The UK parks have just opened. Each has its own character and identity - some are ideal for thrill seekers, but there are also tamer parks which offer play areas and gentler rides for tots.
The theme park business is highly competitive and each year they try to launch bigger and better rides. These are promoted in a very macho style, with Jeremy Clarkson-style emphasis on G-forces and terrifying speeds. In general, the more disorientated these rides make you feel the better. Alton Towers' new Oblivion ride, for example, cost a staggering pounds 12 million (including completion of work to the X-Sector where it is located). The park estimates that 3.5 million people will queue up for this new stomach-churning ride in 1998.
Theme park merchandising is also big business so if you don't want to tot up big bills, steer your family well away from the stores. A new ride is always an excuse to push a new line of branded goodies. The Alton Towers Oblivion ride has even brought the appearance of branded condoms for those wishing to experience a second "ride of a lifetime" - not to mention branded tattoos, fridge magnets, key chains a bottle openers and disposable lighters.
If you are going to a park to sample a new ride, it's worth getting there early and heading straight for that ride the minute the park opens as the queues are bound to get big later in the day. Some parks such as Alton Towers actually issue a special ticket that you can buy to let you in half-an-hour earlier to have a go on its new ride.
Fast food has always been the standard fare at theme parks - after all, you don't want to waste too much time eating when there is so much to see and do. This year Alton Towers and Chessington World of Adventures have introduced well known food chains like McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut into their themed restaurants. If the weather is good it's always worth considering bringing a picnic - many of the parks are set in beautiful grounds. As the cost of soft drinks and ice creams mounts up, particularly on a sunny day, it's also worth packing extra refreshments.
Although entrance prices look high on paper, in practice most theme parks are pretty good value. Don't forget that the price includes all the rides, shows and attractions. Some of the shows - which include circus acts or theatrical performances - are of a surprisingly high standard, and they provide a much-needed break from walking around the sprawling parks.
Here are some of the highlights being offered this year by the country's four leading theme parks.
If you're after adrenalin highs, this park in Staffordshire may be the one for you. The first sector to head for is the X-Sector where you'll find all the rides from hell, including Oblivion, the Black Hole, Enterprise and Energiser. Oblivion is the latest addition to the extreme thrill rides - it involves travelling at 110km per hour with a maximum G-force of 4.5, considerably more "Gs" than Nasa astronauts experience in a Shuttle take-off. A brain-scramblingly slow four seconds is spent dangling face down "on the edge" before the 60-metre sheer drop into hell. A friend who has already been lucky/unlucky enough to try it says it provides the ultimate rush. "Nothing sickly, just a big whoosh. By the time you have screamed 'Oh my God!' as you start to plummet down, you've emerged at the other end whooping for joy and wanting to do it again."
Although Alton Towers is best known for its thrill rides, there is also plenty to keep younger children amused. There are two themed kingdoms with 25 rides and attractions just for tiny tots. Rest weary legs by watching the Peter Rabbit show on ice - there's a new production this season.
Alton Towers is a huge theme park, divided into eight themed lands and set in 500 acres of grounds, so take a push chair for little ones. There's certainly enough to see and do over a whole weekend, and it's worth staying overnight at the Alton Towers Hotel, which is linked to the park by monorail. New themed rooms in the hotel this year include Peter Rabbit and Oblivion rooms. The Chocolate Room is always popular as you can consume as much Cadbury's chocolate as you desire, and there is also Fizzy Factory which has Coca-Cola on tap.
Further information: Alton Towers, Alton, Staffordshire (tel: 0990 204060) is now open for the 1998 season until 8 November. The park opens at 9:30am and the rides start running at 10am. Entrance pounds 19, children pounds 15. Hotel and park packages start from pounds 156 per night, based on a family of four sharing (two adults and two children) off-peak, including continental breakfast and discounted tickets to the park. For special tickets which enable you to enter the park half an hour early just to ride Oblivion, tel: 0990 664466.
Chessington World of Adventures
This is the leading theme park in the south of England, and it caters well for all the family as it offers such a diversity of attractions. As well as the usual theme park rides, there is also a Big City Circus and an Animal Land. The emphasis is very much on entertaining the whole family, although there are some white-knuckle rides, such as Rameses Revenge that spins you through 360 degrees up to four times in a row, and the Vampire that simulates the flight of a vampire bat by flying you above the rooftops and then diving underground. But most of the rides are suitable for the whole family.
This year pounds 2m has been invested in a new family ride called Rattlesnake, which twists around a Mexican silver mine, taking you through 180 degree turns. The Creepy Caves is a new animal experience that allows you to encounter a range of creepy-crawlies, including rats, spiders, scorpions, snakes and cockroaches.
Look out for special events - summer nights during July and August when the park remains open until later every evening, and the end-of-season Spooktaculars on 24, 25 and 31 October and 1 November.
Further information: Chessington World of Adventures, Chessington, Surrey (tel: 01372 729 560) is now open until 1 November. 10am-5/6pm: pounds 19 adults, pounds 15 children.
If you get a kick out of getting soaked, this is your park. There are lots of good wet rides, including two new water rides for younger children this year: The Dino Bumper ride - dodgems on water - and Wet! Wet! Wet! - new water slides at the pool at Fantasy Reef beach area, and you'll need to wear a swimsuit for this one. My three- and five-year-olds had the time of their lives hurtling down Depth Charge, the 40ft water chute, in inflatable rafts and still keep showing their friends the photos of their ecstatic faces. Other famous wet rides include Loggers Leap, a wet and wild log flume ride down the Canadian Rockies. So that they don't overdose on adrenalin, small children will benefit from a rest by taking a boat or train trip to Thorpe Farm, a 1930s traditional working farm yard.
For adults, Thorpe Park is not the most sophisticated of theme parks, and when we visited last season, I found it rather run-down and depressing. My kids, however, absolutely loved it as the water rides were such a hit and they loved playing on the beach. Pack a towel, some dry clothes, go on a sunny day and this is a great place to have fun.
Further information: Thorpe Park, Staines Road, Chertsey, Surrey (for booking, tel: 0990 880880; for information, tel: 01932 562633). Open until 1 November, 10am-6pm: after 3 April the park opens at 9.30am. Entrance pounds 16.50, children pounds 13.
As far as theme parks go, Legoland is really in a league of its own. If you've never liked a fairground atmosphere and are not after high thrill rides, Legoland is a much more interactive and educational experience that all ages can enjoy. The centrepiece of the park is Miniland - miniature scenes from Europe ingeniously recreated from 20 million Lego pieces complete with a London Underground tube station, lots of moving boats and buses and intriguing scenes. You could easily spend a couple of hours just taking all this in.
Legoland is aimed at families with younger children under 12 years old. It is particularly good for pre-school children who, after exploring Miniland, will love the Duplo Gardens with its helicopter ride, puppet theatre, Fairy Tale Brook boat ride and the Waterworks where they can make water flow uphill and fountains squirt and play tunes. The over sixes will no doubt want to queue up to learn to drive electric cars.
New this year is the Dragon Knight's Castle with a new ride called The Dragon. This is an excellent family rollercoaster which passes through some intricate interior scenes before taking you on a relatively tame but still stomach-lurching ride outside.
One problem that families with young children may encounter is that at peak times, Legoland does get very crowded. We had one extremely stressful day there last summer when the queues were too long for our little ones to wait. So do visit Legoland - it really is exceptional - but for family sanity try to avoid school holidays and busy weekends.
Further information: Legoland, Windsor Park, Windsor, Berks (tel: 0990 040404). Open until 1 November, 10am-6pm. Adults pounds 16, children pounds 13.
And don't forget...
The Big Four are not the only theme parks in Britain, of course. Dobwalls Family Adventure Park, for example, is one of my favourites for families with small children as it has a superb miniature steam railway for little ones to chug round on. It also has excellent play areas both inside and out. New this year is a Children's Driving School at which young children can drive miniature taxis, buses and cars in a model village. There's also a new Small Animal section and regular visits from Mr Blobby.
Another action-packed park is Drayton Manor Family Theme Park, near Tamworth in Staffordshire. You'll find plenty of rides here that parents and children can go on together. Its 100 rides and attractions extend over 250 acres of parkland. They include Shockwave, Europe's only stand-up rollercoaster. Seven new rides for this year including the Froghopper, which allows kids to "hop" up and down to heights of 20 feet, experiencing weightlessness as they catapult into the air. There is also a zoo at the park and a separate park displaying dinosaur figures.
Further information: Dobwalls Family Adventure Park (tel: 01579 320325), Liskeard, Cornwall. pounds 5.50 (pounds 4.99-pounds 5.99 for children, 3-11 year olds). Open weekends 10.30am-4.40pm until 8 April, 10am-5pm from 8 April to 2 November.
Drayton Manor Family Theme Park, near Tamworth, Staffordshire (tel: 01827 287 979). Opens 28 March to 3 November. Opens 9am; rides available from 10:30am until 5pm.