Situated 16 kilometres from the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, Vulcania is built on a 60-hectare former military base at the heart of the chain of extinct volcanoes that are the region's principal attraction.
Crowned by a 28-metre cone, two-thirds of the site is underground, and visitors descend a massive crater before enjoying a variety of simulations and visual presentations.
There is a volcanic garden and a vibrating 3-D cinema with one of the world's largest projectors. A "scenic tour" of the interior includes attractions like 'the lava tunnel', 'the magic pool', 'the theatre of the universe' and ' less enticing 'mud holes'.
According to its promoters, the project offers an "educational and recreational journey into volcanoes and earth science." It offers guided tours, special tours for handicapped visitors, three restaurants "with a panoramic view", an information centre (with over 2,500 works on volcanism and earth sciences) and basics like child-minding and baby-change facilities.
The park cost EUR 100 million to create and is built on a former military base. The project was conceived by former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who has said Vulcania should become a world centre for vulcanologists, as large areas are set aside for research.
And local business interests have welcomed the project since its creation, believing it has brought revenue as a tourist destination.However, environmentalists fear growing pressure to put up roads and hotels to draw them in.
"Auvergne's greatest asset is 'green tourism'," said Green party euro-deputy Danielle Auroi. "Our image is the purety of the volcanoes. So what's the point of building fake volcanoes in the middle of real ones?"
Opponents of Giscard, who was president from 1974 to 1981, say it is a white elephant designed to flatter his ego. They have nicknamed the theme park the "Giscardoscope", after the struggling Futuroscope science park near Poitiers.
"In France everyone down to the village mayor wants to leave his mark, and this is Giscard's," said Marcel Breugnot of the Movement to Save the Auvergne Volcanoes.
In the last half century successive French presidents have been memorialised in monuments. Charles de Gaulle gave his name to the Paris airport, Georges Pompidou to the arts centre, while François Mitterrand will be remembered for his "grands projets" like the Louvre pyramid.
Regardless, Vulcania is open to the public with new 2011 exhibitions likes the futuristic trip to Indonesia called Mission Toba, and a tribute to late volcano researchers Katie and Maurice Krafft aka The Volcano Devils.
In addition to their hi-tech displays like Machine Earth, The Magical Odyssey, and Dragon Ride, this hands on and interactive attraction is well worth a looksee when travelling the area of Auvergna.
Prices: EUR 21 to 24 adults and EUR 15 to 16.50 for children.
Where: Route de Mazayes, 63230 St-Ours-Les-Roches, France. Tel: + 33 4 73 19 70 00. Fax: +33 4 73 19 70 99
By train to Clermont-Ferrand (the theme park is 16 km west from the town) or by plane into Clermont-Ferrand international airport, 20 km away.
By car from the North: A 71 motorway via Riom and Volvic from the South: A 75 motorway via Saint-Amant-Tallende and Pontgibaud As you approach Clermont-Ferrand, follow signs for Vulcania (941B road).
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