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Europe's best theme park for young children? We think we've found it

Sally Peck
'At Parc Astérix, beyond the physical thrill of the rides, the main currency is wit' - Sylvain Cambon Photographe 0612252230

Less queues than Disneyland, more exciting than Legoland, with the best food you’ll find at any theme park. Parc Astérix isn’t just fun for children. Here’s how to get the most out of it

Children get to an age where everything is a joke. There’s the knock-knock period and the lavatory humour stage, followed by the sophistication of the double entendre era. And this propensity for a diet of laughs goes some way towards explaining the enduring popularity of a squat mustachioed Frenchman.

Asterix, like your child, is a diminutive, somewhat marginalised hero. Asterix wants to preserve the autonomy of his small Gallic village on Brittany’s coast that is holding out against the Roman invaders c 50BC. When he and his fellow villagers aren’t busy outmanoeuvring the legionaries, they spend most of their time bickering and eating; see: just like your child.

Much as the Gaul is a thorn in Caesar’s side, so, too, is your young person a plucky pressure in your own life. You wish to divide and conquer to establish order, they have their own agenda. Particularly between the ages of around five and 12, that junior agenda is likely to include a trip to a theme park.

I once knew an ex-Army man whose life had taken a series of bumpy turns which had landed him in the polyester regalia of Jafar at Disneyland. Scouse accent notwithstanding, he spent a few years at the head of queues of children just east of Paris who wished to have a photograph with Aladdin’s sultan’s evil adviser. 

It's playfully on-theme and scattered over a nicely planted park just north-east of Paris Credit: ARNAUD SOBCZYK

Theme parks are funny places for parents. It’s easy to assume that your children will love you forever if you take them for a weekend to a theme park. 

And yet, wandering Disneyland a few years ago with my young children, I thought of my old friend, and how bizarre it is that families queue for photographs with strange adults in fancy dress. That is a particular form of magic I do not understand. 

It also feels a bit self-defeating, or at least financially unwise, to trot through Legoland with your child: you’re never more than a few yards from an opportunity to buy a rainbow of small plastic bricks. And yet, there is nothing as thrilling as a rollercoaster. Wandering through a campus of fun, candyfloss in one hand, is the epitome of carefree summer; this is the physical state most directly opposite to studying for an exam.

So. You’ve committed to an overnight at a theme park. You are a good parent. Disneyland Paris is, at its best, a hotspot of fantasy – princesses, Star Wars, mice. Legoland is for relatively young mega-fans of all of the theme tie-ins and films. 

Efteling, in the Netherlands, is a charmingly old-fashioned fairytale-themed park ideal for toddlers to primary-aged children, with some good rollercoasters for the older set.

Rides range from the pleasant to the (seemingly) perilous Credit: SYLVAIN CAMBON

And in the pantheon of the world’s great theme parks, Parc Astérix is next-stage Efteling. Playfully on-theme and scattered over a nicely planted park just north-east of Paris, here you’ll find rides ranging from the pleasant to the (seemingly) perilous, plus reliably decent food and better value than you might find in rivals.

Asterix himself is 60 this year; he was invented by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny in 1959 when they were charged with creating rivals to Disney’s comic strips for a new magazine, Pilote. Also this year, our hero’s eponymous theme park turns 30, for which it has been impressively spruced up. 

Parc Astérix is best for children aged six to 12. It has seven serious rides – rollercoasters with height minimums of 1.2 to 1.4m (4ft to 4ft 7in) – that include the inverted coaster Oziris, plus the family coaster Pégase Express. 

At Parc Astérix, beyond the physical thrill of the rides, the main currency is wit. The Tonnerre de Zeus, my seven-year-old’s favourite ride – a thrillingly long old wooden roller­coaster that goes more than 50mph – is approached by a path under a giant statue of Zeus wielding a lightning bolt (you cannot help but spot his floral pants peaking out from underneath his loincloth as you queue).

On the Pégase Express, my six-year-old’s most-requested ride, speeds reach just 30mph – this is a family ride – but said six-year-old was thrilled with a close encounter with the monster Medusa, halfway through, which sends the coaster flying backwards to escape her. 

Grand new accommodation opened this year at La Cite Supendue Credit: sYLVAIN CAMBON

Well landscaped, with a big lake and plantings that reinforce the themed areas – Ancient Greece is awash in olive trees and bougainvillea, Egypt has pastel riffs on ancient wall paintings – the park is also a pleasant space for people who, like my husband, prefer to sit in the shade and read a novel while the rest of their family gets queasy on rides.

The theme follows through to food, so you can find fried fish in Greece and wild boar in the Roman world – making for the best theme park food I’ve found.

With a good range of scary rides, and manageable queues on the days we visited, this was a less exhausting day of fun than we’ve had at other parks. There are also adventure playgrounds dotted around the site and many mellow boat rides and small carousels for young children, making this a good destination for a range of ages.

Next to the park, grand new accommodation opened this year at La Cite Supendue, a sprawling series of houses on stilts in a forest that looks like it could house druids. These houses stay close to the ancient theme and surround an airy central building with a buffet restaurant offering far better food than any other theme park.

If you go, it’s well worth buying a pass rapidus. In an oddly egalitarian move, purchasing this fast pass only allows you to cut the queue at each ride once per day. 

While lines moved efficiently and staff were all attentive and helpful (and bilingual), queues for the biggest coasters at peak times averaged about 45 minutes. I’ve seen much longer waits at Disney or British parks, but it’s well worth skipping nonetheless.

Life is funny. That’s what you learn from children and from Asterix. If you miss that key detail, the rest is too dull to bear. Sitting in the park’s brand new attraction “Attention Menhir!”, I relaxed into my cinema seat, ready to zone out for 20 minutes. No such luck. 

Life in 2019 is 4D – meaning that, as Asterix galloped through the forest, dodging snakes on the screen above me, I felt the very same reptiles swarming around my feet. Each time his giant sidekick Obelix clumsily shuffled his giant boulders, I felt the ground rumble with the impact. There were the sorts of deeply earthy smells that make six and seven-year-olds giggle. 

There was enough spraying and surprises to shock even the most sceptical of parents. And that, really, is why you should visit a theme park with your child. Sure, they’ll have fun. And, if you plan carefully to avoid peak crowds and force yourself to engage with the narrative, you will, too. And that is more rejuvenating than Botox.

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