"Mummy, where are the characters? I want to give them a cuddle." Those were the words of my five-year-old daughter on our trip to Parc Astérix, and they would have heartened me had we not just left the ferry in Calais. Instead, I began to wonder if it was wise to go on holiday on my own, driving on unfamiliar roads with two potentially bored children to distract me. And how suitable would Parc Astérix turn out to be compared with its higher-profile rival, Disneyland Paris?
True, my nine-year-old son (pictured, with his sister) is a fan of the books starring Astérix and his oversize friend Obelix. Georgia, on the other hand, was expecting cuddly characters; although Astérix is a little guy, his favourite pastimes are beating up Romans and blaspheming at obscure gods. Mickey Mouse he is not.
My worries about the drive were unfounded. It was motorway all the way, with just one change from the A26 to the A1 near Arras. Parc Astérix has its own exit just beyond Senlis. Two-and-a-half hours after leaving Calais we were checking into the park's lodge, Hotel des Trois Hiboux. It is in the Plailly Forest, and every room has a balcony or deck. The children were delighted with their bunks and goody bags. The hotel has a nature trail, a play room, and entertainers in the evenings - but the children were more interested in exploring the park.
To reach Parc Astérix you take a shuttle bus from the hotel. It felt more Disneyesque than I had expected: a statue of Asterix atop a giant rock dominates the skyline, like Sleeping Beauty's castle in Disneyland.
The park is arranged according to historical zones. The first is dedicated to the Romans who, in the books, never manage to capture Astérix's village in Gaul. Bright colonnades of souvenir shops line the Via Antica, which leads to an amphitheatre, venue for some shows and the first rides. The first set of characters appeared almost immediately: a patrol of centurions marched around accosting visitors and then threw themselves on the ground. The performance lost something in translation, but Georgia was impressed.
Beyond this lies Ancient Greece, home of the dolphinarium, the lake and two of the biggest crowd-pullers. Tonnerre de Zeus ("Thunder of Zeus") is one of the biggest roller-coasters in Europe. It is built of wood, which fits in with the woodland setting. The other big ride is Goudurix (the name of a character who has to confront his fears), which has seven inverted loops. I was quite pleased that Georgia was below the height requirement for these rides (1.2m for the Tonnerre de Zeus and 1.4m for the Goudurix). But if you enjoy being scared witless, head to Ancient Greece first thing, before the queues get too big.
There are many opportunities to get wet at Parc Astérix - something that my son Jackson thought was really cool but Georgia was quite uncomfortable with. After a thorough soaking on La Descente du Styx, a white-water rafting type of ride, we sloshed our way to the Transdemonium - a ghost-train in a medieval village. The ride was scary enough for a nine-year-old, and proved too much for a five-year-old. Georgia hid under my jumper only to emerge at the end to another soaking. She was getting fed up so we changed tack.
There are plenty of attractions for younger children: carousels and other gentle rides, bumper cars and a large play area constructed of wood. The biggest hit with Georgia, though, was the Gaul village in the centre of the park. Here, from 12.30pm onwards, Astérix, Obelix and friends come to meet the children, and to perform vignettes. There are photo opportunities and chances for cuddles. Georgia particularly liked Impedimenta, the chief's wife, in her big squashy pink dress, and Obelix, Astérix's sidekick, who, despite falling in a cauldron of magic potion as a baby and having superhuman strength, was the cuddliest of all.
Beyond the village lies the ancient Gaul area where the Mehnir Express is found. "Menhir" is Breton for a standing stone; in the books, Obelix is a mehnir delivery man. In this ride, in mehnir vessels, there is a steep drop at the end into a pool. It is one of the most popular rides, and was particularly so with a very wet Jackson who went on it many times.
Parc Astérix is an antidote to the full-on experience of Disneyland Paris. It is cheaper and easier to reach (though without the benefit of a Eurostar rail link) and well presented - there are many beautiful weather-vanes and iron balconies around the medieval village, and the craftspeople who made them are on site to demonstrate their skills. It is bright and cheery, too - lots of primary colours and caricatures of buildings and people, just like in the books. The queues for rides and characters are shorter than at Disneyland and the food is a hundred times better than the appalling Disney fare. Parc Astérix has a broader appeal than Disneyland Paris, too, with bigger thrills and water rides for older children.
The one thing that didn't seem to fit in was the show we saw. Main Basse sur la Joconde is a mime show about the theft of the Mona Lisa, packed full with slapstick, motorbike stunts and pyrotechnics. Jackson's analysis was: "It's all right, but I'd rather be on the rides"; Georgia's review was: "That's just stupid, but I do like it." And I was bemused. What did it have to do with Astérix? It provided a chance to rest our legs, though. Unlike Disneyland, you can pack a good visit to Parc Astérix into one intensive day: a distinct advantage if you have reservations about the theme-park experience.
There is also a regular bus shuttle from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Park Astérix (00 33 3 44 62 31 31; www.parcasterix.com) opens from early April to late October 10am-6pm, extended to 9.30am-7pm at weekends from this month, and daily from 14 July-28 August.
Day admission with one night's accommodation at the Hotel des Trois Hiboux costs from €241 (£172) for two adults and two children under 12. Day admission costs €34 (£24) and €24 (£17) for under-12s.Reuse content