The Complete Guide To: European theme parks

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From Disney to Asterix, Lego bricks to water slides, these vast playgrounds are likely to be firm favourites with families – and a visit needn't break the bank

Europe's most popular theme park?

By a massive margin: Disneyland Park, part of the vast Disneyland Resort Paris east of the French capital. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, nearly 12.7 million visitors passed through its turnstiles last year – more than three times as many as the next most popular European theme park (Europa-Park in south-west Germany).

With its pink castle and "lands" themed on the Wild West, the future and fairy tales, the Disneyland Park looks much the same as Disney properties in California, Florida, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It's a sure-fire hit with younger children: there are costumed Disney characters to meet at every turn, colourful parades and shows, and a host of gentle rides such as Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast and Pirates of the Caribbean. For older visitors the outstanding rides include a pair of spectacular, high-g roller-coasters – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, and Space Mountain: Mission 2 – plus the thrilling but less gruelling Big Thunder Mountain.

Expect queues to be monstrous at peak times – if possible, visit outside school holiday periods and on weekdays rather than weekends. For the most popular rides, Disney operates a free Fastpass system – you pick up a ticket at the attraction, and return later within a stated time slot when you can join a shorter queue – but don't imagine using the Fastpass will eliminate queuing altogether. If you are assigned, say, the 2-2.30pm slot, and turn up promptly at 2pm, you can still expect to be in line for 10 or 15 minutes. Also, many attractions do not have the Fastpass.

Disneyland Resort Paris opened a second theme park in 2002. Walt Disney Studios Park takes the movies as its theme, but unlike similar American parks, no filming actually takes place there. Broadly speaking, it holds more appeal to older children and adults: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of the scariest theme-park rides you are likely to encounter, while Rock'n'Roller Coaster is tenuously themed around an Aerosmith gig. But the number of attractions pitched at younger children is growing: don't miss Stitch Live!, in which the cartoon character on the screen can somehow chat with members of the audience.

More information, including on the resort's seven elaborately themed hotels, and the Disney Village of shops, restaurants and night-time entertainment, on 0844 800 8111, disneylandparis.co.uk . By following a link on the website, you can now fly like Peter Pan around a new 3-D version of the resort, courtesy of Google Earth – it's one way to avoid the queues.

Anything more French?

Certainly. Nothing less than Gallic – or more accurately Gaulish – independence is the theme at Parc Astérix (00 33 8 26 30 10 40; parcasterix.fr ) – about 20 miles north of Paris, and a longer-established attraction than the nearby Disney resort. They can easily be combined, since they are around 45 minutes' drive apart. Parc Astérix celebrates its 20th birthday this year by rounding off the entertainment each day with an anniversary parade and show with characters from the Goscinny and Uderzo comic strip. In the Gaulish village at the heart of the park you can meet Asterix, Obelix and Co, ride the Menhir Express log flume, and spin around in a cauldron. Other parts of the park are devoted to the Roman Empire, ancient Greece, and, anachronistically, the Vikings.

Any educational theme parks?

Futuroscope (020-7499 8049; uk.futuroscope.com ), spread over a dozen futuristic-looking buildings near Poitiers, springs to mind. Its most intriguing attraction is The Future is Wild, in which you interact with imaginary animals that could inhabit the world millions of years from now.

In the early years of Futuroscope, some visitors complained that it was too worthy and not exciting enough. Happily, there is a host of new attractions. Fly Me to the Moon is an animated 3-D film based on the Apollo 11 mission; EcoDingo is a simulated ride on environmentally-friendly vehicles; while Building the Future is an explorable "house of tomorrow", offering ideas for sustainable living. The new nocturnal multi-media extravaganza, The Blue Note Mystery, was designed by the artistic adviser for the ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics.

Reasonably close, south-east of Nantes in France's Vendée region, you can find a history-themed park: Puy du Fou (00 33 820 09 10 10; puydufou.com ). Calling itself a "theatre" park, every day it lays on spectacular, large-scale live historical shows – gladiators battle and charioteers race in a Roman stadium, Vikings loot a village, English and French armies from the 100 Years' War fight over a medieval castle. Puy du Fou is also renowned for its night-time Cinéscénie shows, which take place on what is claimed to be the world's largest stage (it covers 57 acres): the new Organs of Fire show promises water nymphs and fairies rising out of a lake, to the accompaniment of classical music. The park has two elaborately themed hotels: the new 18th-century Logis de Lescure, and La Villa Gallo-Romaine.

Further south and east, complete your French theme-park entertainment with a visit to Vulcania (00 33 820 827 828; vulcania.com ). Surrounded by the dormant volcanoes of the Auvergne region, the park takes vulcanology as its theme. It wasn't a great success when it opened in 2002, as the exhibitions were too earnest. To stem the decline in visitor numbers, millions of euros have been spent in the past few years on more fun and exciting family-oriented attractions. New last year was Dragon Ride, a mythical special-effects journey in to the depths of the earth. New this year is The Earth's Rage, a simulated adventure immersing you in disastrous natural phenomena, such as an avalanche, earthquake and tornado.

South of the border?

Just outside Benidorm and plumb in the middle of Spain's Costa Blanca, Terra Mitica (00 34 902 02 02 20; terramiticapark.com ) is divided into zones representing Egypt, Greece, Rome, Iberia and Mediterranean islands. Top rides include the Magnus Colossus, claimed to be Europe's longest wooden rollercoaster, and the Flight of the Phoenix – a 170-foot free-fall drop. The (unthemed) Atalaya Adventure Park is new, with rope bridges and zip lines. Note that there is a separate admission charge from the theme park proper: from €10.

North along the Mediterranean shore, on the Costa Dorada, the resort of PortAventura (0800 966540; portaventura.co.uk ) has one of Europe's biggest and best water parks, in the form of the Caribe Aquatic Park. It boasts a wave pool, lazy river, water slides, and indoor area for young children. But the focal point of PortAventura is its theme park (PortAventura Park), which has five beautifully themed lands recreating Mayan Mexico, the Wild West, Polynesia, China and elements of the Mediterranean, and some top-notch rides such as the eight-loop roller coaster Dragon Khan.

When the Hotel Gold River, which is themed on a 19th-century gold miners' settlement in the American Wild West, opens on 1 July, the resort will have four hotels – packages on 0800 091 3886; portaventuraholidays.co.uk .

A bigger splash?

The owners of Siam Park (00 34 902 060 000; siampark.net ), which opened in southern Tenerife last September, call their creation a theme park with aquatic rides.

The theme is exotic Thailand: slides are set amongst tropical vegetation, there's a floating market constructed from wood, bamboo and tiles shipped from Thailand, and a white sand beach.

For adrenalin seekers, main attractions are the Tower of Power – after a near-vertical plunge, you whizz down a clear tube through a tank of tropical fish and alligators – and the world's biggest artificial breakers (up to 10 feet high) in the wave pool.

Water is also a major element at Gardaland (00 39 045 644 9777; gardaland.it ), on the southeastern shore of Lake Garda. Alongside Italy's most popular theme park, there's a Gardaland water park and a Sea Life Aquarium, which opened last year.

The most European theme park?

The highly rated Europa-Park (00 49 1805 868610; europapark.de ), in Rust, south-west Germany. It has a grey rodent called Euromaus as its mascot, and is divided into 13 European countries, with appropriate architecture, vegetation, food, shopping and attractions in each. In Switzerland, for example, you'll find the Swiss Bob Run, in Russia the Lada Autodrom, in Italy the u

oCarnival in Venice show ("electronic birds celebrate carnival in Venetian masks"), and in England the London Bus ride.

Many of the four million annual visitors come for big thrills: the park has 10 rollercoasters. These include Silver Star, in the French area, the highest coaster in Europe; and the new Blue Fire Megacoaster, which catapults riders to over 60mph in 2.5 seconds above the rocky landscape and fishing village of Iceland.

Most enchanting park?

Dating from the early 1950s, Efteling (00 31 416 288 111; efteling.com ) in southern Holland is a strong contender. Highlights for young children are likely to be the Fairy Tale Forest, a woodland walk past tableaux with animatronic, life-size characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, and Dream Flight, a ride through fantasy scenes such as floating castles and grottoes.

Tivoli (00 45 3315 1001; tivoli.dk ), a Danish institution in Copenhagen, can fairly claim to be the world's first amusement park – it opened in 1843 – and was an inspiration for Walt Disney when he was planning the original Disneyland in California. It is still the third most popular theme park in Europe, with more than 3 million visitors. Besides its rides, Tivoli's appeal lies in its immaculate gardens, the Pantomime Theatre, performances from the uniformed Tivoli Boys Guard, and its dining options, which include two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Disneyland Paris for less

Disney is offering packages including free Eurostar travel, accommodation and theme-park tickets for children under seven, plus further savings of up to 40 per cent for bookings made by mid-July. See disneylandparis.co.uk for terms.

Eurostar from London is handy, but expensive; instead, drive, or travel by coach; Leger Holidays (0845 408 1093; tothemagic.leger.co.uk ) offers packages.

Cut costs by staying in nearby non-Disney accommodation. The Hotel Kyriad at Disneyland Resort Paris (00 33 1 60 43 61 61; kyriad-disneyland-resort-paris.fr ), for example, has family rooms for four from €100 including breakfast. Or camp: Les Etangs Fleuris (00 33 1 64 04 16 36; paris-campsite.com ) is a rural site 20 minutes' drive from Disney, with pitches from €24 a night for a family of four.

To avoid the expensive menus at Disney hotels, dine at the restaurants at the Val d'Europe shopping centre ( valdeurope.fr ), one stop from Disney on the RER.

No picnics, by the way, are allowed in the parks, but you shouldn't be harangued for taking in bottles of water and snacks.

Legoland: built to last

During the Depression, Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter, experimented with building blocks. He chose the name Lego from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well", unaware that, in Latin, lego means "I put together". In 1954, his son, Godtfred, developed the Lego system; in 1968 Legoland ( legoland.dk ) opened next door to the factory in Billund. New twists this year include the Pirate Wave Breaker, "the red pirate boat that makes even the most experienced sailors shriek". Next door, a new resort complex, called Lalandia offers a water park and holiday cottages; see legolandbillundresort.com. The easiest access is by flying to Billund, which is walking distance from the park.

Simon Calder

Parks essentials

Check out theme parks' websites for opening times, height restrictions on rides, and admission prices and deals – prices are sometimes lower if tickets are bought ahead or are for multiple days, and ticket/hotel packages can be worth considering. Compare prices with those of ticket agencies such as Theme Park Tickets Direct (0844 579 3060; themeparkticketsdirect.com ) and Keith Prowse (0844 209 0381; keithprowse.com ).

The best guidebook to Disneyland Paris is The Brit Guide to Disneyland Resort Paris (£9.99, foulsham.com ). Frommer's Paris & Disneyland Resort Paris with Your Family (£12.99, frommers.co.uk ) is the best choice if you're combining the French capital with Mickey Mouse (easy to do, as Disneyland Paris is just a 40-minute train ride on the RER from the centre of the city).

Useful unofficial websites covering European theme parks: dlp.info (Disneyland Paris only), themeparkinsider.com , themeparkreview.com , screamscape.com .

The oddest European theme parks

Owned by a confectionery company, BonBon-Land (00 45 5553 0700; bonbonland.dk ) in eastern Denmark takes some beating, with one of its leading attractions the Dog Fart Switchback rollercoaster: you ride on an excreting hound, while listening to flatulent sound effects.

Perhaps the oddest-named theme park is Nigloland (00 33 3 25 94 52, nigloland.fr ), in the Aube region of Champagne. Niglo means "hedgehog" in French travelling people's slang – the park was created by two fairground entertainers in the 1980s. There are characters dressed as hedgehogs, a show with automated hedgehogs, and hedgehog ride through a magic forest.

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