Lifestyle & Culture

10x Summer Fun: Dispatches’ curated 2018 list of the best European zoos and theme parks

(Editor’s note: We changed up 10x Summer Fun for 2018, switching out 2017 destinations for a couple of more exciting parks. We dropped Popeye Village in Malta (just too weird and kind of difficult to get to) for PortAventura. We’re including more parks and zoos that are easy trips from all major expat centers, and will this post update this as we get feedback. Terry Boyd also contributed to this post.)

Jeez, is it summer already?

It’s not only deep summer, but it’s also one of the hottest, driest summers in European history … and no better time to get the heck out of town.

Looking for a fun day out with the entire family this summer? Or maybe suggestions for a complete vacation?

We’ve got you covered with our new 2018 list of the best zoos and theme parks in Europe.

Get ready for a day of fairy tales, giant pandas and thrilling roller coasters! (There are lots of new ones this year including the one everyone’s talking about at Ferrari Land.) But a warning … we noticed all the parks and zoos have raised their prices since 2017. Be sure to click on the links to see current ticket prices.

Disneyland Paris, France

Take a little break from daily life and all its responsibilities and dive into the world of Walt Disney at Disneyland in Paris. The No 1. theme park in Europe is celebrating its 25th birthday this year and is always a good time, no matter how old or young you are.

Disneyland Paris consists of two theme parks: Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios. You can visit both parks in one day, but it’s way more fun to make your Disney trip into a mini-vacation by staying a few nights in one of Disney’s hotels or partner hotels.

Tickets: There are many, many options, but buying tickets online is your best bet. Prices start at 48 euros per person (adult or child) for one day/one park. Or you can do two parks in one day for 63 euros per person.  BUT, that’s just the beginning, and there are “special offers” constantly.

Go here for all the options.

Where to stay: There are at least seven themed hotels on the Disney property including the Davy Crockett Ranch. In France. Where a week in July with two adults and two children will run you about $4,500. Not inexpensive. Bookings on Expedia start at about 216 euros per day.

Most of the properties are 4-star and large by European terms. There are also affiliate hotels such as the Radisson Blu at Disneyland Resort Parks, so you can use your points.

Dispatches tip: If you’re used to going to, say, Legoland in Germany, the food prices at Disneyland Paris are at least double. Take a picnic. They’re cool with that. Also, if your kids are into dress-up, there are multiple stores where they can buy pirate or princess garb. There are often sales, and the quality is high enough they can play dress-up for years.

PortAventura World/Ferrari Land

This is one of Europe’s most popular theme parks, situated as it is an hour southwest of Barcelona on the Costa Dorada. Our feedback from British friends (PortAventura World is wildly popular with expats in Spain and English is spoken here) is that there are a huge variety of rides, especially water rides, for all ages.

Last year, PortAventura upped the ante by 100 million euro when it added Ferrari Land. Ferrari Land has the highest and fastest rollercoaster in Europe. (The overall reviews have been mixed, stating that lines are hours long and the rest of the Ferrari Land rides are underwhelming.)

In addition to the highest and fastest ride, PortAventure has Shambhala Europe’s second-highest rollercoaster, which has the eighth-highest drop of any rollercoaster in the world – 256 feet from its highest point – and speeds of up to 70 mph. So, you astronauts and Formula 1 drivers in training … this is the park for you.

For the rest of us, the park is divided into geographic themes: Mediterrània, Far West, China, Polynesia and Mexico.

Tickets: Ticket prices are all over the place. There’s even an American night coming up this month with 20 euro tickets for kids and 23 euro tickets for adults. In the middle of the summer. Go figure. For the impatient, express passes are available for between 33 and 58 euros.

But the trend is for amusement parks to sell you packages including transport, hotel and the theme park. This year, starting at 75 euros per person, you can get a room and tickets at PortAventura with unlimited access to PortAventura Park and one day in Ferrari Land. For a family of four, that’s 300 euros … not cheap, but a heck of a deal considering what you’d pay at Disney land Paris.

Or you could stay an hour away by train in Barcelona and make it a serious vacation.

Check out the website, which is a bit of a jumbled mess, for all the deals.

Dispatches’ TIp: To avoid the crowds early in the day, go directly to the Dragon King and Shambala rides – both top-rated by dedicated amusement park websites (and there are LOTS) in the China section at the back of the part rather pack into the entrance with the rest of the crowds. In fact, this kind of works everywhere … a lesson we learned at Euro Disney all those years ago. And read this post in the Irish Independent before you go.

Europa-Park, Germany

With more than 100 attractions and shows, your day at Europa-Park will be filled with fun and adrenaline. And Europa-Park makes every “Best Amusement Parks in Europe” list, with five out of five stars on TripAdvisor (11,090 reviews!)

As the name suggests, Europa-Park is divided into several themed areas based on regions and countries in Europa.  Take a tour around Europe and enjoy the many roller coasters of Germany’s largest theme park.

Tickets: High-season prices start at 42.50 euros for kids and 49 euros per adult, and you can get them here.

Ticket prices go down in the winter, of course.

Where to stay: In the Disney tradition, Europa-Park has six hotels and a campground on the property with different themes including the Hotel Bell Rock, billed as a “Superior New England Hotel.”

In the European tradition, rooms are priced by the number of adults and children. So two kids and two adults will run you about 150 euros per night.

Tivoli Gardens, Denmark

While most theme parks are located out of the cities where there is more space for big roller coasters, Tivoli Gardens is set right in the city center of Copenhagen which makes it a must-visit if you are city-tripping in Denmark’s capital.

It is also one of the oldest theme parks of Europe and the stage for many summer night concerts.

Tickets: Entrance starts at a surprisingly affordable 200 Danish krone (considering it’s Denmark), or about 30 euros. Tivoli Gardens, as do most amusement/theme parks, wants to make you a 2-day deal. This is partly to optimize revenue, but partly because Tivoli has way more than you can see in a day. You can get tickets here.

Where to stay: This is Copenhagen, so don’t expect Netherlands hotel prices (which are much lower.) That said, Tivoli has – surprise! – its own hotel. You can get an all-inclusive package for 695 Krone (about 94 euros) per person that includes:

  • An overnight stay in a Tivoli standard family room with a sofabed for the kids
  • Breakfast buffet including freshly baked bread, eggs, and fruit
  • Admission to Tivoli
  • Multi-ride ticket
  • Admission to the Tivoli Aquarium
  • Ride photo or Balloon
  • Meal in participating Tivoli restaurants

Dispatches tip: Kids under 8 years old get in free!! Oh, and Tivoli has concerts, typically with music for the entire family.

Efteling, Netherlands

With more than 5 million visitors each year, the Efteling is the Netherlands’ largest and most popular theme park. It has a long history dating back to the 1930’s but always keeps innovating and adds new rides and shows to the park every few years. And they could be adding space in the near future.

Symbolica is one of Efteling’s newest attraction and opened one year ago.

Old classics, such as het Sprookjesbos – ‘the forest of fairytales’ – remain crowd favorites.

Tickets: Compared to Disney, Efteling is a more affordable day out starting at 38 euros. AND there are all sorts of discounts and promotions, especially if you live in the Netherlands. You can get tickets here.

Where to stay: Efteling has its own hotel as well as self-catering houses and apartments and a new holiday village. Something pretty much for all budgets.

Hotel deals start at 1 night/2 days at the park for two adults at 266 euros and go up to about 500 euros for 1 night and two days, two and adults and two children with breakfast.

Dispatches Tip: The Efteling is the only theme park in the Netherlands which is open year round. Take advantage of that fact and visit the park in autumn or spring to avoid the summer crowds. Or check out the park in winter when ice rinks and cross-country skiing circuits are installed for lots of winter fun. Do note that not all rides and roller coasters operate during the winter season.

Big news: Efteling is seeking approval for a 20-acre expansion in order to build new attractions for 2020 under a long-term plan called “World of Efteling 2030.” The park has proposed adding 20 acres on the eastern edge of the park, south of the Efteling Hotel. No word on exactly what they want to add.

Zoo Antwerp, Belgium

Zoo Antwerp opened her doors way back in 1843, making it the oldest zoo in Belgium and one of the oldest in the entire world.

One hundred and seventy-four years later, Zoo Antwerpen remains one of the highlights of your city trip to the Belgian city. The zoo has one of the premier collection of rare animals, and the Russians sent an Amur tiger last year.

So, what can you see? Pretty much every animal you’ve heard of, and some you’ve not. Check out their Youtube channel here for the highlights (it’s updated weekly.)

(Editor’s note: We’ve been to Antwerp several times this year and zoo personnel were exceptionally welcoming. This is a really great gathering place for locals, as well.)

Tickets: This caliber of zoo can be a bit pricey, and Antwerp is no exception. Tickets start at 20 for kids 3-11, and adults are 25.50 euros. But the good news is, kids under 3 years old get in free. Big spenders can get a backstage tour for 75 euros.

Get tickets here.

Where to stay: There are at least 20 hotels/vacation rentals within walking distance ranging from the extraordinarily chi-chi Loft O apartments at 225 euros per night to an Ibis at 70 euros. 

Dispatches tip: Antwerp is getting a facelift, and it’s difficult to get around this year. BUT, if you decide to go, the zoo is in a great location just outside the main train station, which itself is worth the trip. And when you’re hungry at the end of the day, there’s a Chinatown section full of great restaurants a block away. Let’s hear it for urban zoos!

See our latest travel post here for more details about Antwerp.

Zoo Basel, Switzerland

Just like the zoo in Antwerp, the Basel Zoological Gardens opened in the 19th century. These days, it’s not only Switzerland’s biggest zoo but also the country’s most popular attraction. For a reason. It has fantastic facilities including Etosha House, a recreation of the Namibian savannah, and 600 species including Snow Leopards. 

It’s also an amazing research center.

Make sure to squeeze a visit to the zoo into your summer plans and get up close and personal with flamingos and giraffes. Seriously … that’s an enduring memory, wondering just how close one should get to flamingos because there were no barriers.

Zoo Basel has undergone/is undergoing the most expensive (more than 100 million Swiss francs) expansion in its history, which will run at least into 2018. Updates and expansions include the indoor and outdoor renovation of the monkey house, a new elephant house, and outdoor exhibit and Ozeanium, a new large-scale aquarium (2019 /60-80 million Swiss Francs). Check out the video above.

Don’t worry … you don’t have to pay for it in admissions. Most of the improvements were funded by anonymous donors. (Hey, it’s Switzerland.)

Tickets: Tickets start at 10 Swiss francs for kids and go up to 43 Swiss francs per family (two adults, with kids 20 years old and under.) Note: The Swiss franc and the euro are close to parity … about .91 Swiss francs to buy 1 euro.

Where to stay: Zoo Basel is an easy tram ride (No. 2 to the Zoo) from the center of Basel. Hotels are expensive … they start at about 200 euros/Swiss francs per night for anything decent. It’s much less expensive to stay over the border in France and drive in.

Dispatches tip: This was my kids’ favorite destination when they were little. We always started a weekend in Basel with at least a morning at the zoo. And every trip to the zoo should begin with the Vivarium, right at the main entrance. You could devote an entire day at the Vivarium alone, a complex of a dozen aquariums full of exotic water creatures from sharks to rare mangrove-dwelling frog- eyed fish.

Lucy and Lale were amazed and delighted to meet in person Nemo, Dory and all the characters from “Finding Nemo” in the reef fish display. Salt- and fresh-water displays give way to terrariums for desert reptiles. – Terry Boyd

Ouwehands DierenparkNetherlands

An enormous media circus assembled at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam last year when two giant pandas – Xing Ya and Wu Wen – arrived from China.

The duo has since been moved to Ouwehands Dierenpark where they are the newest attraction. After giving the pandas a while to adjust to their new home, the two are now settled in their new environment for the world to see.

In addition to the giant pandas, you will also see lions, giraffes, and orangutans during your day at Ouwehands Dierenpark.

This is a 21st-century zoo with species conservation, research, and education at the heart of the mission, which you can read about here.

Tickets: Admission is 25 euros and you can get tickets here.

Where to stay: Ouwedhands Dierenpark is just northwest of Nijmegen and about a 30-minute drive from Amsterdam. Utrecht is also nearby. So this is a target-rich hotel and B&B environment.

Legoland Windsor, UK

If you’re traveling to the United Kingdom with young kids this summer, Legoland Windsor makes for a great day out with the kids.

They will love the Lego-themed park, attractions and ride including the new Ninjago. Do you want to make your visit to Legoland Windsor even more fun? Book a few nights at the Legoland Castle Hotel and stay in the Knight’s Room or the Wizard’s Room.

Tickets: If you hurry, there’s a kids-go-free promotion on the website. Otherwise, advance tickets are 32 pounds to 50 pounds depending on the day you go. If you pay at the gate, tickets are 45 pounds to 60 pounds. You can get tickets here.

Where to stay: The Legoland Castle Hotel is just opened and it looks like packages start at 40 pounds per person. But there are so many deals on a not-great website that’s hard to make sense of them without actually booking.

Dispatches tip: Legoland in Germany near Ulm was our kids’ favorite when they were really little … they liked its gentle rides and relaxed but stimulating environment much better than Disneyland Paris. We liked it because food prices were sooo much more affordable than Disneyland. – Terry Boyd

 Gröna Lund, Sweden

While Legoland is the most fun for the little ones of the family, Tivoli Gröna Lund in Stockholm knows how to entertain mum and dad and the teens. Apart from the thrilling rides and rollercoasters, Gröna Lund offers fun bars and restaurants and a Biergarten where Oktoberfest is celebrated all summer long.

And where else in Sweden (or the world, for that matter) can your little kids ride a ladybug-themed ride, your teenagers go to the House of Nightmares haunted house and you can go see Megadeth or Brad Paisley in concert.

New rides include Ikaros.

From the website:

Imagine sitting in a chair, dangling with your feet high above the city of Stockholm, secured by a shoulder restraint. As you’re approaching the top of the tower, your chair is suddenly tilting you 90 degrees, and you find yourself lying horizontally facing the ground. Then comes the drop … When Gröna Lund opens in April 2017, the visitors will be divided into those who dare and those who don’t … do you dare to try the worst fall in history?

Check out the vid!

Tickets: This is cool … old people get in free, kids six years old and under get in free and everyone else pays 115 Swedish Kroner (12 euros.) Yes, there’s a catch … you have to pay for all the rides. BUT you can get a day pass here for the rides for another 340 krona, or 36 euros. (Doesn’t include the House of Nightmares.)

Where to stay: Gröna Lund is in the middle of Stockholm, so check out our hotel suggestions here.

Dispatches tip: You can pay with euros.

New for 2018 and beyond

• The trend is for theme parks to add supercar and superbike experiences. Ducati World will be the first section of a theme park (Mirabilandia) dedicated to a motorcycle brand. Construction started this month and the park is due to open in 2019. Ducati World will include a roller coaster that simulates a ride on a Panigale V4, Ducati’s new superbike. Mirabilandia is the largest theme park in Italy. We didn’t include Mirabilandia because it gets very mixed reviews. Tell us more at: terry@dispatcheseurope.comSu

• We’re hearing good things about Futuroscope in France, which has mostly “rides” built around 3D and VR. Futurescope isn’t new, but we hear the tech is improving. And what better application for 3D and VR  tech than a threme park! More as we research.

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