‘Themed environments’ a game changer

In 1977, in a remote hilly rural area of western France, with severe deindustrialization problems, no big infrastructure (no I-80 or equivalent), abandoned rail tracks, in a place with nothing more than the ruins of a castle built in the XVI century and called Puy du Fou, a man had the idea of creating a show on the history about what happened there more than 200 years ago. This man, Philippe de Villiers, passionate about history, started with some volunteers a night open air show reenacting the battles fought around that castle between the revolutionary and the royalists in late XVIII century. The local hero, Francois Athanase Charette de La Contrie, defied the republic for three years. His motto was “often fought, beaten sometimes, never beaten down.” Napoleon wrote about him: “He lets some genius break through.” Charette’s memory is still very much alive in Vendee, the name of the region.

In 1989, the Puy du Fou park was born combining culture and fun, recreation and pedagogy, show and emotion. The first part was an old 17th century town with its houses presented as if they were real, with shops, a smith, a mill, a bakery, and so on. Conceptually, the park is mid-way between Renaissance Faire and Kennywood.

During the following years, new recreations of local historical facts were added. Professionals started to take over the management. A bird show with Bald Eagles was added on the top of a hill, a water show was added, a medieval town was added, a cavalry fight show was added, a huge new roman arena was added reenacting the chasing of Christians during the second century of our era. Restaurants reenact what people ate at the time period to which the restaurant belongs. Hotels were added. For instance, you can stay in a tent in a roman camp. Modern comfort is provided too, just in case the past is too difficult for some guests to handle.

In 2019, more than 2.2 million people visited Puy du Fou which now extends over 200 acres. The park has been rated among the best in the world for some years now. Their shows are admired all over. On Nov 19, 2019, they got their latest prize from the Themed Entertainment Association in Los Angeles for their new show on King Clovis and the founding of the French nation. In late August 2019, Puy du Fou began a new operation in Toledo, Spain. Again, it started with a show adapted to the local historical environment. A few weeks ago, French President Macron went to China to sign a protocol to set a new Puy du Fou park close to the Great Wall. Puy du Fou has announced plans to locate a park on each continent over the next decade.

So, why not here? We are in a hilly rural area, with severe deindustrialization problems, we have I-80 (a great asset), some abandoned rail tracks, and we have cultural similarities. What if we invite them to explain us their success story? I was required to send them a handwritten letter. No email, no phone call, no Facebook, no Linkedin, no Snapchat, no social media. Just an old-fashioned white paper letter addressed to Philippe de Villiers, Jr. Unfortunately, I could not find a horse-mail service available and/or a three-mast clipper to cross the Atlantic. Reluctantly, the letter was sent via airmail. And I got a bite! Guess what, two senior managers from Puy du Fou, this worldwide admired theme park, agreed to come to Lock Haven!

With the leadership of the Poorman College at Lock Haven University, we have organized a forum that will take place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday at LHU Durwachter Center on “Themed Environments and Economic Development”. Puy du Fou will be represented by their legal manager, Monsieur Guillaume Ingrand. We also invited Kennywood park from the Pittsburgh area, represented by its marketing manager Chris Salerno. Also participating is Julia Chain, program director at Preservation Pennsylvania. Finally, Dennis Greenaway, a local medieval fight reenactor and Lock Haven University alumnus will complete the panel which will be chaired by Dean John Nauright, who is expert in cultural heritage management.

At LHU, we are firm believers that such activity can be a game changer. Thus, we invite you to grasp this opportunity to place our community in the world map.

Dr. Gerard Martorell is assistant professor of entrepreneurship and international business at Lock Haven University.