21:04 / 9. januar 2014
Tivoli Gardens, Denmark

Tivoli is a magical place. I know that’s what every theme park in the world wants you to think about their theme park, but in the case of Tivoli, I think there is some truth to it.

Situated slap bang in the middle of Copenhagen, Tivoli is part of the city. The screams of teenage girls on fast rides can be heard for miles around, along with the rattles of the rollercoasters and the smell of the hot-dogs and pop-corn. And Christmas is the time that Tivoli is in its element, when the fantasy comes alive.

Opened in 1843, Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world – the oldest, established in 1583, is Dyrehavsbakken, about 10km north of Tivoli. And you wonder why Danes are consistently found to have the happiest, best quality of life in the world? Amusement parks! Seriously, build a couple of amusement parks in Afghanistan, wait 2-300 years, bingo, problem solved. Back in the 1830′s, Tivolis founder, Georg Carstensen, obtained a five-year charter to create Tivoli by telling King Christian VIII that “when the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics”. I guess people were easily distracted in those days. Tivoli was a success right from the beginning; filled with unusual buildings inspired by the orient, mechanical rides, Italian theatre and pantomime, lights and fireworks, Tivoli was at once exotic and magical, a fantasy land for the 19th century. And Tivoli has kept that charm alive, moving with the times yet refusing to be modernised. According to Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge and sloppy journalism (ahem):

“As Georg Carstensen said in 1844, “Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished,” a sentiment echoed just over a century later when Walt Disney said of his own Tivoli-inspired theme park, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Walt Disney during a trip overseas with his wife Lilly visited Tivoli Gardens. Walt was so impressed with the Danish amusement park, he immediately decided Disneyland should try to emulate its “happy and unbuttoned air of relaxed fun.””

The best known ride in Tivoli is the wooden roller coaster “Rutschebanen”, one of the oldest running roller coasters in the world, opened in 1914 – so next year will be its 100th birthday. I was lucky enough to get a private ride on it, only afterwards being told that the guy driving had the record for derailing the train more than anyone else in its history (the driver sits in the middle and brakes for the corners – there is a wall of shame that gets added to every time it is derailed.) Apart from rides, Tivoli is home to concert halls and restaurants – some very good ones actually – so the park is used just as much by the local population as it is tourists. Oh, and it also has the smallest fire station in Denmark – look out for the picture below.

My guide for the day at Tivoli, Ellen, has been working at Tivoli for 30 odd years. She took me backstage to the workshops where they fix the rides, behind the scenes at the theater, and let me have private rides on the roller coasters. So I met some people along the way, and despite the inevitable younger seasonal workers, the vast majority of those I met had been working at Tivoli for many years – and that was where I saw the magic. People smiled at each other, they seemed to be having fun, and they seemed to appreciate that they worked in this fantasy land every day, and that they were bringing a bit of enchantment and history to the people who visited. Here’s to the next 170 years.