Want to suck up to the kids? Take them to Walt Disney World, the Florida home of Mickey Mouse, says Sophie Radice. But once will do. Kate Honey selects the top alternatives worldwide

Entering Florida's Walt Disney World is like visiting a different country - one where the American "have-a-nice-day" and "can-do" attitudes have been ratcheted up a notch or three. Accept it or have an appalling time; the only way to get through it is to enjoy your children's excitement. And it's full on from the start. Winnie the Pooh, who helped us at "check-in" with our luggage, told me I already looked like I had been touched by "Tinkerbell dust". When I laughed he seemed a bit hurt.

Our three-day visit was probably too short to fully appreciate all that Walt Disney World, possibly the best theme park in the world, has to offer. It is twice the size of Manhattan, with four theme parks - The Magic Kingdom, Epcot Centre, Animal Kingdom and Disney MGM Studios - two water parks, 20 hotel resorts and a Disney Sports Park. A monorail links the whole complex, and the place is brilliantly organised.

After checking in, we boarded the train and set off into Disney's clean, bright vision of the world, swooping past the gorgeous beach resort, skirting a sparkling man-made lake, and passing a herd of zebras.

Finally, the train drew into the bowels of our hotel, The Contemporary, a shiny, white, futuristic building shaped like the letter A. Our children, Louis aged seven and Ella aged three, gasped with delight.

Our hotel was home to Chef Mickey, the restaurant where Disney characters are the waiting staff and where most kids who come to Walt Disney World beg to have at least one meal. Our room didn't disappoint either. Set right at the top of the A, it offered the best views of the lake and the Mickey Mouse-shaped pool. In the corridor, the kids could marvel at the sight of Disney characters and small excited children wandering about the mono-rail station way below.

And so to play. Of the four parks, Magic Kingdom is a Disney classic. Dominated by Main Street USA, a town straight out of The Waltons. The famous fairy-tale castle looms over it, with the Wild West to the left and a futuristic world to the right.

For our hotel neighbours, Joan and Lynette, both in their sixties, it is a place of pilgrimage that they visit at least once a year - just the two of them. Walt Disney World is part of their American heritage. On Splash mountain they proudly pointed out Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit as though they were characters from history.

We were seduced, too - if not to that extent. The famous end of the day parade was rained on, but my children didn't mind and loved being able to point out and name their favourite characters. The fireworks over the castle, a nightly event, were a beautiful and extravagant display.

Compared with the Magic Kingdom, the other parks proved disappointing. Epcot promised much but was gimmicky and not a patch on the Science Museum in London. The Animal Kingdom turned out to be a glorified zoo. The MGM attraction was enjoyable, but had a slightly neglected second-rate feel. And while the water parks were fun, they were missing the Disney magic.

By the third day, even the children were missing the real world. They were tired of being woken up early by the echoing Disneyesque sounds from Chef Mickey and being kept awake at night by the strains of "Never Smile at a Crocodile" emanating from an illuminated crocodile floating across the lake. We were beginning to suffer from Disney overload.

So would we do it again? Well, we haven't the heart to tell the children that it really was a "once in a lifetime experience". Their next visit may well be with their own brood.

LEGOLAND WINDSOR

What is it?
A collection of gentle rides and activities. The perfect introduction to theme parks for under-sevens.

Where is it?
Berkshire, UK.

What's the main attraction?
Panning for "gold" in the Wild Woods.

How much does it cost?
Adults £26, children (three to 15) £22.

How do I get there?
By road via M25, M4 or M3, or park bus from Windsor. Contact 08705 040404; www.legoland.co.uk.

WILD WADI WATER PARK

What is it?
Acres of rideable rapids, wave pools, and falls, inspired by the turbulent waters of desert wadis.

Where is it?
Dubai, UAE.

What's the main attraction?
Riding water on rubber rings at high speed.

How much does it cost?
Adults AED140 (£21), children (four to 12) AED120 (£18).

How do I get there?
By bus or taxi from Dubai airport.
Contact 00 971 4 348 4444; www.wildwadi.com.

SIX FLAGS GREAT ADVENTURE

What is it?
A classic American theme park.

Where is it?
Jackson, New Jersey.

What's the main attraction?
Kingda Ka, the world's fastest rollercoaster.

how much does it cost?
Adult $48.99 (£27), children over four $29.99.

how do I get there?
Contact 001 732 928 1821; www.sixflags.com.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, HOLLYWOOD

What is it?
A huge site where world-class animatronics sit next to working film sets.

Where is it?
Los Angeles, California.

What's the main attraction?
Historic tram ride round the back lots of film sets.

How much does it cost?
Adult $53 (£29), children $43 (£24).

How do i get there?
By subway or car. Contact 00 1 800 864 8977; http://themeparks.universalstudios.com.

SEA WORLD

What is it?
A combination of adrenaline rides, watersports, and sealife.

Where is it?
Australia's Gold Coast.

What's the main attraction?
The Shark Bay exhibit combines huge lagoons, underwater viewing and a touch-pool.

How much does it cost?
Adult A$60 (£26), child (four to 13) $38.

How do I get there?
Contact 00 61 7 5588 2205; www.seaworld.com.au.

WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT

What is it?
The daddy of all theme parks, an impressive 44 square miles encompassing golf courses, rides, resorts and enchanted kingdoms.

Where is it?
Orlando, Florida.

What's the main attraction?
Space Mountain is the classic ride for all wannabe astronauts. Hurtle along past planets and stars in a state of zero gravity.

How much does it cost?
Adult $65 (£36) Children $55 (£31).

How do I get there?
Shuttle buses operate between the resort and airport. Contact 0870 24 24 900; www.disneyworld-florida.co.uk.

EUROPA PARK

What is it?
Twelve areas each themed around a different country.

Where is it?
Freiburg, Germany.

WHat's the main attraction?
Silver Star, the tallest rollercoaster in Europe.

How much does it cost?
Adults €21 (£15), children (four to 11) €18.

How do I get there?
Drive from Strasbourg or Basel airports, or a train and bus. Contact 00 49 7822 770; www.europapark.de.

HONG KONG DISNEYLAND

What is it?
The Disney formula of parades, themed restaurants and river cruises.

Where is it?
Lantau, Hong Kong.

What's the main attraction?
The Space Mountain coaster.

How much does it cost?
Adults HK$295 (£22), children (four to 11) $210.

How do I get there?
By train from the airport or mainline station. Contact 00 852 1 830 830; www.hongkongdisneyland.com.

MOOMIN WORLD

What is it?
The home of the big-nosed, big-hearted creatures invented by author-illustrator Tove Jansson.

Where is it?
Naantali, south-west Finland.

What's the main attraction?
Give Moominmamma a hug at the Moominhouse.

How much does it cost?
Adults and children over three, €17 (£12).

How do I get there?
Fly to Turku, then a bus. Contact 00 358 2 511 1111; www.muumimaailma.fi.

PORTAVENTURA

What is it?
A selection of big rides reflecting the culture of random foreign lands.

Where is it?
Tarragona, Spain

What's the main attraction?
Fiestaventura is a spectacular, nightly laser and firework display.

How much does it cost?
Adults €35 (£25), children (four to 10) €28.

How do I get there?
Reus airport is a bus ride away. Contact 00 34 977 77 9090; www.portaventura.es.

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