The best theme park in the world – Puy du Fou

Puy Du Fou

As I work with some great theme parks, I am a member of the Themed Entertainment Association.  One of the benefits of membership is their organisation of visits to some of the best the world has to offer, to see what they do and how they do it. And I have just come back from Puy du Fou, and can safely say that it is, without doubt, the best theme park in the world.

It’s a total one of a kind and without any of the conventional rides you associate with other theme parks. It draws in the local community, trains all its own staff through its academy,  creates everything internally (even the shoes and costumes) and delivers spectacular, emotive and beautiful shows that you have to see to believe.

It’s been created by Phillippe de Villiers, the father of Nicolas de Villiers who runs it today (and who showed us around). The control Nicolas still exercises is phenomenal. It’s not like any other brand.  If anything it’s a little like Google in the way they controlled their growth in the early years but this has lasted for 35 years already. He even interviews the shortlisted kids for the academy and watches every Cinescenie to be able to feed back to the managers where they could do the show even better. The level of detail they manage is unbelievable and even the back stage areas are immaculate.

We had a totally jam packed 48 hours and got to see behind the scenes of nearly every show. Here’s a summary of the best of them.

The Vikings

The first show I saw there and an amazing introduction to life at Puy du Fou. It’s filled with eagles, horned beasts, vikings and marauders, all backed up with huge explosions, gigantic flames and boats magically appearing from stage left and under the water, with the performers disappearing with it. Animals everywhere and a large cast. It’s an amazing start and an even bigger ending.

The Knights of the Round Table

It’s a story of Excalibur with Merlin, mermaids, sword fights in the water, horses walking out of the huge hidden caverns underwater and probably the simplest of the whole lot we saw. It’s great fun, has the best safety warning I have ever seen (hilarious) and I saw it twice.

The Secret of the Lance

This is a huge show that just keeps on growing. Spectacular horse riding, massive sword fights and jousting and flames everywhere. Then a disappearing castle, another HUGE castle that moves and rotates and amazing sounds and effects everywhere. There are things going on all over the place and we were lucky enough to get to see behind the scenes here. It was sooooo good, that a few times during the show I felt myself becoming a bit emotional.

Triumph’s Sign

This is a huge great roman spectacular played out in a purpose built amphitheatre that seats over 7,000 people. Again, it starts off quite small and then just grows and grows. The cast is huge and varied and whilst the story is their own version of history, it’s still truly amazing. Just look at the pictures.

Richelieu’s Musketeer

I saw this one twice too. It’s the only inside show and simply massive. Perhaps a little hard to follow in french, but I found it far more enjoyable to just watch the show and ignore the story. It’s breathtaking but you aren’t allowed to take photos, so this is a sneaky one of the set, just as the flamenco dancers start going crazy. It’s quite reminiscent of Riverdance with horses and water and swords and explosions and…..

Puy du Fou has a huge indoor show called Richelieu's Musketeer with a massive stage and even bigger cast.
Puy du Fou has a huge indoor show called Richelieu’s Musketeer with a massive stage and even bigger cast.

The Phantom Birds’ Dance

Now this was a real highlight. Again I saw it twice from two different seating positions. The first time from down in the pit gave a great view, but the second time, right at the back at the sides gave you far closer access to the birds. The show itself is incredible with beautiful, haunting music and a cast of over 170 birds. If you are going to sit at the very back, it’s probably best to shuffle forwards just a little so you don’t get pooped on by a vulture, like I did. There is simply noting like this anywhere in the world. It is totally breathtaking.

 The Organs of Fire

This was the first night show I saw and can only be described as breathtaking (I’ve used that a lot haven’t i!). It starts with a lone violinist emerging, her dress lighting up and her floating around the lake playing music until she meets the pianist, who does the same. The orchestras appear, huge fountains emerge and an even bigger organ suddenly appears to add to the music and the gigantic party. I thought it was the biggest show I’d ever seen, but I hadn’t seen Cinescenie at this point!

The Cinescenie

Now this show breaks record after record. It’s the largest permanent show in the world with a nightly cast of 1,500, all of whom are volunteers. None of them get paid. There are 3,400 of them trained to play their roles and it’s held 28 time per year in front of a crowd of 14,000. For the volunteers, it’s a huge social and cinematic event and they train all year. It’s so popular that there are over 1,000 on the waiting list to volunteer and you can’t buy tickets for the event for another year. I won’t say too much about it but it is simply massive, incredible and beautiful (and hard to photograph). I have again, never seen anything like this. It started at 10.45 pm and went on until well after 12.15, so it’s a good long show too. It’s worth it for the fireworks alone.

The TEA Team

Being with the TEA gave us an all access pass to the whole site and the team that created it. It was a huge privilege and worth the membership in its own right. For only three days away it was completely exhausting, but to be able to get to see this place was worth it and i’ll be back to do it again.

A few relaxing drinks after with the TEA party
A few relaxing drinks after with the TEA party
The Land Train that takes you around the park
The Land Train that takes you around the park

Are you watching Nottingham?

It does however make me sad when I see references to knights, castles and even Robin Hood himself that my home City of Nottingham, can’t even get an attraction out of the ground to recognise our most famous son. The French have delivered a genius show that would draw in millions of visitors if it was created here.  Nottingham still hasn’t delivered a single thing. So, Nottingham, please take note. Puy du Fou turns over €74m and is very profitable, filling every hotel for miles around with it’s 1.9 million visitors per year. A little of this would go a long way.

Where we stayed

The accommodation offer is quite new, but growing fast. They may look like simple tents, but they house a fabulously well equipped four poster bedroom with wet room, two bunks for kids and even decent wifi.

The tented village at Puy du Fou which is a beuatiful hotel room in disguise
The tented village at Puy du Fou which is a beautiful hotel room in disguise

Summary

If you have kids you have to come here. If you don’t come anyway. It’s amazing, awe inspiring and unique. It’s the best kept secret and the best theme park in the world. And it’s my new favourite.

Advertisements

Tesco and Robin Hood – Rob from the poor to give to the rich

Tales of Tesco Hood
Tales of Tesco Hood

I have written before about empty shops in cities and what I believe is the solution. Flexible rents for start-ups and some understanding in the payment of business rates. The latest move reported by the BBC that Tesco were to take over the former Tales Of Robin Hood site in Nottingham, proves it’s still not being addressed in any effective way.

As one of those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the presentation from the Bass Museum team who did have plans for the site, this is a real shame, but no real surprise. That proposal was so flawed as to be embarrassing.

So why would Tesco move in and not look for longer to find a decent alternative tenant?

Let’s say that the rent on the site would be £100k per annum and as we know, Tesco own the head lease. After six months empty, they will have to pay a full business rate, which adds another £41.5k to their bill. So, for them to leave it empty, costs them £141.5k per year. Therefore, as long as they lose LESS than that as a Tesco Express store, then it’s worth them opening it.

In effect they are being incentivised by the system to open up all over the place.

Surely it would be better for the long term good of the city to have some retail diversity?

Or maybe a Robin Hood attraction, or even a permanent exhibition.

Let’s set the Sheriff of Nottingham on ’em.

Thanks to the somewhat out of date Nottingham Tourist Guide for the image.

Robin Hood movie review and trailer – Nottingham Gala Premiere

Russell Crowe as Robin Hood in the new movie Robin Hood that premiered tonight in Nottingham's Cornerhouse Leisure and entertainment complex
Russell Crowe as Robin Hood in the new movie Robin Hood that premiered tonight in Nottingham's Cornerhouse Leisure and entertainment complex

This a story hot off the press as I have just arrived back from the gala premiere of Robin Hood held at the Cornerhouse in Nottingham City Centre. The film stars Russell Crowe as our hero Robin and Cate Blanchett as Lady Marion Loxley. She played a simply superb part and whilst this wouldn’t be the sort of film that would normally get Oscar nominations, I thought she played such a strong part that i’d be surprised if she doesn’t feature amongst the nominees.

The film itself is a long and epic affair painting the history of Robin Hood before he was outlawed. As such, it’s a prequel before the sequel. As scene setters go, it is one of the most enjoyable films I have ever seen. I have read a few early reviews that have been mixed, but this has to have come from film hardened critics and not the general public like myself who will be enthralled by the story, amazed by the cinematography and drawn in by the plot.

When we started working on the brand values for Robin Hood as part of the Sheriff’s Commission, we wanted him to be a strong, fearless character with huge integrity. So he fitted the character of our City. Crowe has done this in spades. What we couldn’t have expected (but what we really, really hoped for) was Cate Blanchett to play a strong brave and independent thinking woman. She certainly delivers this and more.

There’s a bit of humour, some great historical placement, no real attempt at regional accents (apart from a bit of Welsh thrown in) and a good balance of action without it being ever gory or blood thirsty. The photography is just stunning. as they camera flies you through the valleys of the South Downs and the Woods of Nottinghamshire, you will be spellbound.

I think you know what you can expect with Ridley Scott and this certainly doesn’t disappoint. I loved it. I’m going again at the weekend with my family and I hope you do to. To whet your appetite, here’s the trailer.

The New Robin Hood film is coming

I’m working on the brand for Robin Hood with the City of Nottingham and we’re trying to define what his values are all about. What does Robin Hood mean to the current generation growing up and how does that differ from any of our own perceptions.

Many see him as a movie character and even then, everyone has their favourite from Kevin Costner in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves to Robin Hood Daffy.

Whichever is your favourite, this latest version with Russell Crowe looks like he’s being painted as a real tough guy, fighting on Nottingham beach.

Sheriff of Nottingham London to Los Angeles Part two

Checking in at Heathrow with a Sheriff of Nottingham was always going to be interesting, but it was made more so by the reaction of the press at home and perhaps more importantly, the reaction of the readers of the local press, expressed through their comments. Some of these have been less than favourable, some have been silly and some have been positive, but for me, if Nottingham is to become a world class city, with a world class Robin Hood offer, we have to go and learn from the best in the world. Being insular and assuming we can do it all ourselves is a sure fire way to achieve exceptional mediocrity. Look at Sheffield and their Centre for Popular Music and look at what we mustn’t do. This cost taxpayers a small fortune and closed after six appalling months to become a publicly funded nightclub.

I don’t really intend to address those criticisms here, because I have paid for this trip myself through Purple Circle, in order to completely understand the market for visitor attractions across the US. As a business, Purple Circle already work for BeWILDerwood (rated by its own industry body the Themed Entertainment Association) TEA as a world class attraction and recent winner of a DBA Design Effectiveness award for ourselves) and Go Ape, who have won hundreds of business awards themselves.

If we’re going to advise them how to behave in a branding and innovations sense, how better to do it than to look to the best there is to offer in the worlds biggest market for visitor attractions? So I’m here under my own steam and fully intend to fill my days and nights with opportunities to see everything that the US has to throw at us. I have specific issues I need to address and questions I want answering by the best in the business.

But back to Virgin Atlantic. I’m not allowed to show you pictures of the Sheriff checking in at Heathrow, as we’re not allowed to take pictures at check in, so here’s one of him boarding the plane and turning right towards economy.

The Sheriff of Nottingham and his Lady boarding the flight to LA
The Sheriff of Nottingham and his Lady boarding the flight to LA

But it was smooth and efficient and remarkably short of drama. The first hint of a problem was when I boarded the plane and was given the wrong end of a boarding pass with which to board.

On normal plane with a normal company, this could be a problem, but not so Virgin. Rather than cause any fuss or bother, they had the brilliant solution of sitting me at the bar in the Upper Class section until they could sort it out. excellent plan. I spent the next ten minutes with my feet up and a glass of chilled Champagne. Oh to have problems dealt with like this every day.

Its quite a nice touch being given a glass of Champagne whilst the staff rush off and sort a little probem
Its quite a nice touch being given a glass of Champagne whilst the staff rush off and sort a little probem

The rest of the flight was completely uneventful other than to say that Richard had obviously listened to the voice of the passenger who wrote the world’s best complaint letter as the food en-route was gorgeous.

Airplane food - Virgin style
Airplane food - Virgin style

Our Cabin Crew Becky was full of personality and couldn’t have done more to make her passengers feel at home. I made a comment to her about how lovely the Gü pudding was and a few minutes later she turned up and sneaked another into my hand. This may be in the manual or it may not, but it certainly made me feel like I was a valued customer. This way of working simply has to be completely natural and far and away above mere training. You can teach someone to do a job, but I don’t think you can ever teach someone to smile and enjoy themselves whilst they’re working. This natural friendly openness is one of the reasons, that for me, Virgin has remained a remarkable Lovemark brand.

For the cabin crew, the LA flight must be quite a nice one as they get two night layover in the City of Angels before they have to fly home again.. I asked Becky what they did with their time and it seems like they swim, shop and party. Maybe that’s why Virgin have such happy staff, they have actually planned it so their staff have a life outside of work.

Anyway, LA tonight, no visits other than to a hotel and bed, so I’ll add more tomorrow. Night night.

Taking the Sheriff of Nottingham to the USA – Part One

The Sheriff of Nottingham Leon Unczur and his Lady
The Sheriff of Nottingham Leon Unczur and his Lady

Okay, we’re taking the Sheriff of Nottingham to the USA to see what they have to offer as the best visitor and tourist attractions in the world.

We’ll be looking at some big ones, some small ones and some obviously in-between. We’re aiming to see the very best…. But in fast forward.

The timetable is pretty grueling as you can see below, but we still have lots of flexibility and would welcome any advice as to what you think we really need to see.

Is it world class, is it the best it possibly can be and is it something we can learn from by seeing? If it is, we want to see, so all suggestions welcome.

I’ll list what is fixed on what days and I’d love you to help me shape the rest of our time.

I’ll be blogging as I go along, so hopefully, decent Internet connections allowing, you’ll see what we’re seeing very soon after we’re seeing it.

9th Sept
Arrive LA and then fixed meeting with:
John Paul Getty Museum

And possibly see from the following:
Universal Studios
California Science center
Melting Pot Tour
Hollywood Walk of Fame

10th Sept Lunchtime
Fly to San Francisco and then fixed meeting with:
Alcatraz
Golden Gate Bridge

And possibly see from the following:
Segway Tours
Urban Safari

12th Sept AM
Fly to Seattle and then fixed meeting with
Mayor Nickels of Seattle

And possibly see from the following:
Rock N Roll Museum (definite we think)
Sci Fi Museum
Kkondike Gold Rush
Space Needle

13th Sept Lunchtime
Fly to Boston

14th Sept Lunchtime
Transfer to Plymouth for fixed meetings with:
Pilgrim Hall Museum
Mayflower
Plymouth Plantation

And then back into Boston PM for fixed meetings with:
USS Constitution
Sheriff Cousins of Boston

And possibly see from the following:
Freedom Trail
Newbury Street

15th Sept Lunchtime
Fly to New York and then see some of the following:
The High Line
MOMA
Rockerfeller (Top of the Rocks)
Statue of Liberty/Staten Island
Ground Zero

17th Sept night
Fly home, Sleep.