Luxembourg is a small country that besides its beautiful nature in the North has only a limited number of large tourist attractions. The Parc Merveilleux is one of them. It started as a theme park based on the concept of a fairytale park that existed in the Netherlands. It was during the Reconstruction after World War II that a Dutch landscape architect, named Albert Willem ter Braake, became involved in plans to start such a fairytale park in Luxembourg as well.
The Mayor of Bettembourg, a small town just south of Luxembourg City, responded positively to the initiative and offered his cooperation. And so the new tourist attraction was developed in a woodland area owned by the municipality of Bettembourg – on 25 hectares of this area, called ‘Mosselter’. Local businessmen invested in the endeavour and on 29th October 1955 the ‘Mosselter Gmbh’ (a limited liability company) was officially established.
On 16 May 1956 Parc Merveilleux, which translates into Marvellous Park, opened its gate to the general public for the first time. The brand new theme park was innovative and novel, incomparable with other amusement parks in its genre within a two hundred kilometres radius. Special trains came from Strasbourg to bring curious families with young children.
The first director was Jean Gales, who was the driving force behind this new tourist attraction in Luxembourg. He was succeeded by his son until management was taken over at the end of the 20th century when the marvel of the Park already had worn off. On 18 December 1997 the ‘APEMH’ (Association des Parents d’Enfants Mentalement Handicapés), an organisation for parents of children with intellectual disabilities, became the major shareholder of the Parc Merveilleux. They wanted to use the park as a new initiative to provide suitable work for the disabled persons under their care. Currently the park has a workforce of 75 of which almost 50 are disabled. Most of them live at home while others stay in a sheltered house which is managed by the organisation. Parc Merveilleux was the first location in Luxembourg to introduce such an employment system and it is rather unique in the world of zoos worldwide. The disabled staff members are managed on a day-to-day basis by professional zoo keepers. The Parc is financially sustained by donations, subsidies from the Luxembourg Ministries of Labour, Family and Tourism, and entrance fees.
After its inception as a fairy tale park they gradually introduced some animals, such as parrots chained to a roost. But it took years before a more diverse animal collection was built up, and this merely started when APEMH took over in 1997. They tried to reintroduce the marvel back into Parc Merveilleux, not only by employing disabled staff members, but also by adding a real zoo to the existing facilities. Thus based on its original foundations, the Park became oriented towards a new destination that included the display of live animals.
A complete renovation of the Park started while the best parts of the original layout and ideas were kept alive. Although not the main attraction any more, the display of fairytales still draw many families with young children. In about ten smaller ‘houses’ several fairytales, such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘The Wolf and the seven little goats’, and ‘Snow White’, are represented by mechanical puppets. While for the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ real live rats are used.
The animal collection grew and mid 2005 it comprised about 185 species, all of them interesting and not too dangerous for the disabled staff members to handle. So large animals like elephants, giraffes, rhinos and great apes were not present and still aren’t.
The Zoo covers the full array of activities within the mission of any well-respected zoo. To increase visitor awareness of the importance of nature conservation, a zoo school was started in 2003. Young visitors and schools can join programmes about nature, animals and the need of conservation efforts. Parc Merveilleux contributes to conservation activities by taking part in several captive breeding programmes and efforts as well, for instance with financial contribution to local conservation projects for yellow-breasted capuchin in Brazil and Prince Alfred’s spotted deer in the Philippines. Therefore in 2008 Parc Merveilleux was accepted as a full member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).
In more recent years some important projects were started which led to an increase in the number of species kept. One of those projects that fitted into the Park’s grouping of its collection by continents was ‘Mahajanga’. Here the visitor can get acquainted with the fauna and flora of Madagascar, especially the western part of this evolutionarily interesting island. This concept where a tropical greenhouse is devoted to only one particular geographical location is still rare for European zoos. The tropical house was official inaugurated on 26 June 2009, Madagascar’s Independence Day. The other walk-through building erroneously is called ‘Amazonia’, because it not only houses animals from the tropical rainforest in South America, but penguins as well. Moreover, African species can be found there.
The most recent addition to Parc Merveilleux was a large wolf enclosure of approximately 1 hectare where a small pack of Canadian wolves is kept.
Obviously, Parc Merveilleux is not just a zoo and nowadays it comprises three sections, one with animal enclosures, a children’s playground and a fairytale park, that are all situated in separate parts of the park grounds and do not interfere with each other.
Created in 1956 and redesigned in the 1990s, the Parc Merveilleux in Bettembourg carries with remarkable freshness the weight of the years. It is only open to the public from Easter till mid October, but still attracts an average of about 200,000 people.
(Source: International Zoo News, Vol. 58⁄5 (No 390), 2011 — On ‘Safari’ in Luxembourg, an Introduction to Three Animal Collections by Gie Robeyns; website of l’APEMH; Wikipedia; Un parc et des merveilles in Le Républicain Lorrain, 01.07.2012)