Fons Jurgens, CEO of the Efteling, can finally continue with the plagued expansion

The Efteling was already one of the largest amusement parks in Europe, but under director Fons Jurgens it has to become much bigger. Now that a legal battle with concerned local residents has been won, corona is a cause for concern.

‘What I try to pass on is to keep seeing faces. You tend to only look at the stream of people that comes towards you,” said Fons Jurgens, director of Efteling, in 2018 AD. “At times when it is very busy, I still cooperate in the park if I have the opportunity.”

Jurgens likes to emphasize that he is not a distant top executive who only has an eye for spreadsheets. He had therefore been employed by Efteling for more than twenty years when he was appointed director in 2014. These were mainly management positions, although he also worked on the production of several musicals in the Efteling Theater, for example.

He likes to present himself as the usual team player, who trained a few years ago in the Fairytale Forest of his park for a running competition that raised money for Make-A-Wish. And who doesn’t really like roller coasters at all. But he is carrying out an ambitious mission.

Since he started working there, he has seen the number of visitors double, to more than 5 million in 2019, and Efteling has grown into a park with international allure. It is not enough: if Efteling wants to remain one of the top Europeans, it is the idea that growth to 7 million visitors per year is needed by 2030. On Wednesday, the Council of State gave the green light for the major expansion plans.

Jurgens 51 years old, married, three children − is the owner of one of the largest and oldest amusement parks in Europe. Only Disneyland Paris and Europa-Park in Germany receive more visitors than its amusement park in Kaatsheuvel.

Attractions such as the Python and the Hollebolle Gijs wastebasket may be iconic, but they are not enough. New attractions and places to stay should appear in places where there are still meadows. To cope with all the extra visitors, the road network in the area has to be expanded and considerably more parking spaces are needed. In 2018, the municipality of Loon op Zand, which includes Kaatsheuvel, agreed to the plans.

Fear of nuisance

Local residents put the first spoke in the wheel. For fear of visibility, noise and traffic nuisance, among other things, they went to the Council of State. The highest administrative court in the Netherlands canceled the zoning plan in 2020: it had not been worked out concretely enough and was insufficiently substantiated.

A ‘huge disappointment’, Jurgens reacted. According to him, the wishes of local residents had been extensively discussed and taken into account. For example, the plan for a multi-storey car park had already been scrapped.

The park and the municipalities then made some concessions to the local residents a controversial motorhome parking space will not be there after all − and wrote a more extensively substantiated plan. For example, it is now clear on paper that part of the new attractions will be completely covered, which should limit nuisance in the area.

There were no new objections from local residents and on Wednesday the Council of State gave the green light: the plan can continue. Efteling is ‘extremely happy with this’, a spokesperson said. However, the shovel cannot go straight into the ground, because a second setback has now presented itself: the corona crisis.

Corona crisis

That has plunged the park deep into the red. In 2020, the visit halved as a result of the corona measures. The park lost 14.5 million euros, without millions in government support, that amount would have been much higher.

In an interview with the Brabants Dagblad Jurgens said last year that he has something else on his mind than the expansion. Efteling was forced to fire twenty people who were responsible for the rental of rooms for business events. ‘To suddenly make a large investment on the other hand, doesn’t feel right.’

He has been awake because of the financial problems, he told the same newspaper a few months later. “We can bear the loss, but we still look to the coming months with fear and trembling.”

The future is now looking a little brighter. The Efteling was allowed to reopen in mid-May, after being closed for months. First only the outdoor attractions, from next Saturday also the indoor attractions. Now that the long-term ambitions have not been shot down by the judge, Jurgens can look ahead again.

Because although Efteling will first stick to investments within the existing park, such as much-needed maintenance, the ambitions for 2030 have not been adjusted, the park says. ‘The great thing about such a long-term plan is that you can adjust what you do and when.’

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