The Tivoli amusement park, Copenhagen’s biggest tourist magnet, celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.
Deep within the mountain, the gap narrows. Will Gurley scrambles on, but he calls back in warning: “Careful! Don’t bang your heads.” Almost immediately, everything begins to quake. The sound of thunder approaches and people scream as a monster roars by, bristling with outstretched arms. Then all is quiet again. The mountain sways gently in the aftermath. Where are we? At the Tivoli Gardens, one of the world’s oldest surviving amusement parks – a fantasy land at the heart of the Danish capital between Central Station and the town hall. The moving mountain through which the 36-year-old designer has just led us is a timber, concrete and steel construction that’s part of the old Rutschebanen Roller Coaster, one of the Tivoli’s main attractions. Celebrities from all over the world have ridden this roller coaster, as has practically every Danish child – only to return later with their own children. The Tivoli is closely interwoven with the Danish identity and with the fact that in some small way, we always remain the child we once were.
On August 15, the park’s 175th birthday, it will also be celebrating one of its most prosperous years ever. Along with the Prater in Vienna, the Lunapark in Berlin and Coney Island in New York, it is one of the most famous old amusement parks of its kind. Many were demolished or radically altered, but the Tivoli has remained true to itself and secured its place in the Danish kingdom’s heart. Nearly five million people visited the park last year, three quarters of them Danes.
Friday morning, shortly before 11 am, a school class rattles the park gates, and men in uniform open up. The Tivoli emblem on their caps glints golden in the sunlight. Knapsacks bobbing on their backs, the kids race over to the attractions. Seniors and tourist groups stroll along behind as the park gradually fills. On just over eight hectares, an area large enough to contain only a handful of apartment blocks, the park draws visitors into another world. Its most striking feature is the Nimb, a fantasy version of the Taj Mahal, which is a hotel today. Further on, the 1950s concert hall with its pink and pale-green patterning stands majestic. Carousels rise into the blue among the treetops in another part of the park, glass facades alternate with pretty wooden houses. Across from the Nimb, there’s the Pantomimeteatret, a Chinese-inspired open-air theater dating from 1874 with all its original technology still intact. The stage’s huge curtain resembles a peacock fan and requires four men to operate the cable pull to raise it.
Lars Liebst, the park’s director, is sitting in the hall of the Nimb hotel enjoying a cup of afternoon coffee. “I grew up on an island,” he says, “and when I was five, my grandfather brought me to Copenhagen. I can still recall the smell of freshly baked ice-cream cornets to this day.” For many people, a ticket to the Tivoli is a ticket to their own childhood, even though all is not as it used to be, of course. Casually dressed young couples pass by pushing strollers, tourists from India take smartphone pictures by the tulip beds. With so many outstretched selfie arms, walking the Tivoli’s gravel paths becomes a bit of an obstacle course.
Lars Liebst, 61, has a background in theater, is married to an ex-ballerina and learned his first trade, light designer, in the U.S. He came to the Tivoli in 1996, a time when the park was in crisis. In the performance-oriented 1990s, the people of Copenhagen felt that seeing a carousel the moment you stepped out of the city’s central railway station was a bit of an anachronism. They complained that the park was limping along behind a modernized city. Visitor numbers fell and for the first time in its history, the Tivoli found itself in debt. Then along came Liebst, a man who likes to climb aboard the Demon, the Tivoli’s racy roller coaster, after a tiring meeting: “It gives me a big energy boost.” He soon realized that the park’s apparent problem, its touching nostalgia, was where its chances of survival lay. “People long for experiences that involve all of their senses, and that’s why our future is looking good,” he says. “Analogue is in.”
This is also true of the old wooden Rutschebanen Roller Coaster with the mountain. Each of its trains still has a brakeman (with ear muffs to block out passengers’ screams), who slows the ride by hand at certain points en route. It would be cheaper to replace him with an automatic system, but this is not an option at the Tivoli. Every brakeman has his own style, and some visitors come just to ride with “their” brakeman.
Here and there, though, this love affair with things old-fashioned needed a helping hand. Liebst gave the park a new pricing system with various options catering to what visitors plan to do. He introduced a strong culture and music program for the Tivoli’s many large and small stages and created Rock Friday, which hosts newcomers and established stars: Snoop Dogg and Lady Gaga have both played here. Liebst also began turning the spotlight on what Denmark is already world-famous for: design. In the 1940s, the great architect and designer Poul Henningsen worked for the Tivoli; many of his lamps still line the paths today. There isn’t a corner in the park that doesn’t have a certain designed sophistication, in fact. Every handrail, every nesting box, every chair in each of the almost 50 restaurants and bistros – all were born of a passion for getting things just right.
The creative development department has nine permanent staff members, and they live in an old hospital building across from the Tivoli. Thomas Winkler, a 54-year-old artist, joined the team nine years ago. It was “the happiest decision of my life,” he says. His fingers are spattered with ink, on his desk, there’s a paintbox, and the walls behind him are papered with ancient Tivoli posters. “Even if its old structure is beautiful, we mustn’t treat the park like a museum,” he says, tucking back a long strand of blond hair. “We’re not historians.” It’s as though all the booths, rides and restaurants were constantly competing, he adds, smiling. “Each wants to look better than all of the rest,” says Winkler, laughing, “as soon as one attraction reopens after refurbishment, it’s the next one’s turn.”
Georg Carstensen, the park’s original founder, reputedly said that the Tivoli would “never be completed,” and 175 years on, it isn’t. The Tik Tak, a “shaker” co-designed by Gurley, the designer who was climbing through the Rutschebanen Roller Coaster earlier, is just going up. During the high-speed ride, its gondolas will revolve around their own axis. Gurley has a model Tik Tak gondola on his desk that came off the 3D printer next door. He’s busy appraising samples of colored acrylics to see “how the material colors different types of light.” Light is a special feature at the Tivoli, which has evening illuminations that change according to the season and theme – an attraction in themselves. The park, its carousels and booths are bright with 300 000 LED lamps, and at Christmas, as many as a million.
For many people, a ticket to the Tivoli is a ticket to their own childhood
Their color, intensity and flash timing – very modern – are all software controlled. The power for the eternal light choreography is generated by an offshore wind turbine in the Baltic Sea. Jesper Kongshaug, 62, is lord of the light at the Tivoli. “In Denmark, we have two or three hours of dusk in which we can find new ways to play with the light, bring out its best moments.” To him, dusk is like opening a book and being led into a story. “You have to know how to handle shadows,” he says earnestly.
A miniature train full of smiling faces rumbles by. Asked about the Tivoli, many will relate memories of childhood or riding the carousel with their first sweetheart. Some people are so enamored of slipping into a different world without leaving the city that they buy an annual pass. Others felt like this long before them: Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” here (It was published in 1837); Hans Christian Lumbye composed the “Champagne Gallop” for the Tivoli in 1845, and it is still played in Denmark on festive occasions. Before the final firework display just before midnight, Gurley wants to show me the Astronomer, a children’s carousel of cute little orbiting spaceships. There’s a lever so that young passengers can move themselves up and down. “Isn’t it great?” Gurley calls from his gondola, “Everyone can catch their favorite star!”
A perfect day in Copenhagen
After a dip in the hotel pool, enjoy a fantastic breakfast with a view from the 11th floor.
See Copenhagen from the water – its best side – on a guided kayak tour.
The Ruby serves such good cocktails they could make you ditch your clubbing plans.
Catch a bite
The old butchers’ district, Kødbyen, now has galleries, bars and freshly caught fish.
Getting there from Germany
In August, Lufthansa flies five times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to five times daily from Munich (MUC) to Copenhagen (CPH). Use the app to calculate your miles.