In an exclusive interview for Park World, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers talks about beating Parc Astérix, plans for new parks/shows in China, Russia and the UK, and what he’s going to do this coming season with 50 drones.
The latest winner of the Applause Award – the prestigious accolade awarded once every two years to a single facility in recognition of its excellence and inspiration to the industry – Puy du Fou does feature any rides. Located in rural eastern France, the attraction was founded in 1978 by Philippe de Villiers and Jean Saint Bris, initially as a live show performed after dark against a château backdrop. Eleven years later, Le Grand Parc was added featuring authentic historical villages, and more live entertainment spectaculars followed. Today it is the busiest non-Disney park in France, with 60 live shows and performances in peak season including a volunteer cast of 1,600 in the signature Cinéscénie. After working with Efteling in the Netherlands, consulting arm Puy Du Fou International is developing new projects in the UK, Russia and China.
Philippe de Villiers (centre) collects the Applause Award from Liseberg’s Andreas Andersen as son Nicolas de Villiers (next to Andersen) looks on. Puy du Fou general manager Laurent Albert can be seen to the right of the picture. (Image courtesy DIDpix)
What was you father’s vision for Puy du Fou?
The vision came slowly. When he started, his plan was just for the night show – Cinéscénie. He wanted to make a show that would be like a big movie, but he was not a film maker, he was just a student at the time. The show was smaller than today, but still quite big. He got success, and after the first year the people around him told him he should go on for a second year.
The vision for the park in 1989 was a French model, very different to the American model coming at the beginning of the 1990s with Disneyland Paris. We made at the beginning the village, and then a small show, and then another village. We soon realised the people were not coming for the villages with craftsmen working in them, it was not very impressive – they came for the shows, so from the middle of the ‘90s we really developed this side of it and have speeded up the process since by trying to create a new show every year.
How difficult was it to recruit volunteers as performers in those early days?
It was very difficult, of course. The summer before my father started, he came to the small town of the area and had a meeting. Only the mayor and the guy who had the keys to the room turned up! But he never gave up, he had meeting after meeting and explained the project to many people.
Eventually some clubs; basketball clubs, football clubs, thought it was funny, and in December of that year he organised a presentation of one scene from the show in front of the castle. He convinced a very famous French actor, Philippe Noiret, to narrate the story and with this and some beautiful lighting of the castle, the people were moved. The emotion was so strong that suddenly they thought, “Maybe I will do this”. In the first show he had 600 volunteers, which was quite OK for a first performance, and because it was a success they all wanted to stay.
We now have 1,600 performers in each production of Cinéscénie, and a pool of 3,400. When the time comes, each Friday and Saturday night in summer, we are all volunteers. A lot of people want to take part in our success, they are coming from all over Europe now, but only 1% is leaving each year, so we have to say no to hundreds of people.
The Applause Award is not your first major industry recognition – two years ago you won the Thea Classic Award from the TEA. How do you expect these plaudits to increase the profile of Puy du Fou?
Because of the Thea Classic Award we became more famous in France and Europe. The Applause Award is good for us because it was awarded in the United States, which is a good reference in this industry. Even the French media looked at us in a different way, and talked for a few days about us after the award. When we set up new shows or parks with partners abroad it is necessary to have a good reference, so both awards help. People come to us from all over the world, from all of Europe, Asia, South America, but not but not so much the United States, until now.
Do you think the fact that you are not a ride park helped you stand out to the Applause Award judges?
That’s what the jury said; we have set up a different model. There are no rides [except a period carousel] because rather than the American model, the theme of the park is based upon a mix of history and fantasy, with stories and scripts that are like a novel. This mix gets the success that we have, and we are the only show park in the world probably.
One of the Grand Parc’s themed villages
Do you consider Puy du Fou to be a theme park?
No we don’t, our philosophy is to be something different. In a theme park, all the décor and architecture are usually fake, but we thought to make completely the opposite with real stones, real walls; true materials. Everything is built on a human scale.
The only comparison to other parks is that you pay for an entrance ticket, and then you can go freely between the shows in a closed area, the same as you would with rides in an theme park. So it is a park, but it is not a classic attraction park.
Last year (2013) you overtook Parc Astérix to become the third busiest park in France, and you look likely to hold onto that position for 2014 with 1.9 million guests. Was this always your plan?
It was not always our goal to be the third park. We don’t care whether we are the first, second, third or fourth. Now we are now the third park [behind Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park], but it is perhaps more interesting to find out why some of the other parks are loosing guests when we are having success.
La Villa Gallo-Romaine hotel
You now have four themed hotels and on- site accommodation for your guests. How important is this to the Puy du Fou business model?
When we created the first hotel, my father was hesitating because he thought it was not his job, but our general manger Laurent Albert was really convinced that it was a good idea. We saw from 2000 that it was possible to get some success, but to get more success we had to become a destination. It is not easy to come to Puy du Fou, we are far from every big city, and to stay two days is quite impossible. Now, because we have developed hotels in the park, some other hotels have been built in the local area, because people saw that we believed in the concept ourselves. With almost 14,000 seats in our biggest show, it is still a lot of people to find beds for, but jointly the hotels had an occupancy rate of 85% last year.
They are all themed hotels, and that is very important. When you come to Puy du Fou you are travelling in time, but then if you go to another hotel outside the park you break the experience. We wanted to make themed hotels so people can stay for two or three days in a different world that is inspired by history. So you can stay in a villa, you can go in a medieval hotel, or sleep in a tent from the Renaissance period in the new Camp du Frap D’Or [opened in 2014].
How do you bring your shows to life using technology, yet keep them authentically historical?
You can raise the emotion in people’s hearts because of the story, because of the music, but also sometimes because of special effects. Technology is a very good way to make impressive effects, but it is important that you don’t see it, because people should be completely immersed in the story. In each show we have some kind of effect. For example in the big indoor theatre show Mousquetaire de Richelieu there is water coming on the floor, which people do not expect. In Le Secret de la Lance, which is a medieval show, there is a large 15m-long castle that disappears in front of you into the floor. In June will introduce 50 drones into Cinéscénie, but you won’t see them either.
An image giving an idea how the drones will be used in Cinéscénie
Tell us more about the drones and how they will be used in Cinéscénie?
We want to create the biggest chandelier in the world, in the sky, moving and then disappearing. It’s very complicated from the technological aspect but also the legal aspect because by law you cannot fly drones at night, you cannot fly several at the same time … and we want to do all of this! We went to the French authorities very early to explain our concept, opened up our doors, and I have to say they have been very supportive.
We will be the first project to use this many drones, and it’s been very complex. If you only have two or three, it’s quite easy to fly them together, but we will have 50 drones flying in the sky at the same time with heavy payloads, and they must be able to fly in the wind and rain. That’s why we created our own drones. They will fly automatically and have their own “brain” so that they can make decisions and leave the choreography and go “home” if their motor or battery is not working well. We say that Cinéscénie has 1,600 performers – as from June it will have 1,650!
Why did you chose to work with Efteling on the Raveleijn show as your first show outside France (launched in 2011)?
The Efteling park is perhaps closest to the Puy du Fou concept because it’s very family orientated. They have some rides but also some shows, and it’s an old park which has a very long experience based upon the legends of the Netherlands. The second reason is the show we thought of matched exactly the vision of the manager there, and there is a very nice arena building where it is playing. When there is a good fit like this, everyone can work together.
Raveleijn at Efteling
Tell us more about the projects you are working on in the UK, Russia and China
In the UK it will be a big night show at Auckland Castle in the north east of England. It will be very close to the Cinéscénie concept, lasting around one- and-a-half hours but a bit smaller with around 400 people on stage, and an English story of course. It will be just the show at the beginning, after that maybe we will set up a park and we have already designed something for our English partners.
In Russia what we are creating is a park in the south of Moscow. It will have to start with a few shows, a village, a small park to start with but getting bigger year after year, based upon Russian history, myths and legends.
In China, the idea that we are discussing is more of a French concept. You can’t go to China as French people and do a show about Chinese history, because they will laugh at you. We also don’t need to teach them anything about creating big shows, because they are very good at that themselves, and very good artists. So it will be more of an exotic concept, like a window on France, offering the Chinese people a taste of the country in one or two days. Both the Russian and Chinese projects won’t need any volunteers; everybody will be paid.
What’s new for 2015 in France?
As well as the drones in Cinéscénie, we will launch a new show based upon the First World War, Les Amoureux de Verdun. It’s obviously a very sensitive subject, but I think we have the right angle. It will be a story of two lovers; where a woman is writing a letter to her fiancé who is a soldier, and we will follow this man in the war. And we have another night show whose name is Le Orgures des Feu (Organs of Fire), where we are introducing some new ideas and special effects. We are improving and investing in all the shows.
Presented with the accolade at IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando in November, Puy du Fou is the first European park in 20 years to win the Applause Award.
“Puy du Fou is more than a simple theme park,” said the Applause Award judging panel. “It brings French history to life through art and theatre for an international audience. The combination of the park’s long history and the authenticity of its shows offer its millions of visitors a profound and emotional experience each year.“
Initiated by the Swedish amusement park Liseberg in 1980, the Applause Award has been made on an biannual basis ever since. Previous winners include Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Opryland, EPCOT, Knott ́s Berry Farm, Europa-Park, Efteling, Universal Studios Florida, Cedar Point, Silver Dollar City, Hersheypark, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, Islands of Adventure, Xetulul, Dollywood, and Ocean Park (Hong Kong).
Judges on this occasion comprised Andreas Andersen (Liseberg), Bob Masterson (Golden Planet Leisure), Peter Herschend (Herschend Family Entertainment), Sascha N Czibulka (Intamin), Tim O ́Brien (Ripley Entertainment), Amanda Thompson (Blackpool Pleasure Beach), Ira West (Ira West Inc), John Wood (Sally Corp) and Michael Mack (Europa-Park).