PENNIES FROM KEVIN - Spain's Port Aventura

Kevin spent his time off the site in Spain. But he wasn't completely off the job, as he checked out a few theme parks while he was there. Here's his photo essay of Port Aventura.

Written by Kevin Baxter
Published: June 22, 2005 at 1:19 AM

As many of you know, I spent most of April in Spain. Theme parks did not come into play when making the choice to visit the country. Nope. I just love travel guides with lots of pics. Plus, I have decent knowledge of the language and my roommate is fluent. So think of the theme parks as a fringe benefit and not a reason.

As I did research, I discovered even more theme parks in the areas we would be visiting. Sevilla's Isla Mágica would have been the most convenient, as we were staying in Sevilla for the first four days of our trip. The park, created in 1997, intrigued me as it was built on the site of the 1992 World Expo and had incorporated many of those buildings into its design. (Some of the buildings are used by the city itself.) Still, the park seemed to be a case of style over substance, as the ride selection left something to be desired. At least for a childless adult.

We also stayed on the Costa del Sol and the only reference I could find to a theme park involved Mini Hollywood, a fake Western town where they filmed many Westerns, including Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns. So it was basically all theme and no park. Once actually on the Costa del Sol, I found a brochure for Tivoli World (yes, "World"... I guess the intended audience is the English, who are all over the Costa del Sol), but we didn't have time for it. It's just as well, as their website reveals a kind of upper-level carnival surrounded by gardens. If I was spending the week there (which I would NEVER do... way too touristy) I would probably check it out, since it does only cost 20 Euros. But I wouldn't expect to like it.

So it wasn't until we were in Spain for almost a week that we were even within range of a decent park. We stayed in the lovely resort town of Sitges (SEAT-jayss), a popular getaway for not just the English, but for Spaniards, especially Barcelonans, too. I chose the town for its beaches (Barcelona's are mostly awful) and because it was halfway between that beautiful city and Tarragona, where Universal's former park, Port Aventura, is located. (The train stop was Salou, and sources either claim the park is located there or in Tarragona. Salou seems like a nice little resort town, while most of Tarragona is industrial, so maybe this is a case of wishful thinking???)

Anyhow, Port Aventura brags about having its own train station, but don't let that fool you into believing getting to the park is a snap. Train schedules are hard to understand here. Basically, you have to climb onto a Cercanías (trains come in three flavors - Metro, for travel within the city it is located; Cercanías, for suburban travel; and Renfe, which also runs the Cercanías, but the rest of Renfe is long-distance travel) train south to Sant Vicenc de Calders, where the Cercanías line ends. Then you have to climb onto a long-distance train (the Cercanías stations are still Renfe stations, so you can buy your round-trip tickets at one time) for a short trip to Tarragona. Unfortunately, if you didn't figure out the timetables, chances are you may be hanging around Sant Vicenc de Calders for a while. Even worse, not all trains from this station stop at Port Aventura, which is more of a stop than a station anyhow. So we had a choice of waiting more than two hours for the next train to Port Aventura, or taking the next one to Tarragona and then taking a taxi from there. Guess which option we took. (Fortunately, the station has a nice little bar, with excellent croquetas!)

The taxi ride was longer than we expected, but it probably didn't take more than 15 minutes. We were distracted by views of the Mediterranean and of the park, perched high above the town. Unfortunately I didn't catch a glimpse of the Roman ruins, the little bit of tourism that put Tarragona on the map. Finally we were at the park! After noon! Well, kind of. The taxi dropped us off above the road that leads directly from the the resort's Hotel El Paso - "your very own South American adventure"... because we all know Mexico is smack dab in the middle of South America - to Port Aventura. This is one long boring road. You'd think when Universal was part owner, they would've prettied up the road. Certainly not with a CityWalk, but with SOMETHING.

And finally, we were at the front gate! I was first surprised at how close Port Aventura's gate was to Costa Caribe's, the water park. Even closer than the two gates at the Disneyland Resort. Then I was struck by how BORING the gates were. No Islands of Adventure lighthouse. No Universal Studios globes are giant arches. No Epcot silver golfball. Nothing but a stone sign.

And beyond the ticket booths we found a similarly non-descript entrance area. Followed by more of the same after we passed through the turnstiles:
Gawd, I hate Woody Woodpuker!
(Obviously, Port Aventura still has the Universal license if not the partnership.) Okay, so this park's Main Street or Port of Entry was themed as Mediterrània, but I think it looked a little TOO Mediterranean. The various Disney Main Streets aren't exact replicas of any Main Street, but a stylized version of those ubiquitous small-town streets. IOA's Port of Entry is a perfect example. The theme there is vaguely Mediterranean too, but with whimsical touches. Like those around the corner:
Nestle? So the boat was out catching chocolate fish?
Definitely a nice area, but the Western area rockwork seems a bit out of place. During the summer I'm sure everything is open here, as this is where the nighttime spectacular takes place. But on a Monday in April, the Western rockwork helped out with its new theme: Ghost Town! I'm not even sure the two other "attractions" here, the boat to China and the train to the Far West, were operating.

That boringness makes for a loooong walk, as you have to walk more than a third of the way around the lake (up to the base of the Roman bridge there) to get to a REAL theme park land, and about two-thirds of the way around it to get to the other. After that long boring walk, we headed into the first land, Polynesia:
The land is quite lovely, as long as you don't think about how un-Polynesian it really is. Polynesia is far more fertile (read: greener) and everything is more lava-based, but it was still a nice place to wander through. Now the thatched-roofs everywhere are certainly not as popular throughout Polynesia, so this is one of those stylized touches that works. Yeah, a cliche, but if theme parks didn't have cliches, they'd be extinct. Overall, I found the area not nearly as nice as Jurassic Park at IOA, but much nicer than the pathetic Redwood area at California Adventure.

As I was enjoying the scenery, we came upon our first ride, the Tutuki Splash. A regular flume with two small drops. The theming was really no different from the rest of the land, so the whole thing kind of reminded me of the Stanley Falls flume at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Nothing thrilling, but it loads fast. I give it a 6. (One cool thing I noticed, here and at other parks, is a dual-camera system on flumes, one close-up of a drop, the other a longer-shot of the entire boat. Both shots would appear in the photos. Pretty cool.)

Then onto Sea Odyssey, one of the more elaborate rides in the park. I didn't really know what to expect, until I found this in the queue:
Look at that line! Will we ever get in?
Then I immediately knew it was a motion simulator and that this would be our "ride vehicle" for our... sea odyssey. Port Aventura, more than any park, caters quite a bit to its English (and non-Spanish) clientele by having lots of English around. The pre-show was subtitled, but the main show switched between languages as our dolphin leader spoke only English, while the main guy spoke Spanish. Sounds confusing, but it's not like the storyline is Shakespearean or anything. A nice high-quality motion simulator. Not as high-quality as Back to the Future, but better than Star Tours. A solid 8.

Then we hit the Kon-Tiki Wave, a standard swinging-boat ride, that gets one extra point for swinging over the sizable Polynesia lake. So a 7. But then we noticed that the rest of this land contained four more rides: Canoes (flume), Loco-Loco Tiki (flat ride), Tami-Tami (coaster) and Waikiki (swings). All of which are for kids and kids only. Not that adults couldn't ride some of them, but unlike the three rides we went on, these could ONLY be enjoyed by kids, so we headed onto China:
Pronounced CHEE-nuh, which always cracked me up
Now this is on the road UP to China. You can see the rails for the boat in the water, and a little place for remote-controlled boats. We had to head away from this area, then turn around to get to the NEXT bend in the road. This area had Cobra Imperial (a spinning bobsled thing) and Tea Cups (duh, and in English for some reason), but I don't recall even seeing them, so they might have been closed. (They wouldn't be the first rides closed this day.) And THEN you had to turn around and walk up ANOTHER PATH beyond the Área Infantil (Kid Area) to get to the main square of China, which was a total pain in the ass. Not only that, but all the scenery along this swervy road could have been used to better surround that square, which is pretty sparse. Basically three buildings and one kiosk, one to a side, with a fountain in the middle, and Fumanchú (bigger swings, with the space missing between Fu and Manchu) stuffed awkwardly into a corner. That's when I finally put my finger on the problem I was having with Port Aventura. You never feel engulfed in the theme around you. I thought of similar squares, like the one in the Arthurian section of IOA's Lost Continent or Animal Kingdom's Harambe. Being surrounded by the theming transports you. To me, PA's China, even with its gorgeous buildings, wasn't enveloping me.

But we finally got to the place I had most wanted to reach. Dragon Khan!
Submit to Communism or we will make you ride this!
The thing immediately reminded me of a red Incredible Hulk, without the launch, of course. But that may be due to the heartline inversion, which always reminds me of the Hulk. Take it from me, this thing does NOT resemble the Hulk in any other way, shape or form. Mainly because it is jerky as sin. It was fun, and would definitely be one of the best coasters in the country IF I didn't absolutely HATE coasters that slam my ears into the shoulder harness. If I am concentrating more on keeping my head from knocking about, I'm not going to enjoy your coaster much. A disappointing 6.

The only other thing up here, besides a Chinese restaurant (that was closed), is the Gran Teatro Imperial de China, which featured several smaller shows, usually involving Chinese acrobats (of course), but there was one major show called Fantasía Mágica de China, that had all of one showing, naturally. It was much later, and we ended up having to cross the park completely to get to it, but I am so glad we did. Yeah, it's yet another Cirque du Soleil wannabe, but it does a pretty good imitation for a theme park show.
Something happening.  I wish these pics had come out better!
Right off the bat an airplane flies over the audience and "crashes" into the side of the stage. Then the surreal Cirque stuff happens.
Clap, tourist scum, clap! (But in Spanish)
I don't even remember some of the stuff as I was really admiring the lighting and stage decoration so much. I do remember the stick part from above, though. It was nice, but Mystere in Vegas does it about 1000 times better. Still, an excellent theme park show which I would give an 8 if Ben had it listed on the Port Aventura page. (Hint hint!)

We didn't bother with Fumanchú the first time we left China (nor the second!), so we headed around the corner and down to México. This is the México of the Mayan age, as my few pics will attest:
Is this Cancun?  Par-tay!
One thing I thought was cool was how the Gran Teatro Imperial, which is a huge building, had a Mayan facade on the Mexican side, and even had a different name and entrance, though for the same shows. Naturally that entrance was closed and we had to run all the way around to the other side. Still, a good idea that must be great during the busy summer.

Our first ride here was El Diablo, Tren de la Mina. (Figure it out for yourselves.) This was a family coaster in the vein of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but with less scenery. Still, it wasn't a bad ride and the scenery was adequate.
Tren de la Wheelo de Agua!
Why there was no actual mine, I don't know, but this is really what IOA should have built instead of building that damn Flying Unicorn thing. An extra point for theming brings this up to a 7.

We passed by Los Potrillos, a kiddie ride with mechanical horses moving about a track. Compared to the other kiddie rides here, this one was at least inventive. And I couldn't imagine a US theme park letting kids sit on these horses without seventeen different harnesses. We quickly jumped on Trono de Pacal (Throne of Pacal, which I had to look up... Pacal was a Mayan ruler) which is just a slightly themed Flying Carpet. (Is that what these are called? Where you sit in rows facing out as you circle up and down, dropping your stomach?) So it gets a 6 just because it isn't a damn kiddie ride. And I love stomach-dropping rides. Still, this section is flat-ride-heavy too, and we skipped the Yucatán (bobsleds with hills) but jumped on the Serpiente Emplumada, a ride I have never seen before. Kind of a cross between a Scrambler and an Octopus, it ended up being as fun as neither. (If you have trouble understanding some of my weird explanations, there are pics on the official site.) A 5 for effort.

Hurakan Condor was still being built, not that we would've ridden it, but I can use it as an excuse as to why we didn't. So all we had left in Mexico was Templo del Fuego. I wasn't all that thrilled about doing this, as it was built by Universal and had "Fire" in the name, so I imagined, at best, Poseidon's Fury with a different storyline. At worst, the final scene of Backdraft. While things weren't that dire, Poseidon's Fury this wasn't. Though it tries to be. There's the unlocking of the door, but no cool water tunnel, since this is a Temple of Fire and not some underwater thing. And then basically a lot of fire, some surprising skeletons rising out of the water, and the disappearance of our annoying female guide. No room-changing effect. No video on water screens. No real plot. She wanted something... she didn't get it. Okay, then. I didn't get it either. 5 tops.

Then onto the Far West. This is easily the most disappointing area. And not for the theming, which is rather nice. But because it is so dang long, that theming never becomes a cohesive whole. For enveloping theming, the closer the better. Long pathways only work if they are full of greenery, like at Jurassic Park, or contain non-stop buildings, like in Main Street or in Marvel Super Hero Island. The only area with consecutive buildings is the main square, which is marred by the games of skill and a completely out-of-style Carrousel (their spelling, not mine). Think more Mark-Twain-in-Hannibal than Jesse-James-on-vacation. A bunch MORE carnival rides don't help matters either.

Wild Buffalos (once again, their spelling) is bumper cars, Buffalo Rodeo is bumper cars for kids (how lame is THAT?) and Volpaiute is a crazy looking Tilt-a-Whirl-type thing with the floor itself tilted at about a 50-degree angle. I totally would have tried that - all together now - IF IT HAD BEEN RUNNING. Crazy Barrels, a low-flung Octopus of sorts, was running, so we climbed on that. It was fun, but would've been much more fun if we both didn't weigh the same. (One barrel with a large woman and a little girl was spinning like... "crazy"!) A 7 from me.

We couldn't ride the Silver River Flume because... get this... IT WASN'T RUNNING. But it looked boring anyhow. We headed past Tomahawk, a wooden roller coaster supposedly for kiddies, but it really didn't look so kiddieish from atop the big woodie here, which Tomahawk actually parallels at one point. Still, we headed to the biggie instead, Stampida.
Okay, are the English so dumb they couldn't figure out that 'ENTRADA' might have something to do with the word 'enter'?
This wooden racing coaster doesn't have a lot of the things that make modern wooden coasters so great, like banked turns, but it is fairly smooth and has some airtime. Unfortunately, there is little difference between the red and blue sides except near the end when they "duel" which isn't all that exciting. Still, easily the best ride in the park, and the only one we rode twice. 8

Then onto the Grand Canyon Rapids. If I didn't live near Six Flags Marine World, I would call these the worst rapids I have ever been on! Yes, even worse than Kali River Rapids at AK. If Paramount can have good rapids, if Busch can have good rapids, if even friggin' Six Flags Magic Mountain can have good rapids, what is the frappin' problem with a resort with THREE hotels having decent rapids? 3 and that's probably being generous.

All we had left were shows. I don't remember what the holdup was, but we somehow missed The Can-Can Show's earlier times (it was the only indoor show to have more than one showing) and ended up having to watch half of it before heading in to see the Fort Frenzee stunt show. (We did hear a country-music show at an outdoor stage... I hate country!) Well, I was upset we missed half of it, because the half we saw was great! A bunch of dancing and silliness that had us both cracking up. And some English thrown in to boot. I'm not sure how much we missed, but I give it a solid 8.

Turns out we could've watched more Can-Can, because there was a little guy alone inside Fort Frenzee still being goofy with the crowd. It reminded me of WaterWorld at USH, where the villains entertain the still-entering crowds by squirting water at them. This guy had an old-fashioned water pump at his disposal, but it was just as fun. The show got started, the little guy got yelled at and he ran off. Villains entered, and, to my surprise, the little guy was actually the star of the show. While the villains had their way with the soldiers of the Fort, Little Guy fought back. Defeated, he'd disappear and then arrive in a pathetic costume via stagecoach.
Real-live horses in a stunt show!  Wowee!
By the second time he arrives that way, you realize this is basically a Bugs Bunny cartoon come to life, and you go along with it. And did we ever go along with it! The script here is barebones, with almost no talking, and usually it is difficult to do physical humor without coming off as "zany", but these guys NAILED it. This being Europe, there was some bawdiness that would never make it in a US park - diarrhea and thrusting pelvises have never been so funny - which is a shame, because the kids delighted in his race to the outhouse.

As far as stunts go, they are few and far between. One guy blows heels-over-head into a "wall"...
Lalala!  Don't mind me!  Just hanging around!
and there's some basic stuff that you see in basically every Western-themed stunt show. But this isn't about the stunts. This is about the best script I have ever seen in a theme-park live show. It's not perfection, as a couple parts don't work, but why Universal didn't transfer this to one of their closed-down Wild West Stunt Show theaters is beyond me. A very high 9!

And that was basically it. We couldn't even find decent food, so we snagged a couple hot dogs at a kiosk. For future travelers to Spain: Do NOT eat hot dogs in Spain! There appears to be no such thing as hot dog buns there, so every hot dog I ever saw was served on a huge sourdough roll. You know, like the kind we turn into subs? And the lady grilled them for us too, making them almost impossible to bite through. I ended up removing the top half and eating the hot dog with just the bottom part of the bread. I tossed the rest to the little birds that haunted the area.

After deciding Stampida was the only ride we wanted to reride, we decided to call it a day. We shopped for souvenirs, checked out the hotel that borders the park, and then headed to the train station. Where we sat. And sat. And sat. Almost an hour later a train showed up, and I wasn't even sure it was going in the right direction, but it was better than sitting there. We climbed on and fortunately it was going in the right direction. We got off at Sant Vicenc de Calders, and jumped on the train the track we arrived on. But THAT train, we soon learned, didn't stop at Sitges. So we got off a bit after Sitges and jumped on a Cercanias and finally got home.

Well, after reading that, what do you think? We did a whopping EIGHT attractions and saw three shows. We probably would've only ridden two or three more had they been working. Instead of having a bunch of family attractions, it seems the park went with some big and then created matching small attractions for little kids. Which is okay, in theory, but there were WAAAAY more small attractions than there were big ones. Where's the big version of the horsie ride? Of the Canoes? Of the Carrousel? I'd say well over half of this park is completely useless to teens and childless adults. It's like WDW's Magic Kingdom but with lesser theming.

But it's hard to crap all over the park when it has such spectacular shows. If one person is behind all these things, Universal should have snagged him/her for Universal Orlando! I would simply love the genius behind Fort Frenzee to get to work on The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad. And how about transforming the Fantasía Mágica show into one starring the Toon Lagoon characters for the shuttered theater there? Oh, the possibilities!

Anyhow, I do highly recommend the whole Barcelona area for a vacation. Many cities like to call themselves the "San Francisco of _____!" but I think Barcelona is the true sister city to the usually top-ranked tourist town in the world. It's that magical. Sitges was a great home base, with great views and a lovely promenade along the beach. Just make sure to eat along the main pedestrian walkway and avoid the beachfront restaurants at all costs! Towns north of Barcelona are also wonderful, but difficult to reach without a car.

Also, Barcelona guidebooks list two "other" theme parks. And both are on hills located within the city! One, called Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village in Catalan, the Spanish dialect that is found throughout Eastern Spain), is another all-theme-no-park place. It's a lovely enough place, featuring replicas of actual buildings throughout Spain, but during the day it really only features shopping, and at night it features eating and drinking. The other park, Tibidado, is atop the tallest hill in the city, called Tibidado! (They call it a mountain, but let's be serious here.) I didn't head up here due to a certain lazy roommate, but this is one of those historic-type amusement parks, having been around for almost 100 years. A lot of the rides have been updated since the 1980s, but a lot of the historic stuff is still around too. Its location is superb, in the West where it overlooks the city and onto the Sea, so it might be something worth checking out too - or instead - though I hear it is horrendously popular!

So if I was planning a weeklong trip to Barcelona, I would try to check out Port Aventura. Especially if you have kids. No, it isn't that great, but the shows sure are, and it isn't all that expensive, compared to American theme parks. I sure wouldn't go there if Port Aventura was my main destination. That'd just be sad. And I certainly wouldn't give up a trip to, say, Montserrat, or the towns north of Barcelona, like Figueres and Girona and Besalú. In fact, I was a bit peeved about not having enough time to check out Tarragona's ruins. I'd also think twice about going in the off-season, as you can see by this report how little was operational. I don't know if things would have been different on the weekend, but I doubt it, as Sitges wasn't as packed as I hear it can be a couple months later.

All in all, I'd give the park a 6. (For more pics, and larger versions of these, head here. Don't expect too many more. I wasn't THAT impressed.)

That's my two pennies... gimme yours!

Readers' Opinions

From Ben Mills on June 24, 2005 at 4:12 AM
Welcome to Tussauds, Kevin.

My main problem with PortAventura (there's no space in the name anymore) is that if you ignore the billions of flat rides, there isn't all that much left to do. This does tend to be a common fault of all Tussauds parks.

But as much as I'd love to heap all the blame on Tussauds, Universal really do need to take some of the fall for this one. They had it for a good few years, and in that time, they added a couple of hotels and a few more attractions. For a park with as many failings as PA, that really wasn't good enough. And it's a shame you didn't go at a time when they show FiestAventura, the only time Tussauds have EVER got it right with an evening show.

Can't say I found Dragon Khan at all jerky - I loved it - but it was quite a few years ago that I last rode it, so maybe it's gotten worse.

And my pick for the best food in the park is Racó De Mar. Decent Mediterranean food, although most of the park's offerings were overpriced back when I went. Could have changed by now, mind.

I've always hated that Great Wall bit that you have to walk along to get from Polynesia to China. That's another sign of Tussauds design: really bad park planning. Dragon Khan may look impressive, but there's not nearly enough else going on for a path that takes that long to walk up.

Anyway, that's my two cents...

From Kevin Baxter on June 25, 2005 at 1:06 AM
You know, I think if you aren't tall enough to have your ears right between the part where the harness connects to the seat, then you won't notice the jerkiness as much. But when it's your ears, and not your temples, hitting the thing, you WILL notice.

But you are right about that square. If it had something more to it, then it would be impressive. Like in the Arthurian section of Lost Continent, you have the huge dragons, the castle, and Dueling Dragons itself on one side, and the impressive Enchanted Oak on the other side. And it all surrounds you. This area feels a little too Tiananmen square to me, which may be realistic, but it isn't transporting.

(Hey, did you watch Fort Frenzee? If it's been there a while, add it. It's the best thing in the park, as far as I'm concerned.)

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