Thrill seekers: Theme parks

We select some of the best parks to entertain and satisfy adrenalin junkies, fresh air fiends and pilgrims to the House of Mouse

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 22 Dec 2014, 11:40 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 15:23 BST

Disneyland, Paris

A trip to Disneyland Paris is not just for little princesses...

So we're floating through the air on a miniature pirate ship. I was expecting a so-so fairground ride, but magic definitely happened. We climbed on board the galleon with our five-year-old daughter, Rosa, and were lifted clean off the rails. Now we're flying into the night sky, swinging through a bedroom in Victorian London, and whooshing out the window towards a tropical island.

"It's Neverland!" Rosa exclaims. Pinpricks of light mimic the stars, and we brush past buccaneering pirates, past Wendy walking the plank, past Captain Hook straddling the crocodile's jaws.

Peter Pan's Flight isn't just a ride; it's a wow moment.This is our first time in Disneyland Paris. As the proud parents of a child who won't travel without her Cinderella costume, it's pretty good timing, too. We announced the trip as a birthday gift and Kodak Moments come thick and fast. Checking into Hotel New York, we're greeted by Mickey Mouse. We walk down Main Street USA, catching our first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty Castle. It gives us goosebumps. We queue up again and again for the spinning teacups, have our photo taken with Buzz Lightyear, and join the crowds to watch the daily parade of characters like Ariel and Maleficent.

It takes a little while to get our bearings. Disneyland Paris actually encompasses two parks — Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland (be sure to get a ticket that covers both) — and each contains several themed 'worlds'. Forward planning and smart use of a Fastpass are essential to maximise your visit and dodge queues that can last over an hour on popular rides at peak times.

Best for ages 4-14, we all have our favourite rides — Aladdin's magic carpets, meeting Rapunzel ("I felt shy. But then I felt excited," Rosa says), or, in my case the hi-tech wizardry of Space Mountain. Disneyland Paris isn't just for princesses, you see. I slip away several times for spins on thrill rides such as this one, which shoots through a pitch-black tube into a galaxy of stars, planets and supernovas.

Of course, there's a slightly corporate air to it all at times. Happy-clappy staff are referred to — without irony — as 'cast members'. The marketing is relentless and everything is squeaky clean. Chirpy music is piped onto Main Street USA fron dawn 'til dusk and everyone's teeth are toothpaste white.

It's a well-oiled machine… and it works ridiculously well. Characters such as Mickey and Donald treat the kids like kings. The attention to detail is marvellous, from the wispy hair on Sully from Monsters Inc. to the starlight on Peter Pan's Flight. Nothing feels cheap, and new rides are added all the time — the latest, just this summer, is based on Pixar's Ratatouille.

At the end of the day, we join the tens of thousands of people filing towards the exits. We look like a herd of zombies (they say there's no sleep like a post-Disneyland sleep), but this is a more benign kind of enchantment — that of having achieved a parenting and princessing milestone.


Highs: "I don't know why they love me so much!" says Rosa, 5, delighted with her hug from Mickey. "And they're very soft. Except for their faces. Their faces are hard."

Lows: Disneyland Paris is full of highs, and that includes the prices. From princess dolls and dresses to staples such as food and water,
if you want a happy ending, set yourself a spending plan beforehand. And stick to it.

How to do it: Standard two-park entry tickets to Disneyland Paris start from €80/€74 per adult/child (£64/£59), although you'll find lots of special offers and packages on the website.

Eurostar takes 2hrs 45mins direct from St Pancras to Disneyland Resort (Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy), from £34.50 one-way.
Words: Pól Ó Conghaile

Sunparks Holiday Village, Belgium

Natalie, Matthew and their three children, Sophie, 10, Leah, 8 and Noah, 5, head in to the great outdoors on a trip to the west coast of Belgium.

Aquafun, the subtropical indoor water experience was my chance to show my kids I'm a 'cool mum'. Heart thumping, I waited for the light to go green and pushed off from the overhead bar. I flew down the slide, ripping my swimsuit on the way, and reached the bottom with very shaky legs and water up my nose. There was no dignity, but I did it. Thankfully, I then sat back, watching our three children spend the next hour shooting down the turbo slide while I steadied my nerves.

We were staying in a Sunparks' executive villa in Oostduinkerke aan zee on Belgium's west coast. As well as top facilities and smart contemporary furnishings, we also had our very own sauna room, while its small play area was visible from the kitchen window.

Entertaining the kids here is easy and they relished a two-wheel tour. The routes around the park and lake are completely flat and car-free — great for kids — so we hopped on rental bikes and took to the area's cycling trails. We even ventured out to the beach at Nieuwpoort, a popular resort just a short ride away and weaved our way along the wide promenade with its busy cafes and restaurants.

Our verdict? We're already planning our return with a group of friends.


Highs: Sunparks appeals to kids of all ages. The arcades, two-lane bowling and mini-golf are popular with the older kids; the soft play and outdoor play areas a big hit with younger ones.

Lows: Having to throw one of my favourite bikinis in the bin after my water slide experience.

How to do it: From £508 for an Exclusive Villa (sleeps six) for four nights.
Words: Natalie Jackson

Center Parcs, Woburn

Chocolate-making, trailer trips and plunging down waterslides — all in a day for the Reich-Storer family, Rob, Katie, Isaac, 5, and 17-month-old Evie.

The swimming pool, the wave pool, the lazy river, the toddler pool with fountains and water features, the water slides, the pirate ship… kids will be enthralled at every turn at Center Parcs' new Woburn Forest site.

The warm water and tropical indoor climate ensures even on the greyest, coldest days, the kids keep warm — and remain giddy with excitement. The pool may not be one suited to doing lengths but there's enough other stuff to keep you occupied.

Such as the indoor climbing wall, fencing or roller skating. Or cycling. Whether you opt for a tandem, regular bike, trailer, a bike with stabilisers or a trike, Center Parcs and cycling go hand-in-hand with the whole family encouraged to get stuck in. Our kids loved being pulled around the site by their dad in a cute trailer, while I enjoyed the cycling so much, I even dusted the cobwebs off my own bike back on my return back home.


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