You’ve definitely heard of one French theme park … here’s why its western rival, Puy Du Fou, might be the better bet for mixed-age families.
It’s the toilet that first draws yelps of excitement from the five-year-old. He’s crawled sleepy-eyed from the bottom tier of his castle-edged bunk beds and headed in the direction the morning takes him.
He’s greeted with a chunky wooden ‘long drop’, a medieval-style chain hanging from the ceiling, and timber-framed walls.
Arriving in the early hours to Puy Du Fou has its benefits: our youngster awoke with the sense of wonder that comes with being genuinely transported.
He stared from the rustic window at La Citadelle’s gravelly courtyard, and took in the carts, the dangling wooden signs, the turrets and the drawbridge.
Breakfast at the themed hotel might be croissants and ham, eggs and juice, but it’s served by in-costume ‘peasant girls’.
The dining hall comes complete with a pig slow-roasting over an open fire, herbs hanging from the ceiling, and a decor consisting of oversized chains, wood frames and lavish banquet tables. It’s easy to feel transformed.
Puy Du Fou is a theme park, but not as we know it. There are no rides, as such. Instead there are experiences: performances, essentially, spanning Roman times to the First World War, and delivered by home-grown actors and a circus troupe.
The entire park is a play on the various themes. Walking in one of its entrances – past hotels consisting of our castle, technicoloured jousting tents and a Roman spa – we find ourselves in a street where gentle trickles of water run down the misshapen passageways.
Tiny shacks make up the town centre, with areas dedicated to the town’s sage and dubious looking alleyways. The structural integrity of the town shop is a touch uncertain.
In a small square, a baker beats his bread, a scarred oven awaiting behind him. There’s a blacksmith chipping away at pieces of metal, sparks flying, and an artist sketches birds of prey in charcoal, staring from her open-fronted gallery.
The entire town reflects its ‘time’, then, but the centrepiece is very much the collection of engaging park experiences.
Our first is the iconic Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes. We’re seated in a wood-framed arena, between the symbols of the medieval region, and the ghost of a long-dead princess, Alienor emerges to find her home destroyed.
Alienor recalls what the town used to be like, and as she does so a breathtaking array of birds, from eagles to owls, buzzards to vultures, fill the arena.
They soar inches above the audience’s head, or dive to their trainers from a Montgolfiere balloon hovering high above. It’s intense, close-quarters, and the plotline soon becomes little more than a narrative to hang the rush of feathers on.
The shows are entirely in French, but – in a nod to modern-day technology – can be listened to in English in live-translation via the Puy Du Fou app.
That becomes more important in other areas with more in-depth plotlines, like our second stop, Le Chevaliers De La Table Round (the Knights of the Round Table).
What quickly becomes clear is that mystical realism is key here. A knight emerges from the waters around the sunken old table of Arthur’s clan.
When the sword is pulled from the stone, fiery water shoots up in its place, while a mermaid leaps from the lakeside into the water, racing through the ripples to the knights in soaking grandeur.
This breathtaking interpretation is a theme that repeats throughout: Puy Du Fou is exceptionally designed.
Le Mystere De La Perouse sees horses dancing through water in the heart of a sublime ballroom, while a mime entertains the crowd pre-show by sword-fighting with the kids and falling from the stage.
We drop in on the Roman quarter, where the Gauls and the guards exchange football chants, before a parade of exotic animals fill the Colosseum floor.
The ill-fated locals battle with lions, tigers and cheetahs, and race chariots in a vicious arch around the sodden surface.
La Dernier Panache is a revolutionary tale delivered to an audience in a huge rotating auditorium, one that twists to face different stages, including a full-sized cut-through of a magnificent ship, and a water-filled beach.
At night, Les Orgues De Fou turns the park’s central lake into a pulsating light show, set to music, with dancers and fire.
Seeing everything is at least a two-, and probably a three-day job.
If you’re to both take in the atmosphere, and explore the intensity of the shows, you’ll find yourself thrown across time at double-speed: lunch in a bistro in an authentic-feeling French pre-war village, a stroll through a regal statue park where various parts freakily come to life, and then exploring castle corridors as the surrounds of the chateaux slowly come to life.
Come early evening, a buffet lunch is served back at the castle: roast pig and chicken, local vegetables, a roaring open fire, beer, and a retreat to the East wing.
Thankfully, the chain-draped castle beds, copper sinks and long-drops are more comfortable than they look (and there’s even a hidden TV).
In short, Puy Du Fou is original, quirky, and spectacularly well done. It’s not about roller coasters or cartoon characters.
Instead, you’re given breathtaking realism and stark history, delivered through intelligent performance. It’s a world that’s as thrilling for adults as it is for kids.
Some ‘oui’ points to note:
Entry: Costs are seasonal, but start at €36 for adults and €26 per children for a single day. Families of four can enter for two days, with a themed hotel night, from €400.
Entry prices drop for multiple days and when booked in advance, which is highly recommended.
Getting there: Puy Du Fou is around an hour from Nantes airport, or around 3 hours 30 minutes from Paris Orly.
A shuttle bus is available from Nantes, or you can travel by train to beautiful Angers and transfer from there.
Staying: Puy Du Fou has an abundance of hotels that fit the themes of the park, sitting a walking distance away. They’re comfortable and surprisingly affordable, and we found La Citadelle hugely added to our experience.
Tips: With the experiences, start in the middle and work out, and you’ll miss some of the worst queues.
The Pass Emotion guarantees access to any show you turn up to at least 10 minutes before the start, regardless of queues, and some of the best seats in the house once you’re inside.
At €15 per person per day, it’ll buy you at least a show to your day, and save a lot of time.
For more information, see www.puydufou.com/en.