The Best Non-Disney/Universal Themed Lands In The World

When talking about theming it's always hard to get a clear perspective of how to categorise 'best' - mostly because the majority of parks have neither the budget not the creative team power behind delivering world class themed experiences that Disney and Universal do. Therefore when having these discussions I tend to isolate Disney and Universal and look at the rest of the world as a separate category, as often it can uncover hidden gems that maybe don't get the appreciation they deserve or just allow for a more level playing field in general which more often than not sparks a more varied discussion as opposed to us all just agreeing that Tokyo DisneySea is the best looking theme park in the world conversation over ok done.

And this approach made this topic really interesting to consider, because once you remove the Disneys and the Universals from the picture, it's actually REALLY hard to think of world class themed lands across a variety of different attractions. Like yes, Phantasialand's theming is excellent but it's like that across the board so wouldn't make for a very interesting list. Likewise somewhere like Efteling is stunning but the park isn't really broken down into 'lands' in the classic sense. Then you have big coasters like The Swarm which no doubt are impressively themed but when it's just concentrated around one attraction I'd argue that that theming is the ride's theming as opposed to a land with several attractions to be discovered within. So yes, a long hard think was necessary to come up with a list I felt satisfied with, but I think I'm there now and ready to share it with you. Here are my picks for the best non-Disney/Universal themed lands in the world!

Kicking it off with a UK theme park favourite, Forbidden Valley, home to the notorious Nemesis B&M invert coaster at Alton Towers Resort in Staffordshire. With the infamous twisted metal Nemesis monster as the centrepiece of the land, Forbidden Valley is a post-apocalyptic wasteland that tells the story of a military site set up to contain the furious alien creature and the entire area is peppered with items that feed into telling that story and bringing it all to life. From the rusty red, green, grey and brown colour palette combined with twisted metal fences, shrapnel and metallic cast-offs used to create fencing and signage and a generally grungy almost 'gasoline punk' vibe, the entire land always feels alive and like you're right in the centre of a story that is still unravelling and developing. It's dark and foreboding but not in a traditional way and I think what's most impressive about Forbidden Valley is that it is entirely unique - I've never even seen another park attempt to emulate what Towers have here, most likely because they perfected it first time round so why bother! I adore a themed land that doesn't just choose to redo one of the classic Disneyland tropes but instead dives head first into something unexplored, and Forbidden Valley nails that wholeheartedly!

I mean, of course Klugheim was going to feature here. It still to this day is probably my favourite themed land in any theme park in the world solely because of the way the architecture swallows you up and envelops you into its narrative from the second you step foot into its territory. The whole land is alive with kinetic energy, from the furious Taron racing around you at all angles to the slightly more mysterious Raik slithering around at a lower level. The pathways feel like an M.C.Escher painting with different pathways coming from all angles to form a stone labyrinth thick with adventure and intrigue waiting to be discovered. I'm trying really hard to not overuse the word immersive here but FUCKING HELL is Klugheim immersive - as a big Game of Thrones fan Klugheim is the closest I've come yet to feeling like I'm on a quest in Westeros and nothing fills me with more joy. And the detail! My god. You look at those rocks the first time and just see rocks, yet you look again and see dragon-like creature's faces protruding in twisted shapes, ancient symbols carved into wooden beams overhead and even HUGE set pieces like A GIANT BLOODY BOLT splintering through Taron's station as if the beast is still under attack. It's transcendent, the only problem Phantasialand have with Klugheim is how the hell they're going to top it!

We all know I don't particularly love Port Aventura but I do think it'd be a travesty to leave their themed lands off of this list because they are particularly gorgeous. As I've said previously, I don't really enjoy theme parks that just try to do a Disney and go for 'typical' themes for their lands but I'll make an exception for any park that can do it spectacularly and Port Aventura definitely fits that bill with their Far West land. What I love about this is how differentiated each section of the land is - it's absolutely huge and instead of going for a more generic 'Wild West' themed for its entirety we instead get different sections - we begin with beautifully landscaped rockwork emulating the Grand Canyon before moving through to a typical 'Wild West Town' setting before thematically moving south towards a more Texana stylisation which seemlessly makes way into the Mexico themed land. It's very clever and once again, extremely detailed - the area is full of little carts and shops and photo opportunities with the attractions peppered throughout so you never feel like you're walking through a dead space. It's not quite Frontierland at Disneyland Paris but it's not exactly far from it either which isn't a feat many parks can boast of!

Now I actually had to look up the name of this land but I distinctly remember standing in the centre of it when I was there and doing a kind of 360 spin to take it all in and how gorgeous it was! Chinese parks tend to suffer from a weird thing with their theming - they'll have one MASSIVE, incredibly detailed centrepiece but when you look a little closer you can see where the corners have been cut to save costs. It'll be strange things like something that looks like a door with a knocker is actually just carved out of concrete and isn't the real thing, it's an imitation of the real thing. And that's the problem with theming - we know it's pretending but when it's something pretending to be something that's pretending to be something else we add in an extra layer between our perception and the real thing it's trying to emulate and the result is disenchantment and disengagement with this thing that wants so very much for us to be enchanted and engaged with it. The human senses are actually not that easy to trick as we might think! BUT THAT SAID, none of that here on Mt.Walrus - we obviously have the ridiculous huge kitsch central piece of theming being the mountains shaped like walruses which is as fabulous as it sounds, but then you have this supported by gorgeous foliage and plantwork, some fun animal exhibits to give the area an extra layer of depth and some immersion created with Nordic-inspired buildings surround the edges of the land, all interwoven with large expanses of water to set off its beauty. It's just a very pretty and well put together land that really nails what a lot of the other Chinese parks don't seem to manage.

There's been a stark absence of traditional 'fantasy' themes on this list so far so that's quite enough of that - enter Avalon, the new for 2018 land at Toverland! Themed around the traditional myth and legend of Merlin, Avalon provides the perfect setting for Toverland to further explore the worlds of lore and magic through their incredible attractions, this time the huge B&M wing coaster Fenix and a dark boat ride called Merlin's Quest that takes riders on a mythical journey Tir na nÓg, the source of eternal life. Since my first visit to Toverland I fell in love with their quirky interpretation of fairytales, the stylisation they use to bring these world's to life reminds me very much of Brian Froud's illustrations, an artist I've adored since I was 11 years old so these designs very much speak to a deep-set nostalgia within me. As an adult I find it's very hard for parks to truly feel 'magical' to me nowadays but walking into Avalon for the first time certainly accomplished that for me! Perhaps the most magical area of the entire land is the dark ride section of Merlin's Quest - that sparked a joy in me I haven't felt since the first time I rode Drumvlucht at Efteling, it's just perfectly whimsical and extraordinary and truly makes you forget the outside world for just a few minutes as you're wrapped up inside the story of Avalon. I think the music helps a lot in transporting you into this fantastical world but the kooky fairytale architecture and gorgeous landscaping certainly help too!

Ending with another one that's very close to home and that is of course the wonderfully wacky and kooky kitsch land that is Amity at Thorpe Park Resort. I adore that quirky beatnik 50s diner aesthetic as it is, but add in some world class theme park rides in there too and you've got a recipe for success. What I adore about Amity is all the little bits of nuance that help you understand what kind of town Amity Cove really is. It's when you stop and really listen to what Big Bob is talking about on WWTP radio (he's actually outrageously rude to a lot of his callers), or when you realise that the slogan of the press house that hosts Amity Kebabs is 'Your Misery Is Our Trade' - the little bits of detail that go into creating an entire identity around the town plagued with natural disasters and yet still finds time to host a drag race. I love it mostly for its sense of humour but stay for all of the little bits of detail like the flood-marked waterline around the buildings at the edge of town. Plus I mean, come on, we all know how much I adore Stealth but honestly I truly believe every ride experience in Amity is amplified by the setting and narrative you're drawn into with the surrounding theming and details that all intertwine to tell the story.

Man I could write about themed lands I love all day haha! But you'll be glad to hear that I won't. What are your favourite non-Disney/Universal themed lands?

Talk later xoxo,