"Oh, why are we doing this?" The man in the short-sleeved shirt has just broken the rules: he spoke to a stranger in the queue at Legoland. It happened at opening time, with the car park already filling up and the sun beginning to burn. His young boys were playfighting, their over-excited chatter drowning out the music being played from hidden speakers. The man wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of a hand, just as one of the boys tugged at his shirt "Dad? Dad! What time does it close?"
"Seven o'clock," he said. The boy, aged nine or 10 and dressed in a red England shirt, was pleased. "So we'll be here until then?" His father took a very long time to answer. Nine hours to go. There would be many more queues, much more standing and waiting punctuated only by tantrums and demands. "Yes," he said, with the flat tone of someone facing up to an awful truth. "I suppose we are." That was when he glanced at me - a brief, desperate look - and in a moment of fatherly solidarity asked the question that was in both our minds: "Why?"
Most British parents will find themselves asking the same thing this summer. They will spend a total of £1bn taking their children on days out, paying an average of £80 to get the family into a theme park (and much more than that at some). They will do so expecting rows and tears, expense, exhaustion and, ultimately, disappointment.
A survey published by Mother and Baby magazine last Wednesday revealed that 96 per cent of parents think the big summer trips they feel compelled to take are a rip-off.
"A family day out at an attraction in Britain costs a small fortune and parents feel they are being taken for a ride," says Sarah Hart, the magazine's editor. "The price of entry to family attractions is becoming exorbitant."
The parents told her Britain is a dirty, unsafe, seedy country where the young are ghettoised into badly run kiddie play areas but unwelcome anywhere else. Legoland, near Windsor in Berkshire, is not like that: it is bright, clean place where the young staff are pleasant even on hot, temper-fraying days. But so they should be. Coming here is the most expensive day out in the country, according to the magazine's research, with a family ticket for four costing £106.
That will get you through the turnstiles. The true cost of a day trip to somewhere like Legoland can be much, much more, depending on your strength of character. "Can I have a cup?" asked my eight-year-old son, Jacob, almost as soon as we were in. There in the Pit Stop Café among iced doughnuts, popcorn and candyfloss were temptingly placed plastic Legoland beakers (pink for the girls, black and red for the boys). No was the answer, and he didn't mind. He's a good boy. But both of us would be severely tested during the rest of the day. The tickets - £30 for an adult and £23 for a child - were billed as all-inclusive, but inside the park there was a relentless assault on parental resolve. We didn't need to hire a buggy for £6, and Jacob didn't fancy bungee jumping for £5, but other extras were harder to resist. We both wondered why they took his picture during the half-hour he was waiting to drive a bright red plastic Fiat car around child-sized streets in the driving school. The answer was a laminated mock driving licence. For £4.49.
Legoland opened 10 years ago on the site of the old Windsor safari park, 20 minutes from where our friend Richard Sinfield lives. He brings his sons Danny and Tom to Legoland often, sometimes after school, having paid for annual passes that allow them to come and go. Richard is a fan of the staff. "We lost Tom for a while yesterday and they were really good with him." But he was less impressed by Thorpe Park, the more grown-up theme park, where as a teacher he recently took a school trip for 310 teenage girls. "That place was a disgrace. The girls didn't seem to mind queueing for two hours just for a two- minute ride, but what struck me was how filthy it all was: food left all over the tables, foul toilets ... That was the most stressful day of my life."
Theme parks can be hell. Everybody knows it. So why do we still go? Tradition, partly. The Great British Summer Day Out has ancient roots in festivals of excess after the harvest. Theme parks are the descendants of pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall in London, where the child Mozart played while acrobats leapt and fireworks burst. But the modern tradition of day trips started with the Industrial Revolution, and the railways. In July 1841 a Baptist cabinet-maker called Thomas Cook booked a party of 500 teetotallers on a train from Leicester to a temperance rally in Loughborough. The future travel agent negotiated a price that included entertainments in local private gardens.
Once factory workers found they could hire a charabanc or a railway carriage for the day, resorts such as Brighton and Blackpool flourished. The seaside is still the number one destination for day trippers - but once people chose to ride the Big Dipper at Blackpool rather than freeze on the beach it became obvious that theme parks did not really need the seaside at all.
Nor do the modern ones need a theme. Disneyland, opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955, was based around the work of Walt Disney; but more modern British parks such as Alton Towers take fun and thrills as their reason for being. Their influence has been felt all the way down to their smallest rivals for the leisure pound: at our local farm, for example, children can feed piglets and lambs but also ride the jungle slide.
Back at Legoland, Jacob liked the 4D film, with flames and artificial snow in the cinema to match the action. He cheered for Johnny Thunders in a live adventure pantomime with acrobatics, sword fights and water bombs. He didn't mind queueing for half an hour to play at the controls of a JCB digger for three minutes, even though the sun was baking and his father was getting seriously irritable. He was having mad fun - sugar-rush fun, total sensory overload - but I was bored rigid, until Miniland.
If meeting Mickey Mouse is what you go to Disneyland for, then the core experience of Legoland is looking at miniature cityscapes made of plastic bricks. It was the most deserted part of the park, but also the best. We both loved watching the model cars, boats and trains move through small versions of Amsterdam and Copenhagen (although it would have been cheaper to catch a flight to the real thing).
The day was going OK until we tried to eat. British parents are disgusted by the standard of food available to children, according to the Mother and Baby survey: 97 per cent think it "processed, unimaginative and unhealthy" and 88 per cent say it is overpriced. That was true at the Crossed Ribs Barbecue in Legoland, where the chicken nuggets were weirdly speckled with white bits.
"Are these OK?" I asked a waitress. "They look like they've got popcorn in or something." "Oh yes, they have," she said smiling as if this was the most natural thing in the world. "It's popcorn chicken. We switched over." Without telling anyone. It wasn't on the menu. Jacob wouldn't eat it. I couldn't blame him.
Back we went into Daylight Robberyland, where a huge castle turned out to be hiding a long queue for a rollercoaster and a shop in which a cuddly green dragon was £44.99. A rubber sword with sound effects was £6.99, but I would have paid that to shove it up the nostrils of the "street artist" who wanted to cut Jacob's silhouette out of black card. For £8.99.
Hot and angry at the constant ambushes, I was actually relieved to pay £2.50 so we could spend time up to our elbows in cool water sifting sand for fool's gold, Western style. Quiet, patient fun, but it cost extra.
Jacob and I left in late afternoon to beat the traffic, agreeing you would have to stay until the last possible moment to get real value for money. If you did not collapse from exhaustion first. Vicky Brown, general manager of Legoland, insists that most visitors say the park is good value. The majority of rides and attractions are included in the price of admission. "However we do offer some optional activities ... and guests receive a souvenir or service in return for their payment. These activities are not mandatory."
Try telling that to kids who have seen the adverts and really do believe they are coming to a magical other-world. "Children and parents alike have such high expectations about days like these," says the clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew. "They arrive after a long, stressful journey and the place is packed with other families who are all feeling as tense. It's a pressure cooker."
We saw children fighting about queue jumping, and adults screaming at them. So why do parents go along with it? Guilt and shame, says Dr Andrew. The feeling of not having been around enough, or patient enough, or good enough in any way. "Parenting is tough. People are under pressure to hold down a career, be a good parent and part of a perfect loving couple. There may be guilt about a separation or an affair. Sometimes parents use big days out to try to make up for all those perceived inadequacies."
Some people are not used to spending time with their children and get panicked into big gestures. Some really do just want to give them a big treat, a holiday in one day. And some hope rollercoasters, candy floss and toys will make everything better. "Have anything you want," a man was saying in one of many shops at the exit. His bemused son had his arms full. They looked like strangers.
The good news from Dr Andrew is that "nobody is perfect. Parents should not beat themselves up if the day is not as great as hoped."
The bad news is that spending more than £100 will not guarantee a golden memory. Money does not mean much to most eight-year-olds: give them a lot and they'll ask for more. But they can tell when mum or dad is relaxed and happy, says Dr Andrew.
"The days that children are more likely to remember and talk about for years afterwards are those when something happened ad hoc - a picnic in the park or a walk on the beach. There was no stress, and they had a totally unexpected nice time."
That sounds good. We'll do that next time. But I can't put it to Jacob just now. He's building a Lego spaceship, and dreaming of going back. It could be a long wait.
THE 10 MOST PRICEY VISITS
£89 Blackpool Pleasure Beach
£78 Thorpe Park
£72 Alton Towers
£58 Chessington World of Adventures
£56 Paulton's Park, Hampshire
£48 Whipsnade Zoo
£47.50 Chester Zoo
£47 London Zoo
£38 Madame Tussauds
On-the-door price for two adults and two children. Source: Mothercare survey
THE 10 MOST VISITED PLACES
Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Natural History Museum
Tower of London
VIctoria & Albert Museum
Visits in 2005 recorded by association of leading visitor attractions. Many theme parks prefer not to disclose their figuresReuse content