The World's Best Amusement Parks 

You might think of amusement parks as being noisy places with overpriced food where your kids want to drag you off to every year--and you'd be right. As any parent knows, enduring amusement parks is as much a part of raising children as braces and funny haircuts. The only thing you can do is suck it up and hope that at least there's a decent golf course nearby. 

Amusement parks such as Coney Island, the pier at Santa Monica and even the Atlantic City boardwalk have become iconic symbols of Americana because of their blend of outdoorsy wholesomeness combined with adrenaline thrills, and unhealthy (but tasty) fast food. But most people would be surprised to learn that the oldest operating amusement park in the world is not American but Danish: Bakken, in Klampenborg, Denmark, opened in 1583. The oldest in the U.S. is Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., which opened in 1846, according to Susie Story of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. 

Parks are a growing industry, and U.S. parks account for only 54% of the worldwide revenue that, according to New York-based consultant Wilkofsky Gruen Associates, totaled $19 billion in 2001. The most visited park in the world is Tokyo Disneyland, which had over 17 million attendees last year. What makes the global success of theme parks even more surprising is the disastrous debut of Euro Disney in 1992. 

The French, as usual, practically revolted against the intrusion of American low culture on Gallic soil. But Disney retooled the park to tone down the American-ness, placed the emphasis on the rides and voilà. 

"Disney toned down the American arrogance, and now it's just fun," says Tim O'Brien, a senior editor at Amusement Business Weekly. "They also made it more of a European park than just a French one." (What does that mean? Serving wine and snails instead of Coke and hot dogs?) Its formula worked so well that Disney just opened a second park there. 

Romania even has plans to create a Dracula theme park--not in the count's alleged hometown but in Sighisoara, a city that ponied up free land. Later this year amusement parks will also be opening in such far-flung spots as Tunisia; Guatemala; Anchorage, Alaska; and Gelendjik, Russia. 

One reason parks are multiplying so quickly is because they're big business. The average price of a one-day ticket is around $25. Multiply that by a family of four and add Grandma and Grandpa, overpriced food, plush-toy souvenirs, mouse ears and perhaps a night or two in a hotel...and you're looking at some serious dough. 

But there are bargains to be found. Many parks offer package deals (with deeper savings on their Web sites), and few people may realize that the cost of a season pass is often just a few dollars more than the price of a one-day ticket. Now if the parks could only do something about the lines.
Christina Valhouli