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Best of family travel

The world's best alternative theme parks

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Yes, you might have visited Six Flags and Disneyland in all its iterations (in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and come 2015, Shanghai). But what about all the other weird and wonderful theme parks out there? Here's a small selection of delightfully different theme parks, to give your travels an offbeat flavour.

Legoland Billund, Denmark. Image by MPD01605. CC BY-SA 2.0.Legoland Billund, Denmark. Image by MPD01605. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Legoland, Billund, Denmark

Lego didn’t become the world’s richest toy company through toys alone. This Danish company has partnered with Merlin Entertainment to open six theme parks around the world. There are two in the USA, one in the UK, one in Germany and one in Malaysia. But the Legoland (www.legoland.dk/en) in Billund is located in the very same town where the company was started.

The rides might not trump those in more established theme parks, but a jaunt through Miniland always elicits gasps of wonder from visitors. Over 20 million Lego bricks are used to create mini versions of famous buildings and scenes around the world. There’s even a Star Wars Miniland section.

Top tip: Lego hosts an annual Inside Tour of their factory in Billund. This all-inclusive three-day tour costs US$2350 and is capped at 25 visitors. Book way in advance…we know of true fans who attend every year!

Sanrio Puroland, Tokyo, Japan

Thousands of people come through the gates of Sanrio Puroland (www.puroland.jp) to see the iconic Hello Kitty in action. The small park has only one boat ride, but everyone comes here for the parades, shows and the life-size Hello Kitty house. A new wing with even more pink fluffy things is set to open this month.

Top tip: you can get a discounted package from stations along the Keio subway line en route to the park in Tama. Check out details here.

Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. Image by Jon Arnold / AWL Images / Getty Images.Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. Image by Jon Arnold / AWL Images / Getty Images.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

A real overachiever in the alternative theme park stakes, Denmark has a second unmissable pick: Tivoli Gardens (www.tivoli.dk/en), an amusement park first built in 1843. There’s a wooden roller coaster, an 80m-tall carousel, bumper cars, a Ferris wheel and other old-school rides. Of course, it’s not entirely vintage: the Demon roller coaster features three inversions and there’s the Vertigo, a self-piloted ride that hits speeds of up to 100km/h. The 21-acre park is also home to a classical concert hall and a pantomime theatre.

Did you know? Nearby Dyrehavsbakken (www.bakken.dk),  just outside Copenhagen, lays claim to being the oldest amusement park in the world. It was first established in 1583, on the site of a spring that was reputed to have healing waters.

Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Ah, what you can do with oil money. If you’ve got bucketloads of it, why not splash out to build the world’s largest indoor theme park? And why not a Ferrari theme park? That’s exactly what the Abu Dhabi government did. Located on Yas Island, 30 minutes from the airport, Ferrari World (www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com), has over 20 Ferrari-themed rides and attractions. You can drool over a showroom of Ferrari cars dating back to 1947 (the largest of its kind outside Maranello), jump into a racing simulator or strap yourself into the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. It hits speeds of up to 240km/h in just 4.9 seconds.

Did you know? Abu Dhabi is sitting on 9% of the world’s proven oil reserve and 5% of the world’s natural gas. Ka-ching!

Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi. Image by Aziz Jahat. CC BY 2.0.Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi. Image by Aziz Jahat. CC BY 2.0.

Universal Studios, Singapore

Good theme parks are scarce in Southeast Asia. Thankfully, Universal Studios Singapore (www.rwsentosa.com) helps rectify that. What this park lacks in size it makes up for in quality…and who really fancies walking hundreds of metres just to get to another ride? The Battlestar Galactica features two side-by-side bone-shuddering roller coasters running simultaneously, but the pick of the park is the immersive Transformers ride. Visitors board a car and are taken on a thrilling 3D battle with some very real effects: fire, water, smoke…it’s a perfect blend of good old-fashioned thrills packaged in modern technology.

Top tip: the park is located on Sentosa Island. Aside from screaming your lungs out on a roller coaster, you can hit the beach, sip cocktails, visit aquariums, check out former WWII gun emplacements and more.

Angry Birds land by joan!ta. CC BY-SA 2.0.Angry Birds land by joan!ta. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Angry Birds Land in Sarkanniemi Amusement Park, Tampere, Finland

One day we might look back on the 21st century and ponder why we were so fascinated with Angry Birds. That day hasn’t arrived yet. For now, these Finnish mobile game characters have spawned an empire of merchandise and even, yes, theme parks. Abu Dhabi, Doha and Al Ain are now bidding for the rights to build the first full-fledged Angry Birds theme park (no, the fake unlicensed one in China doesn’t count). Until that’s done, fans will have to be content with the Angry Birds Land within the Finnish theme park Sarkanniemi. Rides are decidedly family-friendly but hey, it’s Angry Birds!

Did you know? Downloads of the Angry Birds game topped one billion and developer Rovio now makes 50% of its revenue from merchandising.

Window of the World, Shenzhen, China

It’s all about scale in China. In the case of the Window of the World (www.szwwco.com) theme park in China, it’s all about replicating iconic sights and structures in 1:1, 1:5 or 1:15 scale. There’s the 108m tall Eiffel Tower (it’s one-third the size of the real deal), the Pyramids of Giza, Angkor Wat, and even Niagara Falls. Thematic events such as the Japanese Cherry Festival and indoor water and ski parks round off the experience. A true case of imitation being the best form of flattery.

Top tip: if you’re in a huge rush, sign up for an 80-minute tour ‘around the world’. Okay, so it’s really an electric cart ride around the park.

Window of the World by Jennifer Morrow. CC BY 2.0.Window of the World by Jennifer Morrow. CC BY 2.0.

Cedar Point, Ohio, USA

Cedar Point (www.cedarpoint.com) might be a one-trick pony, but with 16 variations (and counting) of roller coasters, that’s no bad thing really. Forget about poncy rides, parades and costumed characters and get an adrenaline rush x 16. Rinse and repeat. The park’s location in Ohio means it sees fewer visitors than other more famous parks, which is no bad thing if you're crowd-averse.

Did you know? Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California has the most number of roller coasters in the world. There are 18 of them there. Cedar Point comes in a close second with 16.

Tips on tackling theme parks

  • Go on a weekday to avoid the crush, and if at all possible, avoid going during holidays of any sort.
  • Short on time, or planning multiple visits? Many parks sell passes that could save you cash.
  • Start early in the day to avoid the heat and the crowds. Pack a hat and sunscreen, as most parks are open air.
  • If you’re on a budget, bring a packed lunch and your own drinks.
  • Taking children? Make sure they meet the minimum height requirement for rides or prepare to face the music (or rather, the tears).

Have we missed out your favourite alternative theme park experience? Feel free to chime in with your recommendations on our Facebook page.