UK theme parks: your survival guide

This is the deal: once you've paid your entrance fee, the rides and attractions are free. Each has its target audience; some are aimed at teenage thrill seekers, others offer gentler rides for smaller children. In the first of a new occasional series on outings for families, as Britain's theme parks prepare to open for the season, sit back and enjoy the ride... or be scared out of your wits. By Tania Alexande r

LEGOLAND Berkshire

Legoland Windsor opened last year and like its Danish counterpart is different to other theme parks in that it is much more interactive and more about taking in than going on the rides. The park is aimed at young families with children under 12 years old. It is particularly good for pre-school-age children who 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. Children over six years old can learn to drive electric cars and all ages will marvel at Miniland - miniature scenes from Europe recreated by 20 million Lego pieces complete with model trains, cars, ships, cranes, bridges, fountains and people.

There are two new rides this season in The Imagination Centre: the Sky Rider, a pedal-powered ride that circumnavigates the centre and the Space Tower, where children pull themselves up to the top of the tower to inspect the UFO hovering overhead, before "abseiling" to the bottom. From May there will also be a new animated Lego Technic dinosaur.

Make sure you get there early as there is a lot to do in one day. It's such an interesting park that it makes it a good choice to take a handful of children for a special occasion such as a birthday party.

LEGOLAND Windsor opens on 21 March to 28 September plus weekends and half-term week in October. Admission pounds 15 adults, pounds 12 children (3-15 years old). Tickets can be booked on 0990 040404. There is plenty of accommodation available near by such as the Heathrow Marriott Hotel (01753 544 244) where a family of four pays pounds 75 per night for bed and breakfast. For other accommodation options call 01753 841 746.

ALTON TOWERS Staffordshire

Alton Towers in Staffordshire is pure heaven for adrenaline junkies, as it offers some really mind-mangling rides. For example, the awesome steel roller coaster Nemesis will put you under greater G-forces than that of a Nasa astronaut during space shuttle launches. New this season is a white knuckle ride called Ripsaw which is themed around rusting industrial machinery. Riding the Ripsaw will involve being strapped into a 28-seat gondola and then subjected to up to three stomach-churning 360-degree spins that'll leave you hanging upside-down nearly 50ft above the ground. As a "bonus" you're also promised terrifying jets of water from dozens of fountains.

Although it's 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 - the new Cred Street where you'll find Nickelodeon Outta Control, an interactive television adventure which allows the children to be the stars, and Storybook Land that has a wonderful farmyard with an interactive singing barn. My two- year-old hooted with laughter. Apprentice adrenaline seekers can enjoy mini-thrills on a kiddie's roller coaster called the Beastie.

Proving that theme parks can be educational, 18 and 19 March are dedicated Passport to Science days. Instead of using boring old test tubes and Bunsen burners, children can check out the G-force on Nemesis or become a human pendulum on the Blade. They will be provided with a series of worksheets containing questions covering topics such as speed, energy and forces and then invited to participate in practical seasons on the rides to obtain their answers. There will also be interactive lectures given by astronaut Helen Sharman.

Alton Towers is a big theme park, divided into eight themed lands and set in 500 acres of grounds. There's certainly enough to see and do over a whole weekend and you can stay overnight at the Alton Towers Hotel, which opened last year and has been particularly imaginatively themed with a Jules Verne-style flying machine in the lobby and a Teddy bear and secret drawer of presents in every room. There is also a new Pirate Bill Club to keep the children entertained while you recover from the action of the day with a gin and tonic. There are 175 rooms, including some great suites such as a chocolate room where you can consume as much Cadbury's chocolate as you desire and a Fizzy Factory that has Coca Cola on tap. New for 1997 is the Nemesis room sleeping up to six, filled with relics of the white knuckle ride. The hotel and park are connected by monorail.

Alton Towers in Alton, Staffordshire (0990 20 40 60) opens on Saturday 15 March and shuts down on 2 November. pounds 18-pounds 18.50, children pounds 14-14.50 and pounds 6-pounds 6.50 for senior citizens. The park is open from 9.30am until 5pm or 7pm. Discount of pounds 1 if tickets are booked more than two weeks in advance. Hotel and park packages start from pounds 155 per night, based on a family of four sharing (two adults and two children) off peak, including breakfast and one-day passes. (bookings: 0990 00 11 00).

THORPE PARK Surrey

Take a towel with you when you visit Thorpe Park as the chances are that you will get thoroughly splashed from the many great water rides. Check out the famous Logger's Leap (one of the highest log flume rides in the UK); Thunder River (white water rafting); Flying Fish (family roller coaster); and Depth Charge which plunges your raft down a 40ft waterslide. The park is specifically aimed at younger children, with rides a little less scary than, say, Alton Towers. Last year the park was voted the most Parent Friendly Park in the Tommy's Campaign Awards. On a warm day, children can play on Fantasy Reef, a sandy beach area with shallow pools, waterjets and slides. There are also outdoor play areas, a soft indoor play centre for shelter from the rain, a 1930s working farm and rides such as Miss Hippo's Fungle Safari and Mr Rabbit's Magical Tropical Travels aimed at children under three feet.

There are no big new rides this year. X:/No Way Out, launched last summer, gives a totally backward experience and will make you feel so disoriented you won't know what year it is. And afterwards, you can even buy a mug emblazoned with a photograph of yourself staring into the abyss.

Thorpe Park, Staines Road, Chertsey, Surrey (01932 569393). Open every weekend until 22 March when it will open daily until 2 November (for opening hours tel: 01932 562633), pounds 15.95 adults, pounds 12.95 children under 4ft 6ins (1.4m).

CAMELOT THEME PARK

Lancashire

King Arthur fans should enjoy this park in Lancashire which offers over 100 rides and attractions, each with its own Arthurian legend theme. New this year is Pendragon's Plunge, a water ride designed to shoot the whole family down gradients of up to 16 per cent without even getting wet. White knuckle rides include the Tower of Terror, Excalibur and The Rack. Boys and girls who like things really creepy can try Venom - The Experience which combines a blistering white knuckle thrill with a chance to see lizards, snakes and spiders at close hand in the reptile house. There is also a Sooty Show, live entertainment in the 2000-seater jousting arena by King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and a Rare Breeds Farm.

Camelot Theme Park and Rare Breeds Farm, Chorley, nr Preston, Lancashire (01257 452100). Opens every day from 22 March to 6 April, weekends only from 12 April to 25 May plus Bank Holiday Monday, 5May, then every day for the summer from 26 May to 7 September. Weekends only from 13 September to 2 November plus every day for half-term from 20 October to the end of the season. Opens from 10am until about 5pm. pounds 12.99 per person. Children under three feet (one metre) tall get in free.

CHESSINGTON WORLD OF ADVENTURES Surrey

If you're looking for variety, Chessington World of Adventures is ideal as it offers a Big City Circus and an Animal Land (with penguins, sea-lions, barn owls and many rare and endangered species) as well as the traditional rides. Chessington is very much a family park. 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 roof tops and then diving underground, most of the rides are suitable for the whole family and have no height restrictions, despite their high adrenaline factor. Small children will enjoy the colourful carousel, Professor Burp's Bubbleworks (an indoor water ride) and the Safari monorail which gives them the chance to rest their tired legs while looking at the rare and endangered species of animals and birds. There are also toddler rides such as trucking convoy, a Toytown Roundabout and a mini roller coaster.

Chessington World of Adventures, Chessington, Surrey (01372 727227). Opens Saturday 22 March-2 November, 10am-5-6pm. Also open later for selected nights in summer. pounds 17.50 adults, children pounds 13.75 (4-14 year olds).

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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