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European theme parks: Along for the ride

European theme parks aren’t just rollercoasters and rapids. From chariot racing in France to a family racetrack in Spain, why not try the alternatives?

European theme parks: Along for the ride

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The Romans posture and the crowd is riled; the chariot racing has begun. Dressed in distinct plumes of red, blue and green, three chariots tear through the Coliseum. A short pause and the final chariot clad in virtuous white, pulled by four matching white horses, is urged on by the cheering crowd.

“It’s just like Ben Hur,” I say. “Who’s that?” asks my daughter. Having started out as a one-off battle re-enactment in the 1970s, Puy du Fou has since evolved into France’s second-most popular theme park — after Disneyland Paris — and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a new show (Le Carillon), hotel and restaurants. No matter that us Luddites can’t understand the French actors, we still catch the gist; it’s all about heart-pumping, thrilling, over-the top Errol Flynn-esque action. Will the rebel Roman save his ‘slave’ beloved? Of course, as long as he passes a series of death-defying(ish) challenges and wins the customary chariot race.

There are no rides, but we find more than 20 history-themed shows and attractions, including a live-action ‘Viking Attack’, mystical gardens, labyrinth, and water and light spectacles. “What, no rides?” begins the day, but we end on a high. For those looking for an alternative to Mickey & co, this works.

Alternative theme parks

Efteling, Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands
A fantasy-themed attraction inspired by fairytales and folklore. Walk amid gingerbread houses and talking trees in the ‘Fairytale Forest’.

Futuroscope, Poitiers, France
This high-tech park uses special effects, holograms and pyrotechnics. It even has futuristic rides including Dances with Robots, where you’re sent flying by a giant robot arm.

PortAventura World, Catalonia, Spain
A huge resort with theme parks and a water park — plus Ferrari Land opened this year with a speedy rollercoaster and family racetrack.

Vulcania, Auvergne, France
The theme of this park was the brainchild of a volcanologist. Glide down a simulated lava flow and go ‘underwater’ on a special effects journey around subaquatic volcanoes.

Siam Park, Tenerife, Spain
With stupas at its entrance, the Thai theme here stands out from the get-go. For adrenalin junkies, there’s the Mekong Rapids and the ‘zero gravity’ Dragon slide.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)