Travel: Theme Parks - From Efteling to Port Aventura: the best of the rest in Europe

Efteling

Although it's not nearly so well-known to British families, this Dutch theme park is even more magical for young children than Disneyland Paris. In fact if your children are pre-school age, I'd recommend going to instead of Disneyland Paris as it's such an enchanting place to visit. There's a fairy tale behind everything at and the first place to head for is the Fairy Tale Forest which is full of characters and montages they'll recognise - such as Hansel and Gretal's house, Snow White, and, new this year Rumpelstiltskin and Tom Thumb. The park was designed in the 1950s by Dutch artist, Anton Pieck, and there are many little touches that make it special to young children, such as the Holle Bolle Gijs (paper gobblers) litter bins that talk and the magical toadstools that burst into music if you press them.

Teenagers would probably find too twee, although unlike Disneyland Paris, it does have a white knuckle ride section. New this year is Bird Rok (a dark high-speed coaster themed around "The Second Adventure of Sinbad the Sailor").

The Hotel near the park entrance is a very comfortable place to stay. Food and service are good and prices reasonable.

Open until 1 November from 10am-6pm, and until 9pm from 4 July to 6 September. Fl35/pounds 11.30 (under fours, free). Hotel accommodation based on a family of four sharing starts from about pounds 112 for a standard room and from pounds 168 for a themed room. An easy way to get there is the Stena Line Harwich to Hook crossing. is then about 90 minutes drive. For details of Stena Line packages call 0990 747474. Further information: 01242 260960

Port Aventura

One of the biggest advantages of this theme park, which is partly owned by the Tussauds Group, is its sunny location, as it's easily combined with a beach holiday on the north-east coast of Spain.

Rides stay open until midnight in the summer, so you can stay on the beach all day and enjoy the thrills at night. It wouldn't be my first choice to take small children to - its forte is thrill rides which should satisfy even the most ardent of adrenalin seekers. Its two main rollercoasters are Stampida and Dragon Khan. The Stampida is a twin track wooden racing rollercoaster which joins on to a third track for junior riders and boasts more track than any other roller-coaster in the world. Prepare yourself to be subjected to a G-force roughly equivalent to a space shuttle landing.

There are no hotels on site, but plenty of accommodation in nearby Salou or elsewhere on the Costa Dorada.

Open until 1 November, 10am-8pm, and until midnight 20 June to 13 September. Pta4,100/pounds 17.25 (Pta3,100 children). There are regular bus services and coaches from Barcelona, Valencia and the main towns nearby. There are four airports within a radius of two hours, Reus (15 mins), Barcelona, Valencia, Girona. Further information: 00 34 77 77 90 90.

Phantasialand

Wet weather shouldn't spoil your visit to Phantasialand, which is between Cologne and Bonn in Germany. This park, which celebrated its 30th birthday last year, has a huge variety of indoor theatre shows ranging from magic to ice-skating and puppets.

I joined a full house for a 45 minute magic and dance show in the Winter Garden, which is in the Main Street, a recreation of 1920s Berlin. The mixture of disappearing acts and other visual trickery is fast-moving and fun, although it was depressing to see a live tiger used as a central part of the show.

For space-age thrills, you can't beat the park's star attraction - Galaxy - which is the only thrill ride in Europe to use Imax high definition film effects.

Some of the rides in Phantasialand, such as the low-thrill roller-coaster Gebirgsbahn and the quaint Chinese ghost train, Geister Rikscha, are showing their age. But there's enough to entertain most demanding teenagers on a day trip - Michael Jackson enjoyed the Wild West-themed Colorado roller- coaster so much that he allowed the park to lend his name to it.

For a sky-high view of the park there's the Kodak Tower, in which spinning rocket ships ascend a 30 metre tower and tilt at a stomach-churning angle. Or the Crazy Loop, an indoor super-waltzer which not only spins you round, but also tilts you 360 degrees head-over-heels. For the under-sixes, or those who've just had lunch, there are more conventional funfair rides, a sedate gondola trip around a natural lake and Europe's biggest double- decker carousel. The park is also very compact - there are no long hikes between attractions and queues are rarely more than 25 minutes.

Phantasialand is built between suburban housing and green belt land on the outskirts of Bruhle. There is no on-site hotel, but there are several hotels and camping and caravan sites nearby.

Open until 31 October, 9am-6pm daily, and until 9pm in July and August. Adults DM34/pounds 12.20, children under 1.20m free. The park is easily accessible from the motorway BAB553 (exit Bruhl-Sud) and is directly off the trunk road L194, between Cologne and Bonn. Fly to Cologne from Gatwick by British Airways CityFlyer Express (for reservations call 0345 222111). For accommodation or information about Cologne, contact the German National Tourist Office on 0171 495 0081.

Parc Asterix

Twenty miles north of Paris, this park is themed around the cartoon character Asterix the Gaul, and is very lively and humorous in its comic-strip approach. It's a good park for older children and teenagers as there are lots of good white knuckle rides. The fairground atmosphere, with all the street performers and side shows, provides an off-beat education into the history of France. There are two new rides this year - La Foret des Druides (Druids' Forest, a children's play area designed around the secret meeting places of the Druids) and Les Espions de Cesar (Caesar's Spies, a pedal-powered car ride into Ancient Gaul).

There is no accommodation on-site at the moment although a themed hotel is planned for 1999.

Open until 11 October, 9.30am-7pm or 10am-6pm, depending on when you go. FFr160 per adult (FFr110 per child). The park is easily accessible, with its own exit off the main A1 route between the ports and Paris. Short break packages including nearby hotel accommodation, park entrance, and ferry crossings are available through P&O European Ferries, from pounds 57 (01992 456045). For further information call 00 33 344 62 34 04.

Tania Alexander

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