Germany special: Spooky travels at Playmobil Fun Park

Playmobil men are three inches high, right? Wrong, says Adrian Mourby, who with his son found they could be, well, almost human

Stepping into the park is like waking up to find you've shrunk and, yes, the toys have taken over. They're manning the fort, playing sheriff in a full-size Wild West township and sailing that pirate galleon you last saw in the bathtub across a life-size lake. Visitors are free to wander and make up their own games within a landscape that replicates, in almost obsessive detail, the pictures you see in the company catalogue.

My John was off to the castle straightaway. A maze of rope ladders and slides led him up an artificial hillock on which the castle of his dreams had been built. Once inside, he was able to draw water up from a real well, scale the battlements using rope nets and lock his father in a life-size replica of the Playmobil dungeon. There was a drawbridge to cross, a throne to sit on and stocks to be stuck in, all the details as close as possible to the three-inch originals.

The Fun Park follows the ethos of the Brandstätter company, which makes Playmobil in the gleaming white factory next door. Toys are there to stimulate a child's imagination without resorting to aggression, horror or complicated mechanisms. There are no soldiers, no tanks or jet fighters in the Playmobil catalogue, not even UN peace-keeping forces. Similarly, the park is very low tech and touchy-feely; no rides but masses of things to climb under and over. There's plenty of water to fall into around the pirate ship, where a raft made of real logs can be commandeered by kids who want to paddle out to the ship.

Once on board this 55-footer, John was up into the crow's nest in no time. Looking similar to Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind, the Playmobil galleon has a ship's bell which rings out clearly, a turnable captain's wheel, a hold with eating quarters for the crew and a four-foot ship's monkey sitting impudently on the rigging. He was, of course, an exact replica of the ship's monkey we have at home.

The Playmobil men strike poses with their moveable arms. You can swivel their smiley heads and sit them down. but their legs do not move independently. I was worried there might be actors inside, as at Disney, but no. All these guys do is grin. But still you wonder what they're thinking.

We gun-slung our way through the Wild West, with its saloon, bank and post office, and then took a quick look at the Playmobil farm before going in search of food. I was delighted to find the café full of junk food. Everything in Zirndorf is so damn wholesome that it was a relief to treat John to chips and Coke.

We found a fenced-in area with heaps of toys. John had great fun with a tractor, bulldozer and mobile crane, never once noticing that he was being observed by fresh-faced designers. Playmobil's 45-strong design team often bring prototypes down to the Fun Park to see how young visitors relate to them. With its cheap entrance fee, the park will never recover the £11m it cost to build.

"Mr Brandstätter is not looking to make a profit," a spokeswoman said. "Every- thing that does not pay is seen as a gift."

We looked at the toy museum in old Zirndorf, which shows how Playmobil developed from the "Clickies" designed by Hans Beck, Horst Brandstätter's top designer, in the 1970s. Brandstätter was uncertain whether Beck's three-inch figures would catch on, but in Playmobil's first year of production a Dutch retailer bought up his complete stock and the little men with swivel necks have never looked back. It's been estimated that 1.5 billion of them have been sold world-wide. That means that, hand in clicky hand, they would go round the Equator several times. I find that thought rather scary.

Playmobil Fun Park, (Brandstätterstrasse 2-10, Zirndorf, (00 49 911 96 66 700; playmobil-funpark.de) is open 9am to 6pm every day. Admission off-season €6, high season €7.

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