The Efteling, located in Kaatsheuvel, is the largest theme park in the Netherlands, and arguably the best. It has won many prizes, among them "Best theme park in Europe". It has since been overshadowed by Euro Disney, but I still think the Efteling is one of the best and most beautiful theme parks in Europe.
The Efteling started in 1933 as a sort of sports park: a few fields where children could play soccer or other games. In 1951 a playground was added, as well as a "tea house".
The official start was in 1952, when the "Sprookjesbos", or Fairy Tale Forest, was opened. This was a forest in which you could find scenes from fairy tales, like Sleeping Beauty's castle and Little Red Riding Hood standing before the door of her grandmother's cottage (through the window you can see the wolf lying in the bed). The Sprookjesbos was designed by famous Dutch illustrator Anton Pieck and quickly became famous. In 1954 already one million people had come to the Efteling. Over the years the Sprookjesbos was extended with more fairy tales, as well as a huge merry-go-round and two small steam trains.
In the seventies, the amount of visitors started to go down. In order to attract more people, a decision was made to make the Efteling more than a fairy tale park. The first addition was the Ghost Castle (Spookslot). This was a new kind of attraction for the Efteling, where you can walk into the castle at any time and look around, finding all kinds of scary stuff (I know many people that didn't dare go in when they were young), and at fixed times (every ten minutes or so) a group of people is let into a separate room where they watch a show with music, puppets and an animated decor. Although this may sound way too Muppet-like, I can assure you it isn't... Kate Bush even filmed one of her video clips in or near the Spookslot, where you can see her dancing between the grave stones.
The Spookslot was only the beginning of the expansion of the Efteling. In quick succession new attractions appeared: a steel rollercoaster (the Python) in 1981 that was at the time the largest in Europe, a huge swinging ship in 1982 (this swing, called De Halve Maen, got into the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest swinging ship in the world), a water ride (Pirana) in 1983. Since then many other things have been added and new attractions open every few years.
Nowadays the Efteling is a pretty large theme park, divided into areas that correspond with the sort of things you find there. There is an area with Fairy Tales, where you can still find the Sprookjesbos. Although many fairy tales have been here since the start of the park, it is still a great place, especially for children. There are musical mushrooms along the paths, interactive features (a dragon on a wall that comes down when you tug the crown in a treasure chest, a troll king that predicts your future) and things like gnome houses that you can walk into. One of the most efficient ways of preventing littering I have ever seen you can find here: everywhere there are statues and reliefs of a figure called Holle Bolle Gijs, an ever-hungry fairy tale person. These figures call out "papier hier!" (paper here). When something is inserted into their mouth, they say thank you, or burp. Children like nothing better than collecting all kinds of trash to give it to Gijs!
Everything in the Sprookjesbos is upgraded regularly; tape recorders have been replaced by microchips and things like the troll king contain state of the art robot machinery. The troll king was even made in collaboration with the people from Spitting Image. This means that peope of every age can enjoy themselves here, out of nostalgia, because they still believe in fairy tales or simply because it has all been so well made.
A large part of the park is devoted to a kind of ride that seems typical for the Efteling, where you step into a little cart or boat and enter a different world, filled with animated dolls and music. There is Fata Morgana, where you go through the Arabia of 1001 nights in a boat, past street markets, fakirs, through the jungle and underneath a giant. There is Droomvlucht (Dream Flight) where you travel through the faery kingdom, and Pandadroom (Panda Dream), a threedimensional movie about nature that was made in collaboration with the WNF. Everything is designed in the style of Anton Pieck as much as possible, which gives the Efteling a unique atmosphere.
For the more sensation-minded, there is also plenty to do. Apart from the Python and the Halve Maen, there is also the wooden rollercoaster Pegasus, a bobsled (without snow or mountain though), and Vogel Rok, a rollercoaster in the dark.
People who prefer more sedate pastimes can amuse themselves with the Gondoletta, little boats that are automatically pulled through a large pond, or with the steam trains that still run through the park.
Of all the theme parks I've ever been to (admittedly there haven't been many) I like the Efteling the best. You can easily spend two days there and there is something for everyone, much more than what I've desribed in this writeup. For information on how to get there, admission prices and opening times, as well as the possbility to have an idea of what it all looks like, go visit www.efteling.nl, which is the official site.