The first thing you hear at Europa-Park in Rust, Germany, is a lot of screaming.

That’s a good thing.

The second is heroic music, like “Chariots of Fire” meets “Ride of the Valkyries.” It’s a fitting introduction to Germany’s largest amusement park, where 11 roller coasters provide opportunity for thrill-seekers to master their fear and emerge victorious.

But it’s only the beginning.

The park, in southwestern Germany — about 90 minutes from Heidelberg, an hour and 45 minutes from Stuttgart and a little more than two hours from Kaiserslautern — is, like any amusement park, primarily intended for children and teens. It’s a fantastical place filled with bright colors, loud music, games, ice cream and rides that rocket through space or splash into water.

But despite its Disneyesque mouse mascot, the amusement park is European to its core. Its 222 acres also are rife with beautifully landscaped paths, plazas, pools and gardens — and a cappuccino or glass of wine are always only seconds away, making the experience more adult-friendly.

Its European-ness also comes out in other ways: The haunted house is fusty and morbid; and there are hokey animatronic people and animals at every turn. Also, dogs are allowed inside, free of charge. But they can’t ride the rides, even if they’re tall enough.

The park opened in 1975 and was developed into themed sections: Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Scandinavia and so on, with the music, food and rides in each section representative of the various nations. “Switzerland,” for example, has a roller coaster named after the Matterhorn and one that’s supposed to remind riders of being on a bobsled. “Italy,” at the front of the park, has pasta restaurants.

Shortly after we arrived, as the teenagers went on their first roller coaster, we sat at an outdoor cafe to wait and were treated to an unexpected parade: floats of mermaids and pirates passed by, along with unicyclists, stilt walkers and more. A dwarf on a float winked at me; a clown squirted me with water.

Refreshed, I agreed to accompany the teens on the Silver Star, a roller coaster renowned for its impressive vertical drop and on which last year a man apparently tried to set a record for the most eggs retained in a basket while riding on a roller coaster.

“That was awesome! You cursed the whole way!” the older teen remarked when we mercifully stepped off the ride.

Next up, the Matterhorn Blitz, a kind of wild mouse roller coaster featuring sharp cornering that I hated even more. Once upon a time, I found riding roller coasters exhilarating — they made me laugh out loud. What had happened?

After one more roller coaster, three out of four of us had headaches. We strolled over to the first aid station and got some aspirin. Soon, the teens were ready to try the park’s newest roller coaster, a timber coaster called Wodan, with a Viking backstory. It was so fast, the teens reported back to us, that they rode silently, unable to work up the will to scream. Now they were tired and wanted candy. So their dad went on the park’s smoothest, electromagnetic (or something) roller coaster, Blue Fire, alone, and came back smiling.

Those two rides had the longest waiting time: maybe 20 minutes. Europa-Park, despite some 4.5 million visitors in 2011, seems to have found a way to maintain waiting times far shorter than its counterparts in the U.S. Many of the rides have a separate line for single riders.

As closing time drew near and we walked through “Portugal” and saw the Atlantica Super Splash, I decided to give it one more try. It was a roller coaster, yes, but a short one, and it ended with a splash into the water, followed by people trying to soak you further with water cannons. It looked like fun. And there was no wait.

And as we dropped through the air toward the water and landed with a giant splash, I laughed out loud.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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