Gardaland: Italy's Answer to Mr. Disney

Italy 's amusement "land" is so similar to Disney's that it's like being in Anaheim with nicer background scenery. Gardaland is halfway between Milan and Venice, just south of the lake of the same name. If you happen to be in the area and your kids are refusing to put up with even one more church or statue, perhaps you owe it to them to spend a day there. You'll find all the obligatory rides, with exotic names like " Magic Mountain," "Blue Tornado" and "Space Vertigo" (the daredevil rides); "Escape from Atlantis," "Colorado Boat" and "Jungle Rapids" (the water rides); "White House" and "The Legend of the White Horse" (the 4D adventures). All of Fantasy Kingdom is dedicated to the little ones, with a cup-and-saucer ride plus all sorts of teensy train rides, airplane flights and haunted house fun. There's a nighttime laser show, a fancy pirate ship, the upside-down Sequioa Ride, a dolphin show, an ice show and underwater tunnel; and if you just can't bear to tear the tots away from culture for one whole day, then you can have them visit the faithful reproduction of the temples in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Gardaland is very well organized and run beautifully, so even grownups might find it a pleasant break from the culture circuit. Perhaps the best way to integrate it into your family itinerary is to go straight to Venice afterwards. As you sail past the rococo palaces of the Grand Canal in a vaporetto, we guarantee even the youngest child will agree that Italy itself is the world's most exciting theme park.

To get to Gardaland, take the Milan-Venice autostrada and get off at Peschiera del Garda if you're eastbound or Sommacampagna if you're westbound. Then just follow the signs for about eight miles. The park, which has an enormous parking lot, is open daily from March 27 to October 4, then each weekend until November 1. There are also winter openings that change from year to year. Hours are 9:30-6:30, except between June 27 and September 13, when hours are extended from 9 am to midnight. Tickets cost 18 Euro; kids under three feet tall are free; kids up to 10 years and seniors pay 16 Euro. Admission is free to the handicapped and one person accompanying them. If you're worried about rain spoiling the day, call ahead to 045-644-9777 for a weather report.

Because the amusement park is so diverse, and because there are also other five-star attractions in this area such as Verona, Lake Garda, the Alps and the Soave/Valpolicella/Amarone wineries, we suggest you plan to spend a few days. The fun continues at Gardaland Hotel Resort, an American-style complex just a short walk from the park. With five-star accommodations and non-stop entertainment for the kids, it's a place the whole family will enjoy. If you prefer something more authentically Italian, click here for our favorite lodgings.