REVIEW: Plopsaland De Panne

In a recent post I wrote about Disney’s business model I mentioned Steve Van Den Kerkhof the CEO of Plopsa Group, whose business is probably one that resembles the most Disney’s. The group’s 5 theme parks are all based on IP’s from their own Studio 100. So I decided to spend a couple of days in Belgium to visit Plopsaland De Panne during my recent trip to Europe.

I reach Plopsaland De Panne on Boxing Day after a 3-hour drive from Paris. Elke and Nick take me on a full tour of what is probably the best park I have been to after Walt Disney World in Orlando. Since recently the park remains open over Christmas and it works (the park hosted 9,000 guests on the day of my visit). The pricing structure is very simple: a single price for anyone above 1m!

We start with Mayaland Indoor, which spreads over one full side of the main square. This 5,000sqm area was added recently at a cost of EUR 8 million and revolves entirely around the Maya the Bee IP acquired by Studio 100 in 2008. The theming is superb and the attractions mix felt just right. My personal favorite is the giant tree house combined with a toboggan dropping kids straight into a pollen yellow ball pool and also the potato sack racing slide, which adults seem to enjoy as much as kids. The slightly elevated café is popular with parents having a drink while keeping an eye on their kids.

Mayaland Indoor

Mayaland Indoor

Ball Bath

Potato Sack Racing Slide

Then we start walking around the park and Nick tells me that the park used to called Meli-Park from 1936 to 2000 before Studio 100 acquired it, which probably explains why the landscape is so nice (even in the middle of winter). The old petting farm remains but is now home of the local Big & Betsy IP; the whole thing is very cute and works very well.

Petting Farm

The Plop the Gnome dark ride is my favorite. We embark on a boat journey through the magical world of this super famous local series. The ride, which opened in 2000, is very well maintained with great lighting and a multitude of simple animatronics and gives a memorable experience even for someone who is not familiar with the series.

Next is the brand new Vic the Viking land (EUR 5.5 million), which is another great example of very successfully themed area around one of the IP’s acquired by Studio 100. I don’t know where to start because everything is just perfect, from the facades to the placement of the Big Wave ride above the gate to the land, the Wickie The Battle ride, the retail, etc.

Vic the Viking

Vic the Viking

We quickly pass through the Pirates zone, home of the very good Anubis ride (with a surprising twist, which I won’t reveal here) and a classic flume ride. I get to have a glimpse at one of the many meet & greets the park is famous for.

And now we’re back in the central square buzzing with life on this cold winter day with an ice-skating rink, a bone fire, a Coke mirror palace and a Santa picture taking stage.

Ice Skating Rink

Bone Fire

It’s almost time for the night parade but before I must visit the giant retail outlet on the central square to buy some of the amazing merchandise (it’s on par with Disney, really!) and make my nephews happy!

Retail

I already said it but I will repeat it, Plopsaland is one of the best parks I have been to and I believe it is for the same reason Disney parks are so good too: the integration of rich IP into every aspects of the parks materialized by beautifully executed theming, superior merchandising, roving mascots and that magical feel of visiting someone’s ‘land’.

Hats off to Steve and his team for transforming an old amusement park into what is for me a new benchmark for mid-size parks.

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I love this infographics #disneygenius

It was not until my first visit of Walt Disney World in Orlando last year that I realized Disney’s genius. I was born when the Disney empire was already big and I always took it for granted. Even when I started working in the industry I would look at Disney as an industry mammoth and wouldn’t pay too much attention to what they were doing (it doesn’t help that I was born in Paris and then lived in Hong Kong, where Disney operates two of its less successful parks). But that day when I raced like a kid through Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, everything changed; I was struck by the Disney magic. And this priceless infographics from 1957 I just stumbled across explains why…

Disney is a machine and it all revolves around “Creative Talent”. On this chart Walt Disney Studio is in the heart of the business and provides material for comic books, characters for merchandise licensing, art for record jackets and rides for theme parks. As me know creativity is sometimes difficult to get in Asia (and particularly in China), but for Disney this is what got the empire started. It is in their DNA and transpires in everything they do. The recent example of Frozen is quite relevant. After so many years of making princess stories Disney is still able to take the whole world by surprise with a completely new approach (from Creative Talent), which now impacts the entire business, from merchandise licensing to theme parks and music.

Disney’s genius is also in how the different businesses are interconnected to each others, be it theme parks providing customers for TV commercials or TV plugging theme parks. Although not entirely relevant in 2014 one can see that it can easily be applied to Disney’s new businesses such as digital, PIXAR, etc. Because this runs in their veins since the 50’s, Disney knows better than anyone else how to create these synergies.

I like that Disney calls its production “Theatrical Films”. To me it says a lot about the intent of their content to be very staged and highly entertaining. Theatre plays are based on strong plots with rich characters and this is essentially what has made Disney’s success over the years, from Snow White to Frozen.

When I look at our industry today I don’t see anyone capable of applying this model, and certainly not in China despite what Wanda and all its followers are saying about their cultural tourism city model relying on their own IP and content. One exception though could come from a small town in Belgium, at the border of my home country, where Steve Van Den Kerkhof has been slowly building the Plopsa Group based on a strong synergy between Studio 100 animation studios and Plopsa theme parks. I am off to De Panne soon to check it out. Stay tuned.