Travel: The Spanish theme park that’s giving Disney a run for its money
Balancing a dose of Vitamin D with an adrenaline rush, Emily Shelley takes her family to Spain’s PortAventura World.
Half a million Brits fly to Barcelona every year and don’t see anything of the city and its famous architecture. And no, they’re not on stag dos… they’re heading straight to the No.1. leisure destination in the Mediterranean – PortAventura World.
This collection of theme parks and hotels, with a water park, a beach club and new attractions every year, is second only to Disneyland Paris on the European visitor leader-board.
It has the same attention to detail as Disney, and the same focus on family – with the added benefit of the Barcelona weather.
There are five themed hotels to choose from, each with pools and gardens. We’re staying in a US frontier town from the late 19th century called Sullivan City, home of Hotel Gold River. Here, visitors can sleep in the town’s ‘jail’ and eat in its ‘opera house’, while dodging sky-high cacti and jigging along to piped cowboy music. Our room is in Callaghan’s – a smart boarding house building around the central square.
Hotel guests get Express passes to the theme parks included in their ticket, so if you can tear yourself away from the beautiful ‘desert river’ swimming pools around the hotel, it’s a short walk across a footbridge to the main park entrance.
Express means just that – no queues for any rides. This is worth its weight in frontier gold if you’ve small children with you. It also opens up so many more rides than you’d ever usually have time for, and gives you the space to watch a show and stop for lunch.
While you can find the usual theme-park fare of burgers and chips here, this is Spain, so we sit down to tapas and fresh seafood by the ‘harbour’.
It strikes us how much has been done to make sure there is something to appeal to every member of the family – from grandparents who can enjoy theatre shows, beautiful gardens and gentle boat rides, to teens seeking the biggest thrills on the continent, and toddlers who are so often forgotten by these kinds of attractions.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 things you must do in PortAventura World…
1. Zoom through Sesame Street
New for the 2019 season is Street Mission, a ‘dark ride’ on a Sesame Street taxi that sums up what PortAventura is all about. You can ride it with a one-year-old, but our teenage daughter also thinks this is one of the best experiences in the park. Put on 3D glasses and use a laser gun to shoot cookies for Cookie Monster as you zoom around a part real/part CGI Sesame Street, with enough twists, turns and fake falls to give everyone a surprise. And the biggest thrill of all? Realising you’ve beaten your dad on the cookie leader-board on the way out.
2. Accelerate to 180mph in five seconds
One of the theme parks on offer is Ferrari Land, which is a smart Italian-themed collection of driving and speed-based rides. As well as sampling awesome pasta here, you must experience the Red Force – which has a minimum height requirement of 1.40metres. This vertical accelerator ride can be seen from miles around as it rises to 112metres high, and you know it’ll be fast when they hand you goggles as you climb in. Once you’ve been shot up this tower like a bullet from a gun, it’s up to gravity and the wind speed – you’ll go all the way over the top and back down or fall backwards to where you started.
3. Drive a Ferrari
OK, not a real Ferrari. But on various simulators, you can drive a Ferrari around the world, an F1 version around Monte Carlo, and then with more competition than necessary a real-life go-cart Ferrari in a race against the kids. In Ferrari Land, there’s also a kids’ version of the Red Force accelerator and a large play area.
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4. Slide down the Himalayas
The Shambhala ride in the ‘China’ region of the main park is iconic among roller coaster fans. It’s the tallest in Europe at 76metres high, has the longest descent with a drop of 78metres and is still the fastest, reaching speeds of 134mph. Like climbing Everest, this is not for everyone – including me. Thankfully, there’s a mini-model of the Great Wall on which to stand and watch those much braver than yourself descend it.
5. Ride a flying fish
In the area of the park for younger families, SesamoAventura – which is all Sesame Street-themed – is this seemingly innocuous ride. A major hit with us, it involves getting your own fish to steer through the water as you spin round, trying and failing to splash your siblings. In fact, much of this area designed for parents to ride with babies and toddlers appeals to our older kids. We pull our way up a tower in swinging chairs, ride the child-friendly Tami Tami roller coaster and run around the ‘magic tree’ at its centre. There’s also handy hut serving parents cafe con leche and churros.
6. Fly like a condor
To be more exact, you’ll fall like a condor – dropping 86metres vertically at 100mph. Hurakan Condor is the main ride in the ‘Mexico’ area of the park, and not advisable after a taco lunch. You’ll get a good view of the whole resort on the way up, but don’t expect to see anything on the way down, as it takes just three seconds.
7. Battle the Templo del Fuego
This is one of the 40 shows you can catch across the parks, from Wild West shooting stunts, to Polynesian dancing. In the Templo, which is set inside a replica Mayan pyramid, you’ll follow an explorer through a series of challenges and dodge shooting flames and unexpected explosions.
8. Hurtle down a tin mine
A firm family favourite is the runway mine train called El Diablo. With just enough thrills to keep the kids happy without terrifying Mum, the Express passes mean we repeat this several times in a row, and then a few more times, just to make sure we haven’t missed any of the sharp corners.
9. Race each other in a Stampede
One of the first rides built in the park more than 20 years ago, Stampida has two click-clack big dippers that ‘race’ each other. Pick a side – red or blue – and prepare to have your bones shaken as you fly over the giant wooden construction. Sometimes blue wins and sometimes red wins, but whether by design or chance, we never find out. When you emerge, there are a host of US county fair-style attractions to play on, or you can catch a cancan show.
10. Get wet without getting cold
Along with the Caribe Aqua Park, there are several ‘wet’ rides in the main park: Grand Canyon Rapids, the Silver River Flume, and the water-shooting Angkor river ride, not to mention the Tutuki Splash ride through a volcano. That’s when the Spanish sunshine comes into its own, as for the first time ever, it’s actually quite a relief to cool down on one of these things. Even better, bring your swimming costume and spend some time at the resort’s Caribe Aquatic Park. It has the tallest water slide in Europe – the King Khajuna. If all this excitement gets too much, there’s a white sand lagoon where you can get your adrenaline levels back to normal on a sun lounger.
How to get there
Rooms at The Hotel Gold River at PortAventura World start from £155.05 per night (room only), including one-day access per stay per person to PortAventura Park, and Ferrari Land.
A three-day ticket covering PortAventura Park, Caribe Aquatic Park and Ferrari Land without accommodation starts from E85/£73.50 per adult and E74/£64 per child, if purchased online. Visit portaventuraworld.com.