The kids are clambering to the top of giant mushroom-shaped boulders, yelling their lungs out on the upside-down roller coaster and scarfing down too much popcorn, ice cream and cotton candy. They couldn't be happier while their weary parents look like they can't take one more line. It's theme park business-as-usual -- with one big difference.
No one is speaking English, besides us, of course. Welcome to Parc Asterix, about a half-hour drive north of Paris, based on the enormously popular cartoon and comic-strip character Asterix the Gaul who, our taxi driver explains after we've missed the last shuttle bus to the park, would win any French popularity contest with Mickey Mouse.
We must be nuts, you're thinking, to schlep out to the Paris suburbs and wait on too-long lines when we could be in some of the greatest museums and cathedrals in the world. But that's exactly why we are here. The kids needed a break from all that heavy-duty culture ("Not ANOTHER museum, Mom!"). And so did we, a little tired from squiring them around the city, trying to impart tidbits of guidebook knowledge as we went.
What better place to kick back for an afternoon than an amusement park, especially one based on the oh-so-French character whose adventures have sold 250 million books translated into 57 languages. Our kids certainly didn't need any encouragement.
Had we been really homesick, of course, we could have opted for Disneyland Paris, an easy train ride from central Paris and where plenty of English is certain to be heard. (Call in France O1-60-30-60-69 or www.disneyland paris.com.)
But our three theme park experts -- my 12-year-old daughter, Reggie, her friend, Emily Thomas, and my 7-year-old daughter, Melanie -- decided that as much as they love Mickey Mouse and Goofy, they'd rather see if the French take on theme parks was different (read: better roller coasters) than they were used to at home.
I wondered if French families behave any differently from Americans when they're supposed to be having fun.
"Theme parks are a great way to get a glimpse into European family life," agreed Tim O'Brien, who covers the international theme park industry for Amusement Business Newsweekly and regularly tours parks around the world. One difference O'Brien and I both noticed immediately: European families at play certainly are more affectionate -- especially with older kids -- than American parents would dare to be in public. But they get just as exasperated by the crowds, too-pricey souvenirs and cranky kids.
Foreign theme parks, O'Brien says, may offer Americans on the tourist track the only chance they may get to be up close and personal with families from the country they're visiting. At Parc Asterix, for example, 85 percent 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.
These are the kinds of experiences American parents are seeking and that their kids will remember. Buoyed by the healthy economy, nearly 11 million Americans are heading to Europe this year -- a more than 20 percent hike from two years ago, the European Travel Commission Reports, and increasingly with kids in tow.
When you've had your fill of museums, churches and other American tourists, here's where you can take the kids for a day they won't forget. Costs can sometimes be lower than typical prices for 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, the thatched-roof village made famous by the comic characters Asterix, Obelix and their friends, through ancient Rome and Greece and the Middle Ages. There are 27 rides, including three big coasters, water slides and plenty of kiddie rides. Forget hot dogs: The kids ate chocolate crepes for lunch. Call 03-44-62-34-04, or check the Web site at www. asterix.tm.fr/english/parc.htm. This year it's open April through October. One tip: Though accessible via the Metro to Charles de Gaulle airport where you board a shuttle bus (mornings only), we found it a lot quicker and easier to reach Asterix by car.
Legoland Windsor, within sight of Windsor Castle, is a half-hour from London. It's an especially good bet for younger kids, since they can drive boats and cars that look like they're made out of Legos and there's an entire Miniland constructed from some 20 million Lego pieces. Meet a giant dragon on the new CastleLand ride at the Imagination Centre. Kids can design their own Lego buildings or even control Lego models through computers. Call 09-90-04-0404 or look at www.LEGOLAND.co.uk.
The Great Thorpe Park in Chertsey, Surrey, in England should please the older kids in the crowd as well as younger ones, with Britain's highest log flume, giant four-lane water slide, raging river, backward-plummeting roller coaster and bumper cars as well as its petting farm. There's the Octopus Garden ride area for younger children complete with a maze. Call 01932-56-9393 or www.thorpepark.co.uk.
Efteling in Kaatsheuvel, Holland, is a 45-year-old theme park based on fairy tales your kids know, from Tom Thumb and Rumpelstiltskin to Cinderella, among others. There's a Fairy-Tale Forest, live shows and a new scary indoor roller coaster based on Sinbad the Sailor. Call 0416-288111 or www.efteling.NL.
Europa-Park in Rust-Baden, Germany, near the French and Swiss borders, is built amid the gardens of Balthaser Castle, which was constructed in 1442. Here's the place to see a medieval joust, ride the fast Swiss Bob-Sleigh or in-the-dark coaster. There are more than 60 shows and attractions. Open this year April to November. Call 49-7822-776677 or www.europa-park.de.