Searching for the right way to spend day out with the kids can strike fear to the hearts of even the bravest of parents.
The glossy advertising images of families in the throes near ecstatic joy never quite compare to the reality of long queues and overpriced, unhealthy food – never mind the guys pushing you to buy a ‘souvenir’ from the park on your way out.
Living in provincial Sweden, it was a bit of a shock to see so many cars in one place as we arrive at Astrid Lindgren’s World in Vimmerby, Småland.
Located just half a kilometre from the farm where Astrid Lindgren grew up, the park remains extremely popular and is consistently voted Best Theme Park.
For nearly 30 years it has tried to bring to life the characters and stories of Sweden’s best known and most well loved children’s author.
As we arrive, however, we realize that ‘someone’ has left our packed lunch, lovingly prepared the evening before, in the fridge.
While the traffic heading to the park eventually moves along, the argument about that packed lunch lingers on for another hour. Not a promising start to the day.
Luckily, the high number of visitors is well managed and we are soon through the gates.
I had heard that the park prides itself on its live shows and improvisation, but nothing prepared me for what amounts to a experiencing a total immersion into Lindgren’s imagination.
Our first stop is Katthult, home to Emil, the mischievous blond boy who is one of Lindgren’s most popular characters.
We watch a scene unfold in which Emil gets a soup bowl stuck on his head, and then breaks out into song, prodding everybody to join the chorus.
But then the real magic takes place, as characters invite audience members to meet them and have a look round the house.
And this is not your typical, tacky, theme park meet and greet.
Rather, the public is literally invited into Emil’s world – to look at the sheep, sit on the steps and chat with him and his mates.
We even get to play a game of ‘under hönans vingar kom’ (a chase game like British Bulldogs).
This is theatre in the least rigid setting imaginable, where the audience steps through the ‘fourth wall’ and becomes part of the story. The kids are not only able to physically touch the heroes from their favourite books, but are even encouraged to partake in a bit of mischief themselves.
The starting point for everything that happens at the park is: What would Astrid Lindgren have done?
When she was alive, Lindgren was Sweden’s unofficial ambassador for childhood. Her stories contain some kind of magical alchemy that enthralls the reader, and demonstrate an innate understanding of children’s desire to play and break the rules, typified by the iconic Pippi Longstocking.
The park makes a conscious effort to shun commercialism, with every detail of the park approved by a committee made up of the Lindgren’s descendants and authors and editors who knew her. They receive no income from the park and are therefore not motivated by profit.
“We sell GB brand ice cream and Pepsi, but we cover up all their branding on the fridges and freezers and they are sold in our own cups,” explains Nils-Magnus Angantyr, the park’s head of marketing.
“We decided a few years ago not to sell hamburgers at the park. We still sell sausages, but that’s because they are so loved by the likes of Pippi and Emil.”
Angantyr adds that most of the food is made onsite, using as many organic ingredients as possible. And having some food available for purchase is important…especially when ‘someone’ forgets to bring lunch.
Of course, the main attraction isn’t the food – it’s Pippi, who performs a proper show, and also encourages kids to dance, sing, climb or go wherever her childish anarchism takes her.
The performance is great, with more than 100 professional actors playing several roles. The shows are all in Swedish, although many of the actors slip into English when improvising.
“It is incredibly hard work, we perform in rain or sun, eight hours per day. But it’s fun to work with such a good gang of actors”, says actor Lasso Jonson, who plays the elderly bandit Skalle-Per in the story of Ronja Rövardotter.
The key to it all is the simplicity. No gadgets, no gizmos, no flashing lights, just a spark to ignite the imagination.
As we prepare to depart, I reflect on how I to measure the success of our day.
As a parent, I feel the day exceeded my expectations in terms of fun, entertainment and value for money.
But the day isn’t about what I think. What matters is how the kids are feeling.
A glance in the back seat as we pull out of the parking area reveals one child asleep, exhausted after spending a day with his heroes. The other is just elated, singing, clapping, and shouting “Pippi!”
Yes, I think they had a good time too…even if ‘someone’ forgot to bring lunch.
Click here to visit The Local’s photo gallery of images from Astrid’s Lindgren’s World.
Ben Kersley (www.speakup.se) moved to Sweden in the summer of 2006 and is also Sweden’s only Swinglish stand up comedian.