Throwing the book at them

Wit, irony and inventiveness have enabled Parc Asterix to see off the Disney invasion and win back faithful fans.
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You can just imagine the cursing at Parc Asterix back in 1992. They had found their nicely positioned site a mere 20 minutes outside Paris. They had struck a deal with Goscinny and Uderzo's agents to use the Asterix book characters. They had raised all the necessary finance and built what everybody agreed was a very jolly affair when it opened in 1989.

Then, four years ago, in marched Uncle Walt to break up the party and steal the guests. EuroDisney - as it used to be known - opened its magic gates far too close for comfort just a few miles down the road. It was over-hyped, over-whelming and over ici. Being American it had to be 10 times bigger than its French rival - you need at most one day to take in Parc Asterix - and before long, despite its problems, it was attracting 10 times the visitors. The attendance at Parc Asterix slumped by a third and a few "Zuts" must have been flying around the staff Chez Self Servix eatery, maybe even the odd "M" word.

In common with the books, however, the tenacious little Gauls have fought back against the square-chinned Roman/US hoards. Visitor numbers are back up to almost two million a year and, to cap it all, the first Asterix book for five years is due out any moment. In response to over- whelming pleas at a huge British Asterix Convention, Albert Uderzo has come out of retirement - Goscinny died in 1977 - to add to the world-wide sales which are currently running at well over 25 million.

Olivier de Bosredon, the grinning Parc Asterix president, seems pleased with himself. He has, for the time being, put his problems with the American invader behind him. "In the US they think Asterix is a rabbit which doesn't matter because his values are definitely not North American," he comments. "Americans are into personal success. Our European values are group values around the tribe and the village." Try telling that to Bill Cash and Teresa Gorman.

Unlike EuroDisney, which offended the sensibilities of France's cultural elite, Parc Asterix is unashamedly French and doggedly francophone. All signage is in French and in the Rue de Paris section you walk through 1,000 years of French history. A mere 15 per cent of its visitors are foreign - a quarter of these being Brits. Unlike Disney, which appeals across the social spectrum, Asterix is favoured by the British bourgeoisie.

The need to attract return visitors means that no theme park can ever afford to stand still. The public, and especially the kids that Parc Asterix is aimed at, demand new thrills or spectacles each year. The new offering at Asterix for '96 is "Main Basse sur la Joconde" which they've translated as The Mona Lisa Caper. At a cost of Fr43 million (almost pounds 6m) they've constructed a large 2,000-seat theatre and a 50-metre stage which houses a 20-minute knock-about stunt show. The story is based on an attempted theft of la Joconde en route from Le Louvre to New York. There are plenty of explosions, sheets of flame, acrobats, motorcycle chases and a spectacular finale involving an ocean-going liner.

The Mona Lisa has nothing whatsoever to do with Asterix and it's noticeable that the park's theming is nowhere near as relentless as Disney. There is another live show called Stars of the Roman Empire, but there's also a rooftop four-man sword fight by the Three Musketeers. There's also more irony and wit, less saccharine appeal to the emotions. "Rome, Rome, Rome" says one sign pointing in three directions at once.

One of the areas in which you would have thought the French could trump Disney is food. There are 30 food outlets altogether and the best of the sit-down restaurants is Arcimboldo, the facade of which is built entirely from plastic fruit and veg. Despite its appearance, Arcimboldo is, however, no meat-free zone. A quick glance down the menu revealed a startling orgy of beef items. The grills had filet of beef, T-bone steak and sirloin steak, not to mention the old faithful andouillette. Going further down the menu came the raw versions: "Viandes Crues" steak tartare (Fr65) and carpaccio (Fr61). (The latter, incidentally, tasted really delicious.)

What made this doubly amusing was the fact that, on the day we visited, the front pages of outraged French newspapers were reporting that, back in the Eighties when BSE-contaminated cattle feed was initially identified in the UK, the first thing we did was shift the whole lot on to the French market. Obviously Obelix knows a thing or two about microbiology. "Les suggestions d'Obelix" were either a wild boar delicatessen or a wild boar cassoulet.

It would probably be best to sample the Goudurix ride before, rather than after, your lunch. Parc Asterix claims higher G-forces than anywhere else in Europe for this seven-loop roller- coaster. In common with its Disney rival, the queues can be daunting and here you don't get the sop of being told approximately how long you'll have to wait for your ride. There is, however, a rare translated notice indicating that "persons in bad physical condition" should think twice before embarking. An added hazard is that French schoolchildren have still yet to learn the Anglo- Saxon art of orderly queuing and you should expect excessive barging and leaping over rails.

Goudurix is a true hell-raiser, which feels capable of conducting a major reorganisation of your internal organs. Apparently, some of these rides actually flatten the eyball as well. Incidentally, such thrill-seeking is not an isolated 20th-century phenomenon: the first ever roller-coasters with wheels locked into tracks were built in France in 1817, although the first-ever gravity rides date back to 15th and 16th century Russia.

The other big ride right over the other side of the Parc in "Domaine Lacustre" is the Menhir Express. Menhirs are the tall, single standing rocks that you always see the beefy Obelix carrying around on his back. The Gauls transported their Stonehenge-style rocks around by water and this water ride places five punters in a floating Menhir, strapped to a wooden raft. The final plunge is almost 40ft at 45 degrees. Leave the Armani suit in the wardrobe for this one, because there is no escape from a thorough soaking.

For die-hard white knucklers most of the other rides are rather tame, although there is one charmingly old-fashioned attraction called Les Chaises Volantes (the Flying Chairs).

Vegetarians, already offended by Arcimboldo's meaty chunks, might find the dolphin show a bit trying. Dolphins must rue the day they evolved the semblance of that permanent smile. If they looked as ugly and miserable as a halibut they could have avoided being cajoled into leaping through hoops and banging footballs into audiences with their tails. Those who prefer to see their wildlife in its natural habitat should head for the Galapagos Islands 3D cinema.

8 Parc Asterix is situated next to its own exit, between Paris and Senlis, on the A1 Autoroute du Nord. If you are travelling from Paris, you can take the RER "B" to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. A special bus leaves there for the park every 30 minutes. Entrance prices are Fr160 for adults (approximately pounds 21) or Fr110 (pounds 14.50) for children up to 11. Under threes can go in for free. Unlike Disneyland Paris, Parc Asterix is not open all year round. This season closes on 13 October.


Parc Asterix and Waterstones Booksellers are hosting an Asterix Extravaganza between 11.30am and 5.30pm on Sunday, 1 September, at the Commonwealth Insititute, 230 Kensington High Street, London W8.

Tickets, available from the Asterix Extravaganza ticket hotline on 0171 873 6201, cost pounds 5 each and are valid for one adult and one child under 12. The first 10 Independent on Sunday readers to call the hotline will receive one complimentary ticket.