Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, and the Associated Press.
DefiPlanet, a nature-themed family attraction in France, has a surprisingly blunt message for visitors: “The earth will soon be dead and torn.”
In the middle of a dense forest in rural central France, a single tree stands out from the rest. It could be its towering size or tangle of knotted branches. Or it could be the pair of playful elf-like creatures, known as Farfadets, swinging from its branches.
A small sign instructs visitors to hug the tree to reveal the “song to save the Earth.” Within seconds of touching its thick trunk, a man’s deep, soulful voice starts to sing, in French or English:
Watch out for fire, droughts, storms, floods and other disasters. Stop deforestation. The earth will soon be dead and torn.
This is one of the many features of DefiPlanet, a 62-acre ecological amusement park that opened near Poitiers in 2011. Spread out across both forest and farmland, it welcomes about 130,000 visitors every year, most of them children and families from France, and occasionally from other parts of Western Europe.
The conservationist message is not just padding, park director and manager Stéphanie Brunet emphasizes. “We really want to show our customers and our visitors that everyone in his daily life, by doing small actions or changing his way of doing things, can contribute to the preservation of the planet,” Brunet said in an interview with CityLab.
The park is organized into two main sections: the past and the future. The former is made up of animals—from rabbits, chickens, and horses to a camel and donkey—along with five villages meant to illustrate how our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. For example, a Mongolian village features a large yurt filled with colorful furniture and blankets. Signs there detail the villagers’ nomadic lifestyle organized around the seasons, as well as how that lifestyle is being threatened by climate change.
The second area is set in the woods, where a fantastical collection of spirits and goblins tell stories and sing songs to teach visitors how to protect natural resources. Along the way, there are “touchstones,” or small white structures with built-in computer screens. They quiz visitors about whether they drink bottled water or travel to school by car in order to determine their carbon footprint. Guests can improve their score by correctly answering environmental trivia—for example, how long certain materials take to decompose.
The journey takes about four hours altogether and ends with a singing fountain and gift shop. Although the only real ride is an ever-so-slightly-bucking mechanical horse, there is also a ropes course and a swimming pool. Visitors can stay overnight at the park, in a cabin designed to look like a snail, a rabbit, or a castle.
DefiPlanet is unusual for melding the carefree spirit of an amusement park with stark warnings and complex information about climate change. Perhaps most remarkable is how it presents these lessons to an audience made up primarily of young children.
Although dressed up in bright colors and delivered in kid-friendly terms by friendly characters (Petit Sabot, a smiling cartoon horse, is your guide through the park), the environmental messages are in no way sugarcoated. Guests are regularly told that the planet is being destroyed and their own future threatened—sometimes with a sense of existential despair that feels distinctly French. At one point, for instance, as you go through a dark and genuinely scary maze, the “Spirit of the Forest” says:
For thousands of years I have watched you carefully, season after season, year after year, and unfortunately, the facts remain the same. Deforestation, excessive urbanization, pollution of the land, the air and the water, oil spills, over-usage of natural resources, extinction of species: You have made the earth sick, you and you alone.
Nicole Ardoin, an expert on environmental education who teaches at Stanford University, said that couching environmental messages in the context of a theme park could be very effective, spurring conversations and remaining with people beyond the visit to the park because of the memory of a shared experience. Ardoin said DefiPlanet (which she hasn’t been to) sounds a little like Disney World’s Animal Kingdom or Happy Hollow Park & Zoo in San Jose, both of which have conservation-related programming.
“I think that you always want to walk that line between not being scary, but also presenting people with opportunities for conversation and discussion. And also being really attentive to the age-appropriateness of your messaging—both in terms of efficacy and how you’re presenting these issues,” she said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the somewhat gloomy messaging of DefiPlanet did not stop young visitors from enjoying themselves. They raced excitedly to each village and interacted with the many fanciful creatures. Most of the reviews of the park on TripAdvisor are positive. One reviewer wrote that she brought her grandchildren for a visit last August and the information about environmental issues was presented in a “fun” way.
The park was an early adopter of the idea that children and the fight against climate change go together—an idea that has now gone mainstream through 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and weekly school walkouts. Brunet, the manager of DefiPlanet, believes the park’s presentation of climate messages does work. In the future, she said, staff will update the exhibits as the public’s climate knowledge grows. (Some visitors have said they are already well versed in carbon footprints, for example.)
“Children are the best prescribers, and are even more receptive than adults,” Brunet said. “The latest events ... show that our children act [on climate] even more than adults. And it is up to all of us to get mobilized, because it is for them and their future on this planet that we must act as soon as possible.”