Parklife: Bobbejaanland, Belgium
Among the most well-known theme park names in the industry in Europe is Bobbejaanland in Belgium, founded in 1959 by the professional musician Bobbejaan Schoepen.
Born in 1925 as the son of a blacksmith, Schoepen occasionally helped his father in the forge and it was this that brought about his passion for horses and everything that went with them. As a young boy, he dreamed of a career as a singer and when he was given his first guitar he began writing and composing songs during his spare time.
In 1947 he released his first record and from then on he produced one ‘evergreen’ after another. His international break came in the 1950s and he became a famous artist around Europe, the UK, the US and many other countries.
Having toured for many years, he increasingly wanted a place that he could call ‘home’ and in 1959 Schoepen bought a marshy estate in Lichtaart where, after much hard work, he built a theatre in which he put on shows for fans in his native Belgium.
He also created a beach area which soon became an attraction in the locality and gradually over time Bobbejaanland developed from being a park where everything revolved around the shows and water recreation to a major leisure park venue.
From 1975 onwards the development of the park moved towards it becoming a fully fledged theme park attraction, with the music shows being a part of the overall offering.
Some of the larger rides and attractions added over the years included a Giant Wheel in 1976, a Looping Star coaster from Schwarzkopf in 1979 (sold in 2003), the Wildwaterbaan in 1980, the Air Race suspended coaster from Vekoma in 1987, now renamed Dreamcatcher, the Revolution enclosed roller coaster in 1989, now named (R)Evolution, also from Vekoma, the Indiana River indoor flume ride in 1991 and the Speedy Bob coaster from Mack Rides in 1999.
Schoepen was primarily a folk and country singer and this fact was reflected in much of the theming and decor that could be found in the park – indeed a section of the venue and some attractions are still partly themed as a western village, such as the El Rio with water rapids and the El Paso dark ride.
And one of the most endearing sights for visitors over the years has been that of Schoepen driving through the park in his white, ‘arty,’ Pontiac car decorated with American coins and two horns on the front of the bonnet! He considered the car a particularly effective and very much talked about element of all the park’s attractions.
By the early 1990s, Schoepen and his wife José, who played a key role in the park’s success on the commercial side of the business, had been joined in the running of the park by three of their five children. Over the ensuing years further attractions were added as investment continued and in 2004 three new rides were announced.
These included the Okidoki from Vekoma, at the time the longest junior roller coaster in the world, along with the world’s second Euro-Fighter coaster from Gerstlauer, the Typhoon, featuring a drop of 25m at an angle of 97 degrees and at a speed of 50mph.
The ride also features a loop almost 20m high, as well as a double corkscrew and another inversion. The Sledgehammer from Huss was also introduced, Bobbejaanland being the first European park to install this impressive attraction. The total investment for the three new rides was over €9m, while a further €1.5m was invested elsewhere in the park.
2004 was a hugely significant year in the park’s history for another reason too, for it was when the decision was taken by Bobbejaan Schoepen and his family to sell the park after 44 years of ownership.
The new owner was Parques Reunidos, a major player in the Spanish leisure park and animal park sector, which today also has within its group a wide range of attraction venues around Europe, including theme parks, water parks, animal parks and funicular railways.
Not surprisingly, with a new owner came new plans for the future and further investment.
In 2006, Bobbejaanland ‘returned to its roots’ with the introduction of Desperado City, an interactive virtual reality game played by up to 60 ‘cowboys and cowgirls’ seated on pseudo horses and with a pistol in hand to shoot at targets on an animated film that plays in front of them.
The attraction was, at the time of installation, a world premiere from Belgian multi-media company Alterface, now well-known for its excellent interactive attractions.
In the same year the Air Race coaster was transformed into the Dreamcatcher, with new floorless trains and a total investment of €2m, while new shows also came to the park.
The Bobbejaanland Horse Show features stallions and mares performing daring stunts while the Starlight Show is a 30-minute live show featuring a magical mix of song, dance and stunts and international artists who perform their act under breathtaking lighting effects. Both shows are typically Bobbejaanland and add to the park’s feeling of uniqueness and a return to its roots.
In 2008, the big news was the introduction of the Banana Battle water ride, a Splash Batter attraction from 3DBA/Preston & Barbieri, while to come right up to date, the highlight for 2012 is a new horse show, The Secret Diary of Jane Parker, featuring Anne Van Opstal, a young, up and coming musical star from Turnhout, and the Italian Togni Family, in a song and dance show full of humour and competition in which the audience also plays an important role, while further investment is being made to add more fun and entertainment.
The first steps are also being taken to improve the visitor entrance to the park and a new sound system will allow visitors to hear music that matches the different zones and themes in the park as they move around.
Having made a significant investment in 2011 with the installation of Dizz, a spinning coaster from Maurer Sohne, as well as new souvenir shops and the restyling of the park mascot, Bobbbie, recently appointed managing director Roland Kleve also noted that the festivities organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the park were a huge hit. As a result, the decision was taken to reintroduce a show and entertainment programme to the park.
"Our visitors clearly enjoyed the additional shows and the entertainment that we organised on the occasion of this anniversary," he said. "It confirmed our opinion that people don’t always want bigger, higher and faster. As a family park we wish to honour Bobbejaan Schoepen’s values, in a contemporary way. Bobbejaan Schoepen was an entertainer who believed in a good show and we will be introducing this aspect at Bobbejaanland again."
In addition to the new horse show, which is the main attraction this year, Bobbejaanland has also brought back street entertainment at various places around the park as well as adding a new 4D film, Yogi Bear, in which the hungry bear goes on an adventure in Yellow Stone Park as he seeks out a meal from tourists. A host of special events and days being held throughout the season, such as USA Cars and Coasters, Gameland and Halloween Holidays, add still further to the entertainment on offer.
As well as providing a fun-filled day out for families, Bobbejaanland also promotes very strongly to the corporate sector and offers a variety of packages to suit all kinds of requirements.
From customer incentives and team building events to company parties and western barbecues, the park has a comprehensive corporate offer that continues to grown and is an important element of the business.
Currently, Bobbejaanland attracts between 750,000 and 800,000 visitors annually who are looked after by approximately 250 employees during the high season period, both full time and seasonal. The 2012 season runs from March 31 to November 4.
The decision to sell the park to Parques Reunidos in 2004 clearly marked the end of an era as another of the world’s family owned and run parks became part of a larger, corporate entity.
Happily, however, the park lives on under its founding name and as Kleve says, continues to honour its founder’s values. Bobbejaan Schoepen died in May 2010 having entertained millions of people with his music and having created a place of fun and entertainment in his own, inimitable style, in Bobbejaanland.
Long may his values continue to be held as the park moves forward in the future with a focus, for the next couple of years at least, on shows and entertainment for the whole family.