In the summer of 2017, Dutch theme park Efteling opened a whole new dark ride: Symbolica – Palace of Fantasy. This is Efteling’s fourth dark ride and the first one in twenty five years. It is also Efteling’s most expensive attraction ever built. I know what you’re going to say. I’m incredibly late to the reviewing party but here is finally my nitpicky Quality Control of Symbolica. Abracadabra!
The genesis of the Symbolica project actually started around 2010. Efteling has been working for years on a very different style of dark ride code-named Hartenhof, based on Pardoes the wizard, the mascot of the park. The original storyline revolved around the universe and characters developed for the live action TV series De Magische Wereld van Pardoes, which aired for the first time in 2011. But the most exciting part was certainly the innovative ride system. Think of it as a slow moving robot arm à la Harry Potter and the forbidden journey that can carry an audience of twenty-four people instead of four. The underwhelming public reaction to the TV show and merchandise sales led Efteling to put the Hartenhof project aside for years, in favor of Fairytale Forsest, day-time show Raveleijn, night time fountain show Aquanura and dive coaster Baron 1898. Make sure to google Hartenhof because Efteling released a lot of work material back then, including scale models, artworks and blueprints.
Back to present day. Despite the TV show disappointed, Pardoes has been the mascot of the park since 1989 and has always remained very popular among Efteling’s guests. The Hartenhof project was completely reworked, including the name change to Symbolica (the fictional planet where the whole Pardoes universe happens) more on par with the new international ambitions of the park. It keeps Padoes as the main character, and the show building keeps a similar design, still located at the originally planned space, at the back end of Efteling’s main avenue, just like the castle in a Disney park. While the outside architecture of Symbolica’s Palace of Fantasy is gorgeous and fits perfectly Efteling’s signature color scheme and shapes, the building looks a little bit boxy and flattened in my opinion. Together with the main avenue called Pardoes Promenade and the recent crêpe restaurant Polles Keuken in front left of Symbolica, it’s a whole area of the park that is now entirely dedicated to Pardoes. It’s cohesive but subtle, not in-your-face, Disney-style which I appreciate a lot.
At this point of the review, I need to warn you about the spoilers that are going to fill the rest of this post. If you haven’t experienced Symbolica yet and wish to remain free from spoilers, you should stop reading here.
Alright let’s enter the castle through the main gate located one level above ground on the front side. This main hall act as a preshow where the audience is facing large stairs where the palace lackey O.J. Ponctueel is briefly introducing us to the world of Symbolica, and the Hartenhof castle we’re in, where King Pardulfus and his courthouse live, including Pardoes. Quick note here: there are multiple versions of the speech, which is nice because preshows can be a pain in the ass when it comes to ride repeatability. As you’re bored to death by Ponctueel’s speech, Pardoes interrupts him and casts a spell that’s literally cutting the stairs in half, revealing a secret corridor. As I wasn’t expecting it I was totally amazed by this large practical effect, complete with colorful (laser) pixie dust and thick fog. It’s a brilliant introduction that give you the feeling you’re about to discover a lot of secret stuff because the audience is invited to step in the revealed corridor. It leads you to the loading area downstairs. This stairway is probably the most underwhelming part of the attraction, due to a severe lack of theming and detail. It’s just basic and feels off theme.
The loading area however is your first introduction to the intimate and detail-heavy theming of Symbolica. These vaulted castle caves beautifully lit by candles are decorated with wizard stuff and also three tapestries facing the three carriages that will travel together. Music Tour, Heroes Tour, Treasures Tour: it’s up to you to chose your favorite experience. Every carriage is nicely designed in (faux) wood and can take up to six persons. At the front of every vehicle is a crystal ball lit up to the color of the tour you selected, and in the back of the car is a lovely pipe system filled with colorful liquid, purposely to magically move the carriages.
As the three carriages start traveling together in darker hallways lit with mysterious crystals, they immediately start to pass each other, a signature capability of trackless vehicles that feels sort of weird and gimmicky here, as the first vehicle is left alone facing a thick door. But here comes the first room, in my opinion the most beautiful scene of the ride: the Observatory. A round, domed space which is the workroom of a human looking animatronic wizard. This room is packed with props and whimsical wizard apparel like antique books, microscopes, potions and animal skeletons… On the ceiling hangs the most beautiful element: an elaborate system of rotating planets. The wizard is smoothly animated, like most of the attraction animatronics. Hidden behind his back is Pardoes, who casts another spell, but this time it’s on YOU! (in typical theme park fashion)
As you go further, the (laser) pixie dust is reaching more objects in the castle and seem to give them life. Here, it touches exhibited butterflies and as you’re contemplating a miniature city from a balcony, large-scaled butterflies fly over the model. I’m really not a fan of these awfully kitsch butterflies complete with obvious led light and fiber optics that don’t match the supposedly antique style of the ride. Also it’s hard not to see the direct inspiration from Mystic Manor with this laser pixie dust effect. Not just the idea (objects that come alive when they’re touched by pixie dust) but also the use of the exact same colored laser light.
Vehicles then reach the Glass Greenhouse, where various plants behave like they want to eat you. But there’s more. Behind the glass you can see approaching something unexpected: a full sized whale like there’s water outside the greenhouse. Wait. Not just a whale. A cute smiling whale that bumps into the greenhouse glass and breaks it! Actual water starts to come in the greenhouse as the cracks multiply on the glass. Hurry up, it’s time to leave this place before water fill the greenhouse completely. The effects on this scene are so unexpected and perfectly timed. It’s one of my favorite rooms in the whole attraction.
The carriages then split up accordingly to the tour you initially selected: Music, Heroes or Treasures. Again, like on Mystic Manor, your vehicle stops right in front of a mirror where a chest and various things are rotating around it. The first row of the vehicle has two touch screens where you’re supposed to touch colorful objects to do something on the mirror. Well after two visits at Efteling and riding Symbolica multiple times, I still don’t get what you’re supposed to do on the screen and what effect it’s supposed to trigger. It seems like you can either succeed at the game, or not, but again, it’s hard to understand whether you did it or not. It’s even more frustrating when you’re on the back row, with no screen. Not just because you cannot take part, but because sometimes front row riders will not even understand there is a touch screen in front of them and the whole group will awkwardly face this mirror where nothing is happening at all.
The three vehicles then leave their intimate boudoirs to travel across large and intricate vaulted caves where numerous furnitures and shelves are displaying objects that come alive. The movements of the vehicles are interesting because you’ll pass not just the vehicles of your group but also the previous group too, which creates a fun, messy atmosphere with a lot of action everywhere. This room is also one of the most heavily detailed, with a lot of props, candles, animated objects. Efteling really did a fantastic job at propping every scene on Symbolica. On the other hand, this scene has more interactivity as the carriages split up once again to face music instruments/armors/a big ass diamond in a gloriously minimalist room made of mirrors. Here again, the use of the touch screens is hard to understand. Also when you touch the screen, it takes too long between your action and the object’s reaction so you’re even less sure what you did or not.
You quickly pass through a Champagne and Food Stock room where crêpe chef Polles is running a cart with a towering stack of crêpes, like he wants to remind you to visit the nearby crêpe restaurant Polles Keuken. And here finally is the Ballroom, where the king of Symbolica is feasting with a large buffet filled with sweets, fruits, crêpes and cakes of all sorts that smells like strawberry candy. Basically this room has a large empty space at the center so the carriages can ‘dance’ and spin all together. It’s my least favorite scene, as there isn’t much stuff going on and this one is the closest to the part of Efteling’s signature art direction I really don’t like. You know, when character figures look like their face is melting, as seen frequently in Efteling’s Fairytale Forest, Fata Morgana, Droomvlucht and the Land van Laaf. I guess it’s a matter of personal taste as this scene was my friend’s favorite in the whole ride. Should I consider making other friends for that reason?
Before exiting the ride in the vaulted caves from the beginning, we get to see our on-ride picture on a wall full of frames displaying the various characters we just encountered, from Pardoes to the king to the cutest whale. The arrangement is lovely, but the definition of the used projector is clearly not appropriate as you can see large, chunky pixels on every frame.
I’m not a fan of everything on this dark ride, especially some specific art direction choices, the lack of a memorable climax (the most impressive effects come during the preshow, the beginning and the middle of the ride) and the storyline is a bit unclear: what the heck is really happening in this castle? But that’s not preventing you to have a great time riding it. I guess the magic spells explain all strange and magical events. What makes Symbolica truly outstanding is the fact that it’s a purely contemplative dark ride, but in every scene there is something surprising that is never over-the-top like the big budget dark rides you can find in Orlando. Like a delicious sushi compared to a delicious hamburger, Symbolica is more modest but equally amazing because of it’s attention to detail and craftsmanship. Speaking of which, let’s go deeper into details, the work on light and music is remarkable, it makes a clever use of trackless vehicle technology and has a great quantity of props everywhere you look. Symbolica is actually the only dark ride that I know where absolutely every space is themed, from floor to ceiling. You won’t see any intrusive technical element. Even Disney and Universal rides never went that far as they usually have a lot of technical stuff hanging from the ceiling. Even the roof top of the show building received a garden like setup made of plants and solar panels, so it doesn’t look like an ugly warehouse when you’re watching the park from the sky in the adjacent Pagode panoramic ride. Detail, detail, detail!
It is a bit odd that the Mystic Manor inspiration is so obvious, but less than 99,99% of Efteling visitors will notice. At least they couldn’t pick a greater inspiration than Mystic Manor, and the things they reproduced are done as greatly as Mystic. The most important shortcoming is definitely the interactivity. It’s not just hard to understand, it’s unnecessary and in fact, very distractive. And because it’s hard to understand, you’re looking at the screen even longer while there are tons of practical theming and effects surrounding you. That’s a bit stupid considering it’s the only dark ride of this era that doesn’t rely on projection screens… at all! As it takes out more than it adds to the experience, I would just get rid of the whole interactivity as soon as possible. It’s just very very bad.
Finally, a word about the budget of the ride. The cost of Symbolica is €35 million, which makes it the most expensive attraction in the history of Efteling. When you experience the greatness and discover the quality and quantity of things a regional theme park can do for that budget, it brings me even more respect to Efteling as opposed to the totally flawed experience that Disneyland Paris makes with a skyrocketing budget of €150 million on Ratatouille, an attraction mainly made of domed screens and few practical sets. I try to avoid comparing things too much, but I think it’s interesting to keep the budget in mind to fully acknowledge the efforts a team can make with creative thinking (and yeah, efficient cost management) when, like Efteling, they want to compete on the same international market as Disney in Europe. For all these reasons, Symbolica is one of the greatest dark rides I ever experienced – look where it’s ranked in my Top 20: Best Dark Rides in the World.
Thank you for reading this nerdy review! Make sure to watch the nine part making-of web series that Efteling posted on Youtube, and of course the complete on ride video below. Also, whether you have, or haven’t experienced Symbolica, I’d be curious to read and discuss your opinion about it in the comment section below!