Europe is packed with incredible theme parks, from old-fashioned seaside funfairs through to sprawling mega-resorts. There's something on offer for everyone, whether you're a hardcore rollercoaster junkie or a fan of gentler, story-based attractions.
It's impossible to cover the breath of Europe's range of theme parks in a single article, but we'd like to introduce you to some of the most popular. To do that, we've selected the top 10 theme parks in Europe, measured by their performance in the 2010 Theme Entertainment Association attendance report.
10. LEGOLAND Windsor
2012 attendance: 2 million
Apart for that agonising moment when you step on the stuff, everybody loves LEGO. Even today, in a world of video games and tablet computers, LEGO is still a major brand name, and clearly that name draws in the masses. As a child visiting LEGOLAND Windsor in the UK, there was nothing cooler than being surrounded by sky high buildings made of LEGO, and with the range of activities and shows on offer there’s not even a need to go on any rides to have a great day out.
Miniland is one of LEGOLAND Windsor's biggest draws.
However, if LEGOLAND Windsor wishes to keep competing at this level, the park needs to start adding some major attractions. There’s no shortage of space in the park, and now it is owned by leading operator Merlin there’s no lack of funding either.
9. Alton Towers
2012 attendance: 2.4 million
There is no doubt that Alton Towers is the UK’s most complete theme park experience; it features a variety of thrill and family rollercoasters and a range of water rides, all buried in beautiful Staffordshire surroundings. Joined to the park are two hotels and a state-of-the-art indoor waterpark. This all combines to establish Alton Towers as the only real destination theme park resort in the UK today.
The park has a beautifully rich history (and pesky planning restrictions), but it still manages to keep up-to-date with new rides and attractions every few years. It has been blessed with some fantastic coaster designs from Bolliger & Mabillard and John Wardley, specifically the famous inverter, Nemesis, and is still striving to put in more top class rides over the next 10 years.
2012 attendance: 2.7 million
Merlin's Italian theme park is perhaps surprisingly more popular than its better-known UK sister parks. Like Alton Towers, Gardaland is set in front of an idyllic backdrop, the beautiful Lake Garda. It, too, has a hotel and also a new SeaLife aquarium.
The park is very much family-oriented, but has recently installed some larger attractions, including the new Raptor rollercoaster in 2011. The world's first B&M Wing Rider, it has been received fantastically by the enthusiast community. Gardaland shows an intricate level of theming which, to be honest, is lacking in its sister parks in the UK, and rightfully earns its place as Italy’s leading theme park.
2012 attendance: 2.8 million
Liseberg is a park situated in Gothenburg, Sweden. Perched on the top of a hill in the middle of the city, it has a true Scandinavian feel to it. The terrain makes for some great ride moments; the oldest of the rollercoasters is Lisebergbanan, a Zierer-Schwarzkopf mine train, which winds over hills and under other rides. In the last 10 years the park has had a real drive of investments, allowing it to complement its traditional style with an impressive roster. The tiny Intamin accelerator Kanonen, an S&S Screaming Swing and the new AtmosFear drop tower are just some of the selection. The best-known ride is probably Balder, the first Intamin prefabricated wooden rollercoaster, and it is often regarded as the best in the world.
2012 attendance: 3.5 million
PortAventura is a colossal resort, and personally my favourite theme park. Despite being located in a fairly industrial part of northern Spain, it manages to fling you into an entirely new world of beauty and magic.
The park itself is a real trek to get around; it’s very large indeed, and the focus is very much on scenery and landscaping rather than ride after ride. In fact, the park only really features 4 large thrill rides and just a few more family rides. But this is not a problem at all - you'll enjoy every second on and around the attractions. Despite the legendary roughness of some coasters (Stampida’s not that bad, Baco is) every ride has a "re-rideabilty factor", and even after a long stay you’ll want to try everything again. With the rumoured B&M hypercoaster for 2012, PortAventura could be on the rise.
5. Tivoli Gardens
2012 attendance: 4 million
Like Liseberg, Tivoli Gardens is set in an inner city, in this case in Copenhagen. It is the second oldest amusement park in the world, and the history is certainly a factor in attracting guests. It’s a tourist attraction for anyone in the city even if they have no desire to experience the rides. Rutsjebanen is one of the oldest roller coasters in the world, and even has a brake man on board the train. The only large coaster is Daemonen, one of the smallest B&Ms around, but it still packs a punch in its compact layout. The Gardens are also home to concert halls and the area has the feel of a stately home. Tivoli was in fact a major inspiration for the Disney parks; Walt Disney loved its relaxed charm.
2012 attendance: 4.2 million
This Dutch park is renowned for its intense level of theming and friendly staff. It has a Disney–like methodology, employing its own creative engineers to invent and design rides, and as a result is home to attractions which are far more than off-the-shelf rides. The landscaping and architecture are both stunning, but there are surprisingly few rides. The new for 2010 wooden racing coaster, Joris en de Draak, is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of this, and it is rumoured that we may be seeing more investments of this kind in the not-too-distant future.
3. Europa Park
2012 attendance: 4.6 million
So Europa Park deservedly holds the title of ‘Most popular European park without the Disney name in front of it.’ The park is owned and run by Mack, the ride manufacturer, and no expense is spared, anywhere. The whole ethos is very similar to that of Efteling, the park's operators try their hardest to satisfy guests with the staff, the theming and the overall experience. Where Europa Park takes a step ahead of the rest is in the rides; it always insists that they cater to families, and therefore none of their rides will have over-the-shoulder restraints.
Silver Star, a B&M hypercoaster and Europe’s tallest rollercoaster, is the biggest attraction, and Blue Fire is a new launch coaster, built by Mack, which many believe is the best launched attraction in the world. Europa Park has a winning formula with its rides; they never fail to deliver comfort and thrills. Next year the park is to install a long awaited wooden roller coaster, Mythos, which could well make it complete.
2012 attendance: 4.8 million
The Disneyland Resort Paris' second theme park often gets a bad name, perhaps unfairly. Many feel that the park was planned poorly and is home to a weak selection of attractions. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Truth be told it doesn’t have quite the level of immersion as Disneyland Park, or the American counterparts, but its ride line-up certainly rivals Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Crush’s Coaster (a Maurer spinner), the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the new RC Racer (a halfpipe) provide thrills for all the family and the level of recent investment is impressive. A Ratatouille-themed dark ride will open in 2014, and will strengthen the park further.
2012 attendance: 11.2 million
It’s a no brainer really, isn’t it? Europe’s most famous theme park comes in with a whopping 10.5 million guests in 2010, more than double the amount the adjoined Walt Disney Studios park received last year. Like the Studios, the main park has had its share of bad press, but it is still one of the world's best. It shares rides with many of the other Disney installations across the globe, but in many cases this is just in name. The rides in Paris are noticeably larger and more thrill-oriented than in, say, California’s version.
Still number one: Disneyland Paris is Europe's most popular theme park.
Big Thunder Mountain is an epic journey round the canyons, topping at over 40mph and nearly 5000ft of track. Space Mountain’s race through space has 3 inversions and a launch, completely unlike the tamer versions elsewhere. Overall the park is very large and open, it is wonderfully landscaped and the parades everyday down Main Street USA are incredible, especially for children. Although it is in need of some new additions, the park is Europe’s favourite, and will remain so for years to come.