I’ve already written about Puy Du Fou and it’s incredible, mind-blowing shows. But there’s a lot more to France’s second most popular theme park than its special effects. During our Britmums press trip we were given an insight into what goes on behind the scenes, and it really is just as impressive as the fireworks and explosions. Here are five things that might surprise you about Puy Du Fou, France’s best kept secret.
Puy Du Fou started as an amateur reenactment
The Puy Du Fou story is a wonderful example of dreaming big. When Philippe De Villiers came across the Château of Puy du Fou in June 1977 it was a ruin. Not put off by the crumbling walls and decaying roofs, he decided that he wanted to stage an amateur reenactment of the history of the Vendée in its grounds. And so, on 16 June 1978, the first Cinéscénie performance took place with more than 600 volunteers. Today, La Cinéscénie, is the biggest nighttime show in the world with an audience of 14,000 people in high season. It’s performed by 4,000 volunteer actors and includes 28,000 costumes, 850 fireworks and much more every night! It is, quite simply, amazing.
You can visit the original Puy Du Fou Château today as part of La Renaissance du Château. It’s a fun, walk-through experience that sees visitors pass by the former castle inhabitants. If you don’t speak French it’s a little hard to follow (there’s currently no English audio guide for this show) but it’s still worth taking a look at the Château that started it all.
The villages are authentic
As well as the 19 shows, Puy Du Fou has four villages; La Cité Médiévale (a Medieval village), Le Fort D L’An (the Viking village), Le Bourg 1900 (a French town from the turn of the century) and Le Village XVIII (a French village from the 18th century). The villages have been designed and created by craftsmen using traditional building methods and techniques so that the mini towns are as close to the original as possible. In the Medieval village you can spot local artisans hard at work sculpting, painting and creating, just as they might have done 1,000s of years ago. The shops are run by outside vendors who rent the space to sell their handicrafts. In the Viking village, we watched a blacksmith and his apprentice hard at work and in the 18th century village, we saw farm animals in their stalls and the most spectacular bell tower. Granted, the tower does not date from the 18th century but it is impressive nevertheless!
It’s all about the community
There’s a lot of local love for Puy Du Fou and for good reason, this is a company that really gives back to the local community. They’ve created 4,700 jobs in the local area, give 80% of work to local businesses and have brought huge economic benefits to the community. You only have to look at the 4,000 volunteers that take part in La Cinéscénie every Friday and Saturday night during high season to know that the locals are pretty proud of their homegrown theme park.
What’s more, Puy Du Fou has opened several schools in the local area. There’s the L’Academie Junior, where kids learn the skills and techniques needed to become the future managers, performers and technicians of Puy Du Fou. There are currently some 600 young “Puyfolais” enrolled at the academy studying all manner of subjects from costume, dance and lighting to horse riding, photography, animal training and more. The best of the graduates will later go on to become part of the Puy Du Fou team. In 2015, Puy Du Fou opened its own primary school and this year is launching a secondary school as well. What’s particularly brilliant about this is that they are local schools focusing on kids from the surrounding area. You can spot some of the up-and-coming Puy Du Fou stars in Le Ballet des Sapeurs, a fabulous slapstick performance set to jazz music that takes place on the bridge in the Bourg 1900 village.
Not all the stars are human
Animals are just as much the stars of the show as the actors at Puy Du Fou and the park is home to a huge number of furry and feathered friends. Their Equestrian Academy is the largest stable for shows in Europe and has 206 horses trained in all disciplines; trick riding, stunts, harnessing and dressage. They have an animal conservatory, dedicated to animals of the farm, that has become something of a sanctuary – like an old animals’ home – for some species. A conservation programme has also been established for endangered animals including the Poitou donkey, the Poitou goose and the Bayeux Pig. You can spot the farm animals as your wander around the park and kids love them.
Puy Du Fou also have a Canine Academy and, of course, their Falconry Academy. We were allowed backstage to see how the birds are looked after (something that is available to all guests, you just need to book in advance). There are some 530 birds of 73 different species that call Puy Du Fou home and 40 highly-trained falconers who look after them. If you do choose a behind-the-scenes aviary tour, you may get to hold an owl like we did!
They are technical wizards!
Once you’ve seen the Puy Du Fou shows you’ll realise that the technical behind-the-scenes know-how is second-to-none. Somehow, the technical team manage to make castle walls disappear, theatre seating revolve 360 degrees and a 20-metre long boat rise from the water. And that’s just for starters. We also saw illuminated dancers glide across water, an enormous red organ appear from seemingly nowhere and a ship start to sink – with us on board! The park is always investing in new shows and new technology (100% of the park’s profits is reinvested annually) and they have recently invested in Neopters (no, I hadn’t heard of them before, either), the first fleet of drones capable of synchronising to music, film, light and actors, completely independently. I’ve no idea how it works, really, but when you see La Cinéscénie, be aware that fleets of drones are flying above you! Not surprisingly, Puy Du Fou has received numerous awards including the coveted Thea award, basically the Oscars of the Theme Park world.
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Disclosure: I visited Puy Du Fou as part of a press trip organised by BritMums for the purpose of this review. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own.