The first thing you'll do upon entering Legoland Florida is walk up to the nearest oversized Lego model and touch it: Is it really made out of those little plastic bricks that are as much a part of American childhood as skinned knees and ice cream cones?
The answer is yes. And thankfully, they're all glued together to withstand abuse from the rambunctious kids and curious parents who will be visiting Florida's newest theme park, opening Oct. 15. Situated in little Winter Haven, 45 minutes from Disney and the other Orlando-area attractions, Legoland Florida is aimed at kids from 2 to 12. Those in the upper half of that demographic will get the most out it, marveling at the cool Lego models scattered throughout the park and taking full advantage of the opportunities to get their hands on them, visit a castle, shoot lasers and ride four rollercoasters that range from mild to mildly wild. (The Legoland folks call them "pink-knuckle" rides.)
But there's a special area for toddlers, too, and parents will certainly linger in the amazing Miniland USA area, which features the skylines of New York and other big cities, as well as Florida landmarks, all constructed from Legos. The Miniland is the heart of this and the other four Legoland parks around the world, including one near San Diego.
"Every Lego model you see in the park is made with standard Lego pieces," says Bill Vollbrecht, the self-described "Lego nerd" who designed the park. "We don't have special pieces made; they are standard brick sizes, the standard colors that kids can buy in the kits at the store. We don't modify, change or do anything different. Because we want to show what you can do with them. This is the ultimate toy box."
The new Florida park is the largest of the Legolands, covering 150 acres on the site of the old Cypress Gardens, which was the state's first theme park when it opened in 1936. Known for its lush gardens and water ski shows, Cypress Gardens fell into disrepair and financial trouble over the years, changing hands several times and battered by a hurricane before it closed for good in 2009. Then Legoland came to town.
Legoland planners incorporated the gardens into the new park, as well as the water-ski shows on Lake Eloise and the bleachers and pavilions on its banks. Legoland's version is a pirate-themed water-ski and stunt show that will be staged several times daily.
Sixteen mature live oak trees were moved and replanted as planners tried to maintain the Old Florida feel of the place. A huge, majestic banyan tree, planted in 1939, is in itself worth a stroll through the gardens, thick with lovely native Florida foliage. Also left over from Cypress Gardens days were two of the four rollercoasters — including the only wooden coaster at a Legoland park anywhere — and "Island in the Sky," a 100-foot rotating platform ride that offers a bird's-eye view of the entire park.
"We came in there and said, 'Wow, you can't buy this from scratch,'" says Ian Sarjeant, the senior project director. "The challenge for us was how do we take our standard castle and clusters that we have in every other park and incorporate them into this while keeping some of the existing buildings. We fixed what we could, we tore down what we couldn't; we added new, we modified old."
Says Vollbrecht: "What first started out as challenges became amazing opportunities."
The park is divided into 10 zones, including Fun Town, where families can get a closer look at how Legos are made; Lego Kingdoms, with a whimsical, interactive ride through the castle; Lego City, where kids can drive a car by themselves on scaled-down streets; and the Imagination Zone, where they can build and mess with more big Lego models. Some of the coolest models outside of the Miniland are the life-sized African animals that populate the Safari Trek ride in the Land of Adventure area.
Of course, the park conveniently serves as one big commercial for Lego toys, and parents probably won't get away without plunking down the credit card for souvenirs. To facilitate that, the park has helpfully included one of the largest Lego stores in the world, and other retail opportunities abound throughout. Concessions are available everywhere, including the signature Legoland dessert, "Granny's Apple Fries."
Park planners are aggressively marketing in the Orlando area, hoping that families drawn to the area by the Mouse will take a side trip, and offering season-pass deals for those who live closer. One-day admission to Legoland is $55 for those under 13 and older than 59, and $65 for everybody else.
The park's success depends on whether the Lego brand is strong enough to motivate tourists to get in a car and take a day trip away from the Orlando area, where there are more than enough attractions — including Disney and Universal — to keep families busy for an entire vacation, said Steve Baker of Baker Leisure Group, a theme-park industry consultant. Cypress Gardens and its successors haven't been able to do that in recent decades.
"It's the same old problem — location, location, location," Baker says. "I think if anybody was going to do anything out there to bring it back to life, Legoland has the best chance. It's a solid, good product, the owners are first-class and they know what they are doing. They will put the time and money into it to make it a success."
The first Legoland opened in Billund, Denmark, in 1968. Parks in Windsor, England; Carlsbad, Calif.; and Gunzberg, Germany, followed. A new park in Malaysia is scheduled to open next year. The company is operated by the United Kingdom-based Merlin Entertainments.
The park is expected to employ about 1,000 people.