Along for the ride in Spain Barcelona: Amusement parks near the Mediterranean city are a welcome -- and often thrilling -- diversion.

March 02, 1997|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

UPSIDE-DOWN OVER THE SPANISH COAST -- Plummeting at 70 mph, I brace for a bone-twisting turn. My head spins and my stomach somersaults. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a turquoise Mediterranean. Then the woman next to me begins to scream.

Although it feels like a particularly ingenious form of torture from the Spanish Inquisition, I've actually paid money and stood in line for this experience: a ride on the Dragon Khan, the signature attraction of the Port Aventura theme park.

When the roller coaster ends, I emerge pale, shaken and awed by the twisted orange-steel contraption that frames the blue sky like a Picasso etching. The ride snakes through nearly a mile of track and makes eight loops, a world record.

Port Aventura, Europe's second-largest theme park after Disneyland Paris, has been packed since opening in 1995. Located in Salou, about 60 miles south of Barcelona, the park lured nearly 3 million visitors its first year.

Many come on holiday from colder European climes, but most have been Spaniards. Although theme parks are new in Spain, amusement parks have long been popular. In Barcelona, two mountains with commanding city views are both topped with whirling, spinning rides.

Mountjuic, home of the Olympics stadium, boasts a park near downtown. And Mount Tibidabo, whose park dates to the turn of the century, lords over the metropolitan area with rides that are more picturesque than terrifying. Even the carousel is enhanced by the postcard-pretty vista it provides of Barcelona. Only a rabid coaster nut would plan a European amusement-park tour. But for families visiting with children and for cathedral-weary tourists, Spain's parks provide a welcome break from the parade of cultural sites.

Port Aventura looks, feels and is organized like a U.S. theme park because it was designed by Anheuser-Busch, which runs nine parks in North America.

Any American teen-ager will feel right at home walking the streets of Mediterranea, one of the park's five themed lands. The others are China, Mexico, Polynesia and the Far (U.S.) West.

From the plentiful ATMs to the cellular-phone rental counter, the 285-acre park is planned for low hassle, high visitation. Even the patrons, mostly European kids dressed in the international uniform of Nikes and U.S. sports-team T-shirts, look as if they might live in the new subdivision down the interstate.

English is spoken by many park staff, including a performer in the Polynesian bird show who warbles a passable "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!"

The attraction was first developed by Javier de la Rosa, a high-flying Barcelona financier, who slipped into financial and legal trouble before the park opened. The venture was bought out by a Spanish bank and the Tussauds Group of England, a conglomerate that owns several English tourist attractions, including Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London. A Spanish utility company and Anheuser-Busch are minority investors.

From architecture to costumes to background music, the developers have created a fantasy world. It's amazing what a half-billion-dollars can buy.

Authenticity in design

Design and landscaping are beautiful and surprisingly authentic. The facade of the Feathered Serpent thrill ride is based on a relief from Tikal, Guatemala, while a temple in a Chinese town provided the model for the park's Yellow Dragon magic hall.

Rides, performances and shops also are geared to the appropriate area.

Mexico has a mercado (market) with imported handicrafts. In Polynesia, the buildings all appear to have been lashed together. (The park imported 125 miles of rope for the decorating effect.) And the general store in the Far West sells authentic U.S. souvenirs, ranging from Bud Light baseball caps to hand-sewn cowboy boots.

In the Far West area, rides and attractions are in the imaginary town of Penitence, which is supposed to be celebrating the U.S. centennial on July 4, 1876.

The area feels like any John Wayne western, complete with saloon, jail, cemetery and rail station. Lunch is served in the Iron Horse Hotel, where pastis de carn a l'estil Emma's, or Emma's meat loaf, is on the menu.

Across the main street, buckets that appear to have been peppered with buckshot leak into a trough. The imaginative water fountain attracts thirsty visitors and others posing for pictures.

Several times a day, actors take to the street in a mock gun battle and stunt show. Although the action isn't in English, the plot needs no translation: A handsome hero eventually saves a wronged showgirl.

Aside from the Dragon Khan, there are plenty of ways to get whiplash.

The Far West has a churning Grand Canyon ride splashing visitors through boulder-lined rapids. Mexico has El Diablo, a runaway mine train. Polynesia has the chiropractically incorrect Typhoon ride. Riders are strapped into a platform that turns upside down, twists and howls like a horrible storm.

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