic artist and illustrator Anton Pieck and together with Mayor Van der Heijden, they came up with the idea of a ‘three-dimensional fairytale forest with plenty of movement’. Pieck created hundreds of sketches and drawings, and Reijnders used technology to bring them to life, to create a theme park based on the magic of fairy tales, ancient myths and folklore.

When Efteling opened in 1952, it featured scenes depicting 10 fairytales – including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the Frog Prince – set in a Fairytale Forest. More than 70 years later, Efteling has grown into an international theme park destination attracting more than five million guests a year.

A special place
“Efteling is really for everyone,” says Fons Jurgens, CEO of Efteling. “The secret of its success lies in its long history, in the beautiful nature at the park, the cultural heritage and of course in the storytelling.”

Efteling has always held a special place in Jurgens’ heart – he grew up with the theme park and experienced “many beautiful memories there with my parents and later my friends.” Jurgens joined Efteling as a policy officer in commercial affairs in 1995 and worked his way up, becoming chairman and CEO in April 2014.

Since then, Efteling’s visitor numbers have risen, from 4.1 million in 2013 to a record 5.43 million in 2022, and a number of major new attractions have been launched. Jurgens and the management team have big ambitions for the park, with two major new additions under construction – the Efteling Grand Hotel, and Danse Macabre, a major new ride that will be the centre of a new themed area. These are part of wider expansion plans, laid out in the World of Efteling 2030 plan.

World of Efteling 2030 plan
“In 2017, we reached our long-term vision of welcoming 5 million guests, which has strengthened Efteling’s position as an international short-break destination,” says Jurgens. “Now that our development plan has been established, we have laid a solid foundation for the future.”

Approved by the Dutch Council of State in 2021, the World of Efteling 2030 masterplan sets out plans to expand Efteling outside of its current borders by eight hectares, enlarging the eastern side of the park.

In December 2023, Jurgens placed the first stone of the new fencing around the eastern expansion area. This stone symbolised the continued ambition of the World of Efteling 2030 development plan, explains Jurgens, although these plans have been delayed due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and current regulatory challenges around tightened nitrogen measures. For at least the next few years, the park will focus on developments within its current borders, including the Danse Macabre attraction and Efteling Grand Hotel.

The development plan also sets out Efteling’s sustainability goals, and its focus on protecting and enhancing the park’s natural surroundings.

“Efteling wants to be climate neutral by 2030 and aims to be climate positive by 2032,” says Jurgens.

“And by 2030, we aspire to be the only theme park resort in Europe scoring 9+ from visitors experiencing our enchanting natural surroundings. We’ll continue to work towards this goal by offering a one-of-a-kind experience for guests and employees, with a focus on technology, cooperation and sustainability.”

Sustainability goals
“It’s important that we take sustainability seriously, ensuring that Efteling is still here in 70 years’ time, and we can pass on our beautiful park to future generations,” says Jurgens.

“Sustainability has been part of our DNA since the establishment of the Efteling Nature Park Foundation in 1950.”

With Efteling wholly owned by the Efteling Nature Park Foundation, preserving the environment is a key priority – the foundation has mandated that no more than 11 per cent of Efteling’s footprint can be given over to buildings, with the remainder left for trees, shrubs and water. The park is home to a variety of animals, including rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, butterflies and birds.

In order to work towards the goal of being climate neutral by 2030, Efteling has invested heavily in solar power. In 2022, a carport system was installed with 12,000 solar panels – the park now has more than 25,000 solar panels. The park also generates sustainable energy through geothermal heating and cooling – this system currently provides energy for the Vogel Rok rollercoaster, the Efteling Hotel, Efteling Bosrijk holiday village and the Raveleijn office block.

This is a new geothermal system, with plans for it to power significant areas of the park.

“With this project, we’ll heat and cool buildings in the Anderrijk park area without using natural gas,” says Jurgens. “The Efteling Theatre, Fata Morgana and the Fata Morgana event venue, the Efteling Grand Hotel, Fabula, Frau Boltes Küche and Danse Macabre will be all be connected to this installation, as will the water show Aquanura Pond. This is an innovative, scientific project in the field of aquathermy.”

Efteling Grand Hotel
Increasing accommodation is a key part of Efteling’s growth plans. Construction is underway for what will be the park’s biggest hotel – the seven floor, 143-room Efteling Grand Hotel. Inspired by the rich history of the theme park, it is located at Efteling’s entrance, next to the Fairytale Forest. It will feature a swimming pool and spa, two restaurants and two gift shops.

“With the opening of Efteling Grand Hotel, Efteling will become a true short-break destination,” says Jurgens. “This is a really important project for us.”

Originally scheduled to open in 2024, construction issues have meant that the launch date has been pushed back, explains Jurgens. “After the bankruptcy of the supplier of prefabricated parts for the Efteling Grand Hotel in September 2023, the company was taken over and the construction schedule was adjusted – this means that the hotel won’t open as planned at the end of 2024, but in 2025.”

The hotel is the first on-site, and its location has been chosen carefully, explains Jurgens. “Efteling Grand Hotel is in a prominent location in the heart of the World of Efteling – where all visits to our park start and end. The square between the main entrance and the new hotel is where guests really get into the Efteling atmosphere. We’ve had plans for a long time for this square, where every 10 years, something is added to complete the experience. With the Efteling Grand Hotel, we’re taking another big step.”

Danse Macabre
In September 2022, Efteling closed its iconic Spookslot haunted castle attraction to make way for a new “creepy experience”.

While Jurgens is excited about the new Danse Macabre attraction, he admits that closing Spookslot elicited mixed feelings, and there was a real sadness about closing “a beautiful attraction where many visitors have become acquainted with the creepy side of Efteling. It’s a unique memory that often stays with them forever. It was a great pity that the haunted house couldn’t be preserved.” Efteling prides itself on offering long running attractions that can be enjoyed by generation after generation, he says, but Spookslot – opened in 1978 – was in “very bad shape both inside and outside,” and it could no longer be preserved.

“Understanding the special connection that many Efteling visitors have with Spookslot, it was important for us to carefully evaluate all the options [for its replacement]. That was a delicate process that took a few years.”

The result of this process is Danse Macabre – an indoor attraction and new 17,000sq m themed area set to replace Spookslot when it opens in autumn 2024. Inspired by the orchestral piece with the same name by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, the ride has been developed with Swiss ride manufacturer Intamin and is described as a “thrill ride with immersive show technology”. It consists of a turntable 18m in diameter, topped by six smaller turntables, each with choir stall seating for 18 people. The large turntable will rise, tilt and fall, and ‘spin like a coin’ before falling flat.

“This attraction is going to be unique in the attractions industry,” says Jurgens. “It hasn’t yet been built anywhere in the world. It will be spectacular, creepy, exciting, thrilling, immersive and overwhelming – a haunted spectacle full of dark twists.”

Visitors will enter the themed area around Danse Macabre – named Huyverwoud Forest – through a derelict abbey square, where they will find spooky catering outlets In den Swarte Kat (opened July 2023) and ‘t Koetshuys. They will be entertained by ‘the Charlatan family and their extraordinary barrel organ Esmeralda’ and will be led through a grim graveyard and creepy forest to the entrance to Danse Macabre, which will be housed in a 20m-high building.

Looking ahead
The focus over the next couple of years will be on the completion of the Efteling Grand Hotel and Danse Macabre, as well as a continuing push to meet Efteling’s sustainability goals.

“We’ll have a real emphasis on Efteling as a nature park,” adds Jurgens. “Our nature has long been rated 9+ by our guests, and we are recognised to be among the world’s top theme parks in terms of our landscaping.

“With our greenery and biodiversity, we make a difference. It’s our distinguishing feature, and we want to give it continuous attention.”

As for Jurgens, he is happy in what he considers to be the best job in the world.

“I love the fact that we see the effects of our actions every day in the park,” he says. “We see happy people making the most beautiful memories. That make me happy.”

Spookslot lives on in Danse Macabre

While Efteling’s iconic Spookslot haunted house has now closed down, parts of the much-loved attraction will live on within the park’s new spooky ride Danse Macabre.

Never-used sketches created for Spookslot by designer Ton van de Ven were used as the inspiration for Danse Macabre, and several physical elements from Spookslot will be reused.

These include the old entrance to Spookslot, which will be used as the entrance to the souvenir shop Dr Charlatan’s Kwalycke Zaken, and the sinister-shaped candle holders used in the queueing area for Spookslot.

“You can already admire the large chandeliers that hung in the tunnel next to Spookslot. They’re hanging from the ceiling of the hospitality venue In den Swarte Kat,” says Ronald Donkers, architectural designer and member of the heritage management team at Efteling. “The main protagonist of Spookslot, the neon-coloured violin, will not return to its old form, but it will have a major role in the new show. How exactly I can’t reveal yet!”

Danse Macabre will feature the same piece of music as Spookslot; a new version of the Camille Saint-Saëns score is being recorded with the largest ever Efteling orchestra, featuring up to 75 musicians.

“Despite being a very well-known piece of music, we think we have some surprises,” says composer René Merkelbach. “With this unique version, we pay tribute to the original Spookslot music. Connoisseurs and fans certainly won’t be disappointed.”

Danse Macabre will be connected to the park’s geothermal heating system / Image: © Efteling

Originally published in Attractions Management 2024 issue 1

Published by Leisure Media Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd