Rurality and Roots at Puy du Fou Theme Park Show Disney’s Mickey How To Do It
Two tablespoons of history, a dash of religion, a soupçon of entertainment and voilà, a winning recipe for France’s favourite theme park – the Puy du Fou in the Vendée, whose politician-founder has just released a controversial new book.
Billed as the world’s best theme park, Puy du Fou, boasts of outplaying the Disneyland Paris entertainment Goliath in Marne-la-Vallée, with attractions it claims are better attuned to today’s audiences.
Just 3 hours south-west of Paris the Grand Parc du Puy du Fou lies on a 50ha forested site in the conservative heartlands of the Vendée, something of a political fiefdom also for its founder, Philippe de Villiers leader of Mouvement Pour la France and author of the recently published Le moment est venu de dire ce que j’ai vu (Its time to tell you what I have seen), a retrospective on his 30 years of activist politics on the right in France.
One-time political rival of the Front National, former deputy in the European parliament, ex-minister and councillor in the Vendée — where he remains feted for setting very high standards for French education and culture — his book makes some explosive claims.
We have, he writes: “returned to the days of the catacombs and each of us must guard their spark (of French culture), so that the flame is never extinguished … We must defend the sacredness of life, and our filiations which are benchmarks of our identity; (we must further defend), the nation and its heritage, our borders which are its anchors and the French vision as a view on the world … Those who no longer hold out any hope are those who are without a solution … When I see what Puy du Fou — created exactly in the spirit of this independence– has become, I realise it (renaissance of the French nation) is feasible! Our dissent will in the end ensure the present system self destructs”.
His is just the latest contribution to an increasingly feverish French political and intellectual scene where, halfway through the Hollande presidency, the country’s economic and social woes show few signs of improving.
The climate of national grassroots dissent has not been helped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migrant madness. Indeed this populist current, so recently given a boost by the hapless Merkel, finds its arguments being intellectually polished by some of France’s leading writers and thinkers on the left and right: “Dominating the covers of magazines and newspapers this month, winning large ratings on prime-time TV and topping bestseller lists, the diverse band of thinkers and pundits (writes Angelique Chrisafis in London’s Guardian) argue that they are the only ones brave enough to challenge political correctness and defend the ideas of national identity by highlighting the dangers of immigration and the fears of ‘ethnic French’ people, who no longer feel at home with so many foreigners. Their detractors warn they are fuelling a dangerous atmosphere harking back to the extreme rightwing ideas of France in the 1930s.”
Does this make the famous theme park, which has seen box office takings rise spectacularly since its wing-and-a-prayer startup in 1978, a vehicle for further political ambition?
No says its founder, who claims to have withdrawn from active politics to dedicate himself to running the theme park and further improving its content and attractions especially the main focus on French and European culture and history.
Philippe de Villiers (66) the mastermind behind the acclaimed 37-year-old theme park which in 2014 attracted 1,912,000 visitors to rank as France’s second favourite theme park, is rightly proud of his achievement.
The conservative politician turned leisure industry visionary says “Puy du Fou is all about transmitting our heritage … It is a way of remembering our past glory, the glory of the generations that have defended France and of Christendom. It is not an amusement park … It is a flame of French hope.”
The park –where earnings are set to exceed 100 million euros in 2017, up from just 16 million in 2000 — is set-up as a non-profit association under the French Loi 1901 regime. It “does capitalism without capital” in the words of its founder and as a sign of its success was last year voted France’s best-loved theme park in a national opinion poll. Earlier in 2012 it won the Los Angeles-based Thea Classic Award as the world’s best theme park.
Donations in rights and kind from those running it together with a loyal army of volunteers staging the spectacular shows, form part of the unusual business concept on which the park has been built.
Philippe de Villiers and his son Nicolas who conceive and write the core of the park’s programme — the screenplays for the shows in the vast arena, endow copyright in all their works to Puy du Fou Stratégie, a Loi 1901 association, which, in terms of its articles, has no right to sell them on. “All the intangible wealth of the Puy du Fou is inalienable” says Philippe de Villiers, since the whole park is run by a non-profit organisation.
The park’s founder is also a strong believer in charity. Through Puy du Fou Espérance, donations taken from Cinéscénie revenue are made to charities working in France (the League against Cancer, Fondation Jérôme-Lejeune) and abroad. Since the park first opened Puy du Fou Espérance has donated more than 3 million euros to charities it supports.
Speaking of the inspiration behind the theme park Philippe de Villiers told the Catholic Herald recently: “The Puy du Fou was based on a concern to transmit our heritage … We remember past glory, the glory of all the generations that defended France and Christendom. It is not an amusement park … It is a flame of French hope. When I created the Puy du Fou I considered it to be a moral debt. I wanted to write a hymn to repay the debt I owe to my father and my mother and to the Vendée.”
Describing the different representations of French history through the centuries which are staged at Puy du Fou and which attract many thousands of, mainly French, visitors every year, he explained that his vision was to show how the moral and educational purpose of the park distinguishes it from others: “Let us speak of our heritage of 1,000 years, of the poor who came before us … The builders of our cathedrals for instance were so poor that no one even remembers their names … being French is to be a link in a chain, a cathedral sculptor who leaves his lifework without leaving his name …”
Curiously given the majority view in the EU today, that of a supposedly post-Christian Europe, Puy de Fou self-describes as a “theme park with a message rather than an amusement park”. Its themes are intimately linked to French history which in de Villiers view is in turn inextricably intertwined with Judeo-Christian values and the Roman Catholic Church, all influences that have had a determining role in France and across Europe for centuries – in its art, its architecture, its music, its thinkers, its wars and its discoveries.
Indeed the park wears its message on its sleeve — there is no pretence at disguising the founder’s forthright views about French and European history. But they are not views which would endear him to the majority of the French elite or intellectuals who like much of Western Europe now largely declare that they live in a post-Christian era.
As one recent American visitor Amy Welborn noted on her blog after a trip to the park: “As we moved through the day, I started to notice a couple of things: The explicit religious content of every show (except the musketeer one, but it may have been there, and I just didn’t grasp it.) The Roman show began with two Christian men running onto the sandy floor of the coliseum and drawing an ichthys, and being arrested for that. The Viking show featured a miracle (based, I think on a particular miracle story but I don’t remember which at the time) about a saint raising a child from the dead. At some point it dawned on me…there’s nothing about the French Revolution here. Nothing. Not a word, not an image. Wait. Aren’t all the French all about the French Revolution? I knew that the evening show was about the Vendee resistance to the Revolution, but before I went, I didn’t know anything about the founder of the park, his politics and how the park expresses that vision”.
(A short history of the Vendée counter-revolution of 1793 can be found here: “In April (1793) the counter-revolutionary forces in the Vendée united to form the Catholic and Royal Army. At its peak this army would number 80,000, mostly farmers and labourers; some were boys as young as 12 or women disguised as men. They adopted Dieu et Roi (‘God and King’) as its motto; its officers wore the white cockade of the Bourbon monarchy, its soldiers the Sacre Couer (‘Sacred Heart’). They had little or no training and were poorly equipped, armed with scythes and pikes rather than muskets. The Vendeans lacked the training and discipline to stand against a professional standing army, however the republican armies were themselves weakened and disorganised by four years of disruption and desertions. For three months the royalists of the Vendée swept all before them, capturing significant towns including Beaupréau, Vihiers, Saumur, Angers and Chemillé. They also won control of the Vendée’s most important commercial town, Cholet, and its département capital, Fontenay-le-Comte. The National Convention had a small number of troops garrisoned in the Vendée so could do little initially.)
Referring to the different presentations of French history down the centuries re-enacted with a cast of hundreds and no expense spared at Puy-du-Fou, Philippe de Villiers told the Catholic Herald he had always envisioned his park as having a moral and educational purpose.
Whether it is this focus on history — and in France almost everyone can recount their nation’s history in considerable detail — or merely its well-deserved reputation for the spectacular that draws the crowds is possible not totally clear, but the formula is a clear winner as can be judged by the park’s runaway success.
Today it is ranked according to several accounts, as the most popular attraction of its type in France – even more so than the US entertainment’ giant’s EuroDisney outside Paris.
Francis Phillips reporting for the Catholic Herald over the summer noted: “What impressed me about this statement (‘Its a theme park with a message not an amusement park’) is how counter-cultural it sounds: that to live well is not to seek endless entertainment and distraction; it is to honour one’s parents; to reflect on one’s (Christian) national history; to celebrate and memorialise; not the anarchy let loose by the Revolution or ‘la gloire’ of Napoleonic military imperialism, but the anonymous builders of the great French Gothic cathedrals, such as Chartres or Amiens.”
“The Puy du Fou park — which has been running now for 38 years in a season that extends from June 6 to September 12 – made the news over the summer following a donation of 50,000 euros to ‘Fondation Jérôme-Lejeune,’ a foundation helping children with Down’s syndrome and their families, and funding medical research into genetic mental deficiencies”.
But not all the reporting of this gift was favourable basically because the beneficiary Foundation has a very public pro-life, anti-abortion, and anti-euthanasia stance – issues ‘progressive’ Europe regards as ‘settled’, in the same way that it regards same-sex marriage and surrogacy as ‘settled’, despite the considerable controversy still alive in France as reported here and here.
Our American visitor Amy Welborn (above) describes her impressions when she arrived on one of the final days of the season: “It’s an ‘amusement park’ but there are no rides. The main attractions are recreations of medieval and renaissance villages with artisans and shops, a small collection of animals, animated features – de la Fontaine’s fairy tales, for example, and then these spectacular – I mean spectacular shows featuring French history, starting with the Romans – in a full-blown Roman coliseum with chariots and including, The Romans; a recreation of a Viking raid story; a history of Joan of Arc; Richilieu’s Musketeers; Spanish-style flamenco and equestrian displays on a water-flooded stage; a Birds of Prey show
and the evening spectacular – Cinéscénie …”
According to the Puy du Fou website Cinéscénie is the show that initially established the park’s reputation.
It formed the basis of an adventure begun in 1978 at the instigation of the de Villiers family and their intrepid band of volunteers. The screenplay, which tells the story of a Vendée family from the Middle Ages through to just after the Second World War has remained virtually unchanged since its conception. The writer and director Philippe de Villiers, notebook in hand, attends every performance alongside his fellow directors, his son Nicolas and family friend Laurent Albert.
The three men take detailed notes of all the mistakes they observe and feed them back to the performers, who as it turns out are all volunteers! For since day one the rule has been that no one involved in the Cinéscénie performances gets paid. The 1200 actors and dancers, who wear 24,000 costumes, the 120 horseriders, 80 technicians and 400 people manning front of house and public safety services – some 3,500 locals all told — are volunteers. Indeed many families have been with the show since the beginning with fathers passing on roles to sons and mothers to daughters.
In a recent cover story for Le Point magazine Jérôme Cordelier writes of how the inspiration provided by the history of France and Europe has made France’s Puy du Fou history theme park so widely popular.
“History is waiting for you, scream the advertising hoardings found all over France , including on the Paris metro, and thousands of French families seem to agree, flocking to the Vendée to see for themselves.
“Twice crowned the Best Park in the world by the Americans, who as world leaders in entertainment are well placed to know, Puy du Fou in 2014 became the second most visited park France, with 1,912,000 entrances. That placed it just behind Disney in Paris! And the numbers for the 2015 seasons, which closed recently should, once released, show a further explosive leap. There are 17 performances of the park’s history tales, some played up to 5-times-a-day, with nearly 14,000 tickets available for each performance – while Cinéscénie, the main evening entertainment involving more than 1,200 volunteers and performers, were sold out throughout the summer.
“Le Puy du Fou International, which employs 80 people, also exports its know-how, its shows, its actors, and its machinery worldwide earning further kudos for French culture and history. It has a since 2013 been responsible for a show created for Efteling Netherlands, the third biggest European Park (4.2 million visitors). While in 2018 the operation will export its know-how to run shows at the first theme park ever built in Russia the Tsargrad.
“We get requests to do as many as 50 projects a year”, says Laurent Albert, general manager of Le Puy du Fou, and one of the directors who has been with the operations since day one. “So many in fact that we no longer advertise for new clients.”
Philippe de Villiers recounts how once he discovered the site in 1977, he set about creating the park. Inspired by Baudelaire’s poem, Élévation, he says he gathered a few family and friends to launch the venture that was quickly labelled the ‘de Villiers folly’.
“In 1986, Jacques Chirac made me a minister in his government and in 1988, I was appointed to lead the Vendée region, a busy political career which meant the park and its shows developed slower than anticipated.”
His fellow director Laurent Albert, one of a handful of intrepid volunteers who have been with the park since its inception says he was inspired by what they all had in common, namely the history of the Vendée.
In the mid 80s, one tour operator told us: “You may well have the best sound and light show in all of France, but the public will not travel 10 hours by bus to see just a single 1 hour 45 minute show … We risked running out of visitors!” So de Villiers and his associates headed for Orlando in Florida, “where we saw what we did not want to do but we learned the methodology. In particular we noticed that for an entertainment park to succeed it has to become a destination offering bus tours more than just one show and activity per day. Thus we came home and set up a large park in 1989 and as we started to make money, we invested in new attractions. We needed to ensure we were always offering novelties so guests would return and in that we have been successful, today 65% of our visitors come back within three years of their first visit.”
Story: Ken Pottinger