From the first pain of the first contraction, parenting is interlaced with self-sacrifice and doing all sorts of things you’d never do if you didn’t have kids. For me, going to a theme park or fairground (or The Merries as we called them when I was a child) ticks that box, and self-sacrifice is exactly what was on my mind when we got up one Friday morning in Spain to get ready to go to Port Aventura.
I am petrified of heights, and feel sick if I’m spun around in a circle – I mean literally if one of the kids wants to play Ring a Ring o’ Rosie, I have to stop because I get nauseous. So I’m great craic at theme parks as you can imagine. Actually, I’d never been to a proper theme park before this – I’ve held the jackets and the hands of any too-small children at Funderland a few times, so that’s how I pictured our upcoming trip to Port Aventura – except in 30 degree sun, there’d be no jackets.
“Will I bring a book?” I asked my husband. He just shook his head. “But what about the times when all three kids will be on the rides, and I’d be waiting down below, because of the height thing and the dizzy thing?” “No”, he said, “you don’t bring a book to a theme park.” Right so.
I wondered if we should bring some snacks or if we’d be home for lunch. “We’ll be there all day,” he said. I just smirked quietly to myself. Had he even met our kids? We’d be there three hours tops. Still, it would make sense to bring some food, so we packed French bread with ham and cheese, and one bottle of water, and off we went, arriving just as the park opened at ten o’clock in the morning.
The easiest way to sum up the experience of walking through the entrance is it is not Funderland. Of course it’s not, says my husband and everyone else who’s ever been to a theme park.
Inside the entrance is the Mediterania area, with its fishing village feel and pretty little shops and restaurants. From there, we walked up to the Sesame Street area of the park, which had lots to suit all three kids, but particularly my five-year-old. As we were about to leave, the kids decided they wanted to go on a mono-rail, and when we got up to the top, two of them needed to go with an adult due to height restrictions. The last thing I wanted to do was get in a plastic plane on a tiny metal rail 30 feet above the ground, but with pleading upturned faces, who was I to cry vertigo. In I got with my eight-year-old, and told her she was looking after me. And look after me she did, after my one look down sent me into a tailspin of panic. I spent the rest of the ride holding her hand and looking at my knees, blurting out mild expletives. “That’s a lot of swear words for one ride Mum,” she said at the end of it. And I swore I wasn’t going on anything again.
Except of course I did. We went to China and Mexico and Polynesia and the Far West and in each area, we tried out the rides, with a mix of participants depending on height restrictions. (For reference, my five-year-old is 1.05m tall and missed out on a few rides that the other two were able to do, but not so many that it made a huge difference.)
We stopped often for breaks – to sit on shaded benches to keep out of the hot sun, to eat our insubstantial picnic, and drink from the water bottle we topped up frequently at drinking fountains. We bought expensive ice-creams and cheap coffees to keep up us going and to take a much-needed rest every hour or so from all the walking around.
Each area we went into was a new eye-opener – the attention to detail in the buildings, the rides, the restaurants – all in synch with the area in question. And there are lots of play areas dotted around when the kids want a break from the rides, and the parents need to sit down for a few minutes. Our favourite area was the Far West – a re-creation of an old Western town with saloons and hotels and a jail, themed rides and food, line-dancing, country and western music, and a stunt show. We hadn’t a clue what was going on, but the kids thought it was great fun.
Our favourite ride was definitely the Silver River Flume – all five of us got to do this together which probably made it special anyway, but it’s basically a water rollercoaster, and utterly petrifying but completely thrilling.
What worked well?
So in case you’re going to Port Aventura, here’s what worked well for us and what we’d do the same if we were going again:
We wore shorts, t-shirts and sandals – lots of people had flip-flops but for getting in and out of boats and rollercoasters, I think sandals are a safer bet.
We did get wet on the water rides but it was so hot, it was a welcome relief and we dried off quickly. If the weather was cooler, I think a change of t-shirt for everyone would have been good.
The park is big but easy to get around – just follow the road or a map or the app or your instincts – it’s a little overwhelming at first, but actually all quite manageable.
There’s a train to get from one area to another, but we used it to do a full circuit of the park when we needed a sit down and some fresh air.
There are some rides that cost extra but overall, very few, and although there are many, many shops on site, we didn’t buy anything except food. (We spent a fortune on food – see below in what we did wrong.)
Parking is €12, or €14.50 to park close to the entrance – we were extremely glad we’d spent the extra €2.50 when we were leaving the park 12 hours after we arrived.
There are fast-pass tickets to avoid queues but we didn’t buy them, and apart from two rides, we never queued for more than five minutes (this was on a Friday in early July).
We were told to arrive for 10am to avoid queues – while it got busier in the afternoon, overall, it never felt overcrowded and we never waited long for anything.
What didn’t work quite so well?
The food! We brought a small picnic, but I’ve since discovered that you’re not actually allowed to do that. In fact, people have had bags searched and been told to leave food in lockers at the entrance or throw it out. Our bag was searched but they didn’t take out our bread rolls. Maybe because they didn’t find them or perhaps because they were too insubstantial to really count as a picnic.
So without bringing your own food, you need to eat in the park. We tried a self-service restaurant in the Mexico area and it wasn’t great. The food is pre-prepared and kept warm under lights, and it really wasn’t very good. We were there for such a long time, we ended up going for a second meal, this time in the Iron Horse in the Far West area. This was a sit-down restaurant rather than self-service, and the food was much better. Still not amazing by non-theme-park standards, but very welcome after ten hours of roaming around the park. It was wasn’t cheap – we spent about €150 on food between the two meals, ice-creams and coffees.
If I was going again, I’d skip the self-service place, and go straight for a proper sit-down meal in the middle of the day, and leave before we need to eat again. (Famous last words)
It’s not cheap, but I guess theme parks aren’t – we paid €214 for the five of us, plus parking of €14.50, plus food as above (€150) which is of course optional but only to an extent since you’re not allowed to bring your own.
We left the park at 10.37 pm – twelve and a half hours after we arrived, and the kids say it was the best day of the holiday. I think perhaps despite the cost and the tiredness, both grown-ups agree. I have a feeling my first theme park won’t be my last.