Heading to PortAventura? Our Travel Editor shares his cheat sheet for Spain's top theme park.
Some four million punters visit PortAventura every year. Spain's flagship family attraction lacks the princesses and big brand oomph of Disney and Universal, but it's definitely major league - splitting into several lands including Mediterrània, Far West, China, Polynesia, Mexico and, coming in 2017, Ferrari Land (see Essential Info, below). It's well-run, spotlessly clean, everyone speaks English, and you'll find plenty of food, drink and toilets interspersed among the rides. First step? Start as you mean to go on and book ahead online. That's one queue skipped at least - and one of the top PortAventura tips.
School holidays see the biggest crowds, so time your visits for shoulder season and midweek if at all possible (I can't tell you what a joy it is to see waiting times of '0.00' listed beside monster rides like Furious Baco, pictured left). If you're coming for the 'coasters, arrive early and make a beeline for China - the themed land at the back of the park, where you can get straight into the lines for Dragon Khan and Shambhala. Work back from there, against the flow of the crowds.
The Express Pass is PortAventura's Fast Pass. These aren't cheap, but they do buy you access to priority queues, which means you'll get lots more rides (at peak times, we saw lines for the big 'coasters stretch to over two hours). Several options range from Express Max (€29pp), allowing one fast access per attraction (but not front row seats), to Express Premium Gold (€53pp), which allows unlimited access to rides, with one single spin permitted in the front row on the coolest 'coasters, Shambhala, Furios Baco and Dragon Khan.
The fun lies in the debates. Ferrari Land's Vertical Accelerator is the fastest (0-180mph in five seconds) and tallest (112m) rollerccoaster in Europe. Furious Baco (Min. Height: 1.40m) boasts a horizontal catapult that propels you to 135 kmph in three seconds; but my favourite was Shambhala (Min Height: 1.40m), a Himalayan-themed ride that kicks off with a 78m fall before blasting you through seven summits of loops, rises and falls in an exhilarating minute of madness. Afterwards, my mouth was bone-dry. A PortAventura tip? There's a separate queue for 'single' riders (such as parents who are ditching their families for an adult ride… *cough*) who can nab single seats, cutting down on queuing time. Genius!
Sunscreen, hats and shades are a must in summer. Wear them, and reapply the sunscreen after lunch - it's amazing how many salmon-pink faces you see floating along behind the 6pm parade. Outside food and drink aren't allowed, though plenty of people seem to flout this rule - and you can bring your own water bottle to fill at drinking fountains throughout the park. A light raincoat is handy for the water rides (plastic ponchos cost €6.95), and bring comfy footwear - you'll walk several kilometres over the course of the day, some of it uphill.
Access to rides in PortAventura is decided by height. Cut-offs range from 1.00 metres to 1.05m (the short and sweet Tomahawk rollercoaster), 1.10m (El Diablo, the Silver River Flume and Grand Rapids), 1.20m (Magic Fish, Stampede) and 1.40m for the marquee 'coasters. Measure your child in advance to avoid disappointment - park attendants take safety seriously, and will produce height bars to decide the issue. There really is no arguing.
The Área Infantil in China has lots of cool slides suitable for younger kids, and a fairground ride themed on Chupa Chups balloons - it's a good stop for adults looking to grab a cuppa or a beer while the kids burn themselves out.
Nearby Sésamo Aventura suits toddlers to tweens, with rides ranging from the short and sweet Tami Tami coaster (which we kept returning to) and El Salto de Blas, where riders pull themselves up a mini tower and drop softly to earth in a jaunt inspired by the terrifying 100m free-fall ride nearby, Hurakan Condor.
A train does the obligatory potter around the park, and family-friendly 'coasters include El Diablo (Min. Height: 1.10m). Themed on a runaway train, it's surprisingly feisty for the uninitiated, but it won't be long before the addiction takes hold.
Ferrari Land also opened a new kids' area for 2018.
Ice Age - The 4D Experience (Min. Height: 1.00m). The queue is one of the most polished productions in PortAventura, but the ride itself is a bore. Guests don 3D glasses to take their seats in cars that jolt and judder as a movie sequence plays out (in Spanish) on screen, but ultimately fails to take-off. "Minus 1,000 out of 10," was my six-year-old's rather cutting review. Elsewhere, El Secreto de los Mayas, a hall-of-mirrors-style attraction in Mexico, is surprisingly tricky to exit - panicky types should definitely give it a skip (our tip - if it gets too much, exit via the entrance).
Eating and drinking is far better value in PortAventura than Disneyland Paris, where restaurants and shops are nothing short of a shakedown. Prices are similar to cinemas or airports, with ice-creams from €1.95, 500ml water bottles at €1.90, and several restaurants doing passable set menus - a snack-size starter, burger or pizza and chips, drink and dessert from €17.20, for example, on our visit. There are lots of kids' and gluten-free ('sin gluten') options, too. Estrella Damm is the only beer available, mind you - and the famous yarda de cerveza ('yard of beer') actually contains just 75cl (despite its bong-like appearance). Still, at €4.90, nobody's complaining. Smoking is permitted in the park, which can be very frustrating - particularly when someone sparks up in a queue.
Caribe is the waterpark at PortAventura - a seasonal spaghetti junction of slides priced from €29/€25 per day (don't forget to bring your own towels, sunscreen, and to leave jewellery behind). In PortAventura proper, the best soakings come courtesy of Tutuki Splash (Min. Height: 1.20m), the Grand Rapids raft ride, and the Silver River Flume (Min. Height: 1.00m to ride with an adult, 1.40m to ride alone). The last drop on Silver River is a humdinger.
What does it cost?
Combined day tickets to PortAventura and Ferrari Land cost €55/€47 (rides are included in the price). Two-day tickets offer far more value at €60/€52, while holidaymakers staying for longer can get a three-day ticket for €80/€65, which can be used within a period of seven days from the date of first visit. See portaventuraworld.com/en for more visitor info, and more PortAventura tips.
What about Ferrari Land?
Update: PortAventura's €100 million, prancing horse playground opened in April 2017. A Ferrari Hotel and other branded attractions are promised, but the main event is the Vertical Accelerator - a rollercoaster featuring a 112m vertical rise, followed by a drop that shoots from 0-180kmph in five seconds, giving riders that face-bending F1 feeling with the equivalent of 1.5G. See more here.
How can I get there?
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Reus, a 15-minute taxi ride (we paid around €30) from PortAventura and its hotels. Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly to Barcelona, roughly an hour's drive away, while tour operators including ClickAndGo.com and Falcon (falconholidays.ie) do packages bundling flights, hotels and park tickets. The theme park can also be reached by train from Barcelona (renfe.es).
Where to stay?
Five on-site hotels allow guests to stay by the park gates, and rates can be combined with park tickets. We stayed at the four-star Hotel PortAventura, where a fairly uninspiring buffet was brightened by friendly staff who went to great lengths to cater for my wife's coeliac diet. An outdoor pool makes it a good bet in warmer weather, and we enjoyed its Café Saul for cuppas too. Expect to pay from around €660 for a weekend's B&B with free park tickets for a family of four in shoulder season.
NB: All prices subject to availability.