Wednesday 26 April 2017

Park life: Six super theme parks for families in Europe

Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland, Paris
Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland, Paris
Legoland, Windsor
Legoland fireworks
Disneyland Paris
De Efteling: Europalaan
Port-Aventura, Spain
Paulton's Park/Peppa Pig World
Thomas Land

Independent Travel

With schools soon to break up for mid-term, we take a look at some of our favourite family theme parks throughout Europe.

LEGOLAND Windsor, UK

AGES: Officially aimed at 2-12 (although 10-11 year-olds might prefer more adrenaline-oriented theme parks, unless they're ardent Lego fans).

HIGHPOINTS: If your budget can stretch to it, it's well worth checking into the resort hotel, which has been designed with impeccable attention to detail. Younger children will be mesmerised by the little touches, including the in-room safe stocked with Lego that can only be opened once the code is cracked.

The park itself is well laid out, and the ride selection well conceived: The Atlantis Submarine voyage (which glides through an aquarium tank) will captivate every age group while younger children will love the digger challenge and driving school. Halloween is a fantastic time to visit, with a Legends of Chima™ Fire and Ice fireworks display on 18/19 October, 25/26 October and 31 October/1 November, as well as the Forest of 5,000 Pumpkins.

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LOWPOINTS: Some areas of Lego Town look outdated and would benefit from a lick of paint. Elsewhere, queues can be prohibitively long. A Q-bot (a ride reservation service priced from £15 to £70) is worth its weight in gold.

WORD TO THE WISE: Download the free app (which includes a map) before visiting and don't forget to pack togs for the water-slides at Drench Towers. Also, while this isn't an exit-through-the-gift-shop theme park, bear in mind that acquiring merchandise is part of the experience for children - something to factor into the overall budget.

HOW TO GET THERE: London Heathrow airport is just 12 miles away, via the M4.

RATES: Park tickets can be brought in advance online from €44.75 for adults, €39.60 for children (free for under threes) and from €168.65 for families (2 adults + 2 children or 1 adult + 3 children). Themed family stay (2 adults/up to 3 children) rooms at the resort hotel are available from €315 low season or €429 high season. The hotel price includes breakfast and park tickets for two days plus early bird access to selected rides.

WEBSITE: www.legoland.co.uk

Disneyland Paris

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AGES: 3-99

HIGHPOINTS: The thrills come thick and fast in Disneyland, whether you're a princess collecting Anna and Elsa's autographs, a teen rocketing through Space Mountain, or a parent having their lower back rattled on Indiana Jones et le Temple du Péril. Even the most hardened of cynics will find it hard to resist their children's joy, or stop their own mouths opening in awe, during the Disney Dreams! night-time lights spectacular.

LOWPOINTS: Two words: other people. Sadly, you can't have Disneyland Paris to yourself. That means queues of up to an hour for top rides at peak times.

WORD TO THE WISE: Use the Fastpass system, make sure your kids have your phone number in case they get lost, and save money by bringing a packed lunch.

HOW TO GET THERE: Ryanair flies to Paris Bouvais (2.5 hours by VEA Shuttle Bus from Disneyland). Aer Lingus flies to Paris Charles de Gaulle (45 minutes by shuttle). Packages bundling tickets, flights, transfers and accommodation can be booked with tour operators including Abbey Travel (abbeytravel.ie) and Breakaway (breakaway.ie).

RATES: Standard, single-day tickets to both Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios (there are two parks on the same campus) cost €80/74pp.

WEBSITE: www.disneylandparis.ie

De Efteling: Europalaan, The Netherlands

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AGES: 2-99. Its fairytale theme means it's suitable for all ages. But there is a height restriction on certain rides of 1.20 meters (3.9ft)

HIGHPOINTS: The atmosphere is magical with many wonderful attractions. The Dreamflight is one of the most popular allowing visitors to float through an enchanted world. Aquanura is Europe's biggest water show - incorporating water, fire and music. And Fata Morgana is a dreamlike boat trip through the Forbidden City.

LOWPOINTS: It's hard to find any negative aspects but it's very big so you would need more than one day to get to see everything.

WORD TO THE WISE: The award-winning park is one of the oldest in the world and is always busy particularly during the school holidays. Buying tickets in advance saves time and the website offers advice on when the park is quietest. Staying in the themed Efteling hotel also makes access easier.

HOW TO GET THERE: Aer Lingus fly from Dublin to Amsterdam and Ryanair fly from Dublin to Eindhoven. A bus from Amsterdam to De Efteling takes up to two hours and from Eindhoven takes approx. 1 hour. Tickets start at €11

RATES: Children under 4 go free and tickets start from €33 per person.

WEBSITE: www.efteling.co.uk

Peppa Pig World, Hampshire, UK

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AGES: Zones for children aged 2-5, then 6-8 and 9+.

HIGHPOINTS: If your little ones are fans of this televisual behemoth, Peppa Pig World - nestled within the larger theme park - offers them the chance to get up close and personal with both Peppa and George. The characters are very generous with photo/meet & greet time. Elsewhere in the park, the Stinger might be closed until Easter, but high-octane rides Magma and The Edge are well worth the queues.

LOWPOINTS: It can work out expensive if you have tall children; children under 1 metre are allowed in for free, but it's approx. €30 otherwise. Also, the park's overpriced food gets a thumbs-down: bring a packed lunch.

WORD TO THE WISE: Buy a two-day pass: that way kids can access zones that they missed out on in the first day. Also, many punters start to leave with tired children around 3pm, a good time to beat the queues (although the popular helicopter ride at the entrance is always busy).

HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Southampton airport with Flybe, then either get a taxi or hire a car. There's no transport directly from the airport to the park.

RATES: Advance tickets start from €30 per adult/child over 1 metre tall, to €144 for a family of five.

WEBSITE: www.paultonspark.co.uk

Thomas Land, Staffordshire, UK

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AGES: This particular area of the theme park is specifically for younger children.

HIGHPOINTS: Set in a 6000-square foot park, Thomas Land boasts 12 themed rides, a massive indoor play area and a shop packed with Thomas & Friends merchandise. It's ideal for smaller children with at least 10 rides suitable for under-5s, while Thomas fans get pulled around the (fairly compact) park by the main train himself. There are daily live shows too, featuring an all-singing, all-dancing Fat Controller.

LOWPOINTS: If you're tight on time, perhaps give the zoo a miss.

WORD TO THE WISE: Older visitors should make haste to Apocalypse, described as the UK's scariest amusement park ride. The Shockwave, meanwhile, has been voted the best stand-up rollercoaster in the world.

HOW TO GET THERE: Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly from Dublin to Birmingham. It's a 20-minute taxi ride to Drayton Manor.

RATES: A family of three day-pass is approx. €103, while a family of five day-pass is approx. €172. Children under 3 are admitted free.

WEBSITE: www.draytonmanor.co.uk

PortAventura Tarragona, Spain

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AGES: 2-99. Thanks to the new SesamoAventura area for very small children, the park now has something for everyone.

HIGHPOINTS: It's a fantastic excursion to combine with a trip to Barcelona and the rides - among them the infamous Furius Baco and the white-knuckle Shambhala - are truly world-class.

LOWPOINTS: Small children pay full-price for admission, but there are height restrictions (1 metre plus) for many rides.

WORD TO THE WISE: Ride the rollercoasters at night for stunning views. To avoid long queues, buy Express passes - around €25 - during peak season to access shorter lines.

HOW TO GET THERE: Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Barcelona. There are a number of high-speed train options from Barcelona to the station just a few metres from the park.

RATES: Day passes are €45 for adults, €39 for children (buy in advance from the website).

WEBSITE: www.portaventura.co.uk

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