Image: Europa Park
Europa Park
Europa Park in Germany, which tallied nearly 4 million visitors last year, is based on the idea of a unified European continent.
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updated 10/12/2007 4:18:11 PM ET 2007-10-12T20:18:11

If travel is escape, then the amusement park may well represent travel in its most concentrated form: a self-contained universe of sundry thrills and happy diversions. It all adds up to a day well-spent, and perhaps so easily forgotten that it just has to be repeated. No one ever said a day at Disneyland would be life-changing, but travel has always been part Silk Road, part Main Street, U.S.A.

A visit to an amusement park has traditionally been the province of families looking for a low-maintenance vacation or vacation-style day away: According to International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions spokesperson Sarah Gmyr, “Amusement parks provide a magical escape from the day-to-day world ... guests can ride thrill rides and scream and then sit down and enjoy an entertaining show.

This shared emotional experience is unique to amusement parks.” Part of the experience may even be slightly educational (It’s a Small World as model U.N.?), but goodness knows it doesn’t have to be (consider the 17 roller coasters at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio).

If the promise of good times minus the burden of advance legwork is a perpetual draw, new attractions have a large role in bringing people back, too. “With constantly evolving and improving park experiences marked by new and innovative rides, entertaining new shows and new services like VIP programs, which allow guests to move to the front of a ride line, you have multiple reasons for guests to visit over and over again,” says Gmyr. The trade publication Amusement Today awarded Cedar Point the honor of best new ride of 2007 for its Maverick coaster; it gave the award for best outdoor night show production to "IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth," at EPCOT at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The awards are based on surveys from hundreds of amusement park fans.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Britain’s most popular theme park, was founded in 1896, and some of the rides from its first years of operation, such as the Sir Hiram Maxim Flying Machines, are still in use. But there’s also Bling, a nasty ride that hurls riders 100 feet above the ground and spins them through the air in three directions on giant multicolored gondolas at 60 miles per hour. And this year saw the introduction of Infusion, a suspended looping roller coaster with heart-stopping whirlwind water effects. Nausea-inducing, why certainly, but a bigger hoot than watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

New attractions notwithstanding, the attendance numbers speak for themselves. First, about brand recognition — it’s no surprise that the pioneer of the modern amusement park, Disney, leads the pack, and not only in America but Japan, France and (thanks to a park opened in Hong Kong in 2005) China, too. Second, the numbers reveal how geography is key. All the Disney parks are in or hard by major metropolitan centers. The location of Germany’s Europa-Park, one of Europe’s most popular theme parks, in the town of Rust may seem odd, but it’s less so when you consider its position between Freiburg and Strasbourg. Another charming Euro amusement park heavyweight, Tivoli Gardens, is an integral part of Copenhagen’s city center.

Image: Walt Disney World
Diana Zalucky  /  Diana Zalucky, photographer
Goofy is seen giving a high-five while riding Cinderella's Golden Carousel during the Little Ones Magic Hour at the Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Today there is more diversity among amusement parks than you might think. You can always count on Disneyland and its brethren — from Orlando to Hong Kong — but visiting parks in different countries can be, well, highly amusing. “No two parks in the world are the same,” Gymr says. “Each one is created to appeal to its core market, which is based on its physical location. Parks offer a different mix of attractions and rides that may at first appear to be similar, are in fact, and modified to address local customs and culture.”
Image: Tivoli Gardens
Opened in 1843, Tivoli Gardens is now as much a concert venue as it is an amusement park. Last year, Tivoli Gardens had nearly 4.4 million visitors.

Disneyland Paris is one example of that, but why not take the adventure even further? If you’ve been to Disneyland and you only have three days in Paris, you could spend one of them in the company of Mickey le Souris (that’s French for mouse), but how Parisian is that? Check out Parc Astérix, a modern fantasia on ancient Gaul — one that uses the legendary comic book characters of Asterix and Obelisk as leitmotif — instead, and you’re in for a real homegrown French treat (as well as a couple of roller coasters that give the folks at Disney and Six Flags a run for their money). It’s a pattern repeated around the world, and with that in mind we’ve identified not only the most attended amusement parks in each of 15 countries, but singled out some hidden park gems where you chances are you can have fun times with fewer lines.

(Note: all attendance figures are drawn from the industry-standard TEA/ERA Theme Park Attendance Report for 2006.)

Photos: Walt Disney World at 40

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  1. 40 and fabulous

    Fireworks explode above Cinderella Castle as dancers and Disney characters perform while taping a segment of "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2010, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 40th anniversary of the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort will be celebrated in 2011. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Star power

    Musical artist Yanni, right, plays the piano as the "Yanni Voices" perform an arrangement of "O Holy Night" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2009, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Yanni was taping a segment for the "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" holiday TV special. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'I'm going to Disney World!'

    Tom Brady, quarterback of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, signs autographs at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on Feb. 2, 2004, one day after leading the Patriots to a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. (Gene Duncan / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The first 25 years

    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to a crowd as Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner applauds Oct. 1, 1996, during the rededication of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on the 25th anniversary its opening. (Tony Ranze / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Royal fun

    Prince William, right, grimaces after he and friends of the royal family finish their ride on Splash Mountain Aug. 26, 1993, at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Harry Soames, left front, was the prince's companion on the three-day vacation. Other passengers are unidentified. (Bob Pearson / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Celebrating two decades

    The 20th anniversary rededication ceremony of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1991 brought legions of Disney cast members onto Main Street, U.S.A. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A world-class welcome

    Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, is joined by the beloved Disney character that started it all, Mickey Mouse, in welcoming the first guests to the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Oct. 1, 1971. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cinderella's future home

    In 1971, a blue-spired castle -- destined to become one of the world's most-photographed buildings -- rose in central Florida as the iconic centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971. In the 40 years since guests first strolled down Main Street, U.S.A., Walt Disney World Resort has blazed brave new entertainment trails based on its founder's fertile imagination and vision that the resort would forever continue to evolve. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
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