Coaster Kingdom

Villa Volta, Efteling
Sunday, February 25, 2007

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

Sometimes a ride just hits that spot and brings a lump to your throat, makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and completely overwhelms you. Yet, it takes a better wordsmith than I to adequately explain why exactly a ride should be capable of conjuring up such emotions.

Dark rides are a particularly difficult genre to quantify in terms of enjoyment. By their very nature they're like theatre where you sit passively in a seat and expect to be taken into another world without necessarily even moving an inch.

If you strip your favourite dark ride to the bear bones, you will see just how much onus is on music, effects and effective story telling to send those shivers down your spine, yet try and explain why your personal favourite has a special place in your heart to someone who hasn't ridden and it is a truly infuriating feeling to be met with a vacant expression and a patronising nod in reply.

The epitome of this simply has to be the Mad House, a genre which has enjoyed a healthy renaissance in Europe recently. While Pleasure Beach Blackpool's Haunted Swing is decades old, Villa Volta was the first of Vekoma's modern version which was larger, capable of being far better themed and on which the gondola was capable of moving by up to forty degrees to encourage the grey matter into thinking you really are being inverted.

Yet, however much you try and explain how good this type of ride can be, at the end of a day, you cannot escape the fact that you are sitting on a near-stationary seat inside a room that can go upside-down. Exciting, eh?

But of course, this goes to show how such a mundane concept can send people head over heels. Ride the very best Mad House and it has the capability of leaving most people slack jawed, yet without the proper ingredients it has the potential to be one long-winded snooze-fest.

To this day, Villa Volta remains the most highly regarded Mad House in the world despite a further twelve opening in the last decade. Does Villa Volta still possess the qualities to retain the crown of best Mad House, or should it surrender sovereignty to a more deserving opponent?

At the risk of uttering certain blasphemy in the church of the dark ride, I can categorically say without any reservation whatsoever that Villa Volta is not the best Mad House in the world.

With hundreds of readers suitably enraged, I'll follow up by saying with equal confidence that Villa Volta is not a bad ride - far from it - but I am in no doubt that much of the vocal following for Villa Volta is down to the nostalgic few among us who cannot see the obvious advantages newer Mad Houses have over Villa Volta.

Nestled in the woodlands of Efteling, Villa Volta sits on the bank of a river running around the outside of the Fairy Realm. By day, this is a dwelling of quite exceptional standards with white-washed walls, and a tiled roof finished off with a statue of a slender woman, arms outstretched.

Yet while Villa Volta appears to be a palace fit for a king, and while it must surely exude the flamboyant lifestyle of a hard-working and industrious citizen, for every brick laid was a victim of a dark and sinister culture of debauchery and pillaging with Villa Volta being home to the very worst of these bandits, the so-called Bokkeryders.

In the dark moonlit nights, Hugo van den Loonsche Duynen and his band of ‘Bokkeryders' would leave houses bare committing remorseless acts of theft and arson and living lavish lifestyles on their victims' behalves.

This sinister backstory is explained on various multi-lingual signs in the queueline to the right of the building before large oak doors swing open and a group of eighty-or-so are let into a storeroom with only a few shafts of light cutting through the dusty air. In the store there are sacks of grain, boxes of commodities, and railings and fencing leant up against the far corner.

As the room fills, a dramatic rolling orchestral piece stirs anticipating riders into an expectant anxiety before the doors behind close and the lights dim. The dulcet tones of a narrator introduce the story as explained outside before the voices of villagers recount their stories having falling victim to the Bokkeryders.

"Vipers, that's what they are. They should be exterminated with root and all!" seethes one villager.

Villagers' accounts of the eighteenth century reign of the wicked Bokkeryders continue punctuated by a crack of thunder where a curtain drops to show a sign swinging behind with orchestral music swelling up dramatically before the accounts continue.

Concluding the pre-show, the narrator introduces the ringleader of the Bokkeryders, Hugo, a pair of doors opening as he does so, inviting us deeper into the house, and into just one of the rooms used by Hugo to store his hoard of stolen artefacts. This rustic room is uncharacteristically decorated with spectacular chandeliers and brim full of golden candelabras, vases and ornate gold-framed paintings.

In the midst of this bounty, and sat upon a guilt-edged throne sits the now old and frail character of Hugo, a quite remarkably realistic animatronic. Now locked in with this villain of epic proportions, the lights dim before Hugo is lit up in a striking white light, waking him from his deep slumber.

It is hard to feel anything but pity for this frail old man. Slumped in his chair with scraggly grey hair, he recounts the dark evening where he and his band of outlaws decided to plunder the riches of a church.

Having broken into the house of the lord, Hugo looted the alter of golden goblets and silver candlesticks before he felt a cold hand on his shoulder, and turned to find an apparition of a young lady.

Hugo's frail account of that fateful night is synchronised by the ghostly tones of the woman from behind; "Repent, and do not bring down the wrath of God", she warned.

With a cold laugh, Hugo ignored this maiden's warning and left the church.

Yet, returning to his glorious mansion Hugo would again be haunted by this mysterious missus. Stood at the very top of his mansion, arms waving mysteriously in the wind, she barked at Hugo that never shall he find peace again until someone with the conscience as clean as an unborn baby enters his cursed house - and that he shall remain a prisoner in his own home for ever.

This haunting tale concludes with a plea from Hugo; "Enter with a pure soul so that doom leaves this house and my soul will be at peace which I so desperately desire".

As Hugo fades away into the darkness, a pair of doors open into the room so that we can enter the main hall inside the house.

Considering that Hugo is a thieving, lying, blasphemous pyromaniac, this is clearly how the other half live. This magnificent room is beautiful to the finest detail - gothic pillars reach up to the outstanding arched ceiling, trimmed with gold and lit with crystal chandeliers. The peachy-coloured walls are trimmed with wood panelling, broken up with large French windows obscured by luxurious curtains.

Amongst the antique wooden furniture, four long pews line the length of the room grouped in pairs facing the centre. Once sat on these deep wooden seats, lapbars automatically lower and pin you tightly into your seat. Hugo clearly doesn't want you to leave.

The soundtrack explodes into life before fading to a gentle background ambience. You slowly start to feel pressure as you clearly start moving, yet to the eye you haven't moved a centimetre. As the music swells up again, the gondola slowly but surely begins a hypnotic sequence of slowly swinging across the width of the room.

As the music gets faster, the pendulous movements of the gondola get larger and larger. Soon, the walls become the floor and ceiling, the lighting in the room flashing dramatically in time to the music.

As the music climaxes, what was the tiled floor hidden beneath the gondola soars high over mesmerised riders as the entire room - furniture, fittings and all - quickly orbits around the gondola full of people.

The gondola momentarily pauses before the music surges and once again the room circles around you, lights fading and a brief flicker of light on the floor (now) above revealing a character buried beneath the marbled checked design.

As lights flash dramatically and the music moves up a notch, the ride makes one further revolution before slowly, but surely, the room returns to its upright position and the lapbars release.

There you have it - (potentially, at best) the second best Mad House in the world.

So, if it's not the best, what's wrong with it? Of course, there are the usual problems associated with Mad Houses, as well as a few others not only limited to Villa Volta, but problems other Mad Houses have overcome.

To address the usual problems, Mad Houses are very much the Marmite of the dark ride world. While many consider Mad Houses to be the very bread and butter of some parks, while others simply cannot catch whiff of a Mad House without wincing.

There is also the problem of translation. Dark rides often suffer by placing too much onus on dialogue which is great for locals, but wasted on the minority of tourists who visit the park and are not well rehearsed in the local dialect. There are few Mad Houses that don't rely on dialogue, and those that don't (Phantasialand's Feng Ju Palace, for example), are often clumsy and confusing whatever your tongue.

With regards to the problems many Mad Houses suffer from, there is a clear need for - and as far as I can see - evident lack of a clear conclusion. Did we banish the curse that kept the wicked Hugo a prisoner within his own home? Or does the curse prevail? Who knows? Not I.

In the wake of other Mad Houses, in terms of eye candy Villa Volta has competition. Villa Volta is by far the most beautiful of the Mad Houses, but in terms of keeping the eye entertained, Hex and even Merlin's Magic Castle have far more to look at in terms of effects.

I don't mean to paint a picture of negativity, though. Villa Volta is far from being a poor ride and can carry its own in many respects.

Firstly, like the legend of the Towers, the story of the Bokkeryders is - at least in part - true. Yet, unlike Hex, though, the ride feels very artificial and staged when compared to the chillingly real setting of the Towers.

Music is another string to Villa Volta's bow, and undoubtedly one of the most popular aspects of this ride. Somehow, it manages to fuse together genuinely atmospheric orchestral melodies before mixing with a more poppy and mainstream finale. While my description probably makes it sound forced and unflattering, it is truly one of the most memorable pieces of music you're likely to hear at a theme park.

Villa Volta is clearly a meticulous work of art. Inside and out, the ride is faultlessly themed and littered with small details normally associated with Disney rides. The woman on the roof that Hugo speaks of in his harrowing tale, for example, remains in statue form, while there are numerous nods to the Bokkeryders (Goat Riders) throughout the attraction, both inside and out.

Inside, while subtle, the pre-shows are well presented. Hugo is one of the best examples of animatronics outside Disney, and even if you don't understand what he's saying, his realism is quite spell bounding and will simply mesmerise you.

The first pre-show is an acquired taste. It is very understated and doesn't go for showy grandeur, and in fact, aside the sign which drops into view, there's absolutely nothing of note to look at relying completely on audio. It is effective at establishing the plot, though, although I cannot imagine it having the re-ride value of the cinema pre-show on Hex.

The second pre-show explains more about the legend behind Villa Volta. From the mouth of Hugo and not incensed villagers this casts the story in a different light. While by the end of the first pre-show Hugo is painted as a remorseless villain, by the end of the second it is hard not to pity this now weak and pathetic man.

The main show is beautiful and wouldn't appear out of place on a tour of Buckingham Palace with expensive candelabras and vases of flowers leaving no corner undecorated. While the ride is moving though you will find your eye wandering less than it perhaps could do. Underneath the gondola is a wonderful opportunity to reveal some spectacular surprise, yet on Villa Volta the wooden floor abruptly drops away to a black and white checked marble-design floor.

The programme used on Villa Volta is ever so slightly different to the usual one used on Mad Houses. While there are exceptions to the rule (Feng Ju Palace), Villa Volta's doesn't have the dramatic pause where the room is suspended upside-down, so the brief moment where the figure underneath the floor is revealed is wasted for all but the very most observant rider.

Acknowledging the cries of the regular reader, why exactly did we give Villa Volta a five out of five last time? While this is clearly a complete and utter outrage, consider this; when the review was written Villa Volta was honestly without compare. In the years before Hex, our only comparison was Drayton Manor's Haunting.

And above all, Villa Volta is a good ride. The attention to detail, the quality and depth of theming and musical score are befitting of any Disney park. It is just in the face of increased competition that Villa Volta fares less well than it did when it opened.

In short, Villa Volta is a wonderful ride, but compared to the very best, it just doesn't have that Hex factor.

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:

  • Amazing quality of theming throughout makes for an excellent ride
  • Based on a true story, although with a lot of dialogue, re-ride value is limited
  • Absolutely amazing level of decoration - Villa Volta is a truly beautiful ride
  • One of the best sound tracks in the world on any ride

Bad points:

  • Not many special effects and is not as atmospheric as some mad houses
  • Controversially, we'd argue that this is an over-rated ride

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