Irene Croft Jr.
Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that nine of the world's 20 most visited tourist attractions are in the United States? That eight of these premier worldwide sites are theme parks? Or that such culturally significant destinations as fabled Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and Petra aren't even on the radar screen for the top 20?
According to Forbes magazine, which recently compiled a comprehensive list of the most popular worldwide attractions from authoritative sources, the rankings for 2006 are:
1. Times Square, New York City, 35 million visitors. About 80 percent of visitors to the Big Apple head for the Broadway area and end up gawking at the world's most garish neon crossroads. The square's strongest claim to fame is as the site of raucous, televised New Year's Eve celebrations.
2. National Mall and Memorial Parks, Washington, D.C. (Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the war memorials), 25 million.
The nation's premier national park and its monuments and memorials attract more visitors than such vast national treasures as the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone combined.
3. Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Fla., 16.6 million. Florida's biggest draw opened on Oct. 1, 1971. The Magic Kingdom is the most popular of Disney's Florida attractions, followed by Epcot, Disney MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom.
4. Trafalgar Square, London, 15 million. When Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy defeated a combined French and Spanish force in 1805, a grateful country built a splendid public square to commemorate the occasion. Flanked by magnificent buildings, Trafalgar Square has become a mecca for protests, concerts and New Year's Eve celebrations, plus a world-class pigeon-feeding site.
5. Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., 14.7 million. Open since 1955, the grand dame of the Disney parks continues to be the top tourist draw in California, even though it occupies a much smaller area than its Florida sister. Almost all the international Disney parks dominate the country in which they're located.
6. Niagara Falls, Ontario and New York, 14 million. It might not be the tallest of its kind (Venezuela's Angel Falls is the world's highest at 3,212 feet), but this waterfall is unique in that it straddles two countries, offers breathtaking views, and attracts daredevils as well as the romance and honeymoon crowd.
7. Fisherman's Wharf and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, 13 million. This city's legendary soaring bridge and surrounding park, plus its bustling fish-and-chowder pier, draws hordes of foreign and domestic visitors.
8. Tokyo Disney Resort, Tokyo, 12.9 million. Continuing the Disney rout, this is the first of its parks — in 1983 — to have opened outside the U.S. Tokyo Disney Resort includes both the hugely popular Disneyland and its waterworld partner, DisneySea.
9. Notre Dame, Paris, 12 million. Famed for its sculptures, stained glass and distinctive flying buttresses, this Gothic cathedral, on the Ile de Cité, is France's top tourist site.
10. Disneyland Paris, Marne-La-Vallee, France, 10.6 million. Formerly Euro Disney, this French "Mouse House" theme park has overcome its struggling early years to rank as France's second-most-visited attraction.
11. The Great Wall of China, Badaling area, 10 million. Whether or not it can be seen from outer space, the 4,163-mile wall is the world's longest man-made structure and China's top draw.
12. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina, 9.2 million. America's most visited national park is neither the Grand Canyon nor Yosemite. This spectacularly scenic natural wonder attracts hikers, birders and ordinary sightseers.
13. Universal Studios Japan, Osaka, 8.5 million. This is the most visited of Universal's three studio parks worldwide, cementing Japan's third-place finish in the global touristattraction sweepstakes, after the U.S. and France.
14. Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, Paris, 8 million. This picturesque basilica overlooks the roofs of Paris and shares its neighborhood with the once-notorious Pigalle district.
15. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 7.5 million. A museum since 1793, this cradle of French history has been everything from a fortress to the residence of kings. It's home to the sublime Mona Lisa and the exquisite Venus de Milo.
16. Everland, Kyonggi-Do, South Korea, 7.5 million. Part of the Everland Resort, this Disney lookalike is surrounded by a water park and South Korea's first theme zoo.
17. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, at least 7 million. Reclusive abode of China's former imperial families, this vast complex encompasses 999 beautifully preserved buildings dating from the 14th century.
18. Eiffel Tower, Paris, 6.7 million. Gustave Eiffel's soaring iron masterpiece, an icon of the City of Light, must win the title of most-recognized monument on the planet.
19. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando, Fla., 6 million. This park attracts thrill-seekers and screechers to its hair-raising rides.
20. SeaWorld Florida, Orlando, Fla., 5.74 million. This aquatic corral and performing arts center for cetaceans is yet another huge draw for Orlando.
Irene Croft Jr. of Kailua, Kona, is a travel writer and 40-year veteran globetrotter. Her column is published in this section every other week.