While we risk our position as travel soothsayers by admitting it, there was a time when we worried that the amusement park was heading to the bin of history. More fool us, of course, as humans will never tire of being hurled around at ridiculous speeds in ridiculous directions on roller coasters and rides with magnificently cliched names. Yes, the food is almost always overpriced, and kitsch is everywhere, but fun is fun. The best amusement parks in Europe are joyful places of thrills and spills, packed with history and excitement. If you aren’t a fan of roller coasters, we don’t blame you, but there is still plenty to enjoy at the theme parks of Europe. If you do like roller coasters, then strap yourself in for one heck of a good time.
Opened in 1992, Disneyland Paris is far and away the most visited theme park in Europe. Around 15 million excitable folks pass through its gates yearly, eager to explore the wonderful world of anthropomorphised animals, themed villages, shameless movie tie-ins and wildly inconsistent hotels. If we sound somewhat cynical, that is because we are, but there remains something magical about two massive mouse ears and fairytales. Leave that cynicism at the door, embrace the Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, brave the haunted Phantom Manor, survive Hyperspace Mountain, and generally throw yourself into the whole thing.
Alton Towers, United Kingdom
Alton Towers is fabulous. Our opinion of the Staffordshire wonderland might be heavily influenced by pangs of nostalgia and a particularly thrilling visit in 2014, but we stand by it. Opened in 1980 (120 years after opening as a country estate), the rides of Alton Towers read like a British Theme Park Hall of Fame. Corkscrew and The Black Hole set the ball rolling, Nemesis changed the game, and Oblivion still turns stomachs to this day. Many of its roller coasters were the first of their kind worldwide, and the sprawling gardens offered something for visitors searching for more tranquil entertainment. Our 13-year-old niece recently informed us that Nemesis is now closed for refurbishment, however, and we haven’t really recovered.
We can’t decide whether that is a fantastic name for an amusement park or a terrible one. Either way, Energylandia is Poland’s biggest amusement park, filling hearts with joy in Zator (50km from Krakow). The park opened in 2014 and has grown steadily, with five zones offering something for everyone. Naturally, we head first to the Extreme Zone (Strefa Ekstremalna), only for the intensity of rides like Forumla, Hyperion and Tsunami Dropper to remind us that we are no longer 25. Zadra is the park’s main event, the first roller coaster built from the ground up and considered the tallest hybrid roller coaster. One for the bravest souls. We are not the bravest souls.
PortAventura World, Spain
A two-for-one here, as Spain’s most visited theme park is actually two, with the self-explanatory Ferrari Land waiting within its boundaries. The central park is massive, the biggest resort in Southern Europe, and it was the first Universal Studios theme park in Europe. PortAventura Park is split into five civilisation-themed areas packed with roller coasters, water adventures, and rides that used to hold world records but have since been surpassed. Actually, we’re going to throw FerrariLand in here, although we will stop short of referring to it as civilisation-themed. Red Force (Ferraris are red, you know) is the showstopper, a 112-metre 180km/h thriller that is Europe’s tallest and fastest roller coaster.
Call it Bakken for short. The doors to this place first swung open in 1583, making Bakken the world’s oldest amusement park. Of course, that is a relative term, although it is pretty fun to imagine massive roller coasters in a 16th-century setting. Bakken’s heritage is about more than thrills and spills, with unions, artists, and more working alongside the park to develop and thrive. Is it a little outdated? Sure, but it is over 400 years old; go easy on the old dog. Is it fun? You better believe it.
Tivoli Gardens, Denmark
We don’t have to travel too far for the next wonderland on our list. Less than 20km actually, from the oldest amusement park in the world to one not quite as old but plenty more famous. Opened in 1843, Tivoli Gardens is the planet’s second-most-popular seasonal amusement park, behind only the place we will mention next. Don’t skip ahead, you impatient doll; stay and enjoy the pleasures of Tivoli, its roller coasters, water drops, spinner rides, pantomime shows, live music, arcades and all the rest. Tivoli is supposed to have directly influenced Walt Disney himself. Maybe it will have the same impact on you, although it is unlikely that a visit to Tivoli will inspire you to become an early 20th-century Chicago-born entrepreneur willing to stare bankruptcy in the face in the name of animation.
Of course, here is the most popular seasonal amusement park we promised. Europa Park is massive and magnificent, a frequent winner of ‘best theme park’ awards and a magnet for fun-seekers, young and old. Located in Rust (southwest Germany), the park opened in 1975 and is open from April to early January, attracting over five million visitors annually. Themed rides are everywhere, from the Mercedes-Benz sheen of Silver Star to the ‘hold on, we’re going backwards’ confusion of Euro-Mir. Throw in water rides, carousels and a packed calendar of special events, and you’ve got yourself a fabulous adventure playground.
Italy’s most popular amusement park has been thrilling visitors since July 1975, offering kitschy entertainment and exciting rides on the shores of Lake Garda. That explains the name, in case you were curious. Like many other parks, Gardaland is divided into themed areas that cover a broad range of aesthetics, with rollercoasters, water rides and iconic figures everywhere. There is even a Peppa Pig land, which we assume has something to do with bacon? We joke; we’re fully aware of the complexities of those Scottish swines, but we are a little discombobulated after yet another ride on Gardaland’s intense Blue Tornado.
The Wurstelprater’s main ride is the Riesenrad (Ferris wheel), so yeah, thrills and spills it isn’t, but Vienna isn’t interested in your need for speed or your desire for the extreme. It is more interested in its proud history, romantic parks and traditional Viennese cuisine. You can keep your gravity-defying roller coasters, Danke. The Wurstelprater opened to the public in 1766, making it the second-oldest amusement park in the world, and the Christmas markets are particularly delightful.
We’ll bring this round-up of Europe’s best amusement parks to a close with a visit to Efteling, a fairytale-heavy park that is the largest in the Netherlands and almost certainly the largest to feature a Rumah Gadang-inspired entrance. Located in Kaatshuevel (an hour or so south of Amsterdam), Efteling opened in 1952 and is all about the stories, from child-friendly charmers to darker tales, told through dark rides, roller coasters, and whatever that Langnek statue is supposed to be. A dude with a long neck, obviously.