Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fine, but Where's My Funnel Cake?

Today I took the plunge.

After nearly 10 years in the Netherlands and 5 years in Israel I have ventured into my first non-American amusement park (EuroDisney, which I count as American, just on foreign soil notwithstanding).

I have always resisted the non-American amusement parks and have always let my inner child come out when we are visiting the 50 states.  Maybe it is just because I am not an amusement park person at heart.  I like them and have fun while I am there but I am not a person who has to go to every single amusement parks, I am terrified of heights so I don't ride roller coasters.  I enjoy parks but it is far from my life's goal to go to every single one.

But still, non-American amusement parks don't really appeal to me.  I am always afraid they will be some cheap imitation of their American counterparts and instead of bringing out the kid in me, I am afraid they will bring out the critic in me (which is, let's face it pretty close to the surface).  America is great at entertainment and theme parks are largely top notch.  And no where in the world do they put near the amount of effort in to achieve the same effect and I feel like any European park is just going to be a cheap knock off of an American park and I will feel wistful and homesick and will be focusing on everything that is wrong with the place.  Let's face it, no one does theme parks like the Americans.  It is American excess to its funnest and most entertaining limits.

Growing up in Pittsburgh we had Kennywood Park which I have to say (although I am certainly prejudiced) is one of the best theme parks around.  It's theme is an old fashioned midway and the rides are fantastic, there are always new rides mixed with classic old favorites.  It's beautifully kept and the landscape is just beautiful, it is clean and friendly, the staff are great.  The food is wonderful too, you just can't get out of Kennywood without some potato patch fries and funnel cakes (batter poured through a funnel into hot oil, deep fried and topped with powdered sugar).  While there are certainly fancier parks in the US, Kennywood in my opinion is the best of the best.  It mixes high technology with home spun feeling.  The best of both worlds.  You can't be from Western Pennsylvania and not have Kennywood in your blood.

Maya, like all kids loves theme parks but theme parks are also hard for her.  Maya, whose ability to cope is largely tied with avoiding overstimulation is very challenged at theme parks.  Theme parks turn her into a human form of a pinball machine where she is the little silver ball bumping from bell to bell, flipper to flipper.  Maya, in her younger years was also a runner, she would just run away from us at every turn.  She saw something and off she ran with Leo and I running furiously after her trying not to lose her. It could be anything which caught her attention a ride, boats on a water or birds so theme parks, were fun but always a nervous adventure too.  We always rented strollers, even when she was 6 as it was easier to keep her from running off too much if she were sitting.  And invariably there are the tantrums which come from the sugar, the overstimulation, the not being able to handle transitions, the waiting in long lines for rides.  So for Leo and I theme parks have always been a wild ride, with lots of thrills and terror without ever having to set foot on one ride.  Still though we suffered through it for Maya, because on the other side of her pinball-machine self was a totally enchanted child where the joy just seeped out of her.  So for all the stress that theme parks bring, it was worth it for Maya's joy. I love seeing theme parks and other things through Maya's eyes, when I see that look of wonder as she watched the fireworks over Disney World, or her total sense of awe as she watches a Disney parade, or the freedom on her face as she rides a ferris wheel or spider or Flying Dumbo (or it's equivalents) or the giggles as she rides a ride which spins her around and around.  As hard as theme park days are for Leo and I, it is all worth it to see her joy.

We have never received a disabled pass at a theme park which would help us to avoid long lines and probably some tantrums.  At first I didn't know these things were available but now Maya is doing better at waiting in lines and we are careful to try and choose days where it will not be crowded, we go early in the day and we try to move against the crowds, we go to the roller coasters first and get them over with.  We eat at non peak times and we try to find little moments where Maya can have fun (like letting her run after birds or find a little garden with a playground where she can run and play).  We also try to recognize Maya's limits and not overstimulate her (which is why staying at a Disney park is so great, you can go back to your hotel and take a break from it).  Over the years it has gotten better.  When Maya was 3 we spent 5 days at Disney and while it was great, it was also really hard for Maya and for us.  One full day in the Magic Kingdom meant that the following two days we could only go out for 2 to 3 hours at a time before Maya was throwing down, throwing tantrums and making us crazy.  We understand much more about Maya now and do a lot better job of planning these trips.  She is also older, better able to cope and we spend a lot of time preparing her up front and this helps to cut her frustration and ours so that we get more joy and less tantrums.  Still I do think next time we are at Disney I will do it, just to have the option to cut out the ginormous waiting times.

As much as Kennywood is part of Pittsburgh DNA, I must say that De Efteling is a part of Dutch DNA too in just as big a way.  You can't be Dutch and not have De Efteling burned in your heart and soul.  The Dutch, who are usually so reserved and non-plussed about things get all sparkly-eyed when you mention De Efteling. They talk about how wonderful it is, how special and invariably spill out a memory.  So while I was always skeptical that De Efteling would probably be a shitty park, since no one does theme parks like Americans I always smiled and nodded politely and thought, "I will never set foot in De Efteling." But I do have a Dutch child and I finally thought I needed to give it a chance and let her have De Efteling as part of her DNA too.

So this summer, during our staycation we thought it was the perfect time to try and visit De Efteling.  So, off we went and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the park.  The grounds and gardens are beautiful and the rides are well done.  The theme of the park is fairy tales so everything has a kind of cottage/castle type feel but not in a Disney way but more of a storybook-illustrative kind of way, a lot of muted colors rather than bright cheery ones.  The park itself is nicely laid out, there are a lot of lakes and winding paths and a lot of trees, lovely benches, beautiful foliage and nature around.  There are loads of nice spots to sit and get away from the hustle-bustle in De Efteling.  The park is well spread out and there is quite a lot of distance between one `land` and the next which probably helps a lot with crowd control to have things as spread out as they do.  Disneyland or Magic Kingdom by comparison is much denser.  There are a lot of nice rides, they have their share of good roller coasters and thrill rides including a wooden rollercoaster, which of course made me think of Kennywood.  There are lots of stuff for kids and the rides are well done and seem to be well maintained.  There are a lot of classic `midway´ type rides but also rides which present certain stories much on the same caliber as Disney.  One which I particularly liked was set around the theme of 1001 Arabian Nights and was a boat ride designed just liked `It´s A Small World` where you cruise through many themed rooms which tell the story.  Like Disney also music could be heard throughout the park, even on the long winding paths there was happy theme music playing.

There are some marked differences though between De Efteling and an American theme park.  And to be honest I am not sure if these are negatives or positives.  One thing I noticed was a peculiar lack of marketing aimed at merchandising.  Certainly in a Disney Park this overwhelms you from the second you are on Disney Property until the second you are off.  There was a lack of that in De Efteling.  At the entrance of the park is their main souvenir shop which has it´s share of toys, souvenirs and memorabilia but nothing on the caliber of an American theme park.  But there were virtually no souvenir kiosks littered throughout the park like you have at a Disney park and the variety of things they sold was very limited.  At a Disney park, carefully placed near a water ride are kiosks which sell beach towels and scattered throughout the park you can buy t-shirts, dolls, stuffed animals, cups, dishes and a cornucopia of other theme related merchandise. There was just very little on sale and if you didn´t look for it you wouldn´t find it.  And there was nothing to entice children.  At the foot of nearly every Disney ride is a themed shop which sells a whole host of items related to that ride and every where you look there are venders selling balloons and souvenirs that it is nearly impossible to steer your child past without screams for some new toy, trinket or bauble.  We cannot get through a Disney visit without at least $200 in merchandise.  At De Efteling, our purchases were only about $17 and the only reason we bought anything at all was because our niece was with us and she had money to buy a souvenir, otherwise we wouldn´t have bothered getting Maya stickers, a sticker book, drawing pad and markers.

Also there wasn´t a lot of variety in food.  Like Disney has in recent years, they are expanding the usual hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries in favor of at least offering healthier choices.  We saw several pasta places, asian noodles and salad/sandwich places but other than that there wasn´t a lot around.  I saw one or two places to get ice cream and several places to buy drinks but again you didn´t have throngs of places selling popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, cookies and other treats that you have at US parks.  I was looking for popcorn as that is our usual theme park snack and although I saw a couple of people eating popcorn I didn´t see one place to buy it.  To be honest we saw very few people actually eating.  There were many more brown baggers who I saw eating sandwiches brought from home while sitting on a bench.

You also certainly don´t have the staffing that you have at a Disney park.  Yesterday was not really crowded, most rides only had maximum 30 minute waiting times, some much less.  And while I saw a lot of line construction, mandatory twists and turns  made to keep the lines moving, each ride had very few operators on board.  At a Disney park you need to tell the staff working the ride how many are in your party and they will tell you where to stand to board your ride, there was nothing like that at De Efteling and I can imagine on a very busy day it would be very chaotic to figure that out for yourself.  Still we were lucky to go on a day which was not all that crowded so things flowed fine.

One thing which did suck is that they allow smoking in the park.  EuroDisney, in a departure from other Disney parks also allows smoking in the park.  I think that really sucks but Europeans are far behind Americans in banning smoking in public.  The Netherlands doesn´t allow smoking in bars and restaurants anymore and going out became much more pleasant after they did that but de Efteling still permits it.  To be honest though I was surprised that the smoking was not as prevalent as I would have thought.  There definitely were people smoking but it wasn´t widespread, perhaps banning smoking in bars and restaurants has reduced the number of smokers in the Netherlands.  When I first came to the country ten years ago, EVERYONE smoked.

All in all De Efteling is a nice park, it was nicer than I imagined but I didn´t have that same feeling like I have when I am at Kennywood and certainly at a Disney or Universal themed park, where the whole place just kind of washes over you, where you become enchanted at every little detail, where you become a child again.  

Of course we didn´t go for us, we went for Maya and she really had a good time and to be honest we didn´t see even half of the park.  Our niece was with us and she is 10 and only wanted to ride thrill rides so we did not spent all that much time in the more younger childrens part of the park like we would have if we were alone with Maya.  Maya didn´t seem to mind, we did enough for her.  She rode a ride by herself for the first time.  It was a small circular carousel that went up and down hills, it went about the speed of Dumbo the flying elephant.  I was very proud of her for wanting to do it by herself and I did it the first time with her, so she would know where she had to walk to get in and get out and then she did it on her own.  She loved it and I could see that she was very proud of herself for doing it.  She also went on a pretty fast and big roller coaster with us, she was scared but she only cried for a minute when it was over and said she didn´t want to go on it again.  She also rode the rocking pirate ship thing and although she covered her face with the hood of her jacket for the whole ride and was scared during the ride, last night when we got home she said she liked it and would ride it again.  I was on a quest the whole time to find the white water rafting ride because I love that and knew Maya would too and after walking around for about an hour to find it and finally letting Leo lead us to it, we found it and had a blast on it, so much fun that we rode it 7 or 8 times.  Maya just loved it and we spent the majority of the day there.  We didn´t do a lot for her this time, as it was difficult to balance the wants of my niece against Maya´s (you could really see the difference between a neurotypical 10 year old and a 7 year old with autism) so both of them enjoyed this ride and wanted to keep doing it, so we did.  This was also the first time we went to a park like this and didn´t opt for a stroller but Maya stayed firmly by our sides the whole time and there was no running away as in years past.  So she has really grown a lot there.  Only at the end of the day when everyone was tired and sick of walking did Maya start to show a little bit of frayed nerves.  At the exit she didn´t want to leave and refused to walk out of the park.  Crossing her arms against her chest and turning away from us she stood, upset and defiant.  I sent the rest out of the park and tried to coax her to walk out, in days past I would have eventually just picked her up which would have set her crying but I felt this time it was important to get her to walk out.  Making transitions is tough for her but something she must learn how to cope with.  I did have to walk away 3 times, each time bringing stomps and screams from Maya promising to take my hand and walk out with me.  Each time I extended my hand to her, she put her hand stubbornly down.  On the third time a group of English speaking people were walking out witnessed this scene and two of the women gave me looks and one said `you know it is not nice to walk out on your child` to which I gave my best Rosalie-Aprile-from-The-Sopranos answer `Mind your business and keep walking lady´ to which her friend said ´we were just trying to help´ and then I retorted ´how is giving me dirty looks and judging what you know nothing about helping, just move on.´ Really, I know I should have taken the high road with these women and just let it go, but I am so sick of the judgment.  Plus it was a long day, I was dealing with my child having a tantrum   (a child by the way that I can no longer just pick up and carry) and I didn´t even get any popcorn or an ice cream sandwich dammit!  Oh well, we can´t always take the high road.

But still all in all Maya did great the whole day and I can see that she has really grown up a lot in the past year, even 10 months ago during our last visit to EuroDisney we had many tantrums and many cases of Leo and I playing goalie trying to keep her in sight.  In the morning before we left I did put a bracelet around her arm which has our names and cell phone numbers on it (courtesy of Mabel´s labels).  She asked what it was for and I told her that in case she got lost she would have our phone numbers and could ask someone to call us.  At first she kind of looked panicked and then I told her that she wouldn´t get lost but just in case it was good for her to have our numbers with her.  In the evening when we took the bracelet off she said it was a good idea to have the bracelet and asked if I could put one on her bookbag at school.

She is growing in leaps and bounds and I have to remember to be patient with her, encourage her and not fret so much about what she can´t do.

So, it was a successful venture, a nice day and a nice park.  But still a funnel cake would have been nice.  

No comments:

Post a Comment