Destination: Rust, Germany
From the country that brought you the Porsche and the autobahn, you'd expect the rides at Germany's largest theme park to be high-tech and speed-obsessed. And yes indeed, Europa Park does have Europe's highest and fastest roller coaster, the Silver Star, which climbs to 240 feet, travels at 79 mph, and (here's a plus) delivers a ride that's a full 4 minutes long.
But though there are seven dramatic roller coasters at Europa Park, this place is not just about the rides. It's a clever microcosm of Europe, with shops and restaurants and shows as well as rides in mini versions of 11 different countries. Corny as it may sound, it works. Sound familiar? Yes, Epcot in Orlando originated the pocket-nation idea, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg jumped on the same bandwagon -- but Europa Park covers more European countries on its 160-acre site, from Scandinavia to Greece, from Portugal to Russia, and does so with an attention to architectural detail that puts the other parks' stage-set streetscapes to shame. From the replica of England's venerable Globe Theatre to one of Russia's Mir Space Station, it hits all the cultural highlights; the Panorama Train that circles the park lets you drink it all in for an overview, but immerse yourself in each section and you'll be engrossed.
The folks who designed this park clearly have scoped out the competition -- if they can't have Mad Tea Party spinning teacups, they'll put spinning Delft coffee cups in the Holland section; instead of a Haunted Mansion, they have a Ghost Castle in the Italy area; and let's just call Pirates in Batavia, in the Portugal section, an "homage" to Pirates of the Caribbean. But these aren't cheesy imitations, they are every bit as well-executed as the Disney originals, and just as much fun. Although Europa Park isn't open year-round -- that pesky German climate -- they manage to have at least part of the park open most of the time, with a Halloween-themed experience in October and a December Christmas theme; even though several of the bigger outdoor rides are closed in the off-season, there's still plenty to do.
Information: Europa-Park Strasse 2 (tel. 0180/ 5776688; www.europapark.de).
Nearest Airport: Frankfurt (2 hrs.)
Accommodations: Colombi-Hotel, Ritteckring 16, Freiburg (tel. 0761/21060; www.colombi.de). Park Hotel Post, Eisenbahnstrasse 37, Freiburg (tel. 0761/385480; www.park-hotel-post.de).