Puy du Fou – a unique theme park to delight young and old

Theme parks can sometimes be tricky places for families, if you have children and adults of varying ages to satisfy. Older, more adventurous members might only be interested in the most gut-churning of roller coasters but, if you are blessed with younger children too, then standing in line for a gentle ride on a revolving tea cup or a photo opportunity with 'Cinderella' might be your lot instead.

Le Signe du Triomphe

Le Signe du Triomphe

Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes

Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes

Les Vikings

Les Vikings

Secret de la Lance

Secret de la Lance

Not so at the Grand Parc of Puy du Fou, the largest and definitely the most exciting historical and educational theme park in the world. Taking up a spacious 110 acres south-east of Nantes in the Vendee, Puy du Fou is a one-of-a-kind park guaranteed to harness the excitement of young and old alike, making it a much more inclusive and rewarding day out for the whole family.

Not being a great lover of fairground-type rides that put you in urgent need of an osteopath, I would pick Puy du Fou over Disneyland every time. As you would expect, though, it does come behind Disneyland Paris in numbers of visitors per year. In fact, at 1.5 million visitors, Puy du Fou comes fourth in line of the most visited theme parks in France. Those visitors, I would hazard, however, are visitors of some discernment.

I have had my house, near to Parthenay in the Deux Sevres department of Poitou Charente, for ten years and my 16-year-old daughter Jasmine is as enthralled by the mesmerising and ambitious attractions at Puy du Fou today as she was on her first visit when she was just 8 years old. As any parent will not need informing, this is quite some achievement and I take my hat off (and happily hand over my Euros) to Puy du Fou time and time again.

Whilst you will not find any rides here that turn faces puce and force you to clench your stomach muscles as tight as you can to hang on to your lunch, don't let the words 'educational' and 'historical' fool you into thinking that Puy du Fou isn't fun. Puy du Fou is all about the fun.

It will also amaze, delight and entertain you like no other theme park ever could. Where else, for goodness sake, will you witness prowling lions roaming free and a vulnerable (and brave) woman tied to a post than in the stunning 110 metre replica Roman amphitheatre during a breathtaking re-enactment of Christians being thrown to the lions during the Diocletian period? How on earth do they get away with it, I have repeatedly asked myself, when health and safety restrictions in the UK would render this a preposterous outrage that could never be contemplated?

Whatever you do, do not miss this, 'Le Signe du Triomphe' with its parade of brightly-coloured chariots, livestock and wild animals and perfectly choreographed chariot race. In more recent years, the huge amphitheatre has been part covered with a roofing area, giving some protection from the sun (or rain, if you are less lucky with the weather.)

There is plenty of seating for thousands at the five main shows but make sure you arrive as early as you can for each one (they open around half an hour before the start), particularly during peak holiday times. Staff in full costume make sterling and enthusiastic efforts to entertain the crowds to ensure the waiting times pass more quickly.

As the attractions are fairly well spread out around the park, ensuring that you get to see all of them in one day will necessitate a bit of planning, a few brisk walks and a fairly early arrival in the day. If you have little ones or prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace, a two-day ticket might work better for you and these are extremely good value.

A favourite for me is 'Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes', a stunning display of falconry that culminates in a finale of hundreds of birds swooping though the air to rousing music. Unless you are of a particularly nervous disposition or likely to have nightmares along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds', aim to sit at the top and back of the arena, where the birds will skim over your head to reach the falconers with their enticing strips of food. Alternatively, if you don't want the birds flying too near to your head, sit at the sides of the seating areas.

The Mousequitaire de Richelieu is an ambitious show with horses, flamenco and some acrobatics. I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but keep an eye on the ground area as events are played out. This is the only main show to be staged indoors, so be aware that you will not be permitted to take any photos of this one due to flashes causing a distraction.

Les Vikings is a lot of fun, although I can't help sometimes raising my historically-censurious eyebrows a little at the interesting interpretation of ancient events. Keep your eyes on the water as the mist starts to appear. I'm not saying any more. I don't want to give too much away.

Likewise, although five main shows might render you a little 'grand-spectacled' out by the end of a busy, fun-packed day, don't miss Le Secret de la Lance with its horse-riding acrobatics, spectacular set and fire-belching castle. By the way, if you are an English person witnessing this spectacle, what can I say but....well, just grin and bear it eh?

Talking of being English, it is possible to hire translation equipment. Personally, we never bother and it has never been a problem, even with fairly young children who aren't fluent in French. My advice is to enjoy the shows without messing about with these things. If your French isn't perfect then at least it will have improved a little by the end of the day and you will have fully soaked up the atmosphere and experienced the real Puy du Fou.

One mistake we (ok, I confess, 'I') made, on our last visit, was to fail to book the renowned night time spectacular Cinescenie in advance, although we planned our day's trip to coincide with one of the peak summer evenings when it was taking place. On arrival that day, we found, not entirely surprisingly, that it was fully-booked. (You can book tickets to Puy du Fou online but it must be at least 72 hours in advance. I didn't want to commit to a specific day that far in advance because we had been experiencing some very interesting weather, reaching 38 degrees during the day but with the threat of thunderstorms towards the end of the week. It is worth booking online if you can as you will receive up to 20 percent discount, which makes for a significant saving for a family of four.)

However, having spent the whole day at the park and contemplating the prospect of a long wait until dark for the show to start, I realised that my neglect had probably been a blessing in disguise. Our party, ranging in age from 53 down to 16, were equally tired out after packing in all the shows and we were ready for a chilled glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc back at home.

We decided that it would be a much better plan to book CineScenie on a separate occasion (it is possible to book this separately) and enjoy dinner beforehand. So we still have this treat to come as a result and, as it has been likened to the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, would you believe, I can't wait. It is also possible to combine your ticket with a very reasonably priced hotel stay which is just a short stroll from the Gallo-Roman Stadium.

Additional tips for your visit

Le Bourg 1900

Le Bourg 1900

  • There are plenty of food outlets ranging from restaurants to fast food kiosks. Wine and beer are available (vin rouge and vin rose only during our visit from the fast food type stands.) Meals and drinks are fairly reasonably priced but the usual rules apply – if you want to save money, take a packed lunch with you.
  • Puy du Fou is classed as being in Les Espesses but, due to its size, it is obviously outside of the town. Sat Navs will get you to the general vicinity, after which it is clearly signposted.
  • If the weather looks suspect, take an umbrella. Many of the shows are in the open air. You can also buy plastic rain capes from the shops near the main entrance if you get caught out.
  • Puy du Fou caters well for the disabled and there are special rates for disabled visitors. Wheelchairs are available for hire.
  • Baby-changing facilities are available throughout the site and pushchairs can also be hired from The Market Town 1900 (Le Bourg 1900.) Lockers are also available here for your personal belongings.

Susan Ward

La Forgeard

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