When we planned our trip, my French friend Laurette insisted there was one place that should be on our itinerary: historical theme park, Puy du Fou.
There are no rides, no amusements. Instead the park hosts a series of historical “spectacles” portraying different periods of history, complete with special effects and stunt actors.
Laurette and her kids were visiting France at the same time, so booked tickets for the same day. We met them there in the morning, and our kids were surprised and delighted to see their friends and it was amazing to get to hang out together for the day.
I really was not sure what to expect from a historical theme park. Theme parks are not top of my list when it comes to holiday destination – I don’t enjoy the crowds, the queues, the plastic tat, the heat and the inevitable meltdowns.
Mind. Officially. Blown.
In one of the most popular spectacles, a bucolic village scene and a young soldier’s bright future are interrupted by the arrival of the Vikings. A ship rises from the deep, buildings are razed, a man falls from the tower in flames, men are dragged behind horses, set upon by dogs, a tower falls, a man disappears in a puff. There is stunt fighting and action aplenty – everywhere you look a different scene is playing out, and we left the show stunned asking “How did they do that? And that? And that?”
And that’s just one of the acts. We saw knights jousting, stunt horse riding and castles set alight, King Arthur and the knights of the round table emerging from a lake, gladiators racing chariots and Christians uprising in the huge amphitheatre. We went to sea with explorers and the view out the window and the movement of the ship was so realistic that two of the kids felt sea sick.
We witnessed the uprising of this region, la Vendée, against the execution of Louis XVI and the draconian laws installed after the French Revolution. We walked through the trenches of Verdun in WWI, and through a castle where the paintings could talk and the rows of suits of armour moved in time. We watched musketeers duelling and horses dancing in the streets of Paris. There was also an incredible falconry show, with more than 200 birds whirling in perfect choreography.
But what really sets it apart is the quality and class with which every detail is presented. The costumes are stunning, the sets are phenomenally detailed with something to look at in every tiny corner, the action scenes are perfectly timed and choreographed. There is just so much going on, that we wanted to see our favourite shows again and again – and when we did, we loved them just as much.
Puy du Fou is set in a beautifully landscaped park, with plenty of leafy boulevards, rose gardens and lakes, so walking between spectacles is a welcome respite from the heat. They also have these fabulous mist frames throughout the park, that you stand underneath to be sprayed with a fine mist of water. You don’t get wet but you do get cool. Genius!!
And while you have to queue to get a seat at the spectacles, we never queued more than about 20 to 30 minutes before taking our seats and that was only for the most popular shows on the busiest day.
Unlike most theme parks, you’re not continuously assaulted by vendors trying to sell you rubbish food or plastic tat. There are gift shops you can choose to visit in the dedicated village areas, but they sell beautiful things: lovely books, quality toys, regional food specialties, at what seemed to be fair prices. The food concessions sell mostly French lunch fare – filled baguettes and salads, not fish n chips and burgers. Nice.
But the pièce de résistance was the night show, La Cinéscénie, a word I still can’t pronounce. Set around (and on) a lake, with two castles for a backdrop, this show tells the story of la Vendée from 1793 to World War II, with over 3000 actors, 28000 costumes, and 800 fireworks. It takes place at 1030pm in darkness, only on Friday and Saturday nights in summer. The action takes place over a vast area and again, there are small mini-scenes playing out everywhere you look. It truly is magnificent.
The kids say “If you ever go to Puy du Fou you have to see La Cinéscénie. It’s about in the olden days how they lived around there. Some parts of it are sad – at one part a woman is running with a flag and she gets shot. We loved the whole thing, the sword fighting, the carriages and the villagers dancing, the little kids chasing the pigs, the festival of the seasons. The fireworks are amazing but loud”.
Click on the links above and check out the videos of some of the shows. I have seen nothing like this and doubt I will again. Although the park opened in 1989 and sees 2 million visitors a year, it does not even feature in my Lonely Planet and does not seem well known outside of Europe. They are opening a Puy du Fou in Spain this year, and I’ve heard the US, but it strikes me this is a concept that would be easy to mess up, so I’m glad they are doing it in partnership with the original park rather than attempting to copy this experience.
Heads up – there are animals in some of the Puy du Fou shows. Birds of prey in the falconry show, and plenty of well-trained horses, plus geese, bulls and pigs in the farmyard scenes. There are also two wolves in the Viking show, and to my surprise, lions and a leopard in the gladiator show.u
If you go to Puy du Fou
Book online well in advance to guarantee tickets. If possible, visit on weekdays in term time. We visited on the last Friday of the school year and the first Saturday of the summer holidays. Saturday was markedly busier but not unbearably so – I would expect it to be even busier still once the holiday season kicks in during August. La Cinéscénie is only on Friday and Saturday nights in summer and sells out.
If you are likely to be there on a busy day or only have a single day, you can pay extra for a Pass Emotican, which allows you to jump the queues. These were sold out by the time I booked our tickets and we didn’t really need them.
I think Puy du Fou is most suitable from age about 7 up. Louis is not quite 7, but he is not at all fazed by action scenes compared to some children of his age. He knew it wasn’t real – whereas a younger or sensitive child might find some of the action upsetting. There were plenty of younger children there including babies, but it’s a hot and hard day on a toddler or babe (and those caring for them!)
As the brochure states, it’s not possible to see all the shows in a single day, but if your kids have stamina for a long day, it is possible to see six or seven shows and tick off all your ‘must dos’ (this might be harder to achieve in true peak season, but could be possible with the Pass Emotican). Two days was great, but if you wanted a more relaxed pace and have the time, a third day costs just 5 Euros per person, so you could do three shorter days. Even though we loved it, two days was enough for me.
Download the fantastic Puy du Fou app in advance and turn notifications on. It stores your tickets, allows you to plan your visit by selecting your shows the night before (the timing of shows changes every day) notifies you when the doors of your next show are about to open and then directs you through the park to your next show. It also has live translation of the shows – although you can get the gist of the story without the translation, even if you don’t speak French.
Take headphones for the app, and an extra battery pack for your mobile phone – you will use the battery quickly if you are listening to the translations. Take heaps of water, hats and sunscreen. You can take a picnic, but the food on site is good and not too expensive – and the cold beer and ice cream are welcome, and the ice cream is superb.
If you’re towards the head of the queue, go for seats with shade. And if you’re in the gladiator show “La Signe de Triomphe” – sit in the top half of the stadium as they extend the shade cover and you don’t want to be left melting in the exposed lower part, although of course this will depend on the position of the sun.
You can stay at themed hotels in the park, which I’m sure would be amazing. These were all booked out, so we stayed in a “mobile home” cabin at La Bretèche, a campground about 10 mins drive from Puy du Fou. This was simple but perfect – we were able to head home for a swim, a rest, and dinner on Saturday afternoon before heading back to La Cinéscénie.
The park opens at 930, with the first shows around 1015 or 1030. Queues to get in can be long, so arriving around 9am is recommended, possibly earlier in peak season. That said we arrived at 915 both days and it was fine.