European theme parks: a survival guide

From stomach-churning fun for hard-to-please teenage thrill seekers, to gentle rides and lovable characters for youngsters, amusement parks offer entertainment for children of all ages. They can bring out the big kids in parents, too, provided they plan ahead - and pack plenty of snack food to cut costs

Port Aventura Spain

This is the third season for Port Aventura which is partly owned by the Tussauds Group, and located near Salou, on the north-east coast of Spain. This is the park to choose if you want sun, sangria and stomach- churning fun. Rides stay open until midnight in the summer so you can stay on the beach all day and enjoy the thrills at night. New this year is the pounds 7.5 million Stampida, a twin track wooden racing rollercoaster which joins on to a third track for junior riders and uses more track than any other rollercoaster in the world. Prepare yourself to be subjected to a g-force roughly equivalent to a space shuttle launching. The Dragon Roller Coaster is always a big attraction and reaches speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, looping the loop eight times - make sure you follow their instructions and keep your head back - I didn't and ended up with neck ache afterwards.

The almost guaranteed sunshine and laid-back atmosphere help create a party atmosphere. Although the main appeal of Port Aventura is for teenagers and thrill seekers, it has been well thought out as the children's and adult rides are all intermingled enabling older children to enjoy the adrenalin-pumping thrill rides while younger members of the family experience "pink knuckle" excitement on rides such as the Waikiki mini log ride. Do stop and watch some shows such as the Polynesian Island Dance and the Chinese acrobatics. There are no hotels on site but plenty of accommodation in nearby Salou or elsewhere on the Costa Dorada. Alternatively you can make it part of a city break and stay at Barcelona which is about an hour's drive away.

Further Information:

Open 17 March-26 October. Approximately pounds 21 for adults and pounds 16.40 for children under 13 years old. Night tickets also available. Further information 00 34 7777 9090.

There are about 27 UK tour operators offering packages to Salou which offer Port Aventura as an extra attraction. For example, Thomson Summer Sun (0990 502555), for a family of four staying at the 3T Port Salou Hotel, for seven nights, half-board, including flights costs pounds 1,128.

PARC ASTERIX France

Parc ASTERIX, 20 miles north of Paris, is based on the cartoon character, Asterix the Gaul. Although it is only 30 minutes' drive from Disneyland Paris, the two parks are totally different. Parc Asterix has a very French, tongue-in-cheek sense of fun and humour which transports you into a comic strip world. It has a fairground type atmosphere with plenty of street performers and side-shows to provide an offbeat education in the history of France. It's excellent for thrill rides - this year there is a new pounds 6m wooden roller coaster called Tonnerre de Zeus. White-knuckle riders should also head for Goudurix, which has seven loops, guaranteed to churn the strongest guts. For a gentler introduction to roller coaster rides try Le Serpentin. There are also plenty of water rides including a new one this year called La Riviere d'Elis. The Great Mona Lisa Caper, which opened at Parc Asterix last year, is the largest live-action show at any European theme park and includes some spectacular stunts and tricks. There are no themed hotels at Parc Asterix, but plenty of reasonably priced motels to stay at nearby.

Further information:

Opens for the 1997 season on 5 April. Admission 160FF Adults, 110FF children (under 12 years old).

Short break packages (including nearby hotel accommodation, park entrance and ferry crossings) are available through P&O European Ferries (01992 456045) from pounds 196 for one night's B&B for a family of four, including ferry crossings and day passes into the park. Alternatively, the Parc Asterix reservations office, Episodes, can arrange a night's hotel accommodation and entrance to the park - tel: 00 33 1 44 26 46 46.

DISNEYLAND

France

If you want to win brownie points with the kids, you'll have to take them to Disneyland Paris as this is undoubtedly the ultimate theme park, full of the characters that they all know and love. In terms of technology, it is also the most sophisticated of parks. There are now 40 rides, the most memorable of which are Space Mountain (an indoor roller coaster), Star Tours (an hilarious simulated flight in a spaceship) and the Pirates of the Caribbean (an indoor adventure boat ride). I've yet to meet a child who hasn't had a wonderful time at Disneyland Paris - one of the best rides for children is Peter Pan's Flight which takes them on a magical trip over the rooftops of London to Never Never Land.

Teenagers may be disappointed that this is not a park for white knuckle rides, although there is plenty for them to see and do.

Allow time to see the parades and some of the shows. There are also many special events taking place throughout the year to celebrate the park's fifth anniversary (next Saturday), including a gigantic magical party next weekend and a Flower Festival in May.

Although you can tour the park in a day, it's much more enjoyable if you allow yourself two days. Fortunately, going to Disneyland Paris is now much more affordable than it was when it opened five years ago as everything from food prices to hotels and cuddly gifts have been significantly reduced. Try to avoid school holidays and the peak summer months when you may spend more time queuing than doing the rides.

There are six themed hotels on site. The most convenient and expensive is the Disneyland Hotel at the entrance to the park. The most exciting for families is Hotel Cheyenne, styled like a Wild West town. The most enjoyable way to get there is by the Eurostar Direct Service which, from this Spring, is becoming a daily rather than just a weekend service and whisks you from Waterloo International into Mickey Mouse land in just over three hours.

Further information:

Open all year round. Adult prices start from pounds 63 per person for a two- day break, including bed and breakfast accommodation in a themed hotel and entrance to the park - if you go before 26 March children between the ages of three to 11 years old are free when accompanied by a paying adult. (Further details from the Disneyland Paris UK Booking Centre on 0990 030303).

There are many British tour operators which feature Disneyland Paris such as British Airways Holidays (0345 222111) which offers two-day breaks from pounds 219 including two nights at the Hotel Cheyenne, return flights and park entry.

EFTELING Holland

Situated in south-west Holland, this is probably the most magical theme park in Europe, designed in the 1950s by Dutch artist Anton Pieck. There's a fairy tale behind everything at Efteling from the House of Five Senses entrance to the rides themselves. Don't miss the incredible Dream Flight which takes you on a journey through a world of fairies, trolls and flowers; Fata Morgana which is a magical boat ride through the Orient; or Villa Volta, a ride based on local myth, guaranteed to put your mind in spin. You should also visit the quirky Land of Laafs - a village of fairy tale people who are supposed to have set up home at Efteling.

There is also a section of thrill rides although teenagers will probably find the whole park too twee. For young families it is one of the best parks in Europe and is a particularly beautiful place to visit in spring - take a picnic and enjoy the thousands of tulips and spectacular gardens. The Efteling Hotel at the entrance to the park has some truly wild themed rooms such as a Fifties style one complete with a Cadillac for a bed, a golf room with Astroturf for a carpet and a circus room complete with trapeze. Prices start from about pounds 154 per themed room.

Further information:

Opens 27 March until 26 October, 1997 (tel: 01242 260960). Entrance costs 35,00 Dfl (approximately pounds 12.50 per adult and children). A number of short- break packages are available including Amsterdam Travel Services (01992 456056); from pounds 72 per person, including ferry crossings, one night at the Efteling Hotel and a day's entrance to the park.

THEME PARK TIPS

Study a map of the park and familiarise yourself with the layout before you go.

Find out which are the most popular attractions and head for these first. Avoid lingering at the entrance - you can come back and see everything later.

Wear plenty of layers of clothes and take some waterproofs, even in summer.

If you have young children take a buggy (most parks involve a lot of walking). Some parks also hire them out.

To cut costs, come equipped with lots of soft drinks and snacks as it's the price of these foods that add up.

It's very easy to get separated and lose friends and family at parks. Make sure that children carry some sort of identification and decide on a family meeting place before you set off.

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