Walt Disney is often credited with inventing the theme park, when he opened Disneyland in California back in July 1955 and followed it with Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. However, the world’s oldest amusement park dates back over 400 years; Danish park Dyrehavsbakken opened north of Copenhagen in 1583 and is still operating today. There is conjecture about when the world’s first themed amusement park, or theme park, first opened – but the UK’s oldest theme park, Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight, has been going strong since 1843. Wikipedia even claims it to be the world’s oldest.

Whatever the history, theme parks appeal to everyone, young and old, and many of us now take holidays based around them.

New rides and attractions are continually being added to entice visitors back and parks try and outdo each other with the scariest, highest or fastest rides. Many also have hotels alongside so that visitors can enjoy longer stays instead of cramming everything into a day trip.

Here’s where you can go for those thrills:


Walt Disney World alone attracts nearly 50 million visitors a year to its four Florida parks, with Orlando known as the theme park capital of the world for its profusion of parks and attractions – attracting more than one million UK visitors a year. A holiday here needs serious planning to maximise both your time and budget, as it is expensive for families who want a week or two of theme-park hopping.

Disney’s original Magic Kingdom park remains a big favourite, with its iconic Cinderella Castle and character parades along Main Street. Major expansion in 2012 will almost double the size of Fantasyland, adding a new coaster.

The sprawling Walt Disney World Resort also comprises sister theme parks Epcot, with is futuristic pavilions, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which has a new Pixar Pals parade, and Animal Kingdom, where the new Wild Africa Trek soft adventure experiences includes a vehicle safari and a guided “bushwalk”. There are also two water parks, nightlife at Disney Downtown including a Cirque du Soleil show and four golf courses.

Universal Orlando opened its new Wizarding World of Harry Potter last year in the Islands of Adventure park. It features a giant Hogwarts Castle, through which visitors take a tour, as well as three rides including Flight of the Hippogrif. Among rides at Islands are the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman, while the Universal Studios park has recent openings The Simpsons Ride and the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit coaster as well as old favourites Jaws and ET Adventure. Nearby Wet ‘n Wild is a sister water park.

The SeaWorld family of parks includes SeaWorld Orlando, where Shamu the orca (killer whale) stars in a show and where the new Manta coaster adds aquatic thrills. Alongside it are Discovery Cove, where visitors can swim with dolphins and will be able to explore new underwater attraction The Grand Reef from June, plus the new Aquatica theme park, offering wave pools, water rides and flume tubes through a dolphin pool. Busch Gardens Tampa, another member of the SeaWorld family, opens the Cheetah Hunt high-speed, twisting coaster ride this spring to add to its collection of thrill rides and animal attractions.

Also in Florida is the Kennedy Space Centre, dedicated to America’s space programme and including the Shuttle Launch Experience, IMAX movies and the chance to meet an astronaut. LEGOLAND Florida is due to open in October on the old Cypress Gardens site in Central Florida.

California also offers a world of fun in its many theme and amusement parks.

Mickey Mouse and friends have been welcoming visitors to Disneyland in Anaheim for 55 years. Disneyland Resort augmented the original Disneyland Park, which has eight themed lands and the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle, with Disney’s California Adventure park, in 2001. The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is a new attraction opening there this summer.

Former fruit farm Knott’s Berry Farm opened its first attraction – Ghost Town – in 1940, to entertain queuing diners at its adjacent chicken restaurant. It became the first of six themed areas, making it what it claims is America’s oldest theme park. Camp Snoopy is the home of the Peanuts characters.

Universal Studios Hollywood offers a mix of studio backlot tours with shows and rides based on movie and TV blockbusters. It opened King Kong 360 3D last year to replace the original destroyed in a fire in 2008.

Animal magnetism is a major draw at SeaWorld San Diego, which has shows including one starring its own Shamu plus rides such as Journey to Atlantis and Wild Arctic.

LEGOLAND California Resort is geared for under 12s and features 50 family rides, attractions and shows. But for hard-core adrenalin-seekers, Six Flags Magic Mountain features 100 rides and attractions including 16 roller coasters, the fastest of which – Superman: The Escape – was the world’s first ride to reach 100mph.

There are other great amusement parks across the USA, although away from the warmth of Florida and California they are generally seasonal. Canada does have a year-round theme park. Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall is not only North America’s largest shopping mall, it also contains the world’s secondlargest amusement park as well as the world’s largest water park and an indoor salt-water lake with a replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria ship.


Europe also has a plethora of theme parks; old favourites LEGOLAND in Denmark, Efteling in Holland and Germany’s Europa-Park have been joined more recently by Futuroscope and Disneyland Paris in France, mainland Spain’s PortAventura and Siam Park on Tenerife.

Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland Paris © Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris is Europe’s leading tourist destination and has had over 200 million visitors since it opened in 1992. It has two parks, with Walt Disney Studios opening in 2002, plus seven themed hotels. Last year saw the opening of Toy Story Playland, featuring themed rides and attractions inspired by the Pixar films.

Also near Paris is Parc Asterix, based on the cartoon hero, Asterix the Gaul. A Gallic village is at the heart of the park, which also has areas themed around the Roman Empire, ancient Greece and the Vikings.

Still in France, Futuroscope is a futuristic educational theme park near Poitiers. A new “ride” called 8th Continent is based on the vast mass of plastic waste found floating in the Pacific in 1997, in which riders sit on scooters and use laser pistols to eradicate waste polluting the sea. Another new attraction, Sea Monsters, is a 3D experience that brings you face to face with gigantic creatures from the age of the dinosaurs.

History forms the basis for the Puy du Fou theme park near Nantes, while volcanoes are the theme behind Vulcania, set amid dormant cones in the Auvergne.

But if it’s fantasy you want, it is dished up in spades at Holland’s enchanting Efteling park, while Copenhagen’s Tivoli Park has been an institution since 1843 for its gardens and theatre. Denmark is also home to the original LEGOLAND theme park, at Billund.

Fantasy is also the theme this year at Europa-Park, Germany’s biggest theme park and second only in popularity in Europe behind Disneyland Paris with four million viMeeting Euromaus © Europa-Parksitors a year. An enchanted forest, nestling between the England and Austria areas and new for 2011, is all about fairy tales. The park, located near the border with France and Switzerland and featuring 100- plus attractions and shows in 13 European-themed areas, also sees the addition of the interactive Volo da Vinci ride, in which riders hover above the Italian area in a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine. The resort has four themed hotels.

Hurakan Condor at PortAventura © PortAventura

Spain has several parks which you can combine with a holiday by the beach. Close to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca, Terra Mitica has Mediterranean-themed areas filled with thrill rides including Magnus Colossus – the longest wooden roller coaster in Europe.

PortAventura, near Salou on the Costa Dorada, is Spain’s largest theme park and was its first, opening in 1995. A sixth themed zoned, Sesamo Aventura, opens in April based on children’s TV series Sesame Street. The existing zones encompass 30 attractions, including the Hurakan Condor freefall ride in its Mexico area and eight-loop Dragon Khan coaster in China, 75 restaurants and over 100 live shows a day. It also offers the adjacent PortAventura Aquatic Park, four themed hotels and two Greg Norman-designed golf courses.

Europe’s biggest water park, Siam Park, opened in Tenerife in 2008 with 25 Thai-themed buildings, thrill rides including a flume tube through an alligator pool and a Wave Palace with artificial surfing waves.



Spurred on by the growing interest in family parks and white-knuckle rides, the British theme parks scene has seen heavy investment. Making its debut on April 9, Peppa Pig World is a new park for young ones based on the popular children’s TV show at Paultons Family Theme Park in Hampshire.

The Nemesis Inferno at Thorpe Park © Thorpe Park

Alton Towers Resort, the UK’s leading theme park, opened TH13TEEN – the world’s first vertical freefall drop roller coaster – last year. Other major attractions include the Nemesis inverted coaster, the Oblivion vertical drop coaster and the high-speed Rita coaster. The Staffordshire park also offers two hotels and the Caribbean-themed Alton Towers Waterpark.

Surrey’s Thorpe Park has added a new attraction in 2011, in the shape of the Storm Surge spiralling wildwater raft ride. Extreme thrills are offered by rides such as the inverted, corkscrewing Nemesis Inferno roller coaster, the multi-looping Colossus coaster, SAW: The Ride, and Stealth, a launched coaster which reaches 80mph in just 1.7 seconds.

Drayton Manor opens its new Ben 10 – Ultimate Mission coaster, based on the Ben 10 cartoon series, on April 23. Its other rides include Shockwave, Apocalypse and G-Force. The on-site Drayton Manor Hotel opens in July.

New for 2011 at Chessington World of Adventures are the Azteca ruins at its Sea Life centre. It also features thrill rides including Kobra, Vampire, Dragon’s Fury and Rameses Revenge and it has a safari-themed hotel.

LEGOLAND Windsor celebrates its 15th birthday this year with a new £8 million LEGO-themed underwater attraction, the Atlantis Submarine Voyage, with submarines taking 14 people through an ocean tank full of sharks, rays and fish.

Middle East/Far East/Australia

Abu Dhabi took the crown for the world’s largest indoor theme park with the opening last October of Ferrari World, featuring 20 Ferrari-inspired rides and attractions and the world’s fastest roller coaster – Formula Rossa, which reaches 150mph in under five seconds. In the Far East, parks worth making a detour for include Hong Kong’s impressive Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland, while Down Under you should try Australian-themed Dreamworld, on the Gold Coast.


Theme park facts

USA parks

Walt Disney World Resort: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com
Universal Florida: www.universalorlando.com
SeaWorld Theme Parks: www.seaworld.com
Kennedy Space Centre: www.ksc.nasa.gov
Disneyland Resort: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com
Universal Studios Hollywood: www.universalstudioshollywood.com
Knott’s Berry Farm: www.knotts.com
Six Flags Magic Mountain: www.sixflags.com
LEGOLAND California: http://california.legoland.com
West Edmonton Mall: www.wem.ca

European parks

Disneyland Paris: www.disneylandparis.co.uk
Parc Asterix: www.parcasterix.fr
Futuroscope: http://uk.futuroscope.com
Efteling: www.efteling.com
LEGOLAND: www.legoland.dk
Europa-Park: www.europapark.de
PortAventura: www.portaventura.co.uk
Terra Mitica: www.terramiticapark.com
Siam Park: www.siampark.net

UK parks

Alton Towers: www.altontowers.com
Thorpe Park: www.thorpepark.com
Drayton Manor: www.draytonmanor.co.uk
LEGOLAND Windsor: www.legoland.co.uk
Paultons Family Park: www.paultonspark.co.uk
Chessington World of Adventures: www.chessington.com

Middle East

Ferrari World: www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com

Tour operators & tickets

NAR (UK): www.orlandoattractions.com
Virgin Holidays: www.virginholidays.co.uk
Attractions Tickets Direct: www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk
Orlando Flex Ticket: www.orlandoflexticket.co.uk
Cosmos: www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk
Travel City Direct: www.travelcitydirect.com
First Choice: www.firstchoice.co.uk
Superbreak: www.superbreak.com
Leger Holidays: http://tothemagic.co.uk
DFDS Seaways: www.dfdsseaways.co.uk


All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you travel.