What happens if you combine the IP of Belgium’s most popular children’s tv-shows with Belgium’s most famous comics figures in one single park? That is what we can find out in Antwerp! The 23rd of October marked the grand opening of Plopsa Station Antwerp, the seventh theme park of the Plopsa group. The park is located inside the Central train station of Antwerp, on the site of the former Comics Station which existed from 2017 to 2019. The rides in Comics Station were based on well-known comic figures originating from Belgium, such as The Smurfs and Lucky Luke. The new Plopsa Station Antwerp integrates these figures into the line-up of Plopsa figures, such as Vic the Viking and Bumba, combining both IP’s into one park. Team DRdb visited the brand new park on October 30th, especially to check out the local dark ride.
Arriving at the Plopsa Station can hardly be easier, as the park is located inside Antwerp’s main station, right next to the monumental station building. The site was originally meant to become a terminal for international train travelers, but it was never put into function. That was until 2013, when the idea of the Comics Station arose. The idea came from Wim Hubrechtsen, Jeroen Jespers and Mark Kiekens, who thought of starting a theme park dedicated to world-famous Belgian comics figures. The idea was well-received by the Belgian Railways, who made an arrangement on the use of the empty space within a week. The idea of Comics Station was born.
With the idea set and the location agreed, various comics publishers were approached to agree on the use of their comics IP for the new park. Agreements were made on the use of Suske en Wiske (known as Spike and Suzy in English), Urbanus, Kiekeboes, Jommeke, Lucky Luke and The Smurfs. One of the publishers, Standaard/WPG, even agreed to take 33% of the park’s shares. French designer Julien Bertevas was added to the project team to make the concepts of the park. He is credited for most of the graphic designs of the park, including several rides. Construction of the park within the 32-meter high space started in 2016, with a total cost estimate of 12.5 million euros. Eventually Comics Station was opened to the public in April 2017.
Comics Station was divided over four floors. Visitors would enter the park on level A (the ground floor of the station). There were no rides on this level, but only a restaurant, gift shop and entrance and exit of the park. Visitors would descend on to level B right away. On this level guests could ride the Maxi Twist and Mega Twist slides, the latter of the two used to be the highest slide in Europe, bringing sliders all the way down to level D.
Larger rides could be found on Level C. This is where we could find “Tijdreizen met Suske en Wiske” (Time travel with Spike and Suzy), a large escape room, and interactive dark ride “Het Magische Bos” (Magical Forest) featuring The Smurfs. Between these two rides was a Lucky Luke-realm, featuring interactive theatre “Lucky Luke Express” and 4D cinema “Comics Theatre”. Both these rides did not include a ride system using moving seats, which meant they did not qualify as show ride for the Dark Ride Database.
At the bottom of Comics Station, visitors could explore Level D, with Funhouse “Tollembeek Centraal” (based on the Urbanus comics) and Jommekes “Vliegende Bol”, a flying saucers ride. This level also featured the mini-free fall “Op Bezoek bij de Kiekeboes” (Visiting the Kiekeboes), which was extensively themed and qualified as dark ride. Between all these rides were several smaller rides and experiences, playground equipment and video screens with interactive games, making a total of over 30 attractions.
Despite all promising ideas, Comics Station did not manage to operate in a profitable way. After a general loss of 2.7 million euros in 2018, shareholders decided to start looking for a new owner to take over the park’s operations. The process did not result in a final agreement with the potential buyers, among which the Plopsa Group, and Comics Station inevitably was forced to cease operations in the summer of 2019. After a few months of silence, the Plopsa group announced the purchase of the closed park in December 2019. Initially Plopsa had planned to reopen the park within a few months with only small modifications. However, the group decided to take more time for a thorough renovation of the park to improve the atmosphere and to integrate new rides.
A visit to Plopsa Station Antwerp
After a closure of almost two years and a total investment of 6 million euros, the new Plopsa Station Antwerp officially opened on October 23rd. “This weekend marks our testopening,” according to Plopsa-CEO Steve van den Kerkhof. “We close the park for the next week for more fine-tuning. From the 30th of October we will start our continuous operation. We expect to receive 200.000 to 250.000 visitors per year.”
A week after the official opening, Team DRdb took the train to Antwerp to discover this new Plopsa theme park. After arriving at the train station, the advertisements for the park hanging throughout the entire station can not be missed. Following the signs, we make our way to the back of the station where the entrance of Plopsa Station Antwerp is located. Coming closer to the park’s entrance, the screams of children riding some of the rides attract train travellers to peek down into the park.
The park still uses the same lay-out consisting of four levels. We buy our tickets at the small cash desk on level A, at the same level as the ground floor of the train station. From here we go down an escalator to enter the first area of Plopsa Station, located on level B. This part is still visible from the train station and still has a bit of the train station atmosphere around it. In the Comics Station-days, this part was not used by the park but served as entrance plaza. Now, two flatrides can be found here: a small frisbee ride and a jump-around carousel, both decorated after Plopsa-figures.
After passing along these two rides, walking deeper into the park, we enter the main gift shop. Here, you leave the sight of the train station, lights start to dim and you get into the atmosphere of the Plopsa Station. The shop is highly decorated and sells items related to every imaginable Plopsa IP, along with items related to the comics that can still be found in the park. In the back of the shop two more carousel rides can be found, themed after Plopsa figures. From here you can also peek down the hemispherical central hall, to take a first look at the two levels awaiting us further down. The eye-catcher slides, which used to start from this point, were removed to create a larger open space to look down to levels C and D.
Next to the gift shop we can choose between an escalator taking us up to the restaurant, or one that takes us down further into the park. The restaurant is located on a seperate part of level A which is not directly linked to the entrance. The other functions that used to be at level A back in the Comics Station-days, such as the gift shop, have been transformed into offices which makes the restaurant the only attraction in this area.
Since we are not hungry yet, we decided to take the escalator down to level C. After a turn along a small part scarcely decorated with paintings, we enter the balcony around the central hall. Here we find the former escape room themed after Spike & Suzy, which will be replaced by a different ride that opens to the public by the end of 2021. Two of the original rides that remain on this level are the Lucky Luke interactive theater and the dark ride revolving around The Smurfs. The interactive theater has not been changed and still does not qualify as listing in the Dark Ride Database, but nevertheless remains a challenging family ride with an interactive system by Alterface. Just like the Lucky Luke ride, the Smurfs dark ride has hardly changed since the Comics Station era, as we will describe later in this article.
From level C we take the final stairs down to the bottom of the central hall at level D. This level still includes two of the original Comics Station rides: the fun house and the mini-free fall. The flying saucers ride has been removed to make room for a soft play area themed after Maya the Bee. The funhouse remained unchanged, but the mini-free fall tower has been rethemed after Vic the Viking. We will later discuss that ride in more detail. Now that we reached the last level, we have made our trip around Plopsa Station Antwerp. Time to sit down and have drink, before we take a closer look at the dark rides in the park.
The dark rides of Plopsa Station Antwerp
As mentioned before, only one of the rides that qualified as Dark Ride Database-entry in the Comics Station-days remained intact during the major renovation of the park. Visitors can still embark on an interactive adventure with the Smurfs, though the ride has been renamed from “Magische Bos” (Magical Forest) to “Smurfenavontuur” (Smurf’s Adventure). Visitors enter the ride through an iconic Smurfs mushroom house. Here visitors meet a statue of Papa Smurf and have the opportunity to take a picture. The queue line starts by entering a second house, belonging to Smurfette. The queue line takes you from Smurfette’s house, through a forest, back to Smurfette’s house again. People in line have the chance to take pictures with Smurfette’s statue here, right before they board the tree trunk-shaped vehicles.
Smurfenavontuur contains a ride system by the Italian manufacturer Gosetto, with an interactive system by Alterface and media by IMPS, the official licence holder for The Smurfs. The ride system consists of five cars (with a sixth spare car), on which four riders sit sideways. They are given a magic wand that allows the riders to interact with five multimedia screens. Riders of the ride are asked to help the Smurfs with their preparations of a feast. Riders can help the smurfs by picking fruits from trees, removing traps of Gargamel, chasing bats away and of course: lighting fireworks during the party! The variation of elements for shooting makes that the ride does not revolve around shooting with a gun, like most interactive dark rides. Instead, riders feel that they need to help the Smurfs out on various problems, giving a unique dynamic feeling to the ride.
The other ride in Comics Station that used to qualify as dark ride was the mini-free fall tower “Op Bezoek bij de Kiekeboes”. This ride took riders to different levels of the house of the Kiekeboes, from the kitchen, through the bathroom, to the attic. After arriving in the attic, riders encountered Marcel Kiekeboe (the father of the family) on a ladder, changing a light bulb. It didn’t go according to plan and when he falls off the ladder, the gondola of the ride drops 7 meters down. The scenes were made with the use of video screens, playing animations of the Kiekeboes on three different levels, with the drop ride manufactured by Moser Rides passing along the projections.
The free fall ride still exists, but now with a different name and a different theme. The ride is called “Wickie’s Valtoren” (Vic’s Drop Tower), themed after Vic the Viking. The entrance of the ride is already themed, but the ride itself and the room of the drop tower is still without a theme. There are currently no projections during the ride but instead, the programming of the ride has been extended. While the old programming had a slow ascend and a sudden drop, the ride will now go all the way to the top and bounce a few times up and down. The projectors and screens are still present however, indicating that these will be used again in the future. When the projections return, “Wickie’s Valtoren” will once again qualify for an entry in the database.
Visit by Luc and Erik
Article written by Luc and Erik
Pictures of Plopsa Station Antwerp by Luc; Pictures of Comics Station by Erik