It’s a theme park without a single ride, that eschews thrills and consumerism in the search for a deeper connection with its visitors. The second most visited attraction in France after Disneyland Paris, Puy du Fou tells historical stories via spectacular shows with special effects and casts of thousands, and it’s been wowing visitors since it opened in 1989.
It’s also been going global, with the recent launch of Puy du Fou España in March, big plans for China, and ambitious long-term goals.
“We want to become a global company,” says Nicolas de Villiers, president of Puy du Fou and the son of its founder Philippe de Villiers.
“What we offer is different. At a normal theme park, you’re put on a ride which makes you move – it’s fun, but it’s just a sensation which connects with your body rather than your soul. We want to build on emotion by talking to your soul.”
Puy du Fou started life in 1977, when Philippe de Villiers discovered the remains of a ruined castle in the village of Les Epesses in the Loire Valley. He wrote a script based on the history of the Vendee region of western France, and recruited several hundred volunteers – or Puyfolais – to perform it. The Cinéscénie night-time performance attracted thousands of people every year, and in 1989, the Puyfolais decided to launch Puy du Fou’s Grand Parc all-day attraction in order to capitalise on its success.
Today, Puy du Fou features four historic French villages – including a medieval city with mud walls and ramparts and a Roman chapel – where visitors can wander the streets, visit shops featuring artisans at work and enjoy historically appropriate meals and snacks. The park still hosts the Cinéscénie at night during the season, now performed by 2,550 actors and featuring animals, horses, fireworks and dramatic special effects, as well as several other historical shows, all set in 50 hectares of woodlands and gardens.
For a long time, the team focused on France, but around 10 years ago, they began to receive an increasing number of enquiries from people around the world asking them to help create a Puy du Fou in their own countries. Puy du Fou International was set up in 2010, and the team created the Raveleijn show for Dutch theme park Efteling, which launched in 2013.
In 2016, Puy du Fou collaborated with UK charity 11 Arches to create Kynren, an open air spectacular telling the story of 2,000 years of British history in County Durham.
Next came Spain, with the 2019 launch of the El Sueño de Toledo show in Toledo. It was a success, attracting more than 120,000 spectators in 2019 and 2020, with the first show of 2020 dedicated to the healthcare workers of Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha.
This year, at the end of March 2021, the 30 hectare Puy du Fou España park launched on the outskirts of Toledo (around an hour from Madrid). The park features four period villages, including a Moorish camp and a medieval market with stallholders preparing traditional food, and four spectacular daytime shows that lead visitors through Spanish history. The park also features 10 themed restaurant and food outlets, where visitors can buy authentic Spanish food.
“We’ve had to limit attendance numbers [because of COVID-19 restrictions], but we’ve had a very good start,” says de Villiers. “Attendance is growing week after week, booking is very good. The most important thing for us is that people are very happy with the shows and the experience. We carry out surveys every week so we know what people think, and they love what they see.”
The four shows include an immersive experience which sees visitors set sail with Christopher Columbus; a swashbuckling adventure featuring Spain’s Golden Age poet, Lope de Vega; and a dramatic telling of the story of Castilian medieval knight ‘El Cid’ (Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar). They feature impressive sets, dramatic stunts, trained falcons, and a series of special effects.
How did the team decide which stories to tell in Puy du Fou España, I ask. “We consulted with historians, journalists and people from the world of culture in Spain – these people brought us knowledge, stories, themes and the spirit and soul of the Spanish,” says de Villiers.
“We speak to these people, we read a lot – they help us to choose the right books – and then we slowly leave the historians and take the theme and write our own script. We’re not historians, we’re storytellers; the vision is to create a show not just based on local history but also on new concepts that will surprise the visitor – even those who have been to Puy du Fou and experienced our shows.
“Before we start to create a show, we ask ourselves two questions. Firstly, is there a story? Secondly, how do we want to tell the story? If we have a story, and we have some good ideas for how to tell it, then we have a show.”
One of the highlights of Puy du Fou España is the immersive journey with Christopher Columbus. “It’s an amazing show,” says de Villiers. “We created the ship with Oscar-winning set designer Pilar Revuelta; we use machinery and special effects to make the boat move and create the atmosphere and sounds and feel of the ship on the water. We have actors playing the marines and Columbus, and they speak directly to the audience. It gives the visitor the opportunity to really feel what marines on board that ship would have felt.”
The next target market is China. In May 2021, Puy du Fou announced it would launch a new show in Shanghai, inspired by Chinese legends.
Called SAGA, the two hour live action show will feature actors, and will allow visitors to choose their own adventures in 1930s Shanghai.
The Everbright Convention & Exhibition Centre will be transformed to deliver the experience, with 40,000sq m of space being repurposed for the show and associated themed restaurant and bars.
Puy du Fou is partnering with CYTS, the tourism subsidiary of the Everbright Group and Shanghai Xuhui Urban Renewal Investment Development Group – the investment company of the Xuhui district in the city of Shanghai – to deliver the project and de Villiers says: “The signing of this agreement has made it possible to create SAGA Shanghai, with a total investment of €76m.
“If you want to conquer the world, you have to go to China, it’s such a huge market,” he says. “The first step is to prove that we can create shows that will touch the hearts of Chinese audiences. The next step will be to open a park, featuring several shows.
“We know we’re looking for a location which is very green, immersed in nature; famous because of its heritage and the beauty of the place.”
While the pandemic led to the closure of the French park and delays to the opening of Puy du Fou España, it gave de Villiers breathing space to explore new opportunities.
“We had two options – either to be caught by the crisis and paralysed by fear, or use it as an opportunity,” he says. “What I did was take my time. I worked for a year on new projects and new ideas I’d wanted to develop ‘one day’.
“I sped up the Chinese opportunities. I’m also working on a Puy du Fou movie production – we need a digital gateway. In the future, people need to be able to see Puy du Fou on their phones; that way, my vision will exist in their brains.”
De Villiers’ ambitions are to have four full parks by 2030 – in France, Spain, China, and one other country. “We’re talking to several interested countries at the moment – it could be in Europe, it could be somewhere on the American continent. It’s too early to say,” he says.
I finish by asking de Villiers for the secret of Puy du Fou’s success. What makes it unique?
“It’s all about the way you take the hand of the visitor to bring them into the story you want to tell,” he says. “Stories must always be a surprise and a journey.”