The Netherlands’ number one theme park unveiled a new 4D theatre experience recently as part of its 20th Winter Efteling season. Fabula features the first-ever 3D attraction film by Aardman Animations.

Launched in December, Fabula represents a €3.5 million makeover of Efteling’s 4D theatre and restaurant. The 3,000 square metre complex is located a short stroll from the park’s entrance.

At the heart of the experience is a new CGI production from Aardman Animations that replaces the long-running 4D film PandaDroom (Panda Dream). Also known as Panda Vision, the production premiered in 2002 and went on to play at many other theme parks, zoos and attractions around the world.

It was created for Efteling in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and highlighted the issues of global warming, deforestation and ocean habitat destruction.

After 17 years and the end of the agreement with the WWF, it was time for a change. ”PandaDroom served us well,” says Efteling Design Co-Ordinator, Peter Koppelmans. “However, it was beginning to get lower guest ratings, the technology had become outdated, and also we wanted to improve the restaurant area.”

FABULA entrance

One thing that had not changed was the relevance of the film’s message. This, and the fact that PandaDroom occupied a specially themed building, is why the wider environmental theme remains.

Fabula, says Efteling CEO Fons Jurgens, “is more dynamic, fun and entertaining” than the film it replaces. “If you want to see the message, it’s there. If you don’t see it, it’s OK, you just can just enjoy the film and have a nice day in the amusement park.”

The bear who wouldn’t share

The eight-minute movie, which is preceded by a pre-show of the same length, tells the story of a grumpy young bear who does not get on with other animals. Klaas Vaak, Efteling’s Mr Sandman character, decides to teach the bear some important life lessons by taking him on a tour of different habitats around the world.

An inquisitive squirrel unexpectedly becomes caught up in the adventure, across jungle, savannah and reef. The bear eventually gains a little perspective and learns how to be respectful towards other animals.

Efteling - Fabula film room

Set for an international release as The Bear and the Squirrel, the film carries not only an environmental message but also one of self-improvement.

“’The bear who wouldn’t share’ would be the tagline,” says Aardman Creative Director, Steve Harding-Hill. “You’ve got this selfish bear who refuses to share his warm, dry bed with a little squirrel when there’s a raging storm outside. But after the magical journey that follows, he transforms into a nicer person. Or rather, a nicer bear.”

An exciting adventure

“There are all sorts of strands in there,” adds Harding-Hill. “There’s jeopardy and comedy as the bear is transported through a savannah. Thrown into another world, he ends up being chased by a bigger animal. The bully gets bullied. Then he escapes into a coral reef scene, where suddenly he’s swept away by the beauty of nature. But again, he gets chased by a larger predator. The squirrel gets help and saves the day.”

Efteling Fabula Peter Koppelmans Melvin van Brakel Steve Harding-Hill Aardman

Left to right: Efteling Design Co-Ordinator Peter Koppelmans, Efteling F&B Manager Melvin van Brakel and Steve Harding-Hill, Aardman Creative Director

Return of the pandas

Later, in the jungle, the bear and squirrel encounter a panda stuck up a tree riddled with termites. They work together to save the panda and retreat to a cave for some rest. Yet the squirrel wakes up and remembers the previous day where the bear was nasty to him. The bear then offers a token gesture of some twigs. “That’s when he’s truly transformed,” says Harding-Hill.

“Yes, we’ve still got pandas,” says Koppelmans. “We weren’t sure whether to leave them in or not, but Aardman reminded us that people like them so much. We have also given the sea turtle and the lion a role in the film because these characters can be found in the restaurant.”

“This is a very different film for Aardman,” says Harding Hill. “We are known for the stop motion – Shaun the Sheep, Wallace and Gromit – but we do so much more than that. To do a film in 3D with stop motion would take a long time, and you’d have less control. The logical thing was to go down the CGI route, but still apply what we do, which is character.”

“There was a lot of talk about making the characters look like natural animals. We opened up their features and made them more expressive. I wouldn’t use the word cartoon, but they are a lot more stylised. I think we’ve achieved a nice balance between that naturalism and a characterful looking animal.”

The Fabula 4D experience

“I think the result is more than we expected,” says Jurgens. “You can see the Efteling touch everywhere in the movie.”

Programmed by Koppelmans and his team, Fabula’a 4D effects are wide-ranging. Fog is used as a segue-way between different scenes and habitats. There are vibrating seats, wind, and water when the squirrel sneezes. There is even the smell of ostrich farts.

One of the most memorable effects is a large falling branch from the roof of the theatre. “This was part of PandaDroom,” says Koppelmans. “Therefore we had to find a logical moment for it in Fabula. We used it to transform from a dream sequence to the real world.”

Fabula – the preshow

The bear and the Sandman in the Fabula preshow

The complete experience, including preshow, last 17 minutes. With Fabula clocking in at two minutes less than its predecessor, Efteling has been able to increase attraction capacity to 1,700 per hour. Along with the fresh film comes new laser projectors, new screens and even new washing machines for the 3D glasses.

Barco was responsible for the projection solution. This comprises three F80 Q9 projectors with an ultra-short-throw lens. Providing constant light output, these are ideally suited to installations with long operating hours. The main show uses a DP4K-30L cinema projector. This provides exceptional image quality, simplified operations and reduced operating expenses.

The bear and the squirrel, as featured in the play area at the end of the attraction Fabula

The bear and the squirrel, as featured in the play area at the end of the attraction

Storytelling – it’s all in the detail

Koppelmans says there was a “creative click” with Aardman over Fabula’s two year development period. The UK animation company was chosen to produce the film after pitches from several other studios. “Aardman is the leading player in comic animation. We are both specialists in storytelling, and so complimented one another well”.

“Efteling has been amazing,” says Harding-Hill. “It’s like a real family there, with some very imaginative people and amazing illustrators. Everywhere’s designed, even the restaurants and cafés. There was an expectation that this film needed to be really rich and detailed. That’s what we’ve delivered.”

Harding-Hill highlights the attention to detail that went into the jungle scene. “We didn’t use just random computer programmes to render multiple trees and leaves. We ‘handbuilt’ those elements because we wanted them to look stylised and lovely and artistic rather than computer-generated.”

Fabula restaurant area

Fabula’s themed F&B

There’s a Rainforest Cafe vibe to the themed restaurant, play area and gift shop that guests encounter at the end of their Fabula experience. As well as new seating, there’s also a completely new menu.

Meat, fish or vegan dishes are available from different regions around the world, as well as drinks from the Savannebar. For the first time, Efteling has implemented touchscreen ordering kiosks (operating in four languages), along with buzzers to notify guests when their order is ready.

“In a theme park, the food and beverage also has to be an attraction; part of the day out,” says Jurgens. “And because our guests are now staying longer, you need different kinds of F&B. It has to be more healthy, move diverse, not only a hamburger.”

A large number of guests visiting during Winter Efteling choose to stay overnight. They can do this in the park’s two connecting holiday villages and hotels, Bosrijk and Loonsche Land, or the older Efteling Hotel on the edge of the park.

A year-round world of wonder

Unlike other theme park’s winter seasons, Efteling’s runs right through until the first weekend of February, as the park opens 365 days a year. This means that indoor attractions like Fabula, and also the popular dark rides Symbolica and Droomvlucht, are important.

“A lot of amusement parks would launch a new attraction at the start of the season,” says Jurgens. “But as we are open all year, it does not have to be in April.”

Efteling Six Swans ride

Ahead of Fabula’s debut in December, the park also unveiled a new fairytale in September. The Six Swans (pictured above) is the first themed display in the Sprokjesbos (Fairytale Forest) to feature a ride system, courtesy of Metallabau Emmeln.

Efteling’s next new attraction, Max & Moritz, sits to the rear of the Fabula theatre, where it replaces the park’s former Bob(sled) coaster. Riders on the new powered coaster by Mack Rides will be able to make their choice of two different 300m tracks, with trains travelling in opposite directions.

The tale of the two naughty boys Max & Moritz will be familiar to Efteling’s increasing number of German guests, however, Efteling will make its own adaptation. The final two pieces of track were put into place in on January 17. After Alpine theming has been completed, the ride should be available to experience from April onwards.

Attendance growth and resort expansion

According to Jurgens, opening year-round helps Efteling balance out attendance. “Normally July and August were the busiest times of the year, but if we are lower in that period, we still have November, December, January.”

“Overall we are happy because in the last five years we have had huge growth, from 4.1 to 5.4 million. We are very happy with the international guests we are getting. The goal is that we will stay between 5 and 5.5 million.”

Although Efteling has made public its desire to expand to the east of the park, it is still awaiting planning permission. A decision on this should be known later this year.

Yet there are no plans at the moment for a second gate, says Jurgens. Rather, management will focus on developing the wider resort (including hotels/holiday villages), growing guest satisfaction ratings and making further improvements to quality.

Fabula – a 4D film fit for the ’20s

Families now have a fresh 4D experience to enjoy at Efteling. The Dutch park has a 500km exclusivity clause on the Fabula film. This will be marketed to other venues by Aardman and SimEx-Iwerks. It was recently named best CGI animation at the Le Book Connections industry event in London. The lack of dialogue in the film makes it suitable for a wide audience.

Fabula theatre Efteling

“The international version (The Bear and the Squirrel) won’t have the Sandman character in it. But it will be a similar story based around the magic of Mother Nature,” says Harding-Hill. “We are taking around three minutes of action from the preshow and consolidating that into one bigger film.”

If, however, you want to enjoy the bear and the squirrel’s antics complete with a preshow, themed restaurant and a giant falling branch inside the theatre, there’s only one place to go. See you in Kaatsheuvel.

Winter Efteling continues until 2 February. Fabula can be enjoyed by guests of the Dutch park all year long.