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France's best theme parks

Theme parks, safaris, scientific discovery, circus days, you don't have to look far to find a family treat

Theme parks, safaris, scientific discovery, trips back in time, circus days, you don’t have to look far to find a treat for all the family

Disneyland Paris

This is France’s No1 theme park and the top tourist attraction in Europe, drawing 12.7 million visitors from around the globe in 2009.

The rides are first class, and because the boundaries are disguised and from the interior you can only rarely see the exterior of the park, you feel you have entered another world.

Apart from the thrills and spills, there is lots of shopping and the famous Disneyland parade is an attraction in itself.

When we went, it rained all day but Donald Duck supplied the kids with free rain capes and since the queues were indoors and almost everyone else went home, we still had a wonderful day. One big plus, a free timed pass system allows you to avoid the queues for the most popular rides.

www.disneylandparis.com

Musée Vivant du Cheval

Perhaps not officially classified as a theme park, this is the day out for horse lovers as the Château de Chantilly (in the Oise) site takes all day to see everything and you will definitely come away smelling of horses. The stables were originally built to house 240 horses and 500 dogs, but are now home to around 30 horses and ponies of all breeds.

Visitors can find out about their breeding, feeding and training and can watch them rehearsing for the famous horse show which changes every season but is always a high-voltage mix of theatre, circus and equine showmanship.

For those happier away from the stables, the chateau itself is renowned for its beauty and interior decor. It contains thousands of pieces of art; paintings, furniture, books, engravings, sculptures, decorative items, etc.

There are also temporary exhibitions and of course.

www.museevivantducheval.fr

Aqualand water park

The Cap d’Agde Aqualand in Hérault was Europe’s first water park and still ranks among the very best.

It is huge and the rides vary from the utterly relaxing to the heart-stoppingly scary.

There are plenty of other amusements too; a wave pool, a jacuzzi, a stream for wading and a really spectacular paddling pool.

Now there are Aqualand Parks all around the Mediterranean coastline from St Cyprien (66) to Fréjus (83) and another in the Bassin d’Arcachon near Bordeaux (33).

Entrance prices vary but are in the region of €25 for adults and €18.50 for children.

You can take your own picnic but anything in a glass bottle or jar will be confiscated at the gate.

www.aqualand.fr

Futuroscope

France's second most popular park is themed on science and technology, so there are lots of laser images, lots of rides involving red and green spectacles and the famous robotic zoo.

If you have never been to the park near Poitiers, in the Vienne, you will be amazed at how different it is from other theme parks, and it will not take long to admit that it is worth every centime of its hefty ticket price (€35 for adults, €26 for over fives).

There are not really any really white-knuckle rides but plenty of interactive stuff and loads of thrills and spills. We screamed a lot anyway.

There is a hotel on-site if you opt for the full two-day fun-fest.

www.futuroscope.com

Walibi Parks/Astérix

Walibi operate parks across Europe, with 11 in France, including Parc Astérix. It could be a good choice for Astérix fans or if you do not fancy Disneyland queues.

It was France’s first theme park and still has Europe’s biggest wooden roller-coaster – and also has a looping roller-coaster which turns you upside down seven times.

There are also Walibi parks near Lyon (www.walibi-rhones-alpes.fr) and Agen (www.walibi-aquitaine.fr).

However, parking costs extra, you cannot take your own food and the water parks are expensive extras only accessible by buying a park ticket.

www.walibi.com
www.parcasterix.fr

Nigloland

Hedgehogs are the theme for this park in woodland near Troyes in Aube (Niglo is slang for hedgehog).

It has the usual rides – including a Louisiana paddleboat – but not many scary ones. It does however have the Grizzli ride, which makes you dizzy just looking at it. The website has some giddy videos
of the rides.

www.nigloland.fr

Puy du Fou

Chateau Puy du Fou is an hour’s drive south-east of Nantes in the Vendée and draws 1.2 million a year.

Themed on every child’s favourite bits of history – gladiators, Vikings, musketeers and loads more – there are 650 actors creating more than 3,000 characters in the re-enactments and plenty of

fairground rides and attractions as well as live jousting and all kinds of shows and theatrical performances. There are also evening shows.

Highlight this year is the Secret of the Lance, a fast-moving, half-hour medieval multimedia sound and light spectacle with a soundtrack by Carlos Nunez.

Parking is free and you can take your own picnic. Many websites and magazines rate this one of the country’s top attractions.

www.puydufou.com

OK Corral

As you might guess, the OK Corral in Cuges les Pins, Bouches-du-Rhône, has a Wild West theme.

The best thing is you can stay in a teepee, and there are re-enactments of famous Western stories – including the gunfight at the OK Corral.

All the usual rides including the log flume and the pirate boats but no real hard-core scary stuff here.

www.okcorral.fr

Festyland

Based near Caen, Calvados, Festyland is for families rather than thrill-seekers and has a vaguely historical theme, with five areas; prehistory, Vikings, 1066, pirates and the 20th century.

It features lots of 3D cinema entertainment, and caters for birthdays too. It is excellent value, with adult tickets at €15 and under-12s €13.

www.festyland.com

Le Pal

Most popular activity at this amusement park and zoo is to have the job as zookeeper for a day.

The park near Moulins, Allier, has 500 animals including elephants, chimps, lions, giraffes, bears and pandas and the soigneur can make up fish food for the sealions, feed monkeys and wash the elephants.

This costs €100 (with €80 going to animal charities) and has to be booked at least a month in advance but places fill up incredibly quickly.

The park also has spectacular rides, many of which are unique, like the King Kong ride during which you get shaken to bits by a gigantic angry monkey.

With a strong conservation and education ethos, while you scare yourself silly on the rides you might learn something.

www.lepal.com

Dennlys Parc

Magic shows, a wonderful fair-ground organ, face-painting, it is all here at the park near Le Touquet, Pas-de-Calais.

It was built by the Crunelle carnival family after they fell in love with a water mill on the site in 1983.

Rides include the Denno-copter which spins you round hundreds of feet above the crowds below and the Crazy River which is a log flume ride.

The park is not as big as some others but has its own special charm.

www.dennlys-parc.com

Vulcania

This is unlike any other theme park in the country and you have got to like volcanos, you have got to like exploring natural sciences and you have got to have the patience to interact with stuff on show.

It is not cola and white knuckles at Vulcania, near Clermont-Ferrand, Puy-de-Dôme – it is inky fingers and delighted understanding. It is educational but kids love it, especially the scientific experiments room.

www.vulcania.com

Sigean African Reserve

An honourable mention for this nature park between Narbonne and Perpignan in Aude – it has the most contented troop of elephants and goes to extreme lengths to disguise the people (who walk from hide to hide) so the animals are untroubled by their observers.

Nevertheless you get up close and personal with plenty of animals and their babies because Sigean has a successful breeding programme.

The park opened in 1974 and now contains nearly 4,000 animals.

My top tip concerns the drive-though trails to see the bears, lions, tigers, rhinos.

Even if you have brought your own car to the park, opt to go in the minivan with a driver who will tell you the names of all the animals and cheerfully disregard the rules about stopping so you can take photos.

It is much better than driving yourself and not knowing anything.

www.reserveafricainesigean.fr

Disney can keep its top spot says Futuroscope

THERE are not many businesses where the boss is happy to be second best but Dominique Hummel, the director of Futuroscope, says he would not want the Vienne park to be as big as Disneyland Paris.

Mickey Mouse and company may be Europe’s biggest and busiest tourist attraction but Mr Hummel said: “Once you reach a certain number of visitors you start to spoil the quality of the visit and the satisfaction of the visitor.

“Our aim is to get more visitors returning.

“We have a simple investment formula of 10:20:60 – spending 10% of our turnover each year lets us change 20% of the attractions to get 60% of visitors to return.

“It means changing six attractions a year and we started in 2003. In 2004 we had about 30% of people returning and now it is 62%.

“In 2003 we had 500,000 revisits and last year more than a million.

“Every park aims to have a ‘second life’; to be attractive enough for people to return.”

Mr Hummel said the park was the engine driving the local economy as two-thirds of visitors come from outside the triangle of Nantes, Bordeaux and Limoges.

They will spend a weekend night at Futuroscope but do not necessarily spend both days in the park.

A survey last year showed 40% of visitors to other attractions in Poitiers and the department were brought in through Futuroscope.

Decisions on new attractions were made by the park management and the council in Vienne because they own the site.

Mr Hummel said: “We have production team of just six people who work on different ideas.

“However, we do not want to be like other parks and our attractions are quite different.

“We managed that when we worked with Luc Besson to bring out the Arthur et les Minimoys attraction at the same time as the film and that has worked well.

“Now we will have a programme of events for our 25th anniversary in 2012 and then make major changes in 2013.”

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