Dannevirke Fantasy Cave is a treasure that is unique to New Zealand. It is a special place not only for the children but also for the "young at heart". Situated in Dannevirke's main street, it is readily accessible for those passing through town with plenty of parking in the nearby side streets.
Allow plenty of time to see all the exhibits - there is so much to see! There is limited wheelchair access to most of the galleries.
I had never heard of the Fantasy Cave before paying a visit to Dannevirke, but was assured by the locals that it was a must see - so we went, and were just amazed by the experience. There is something there for everyone. It has been beautifully curated and maintained by a team of dedicated volunteers who clearly love their work and gain their rewards through seeing all the satisfied visitors.
The "cave" itself is situated in an old bank building and extends over four floors with lots of rambling side chambers and plenty of opportunity for children to explore. There are stairs everywhere, and although they are quite steep in places, there is a special "wheelchair climber" available which can be used to transport people with mobility issues up and down the steps. The whole place is bursting with life: mechanical models bring otherwise static displays to life, targeted lighting displays recreate undersea worlds, and fairytales are retold through finely detailed dioramas. There is a working model railway complete with signals, tunnels, wind turbines on the hills, and informative posters around the walls to explain the workings to interested visitors. There is a miniature Manawatu gorge and even a working turntable for the trains to use!
The Fantasy Cave started in 1989 - first known as the Christmas Cave, it then took on the name of Santa's Cave and finally settled on the current name, the Dannevirke Fantasy Cave. As with all museums, money has always been tight - there is no council funding available, so the volunteers rely on door sales and grants from charities and some community boards to keep things going. The volunteers are known as Cave Dwellers or Hobbits, and the official name of their enterprise is Dannevirke Cave-Dwellers Incorporated!
As you go into the Cave, you are faced with several choices. We started with the underwater scene, progressing through groups of dolphins, penguins and seals to the front entrance proper. This features nursery rhymes on the walls and several activities to get the little ones hooked in. It was almost like visiting a miniature Disney World as we checked out the Hans Christian Anderson section with models from his various tales, and then revisited the underwater scene from above as we came downstairs again. The next trip was into the space room with lots of buttons to push, interesting sound effects, and volcanoes. And then the storeroom which we just peeped into - this was the place where the Christmas trees are stored when the holiday season is over, complete with their decorations all ready to go next year!
Santa's grotto downstairs was the next stop. Here we met lots of characters from various fairytales - Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks, Little Bopeep, Sleeping Beauty - and so many more that it is impossible to name them all! One thing that really stood out for us was the castle constructed entirely of bottles which lit up with different colours, and the talking witch and giant high up above us. I was wishing we had some of our children with us because I would have loved to share the magic. Wherever we looked there was an explosion of light and colour, and an abundance of creatures: elves, gnomes, fairies, butterflies, birds and animals of every possible species (and a few more that were completely impossible!), and sea creatures of every description.
I hope to return before too long to revisit the exhibits. As in all museums, displays are constantly changing and updating so it would be well worth a second visit. But next time I would like to bring some of the kids with me so they too can enjoy the experience. It is something everyone should do at least once; no matter how old you get, you are never too old to be touched by a little magic!
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