Ordinarily, the sight of a 39-year-old woman riding a carousel by herself – on a life-size fake camel no less – might be met with derision. At Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, it’s welcomed by smiles. Because during the holiday season here, it’s all about embracing merriment, whatever that means to you. (Either that or Danes have excellent poker faces.)
Located directly across from the central station, Tivoli is the second-oldest amusement park in the world, dating back to 1843. It’s a year-round attraction, but from mid-November to Dec. 31, it outdoes itself with one million lights, 70,000 Christmas balls, 1,000 decorated fir trees, 32 rides and 50 merchants waiting to entertaining the approximately a million guests who will visit in those few weeks.
Tivoli Gardens can hardly be called a hidden gem. It turns 175 this year, served as the inspiration for Disneyland and, with 4.6 million visitors in 2017, was the fifth most-visited theme park in Europe. But it is off the radar for most Canadians, which is a shame because if its protégé is the happiest place on Earth, Tivoli in December isn’t far behind.
An unusual mix of pleasure garden and fairground, it is what I imagine Santa’s North Pole workshop to look like if he decided to open it up to the public and pursue additional revenue streams. “Listen elves, we’ve got more than enough wood cabins overflowing with toys. What we need are a few roller coasters, some bumper cars and lots of glogg for the adults.” I love it.
To enter the park is to be instantly overstimulated: Everywhere you look, there are things to do, eat, buy and ogle. It’s best to start with the simplest of pleasures and walk around to get a feel for the surprisingly large park (8.3 hectares), loosely divided into themed areas. As dusk falls and the lights start to glow, it begins to feel like a fairy tale come to life.
Fitting, since this is the land of Hans Christian Andersen. The Flying Trunk, one of the gentler rides, takes readers on a journey through 32 of the writer’s famous stories (and since this is Europe, not Disney, the Little Mermaid figure is topless). Other low-key thrills include multiple carousels (the one with the camel also boasts a large giraffe), a Ferris wheel where each basket is designed to look like a hot-air balloon (take your camera to score fantastic aerial shots of the glittering grounds below at dusk) and an elf train that choo-choo-choos through a wintry wonderland.
Big kids and adults can brave the usual assortment of spinning, rotating contraptions along with roller coasters of varying intensity (FYI the Odin Express, which seems pleasant enough at first, goes around the track three times). The most extreme thrill is the virtual-reality version of the Demon, a triple-looping coaster that reaches a height of 28 metres above ground. For an additional charge, you can ride it wearing VR goggles, which means you have no idea when the upside-down bits are coming as you watch dragons fly around you. (I haven’t decided whether this is better or worse.)
But strip away all the gimmicks and what’s left is just as breathtaking. Glowing archways turn simple pathways into romantic strolls. The Moorish Nimb hotel dazzles with seemingly every inch covered with bulbs. One large leafless tree woos the crowd with dozens of glowing red hearts hanging from its naked branches. A wee model train rides along a track, making everyone around it feel like giants. And each night the Tivoli Christmas illuminations lights up the lake with lasers, lights, fire and smoke to music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
Those in search of a little hygge – a Danish term typically translated as “coziness” – can take a seat at one of the many lakeside candlelit restaurants, enjoy some glogg (mulled wine) on a sheepskin-covered outdoor bench or warm their hands over a brazier of glowing coals (just keep an eye on grabby little kid hands). Market stalls sell every form of cuddly knitwear, Scandi-style decorations (like Ikea, but nicer) and other local tchotchke. The Little Tivoli shop is a standout, selling high-end, well-designed housewares, ornaments and art based on the history of the park.
And last but not certainly not least, Santa has flown in from Greenland for photos and gift requests. Might I suggest flights to Copenhagen?
Christmas in Tivoli, now celebrating its 25th year, runs daily until Dec. 31. Admission prices start at 110 DKK ($22) or 50 DKK ($10) for children 8 and under and do not include rides.