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[I spent most of June 2004 in Europe, visiting people and places associated with Walt Disney. I also spent a couple of days at the animation festival at Annecy, France. I'll be writing about that trip, which took me to Switzerland, Denmark, and England as well as France, in several installments. MB]

European Journal

IV. Copenhagen

Walt Disney visited zoos and amusement parks and tourist attractions of many kinds in the years before he opened Disneyland, but it is hard to see in Walt's theme park more than a trace of those other places—with one exception. Visit Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, and you can believe that (as Bob Thomas reports in his Disney biography) Walt told his wife, Lillian: "Now this is what an amusement place should be!"

Tivoli Boys GuardAt first glance, the differences between Disneyland and Tivoli might stand out. For one thing, Tivoli is tiny compared with Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Tivoli is very much an urban park—it sits in the heart of downtown Copenhagen, with the city hall on one side, the central train station on another, and a major museum on yet another. There's no equivalent of Disneyland's berm; what's going on inside the park is visible through a fence.

Once inside, other differences are apparent. There's none of the Disney parks' omnipresent character merchandise, but there is, on the other hand, an abundance of restaurants, thirty-eight in all. That difference in emphasis—a choice of cartoon-character dolls versus a choice of restaurants—means that Tivoli has a more grownup atmosphere than the Disney parks. Grownup, indeed, in ways that are most un-Disneylike: one kiosk is devoted to the sale of nothing but tobacco products, and alcoholic beverages are readily available throughout the park.

Tivoli was quieter years ago, when Walt Disney was visiting. "Nowadays," Sven Hansen, the director of Tivoli's Boys Guard, told me, "we have more shows, more concerts, more rock shows on the open-air stage. We have more young people in the park than previously." Tivoli now competes with other theme parks, he said, "so we have to have everything in the park,"

Like the Disney parks, Tivoli has been adding thrill rides that appeal to young adults, including a tremendously exciting new roller coaster called the Demon. But those rides don't dominate the park—most of them are pressed together on the museum side—and, in any case, Tivoli has always offered thrill rides: the park installed the Mountain, the oldest of its four current roller coasters, in 1914. The Mountain, treasured by roller-coaster aficionados, is so venerable that each train actually has an operator on board. It's still enormously popular. At Disneyland, by contrast, the first roller coaster did not arrive until four years after the park opened.

An area devoted to shooting galleries and other traditional carnival games—and gambling halls—is likewise tucked away along one side of Tivoli; you'll find nothing like it at the Disney parks. Tivoli has only a few "dark rides" on the Disneyland model, including one devoted to scenes from the fairy tales of Denmark's favorite son, Hans Christian Andersen. They do not have a lot to offer the visitor who does not speak Danish, and perhaps not much more to the visitor who does.

Walt Disney at TivoliIt's at the center of the park that a vital similarity to Disneyland—at least as Walt Disney conceived it—is unmistakable, because it's there that the park is dominated by flowers and elegant landscaping immediately reminiscent of Bill Evans's work for Disney. That part of Tivoli, like the parts of Disneyland modeled after it, resembles a beautiful city park or public garden, but one that is blessedly free of the hint of menace that too often shadows even the loveliest such places in the United States.

Like Disneyland in its early years, Tivoli charges separately for admission and for rides. An admission charge always serves as a filter, but the landscaping at Tivoli reinforces that effect by subtly imposing a serene order on an environment, the amusement park, that can be coarse and chaotic. As Walt Disney undoubtedly noticed, the landscaping is anything but a cosmetic garnish—it encourages people to behave better.

Other aspects of Tivoli, like the free open-air shows, recall Disneyland, too. On the mid-June day of my visit, though, some of the Disneyish things—fireworks, magical nighttime lighting—were either missing or visible only very late, because at that time of year in Denmark daylight lingers almost until the park's eleven o'clock closing time. (Tivoli is open from mid-April to mid-September and then again for a few weeks at Christmas.)

Like the Disney parks, Tivoli has its popular parades. The 89-member Boys Guard, a uniformed band, marches and plays on a route through the park several times a week. Sven Hansen was thirteen years old and a drummer in the Boys Guard when Walt Disney visited Tivoli on September 5, 1964. Another drummer's bearskin hat was judged to be in better condition, and so it's that boy's hat you see atop Walt's head in the photo at the right; Sven Hansen is the boy in the photo.

"He was very quiet," Hansen remembers of Disney, who did not seem to him like someone who was eager for publicity. The photo was taken at Tivoli's instigation, Hansen says. "It was very much used in Danish newspapers."

Hansen was a member of the Boys Guard for five years. He returned to Tivoli as the Guard's director in 1973. He has now been in that job for more than thirty years, and he has traveled with members of the Guard to all the Disney theme parks—the boys helped open Epcot at Walt Disney World in 1982—and many other parts of the world as well.

The Boys Guard's history extends back to 1844, just a year after Tivoli itself opened as a pleasure garden inspired by Paris and London parks that have long since vanished. When Tivoli opened, it offered only two amusements: a horse-drawn carousel and a roller coaster. The park has changed enormously since then, but from all appearances its growth has been more organic than forced.

Tivoli has its frayed edges, but in contrast to the Disney parks' lapses, I found Tivoli's more endearing than troubling. Tivoli has a mellowness that the Disney parks lack. Perhaps there are "Tivoli nuts" comparable to the pathetic geeks whose lives revolve around the Disney parks, but I doubt it. Tivoli asks of its visitors not that they sign on to anyone's "vision" or "dream," but only that they have a good time. And I did.


[Click here to read the first installment in this journal, about Disneyland Paris, the second installment, about the Annecy festival, or the third installment, about Zermatt, Switzerland. Click here to go to the official Danish tourist site, VisitDenmark.com, here to go to Tivoli's official Web site, and here to go a page about Tivoli on Denmark.net.]

[Posted July 31, 2004; updated December 2, 2004, August 28, 2007, and October 13, 2009]