Lifestyle & Culture

New for 2019: Dispatches’ list of Europe’s best theme parks and water parks, Pt. 1

(Editor’s note:We changed up everything for 2019, adding the water parks to the theme parks list instead of the zoos. Which just makes more sense to us. Enjoy ….)

We knew 2019 was going to be hot … no, really hot … in Europe. So we crowd-sourced the best theme parks and water parks again this year and followed the feedback.

In our various businesses, we work with Dutch nationals as well as expats from Croatia, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Bulgaria, Mexico, Latvia, United Arab Emirates and Iran and listen to their recommendations.)

So we dumped the zoos, added some new destinations and deleted some that got low ratings among our expats and locals.

We also separated the giganto-parks from the more modest destinations just because big isn’t necessarily better. And is it fair to compare Disneyland Paris to Futuroscope or Area 47 to Rulantica?

LET’S START SUMMER 2019 WITH THE BIG THEME PARKS

ELYSIUM CITY, SPAIN

Okay, this doesn’t actually exist yet, but you can start planning now.

The big news in theme parks is that Elysium City is on the drawing boards in Spain, with the Spanish keen to compete with Disneyland Paris.

Elysium City developers are promising an entire sustainable city in Badajoz in southeast Spain near Portugal with its own mega-theme park/water park, high-speed train system, hotels, an 18-hole signature golf course and even a Formula 1 track in a later phase.

The first phase by United States-based developer Cora Alpha is scheduled to open in 2023, but we know how these things go. More as we know more.

PORTAVENTURA/FERRARI LAND, XALETS DE SALOU, SPAIN

This actually exists. Boy, does it. An hour southwest of Barcelona on the Costa Dorada, PortAventura World is wildly popular with expats in Spain and all the staff speak English.

PortAventura has a huge variety of rides, especially water rides, for all ages including seven mega-rollercoasters. It also has convention facilities and 25-percent of its revenue comes from hosting corporate outings and meetings.

So, the park has a couple of shekels to invest. In 2017, PortAventura forked out 100 million euros to add Ferrari Land, which claims 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. (We freaked out watching the vid above.) 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 and there’s a per-person deal of 75 euros for one night at the hotel and one day at Ferrari Land.

Check out all the discounts and special deals here.

Where to stay. PortAventura has seven hotels including the new 25 million euro Colorado Creek, the first zero-emissions hotel at the park.

The trend is for amusement parks to sell you packages including transport, hotel and the theme park. This year, there is a 60 euros per person promotion going on, 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 240 euros … not cheap, but a heck of a deal considering what you’d pay at Disneyland 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 deal

Dispatches’ crowd-sourced 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, RUST, GERMANY

With more than 100 attractions and shows, this is one of the Top-10 most-popular theme parks in the world, with about 6 million visitors last year, No. 2 in Europe behind Disneyland Paris.

One of the reasons we decided to combine the theme-park list with the water-park list is because Europa-Park in Rust, Germany is adding Water World Rulantica this year, which is kind of a trend, now.

At about 6 million square feet, or about 140 acres, Rulantica really will be its own self-contained world with indoor and outdoor features including 25 water attractions, 17 water slides, Germany’s biggest wave pool, and a “Mystery River.” It will also have its own hotel.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like its going to open until late this year, or early 2020.

Europa-Park (owned by the Mack family) also revealed plans to restore the Pirates of the Batavia ride, which was destroyed in a 2018 fire.

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 44.50 euros 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.

EFTELING, ‘S-HERTOGENBOSCH, NETHERLANDS

With more than 5.4 million visitors in 2018, the Efteling is the Netherlands’ largest and most popular theme park … and one of the most popular in Europe. The fairytale-themed park dates back to the 1930’s but always keeps innovating and adds new rides and shows to the park every few years.

For example, Six Swans including a Brothers Grimm-themed castle is under construction, but won’t open until 2020.

Efteling is investing 3.5 million euros to reimagine its PandaDroom exhibition, naming it Fabula. Fabula will feature 3D film in a “4D theatre.” Which means adding all the senses including water, smell and wind effects. Fabula is in collaboration with award-winning studio Aardman – creators of “Wallace & Gromit” and Chicken Run.”

Watch the theme park’s website for updates.

Despite some pushback from locals, Efteling is working on 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.

Symbolica is one of Efteling’s newest attraction and opened in 2017.

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

Tickets: Compared to Disney, Efteling is a way more affordable day out starting at 40 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 270 euros and go up to about 515 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.

DISNEYLAND PARIS

The No 1. theme park in Europe is always a good time, no matter how old or young you are. But it’s also a freakin’ expensive proposition, especially if you have kids.

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.

In these feverish economic boom times, the theme-park industry is expanding at the speed of light and Disneyland is leading the way. Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger was in Paris earlier this year to announce a 2.5 billion euro, multi-year expansion plan that includes adding new Marvel, Star Wars and Frozen sections at the Paris park.

Alas, they won’t be up and running for years. But you can plan for the Halloween Festival coming up in September.

Tickets: There are many, many options, but buying tickets online is your best bet. Prices start at 51 euros per person (adult or child) for one day/one park. Or you can do two parks in one day for 100 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 , 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 and/or princess garb. There are often sales, and the quality is high enough they can play dress-up for years.

WATER PARKS

SIAM PARK, TENERIFE, CANARY ISLANDS

This got thumbs-up from all our expat teens. Siam Park in Tenerife has been named the world’s best water park by TripAdvisor for several years in a row. And it’s the first Green water park.

The park is meant to evoke a trip to Thailand with temples and floating markets. The highlight of your visit to this park is a ride named Tower of Power, which starts at the height of 28 meters and takes you down to the pool with speeds up to 80 km/h. 

The only negative? This is a fantastic water park, crowds are huge and lines are long. Even the food gets good reviews. BUT, worst website ever if you’re trying to order tickets online.

Interesting bonus fact via Wikipedia: Siam Park is the world’s first green water park. The park’s water is heated to 25 °C (77 °F). To conserve the island’s water, Siam Park has a desalination plant on site, which desalinates 700 cubic meters (25,000 cu ft) of seawater per day. After the water is used in the rides, the park recycles the water by using it to water the park’s plants. In addition, Siam Park has the first natural gas plant in the Canary Islands.

Features: Crazy water slides like the Kinnaree, the Tower of Power and the Dragon. The wave pool also gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.

Entry prices: Tickets start at 26 euros for kids (up from 13.50 in 2017!) and go all the way up to 460 euros for VIPs and you can get them online here. All-inclusives start at 122 euros for adults. But here’s a tip from TripAdvisor: Pay the extra 15 euros for Fast Pass.

Open: Year-round

TripAdvisor ratings: Siam Park gets great reviews on TripAdvisor, garnering a 4.5 out of 5 stars with 29,418 reviews. In fact, it’s been their No. 1-rated park in the world for two years running.

GALAXY ERDING, NORTH OF MUNICH

One of Europe’s largest water parks/thermal spas, Galaxy Erding in Germany, just got the craziest real-world application of advanced tech we’ve heard about lately – a VR water slide that outfits guests with a VR headset. So how does that work? Well, the park bought a bunch of waterproof VR headsets, according to the Verge.

The headsets use a tracking system that uses ultrasound sensors and accelerometers to make sure riders don’t get dizzy and, you know, become unwell in the water. The kids apparently see surreal images in the custom virtual reality content that changes through the season … and matches the motion of the slide. Or something like that. There’s a full pdf you can download if you’re really that interested in the science. But we’re pretty sure the idea is to give water park patrons an experience like no other.

The VR is an extra 2 euros per slide.

Not into VR? Galaxy Erding is part of Therme Erding, a giant thermal spa. It has a lot more conventional features, including 26 water slides, several really big ones, and eight new summer slides in a newly designed outdoor area.

Featured rides include:

• the X-treme Faser water slide, with speeds over 70 kilometers per hour. (You have to be 15 years old or older for this one.)

• the Kamikaze, with a 60-degree drop. (Just for context, 90 degrees would be vertical and probably fatal.)

• the Black Mamba with lighting effects

There’s a wave pool, a giant covered pool with palm trees and an island theme, and a thermal spa. So this is more of a spa with water rides. Make that VR water rides. Good news for parents and kids.

Entry prices: Now, about the tickets – we’ve never seen this, but you pay according to time and feature. So, say you want to go to the slides and tropical spa area; you pay 18 euros and up. BUT, there are a million different deals and discounts according to when you want to go. And there are all-in tickets starting at about 35 euros.

See the ticket and pricing pages of the website here.

Open: The spas and part of the water park are open all year.

TripAdvisor ratings: Galaxy Erding/Therme Erding gets great reviews on TripAdvisor, garnering a 4 out of 5 stars on 2,640 reviews, with lots of rave reviews. The only negatives included signage only in German.

AQUAPARK ISTRALANDIA, NOVA VAS, CROATIA

The giant, 20-acre Aquapark Istralandia always ranks at the top of TripAdvisor’s list of Best Water Parks – Europe, only one spot behind Siam Park and is one of Croatia’s best places for a family day out this summer. (Suprisingly, this is Croatia’s first water park, and just opened in 2014.)

The park has 12 different slides – both big and small – including Croatia’s highest free-fall slide which sits at a height of 27 meters. The focus here is on family fun in the sun.

New for 2019 are a family pool, a spray arena for free play and an escape hole.

Features: Check out the video above for the Space Rocket. THAT is cool! Free Fall also looks pretty terror-inducing, which is a good thing. Finally, the foam parties are a nice touch.

The website: For once, a water park has a great website. Lots of features including a downloadable map.

Entry prices: Full-day tickets start at the equivalent of 30 euros for High Season and you can get them here. But there are also half-day tickets and family packages. Decisions, decisions ….

Open: May through mid-September

TripAdvisor ratingFour and a half stars out of five (1,700 reviews). Reviewers use the word “amazing” a lot!

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