Coaster Kingdom

Fata Morgana, Efteling
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Once, a family engagement had me standing in the rain being battered by the wind as I waited for our evidently in-demand table at a restaurant with quite an extraordinary reputation. The local dining out guide touted this as the place to be seen, and indeed, I can attest to this restaurant's popularity.

The already difficult task of choosing my fate from the menu was made worse by virtue of the fact my fellow diners were bewildering me with their recommendations, moreover the fact the menu seemed to be in a foreign language. I like to consider myself as having at least a comfortable grasp of common language, yet I was stumped by the time I got to 'kalamata tapenade'.

Nevertheless, I made my choice and enjoyed it, but left with the uncomfortable feeling that while this was a good restaurant, it was hardly worthy of such acclaim. "Wasn't it brilliant?" asked one of my comrades. "Yes, yes, very good" I said in fear of confrontation.

A few weeks later, I visited another restaurant. Similar price, similar fare, but certainly not alight with the glow of hysteria as this other eatery. Yet, against my expectations, this food was an absolute gastronomic delight of the highest order. It was magnificent, and while I felt it a great injustice that this place wasn't the subject of such acclaim, I could leave with a smug grin on my face thinking to myself that I now I can enjoy better food than the all-singing all-dancing restaurant down the road without having to queue for the privilege. It was my little secret.

Yet, to this day, I still haven't worked out why this restaurant has been overlooked. Maybe people are too busy queuing in the rain outside Restaurant A to enjoy Restaurant B? Who knows, but what I do know now, and what I have since learnt is not to let recommendations taint my expectations.

The same goes for theme parks.

I visited Efteling in the company of those who enthused about Villa Volta. Same with Dreamflight - another wonderful ride, but not a patch on Efteling's real unsung hero.

Fata Morgana is simply 24-carrat gold disguised as a dark ride. You can have your Dreamflights, you can keep your Phantom Manors - this is absolutely everything I expect from a dark ride.

For me, dark rides fall into two categories - those where the ride system is simply a tool to move riders around various tableaux, and those which use the ride system as part of the attraction itself.

In terms of the latter, the most famous example has to be Spiderman (Universal's Islands of Adventure), a ride which has set something of an unachievable benchmark in the industry. While Spiderman's success of course has much to do with the various elements of the ride working together, with a ride system that speeds up, slows down, spins and generally jostles riders around.

Fata Morgana, however, is one of the very best examples of the former. This ride uses a towboat system similar to that used on Swan Boat rides where the boat is tethered to an underwater cable that follows a set route around a lake or waterway.

There is no bigger testament to the virtues of the theming on Fata Morgana when as one of my favourite rides, it uses the same ride system as one of the worst.

Being the worst, Drayton Manor's Excalibur is the perfect cure to insomnia, and just goes to show how the towboat ride on its own simply does not work if expectations are raised further than the ride simply being a serene boat ride around a lake.

Yet, overcoming the scientifically proven boredom of the towboat ride on its own, Fata Morgana manages to entertain by taking riders to another world, the full weight of the attraction simply carried by the magnificently original and comprehensive theming throughout.

Of course, you have to find the ride first.

Fata Morgana used to catch your gaze from across a lake opposite the park's main entrance, but since then the outstanding Efteling Theatre has been built between the lake and the entrance, somewhat obscuring the outcrops of Moroccan-styled turrets.

While Fata Morgana comprises of a buzzing bazaar of Moroccan white-washed buildings, trimmed with elaborate ramparts and crowned with spectacular incandescent egg-shaped roofs surrounded by fountains, mosaics and gardens, it isn't immediately obvious this is a ride.

Efteling's occasional ability to match Disney's prowess in theming is matched only by their standards in queue design. Or lack thereof. After navigating a cattlepen of quite extraordinary proportions, the queue enters the main building and wraps around the inside of an enormous hall, in the centre of which a turret overlooks the turntable which boats slowly orbit around.

A final flight of steps takes you onto the turntable and into the boat, a fairly modest affair with four rows of four-or-five seat benches. Once seated, the boat peels away from the turntable and heads through a heavy pair of curtains into the deepest depths of Morocco.

To talk you through Fata Morgana scene-by-scene is to do the attraction a grave injustice. Fata Morgana is a ten-minute boat journey through the tropical rainforests, bustling ports and market towns, dark fortresses and magnificent palaces of Morocco. All of this is given a tinge of fantasy as a wizard guides you from scene-to-scene and you encounter some inexplicably exotic characters.

Musicians often borrow elements and themes from each other, and the same can be said of dark rides. Fata Morgana isn't a complete pillar of virtue in this respect - the opening scenes in particular borrow a few scenes from Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Yet, avoiding an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu, every one of Fata Morgana's standout moments is without parallel. The most extravagant scene has a Moroccan emperor in his boudoir surrounded by tens and tens of servants, belly dancers, musicians and entertainers.

This lavishly decorated room has a sense of majesty and opulence that makes Villa Volta look ramshackle by comparison. The scene brought to life with tens of animatronics, too, punches its weight even in opposition to the mighty Disney.

As for originality, well, the entire theme neatly sidesteps the necessity to rely on overused themes such as pirates and ghosts, while in the attraction itself there are several supremely effective moments, such as the moment when using visual trickery it appears the boat is listing to the side as it passes down a narrow corridor fired upon by lasers that explode into the water.

Fata Morgana encompasses every element of good story telling. It has passion, malevolence, tranquillity, fantasy and a certain je ne sais quoi without having to resort to fireballs and drops. While Valhalla tries to take you to another world, you can't escape the fact you're on a log flume passively watching showy special effects, while Fata Morgana works on a far more subtle level taking you into the middle of another culture, using lavish scenery, warm lighting and a beautiful soundtrack to help tell the story.

While I bemoan dark rides copying elements from each other, one welcome imitation on Fata Morgana is the exquisite cast of animatronics - all 130 of them. Like Disney's animatronics, each character is realistic and charismatic with overly exaggerated facial features to give each a unique personality. Most talk and are animated down to the finest detail, whether their eyes blink or their eyebrows move.

And it is small touches like this that make a good dark ride. Of course you'd expect me to heap praise upon standout elements that have that wow factor, but often in dark rides, it is the small and individually insignificant touches that all add up.

Another example is how the boat passes from scene to scene. While scenes on dark rides often bleed one into the other, there is always a curtain of steam, pair of doors, a port cullice or pair of curtains between you and the next scene. This gives a great feeling of thumbing through a storybook, having to turn each page to reveal each twist in the storyline.

A few transitions are particularly clever. One where the boat turns on the spot in the water, surrounded in tropical foliage which subtly parts as the boat heads towards it. And just as the boat heads towards a dead end in a cave, the wizard helps by parting the rocks with his magic wand.

On dark rides, you often get the feeling that designers sit down with a blank sheet of paper and come up with ideas to fill it. "I know, fireballs, lots of fireballs!". Sounds great, eh? Not necessarily in the context of storytelling - put together all these ideas, and you're left with a special effects bonanza with no continuity whatsoever.

In all honesty, the plot on Fata Morgana is hardly challenging, and in places is neigh-on non-existent. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you get the gist of being guided through a Moroccan wonderland by a wizard, then great, if not, then never mind - it looks great, anyway.

Like the other great dark rides such as Phantom Manor, Fata Morgana has a sense of majesty and artistry to it. Other rides are painting by numbers by comparison - they do the job, but by contrast Fata Morgana has an elegant flair to it.

A sign of a good dark ride is complete escapism. Fata Morgana makes it easy to forget that you are simply being told a story, and draws you in with open arms. Few rides manage this, but as far as I am concerned, even fewer manage to appear to do this so effortlessly.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • Original theming and storyline
  • Absolutely astounding animatronics and characters along with lavish and consistent level of theming throughout
  • Efteling's most underrated ride by a long margin
  • Lots to look at throughout the ride
  • A long ride, and great capacity

Bad points:

  • Some may find it lacking in up-front effects
  • The queue line is tedium personified

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