Meeting the Locals at Europe Theme Parks

The kids are yelling their lungs out on the upside-down roller coaster and scarfing down too much cotton candy. It's another theme park--but no one except us is speaking English.

We're at Parc Asterix, about a half-hour's drive north of Paris, based on the enormously popular cartoon and comic-strip character Asterix the Gaul. Had we been really homesick, of course, we could have gone to Disneyland Paris; it's an easy train ride from central Paris, and plenty of English is heard there. (Call 011-33-1-60-30-60-69.) But our three theme park experts, ages 7 to 12, decided they'd rather see if the French had better roller coasters.

"Theme parks are a great way to get a glimpse into European family life," notes Tim O'Brien, who covers the international theme park industry for Amusement Business Newsweekly and regularly tours parks around the world.

One difference he and I both noticed immediately: European families at play are more affectionate--especially with older kids--than American parents are in public. But they get just as exasperated by the crowds, pricey souvenirs and cranky kids.

Foreign theme parks, O'Brien says, may offer Americans on the beaten tourist track their only chance to be up close and personal with families from the country they're visiting. At Parc Asterix, for example, 85% of the fun seekers are French. There's nothing like sharing a roller-coaster seat or a long line to break down language and cultural barriers, I discovered.

Costs are sometimes lower than at U.S. theme parks, but be warned that many European parks are not open year-round.

* Parc Asterix takes you on a journey through time, starting in Gaul and proceeding through ancient Rome and Greece and the Middle Ages. There are 27 rides, including three big roller coasters, water slides and plenty of kiddie rides. Call 011-33-3-44-62-34-04. This year it's open through October. Though accessible via the Metro to Charles de Gaulle airport, where you board a shuttle bus (mornings only), we found it a lot simpler to reach Asterix by car.

* Legoland Windsor is a half-hour from London. Younger kids can drive boats and cars that look like they're made out of Legos, design their own Lego buildings, even control Lego models through computers. There's an entire Miniland constructed from 20 million Lego pieces. Call 011-44-9-90-04-0404.

* The Great Thorpe Park in Chertsey, Surrey, England, should please older kids as well as younger ones, with Britain's highest log flume, a giant four-lane water slide, a raging river and a backward-plummeting roller coaster. Call 011-44-1932-56-9393.

* Efteling in Kaatsheuvel, Holland, is a 45-year-old theme park based on fairy tales your kids know, from Rumpelstiltskin to Cinderella. There's a Fairy-Tale Forest and an indoor roller coaster. Call 011-31-416-288111.

* Europa-Park in Rust-Baden, Germany, near the French and Swiss borders, is built amid the gardens of a castle constructed in 1442. See a medieval joust or ride an in-the-dark roller coaster. Open this year until November. Call 011-49-7822-776677.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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