Children have used them to create everything from dragons to towering buildings, and the colorful plastic bricks can be found under sofas in homes all over the country and in various crevices of mommy minivans. The pieces unlock the imaginations of children, and as all parents know, they hurt like hell when you step on them barefoot.
Now Central Florida is the home of the largest creation made from LEGOs yet. Legoland Florida officially opened in Winter Haven, Florida on Saturday, October 15, 2011, but I was lucky enough to get an early sneak peek at the park with my 8-year-old twin daughters, my husband and my father. First, a bit of history: The name ‘LEGO‘ is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt”, meaning “play well”. The LEGO Group was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen. The Company has passed from father to son and is now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a grandchild of the founder. Legoland Florida was unveiled with Kjeld Kirk Kristansen as one of the VIP guests in attendance. He handed the final gold brick to the Legoland Florida General Manger who plugged it into a giant red octopus made entirely from LEGOs.
Thousands turned out for the grand opening day, with many eager LEGO fans and fanatics lining up at the gate as early as 5:30am. After a bit of a wait to get in, most everyone was impressed with the park that honors the interlocking plastic bricks.
Randy Beckwith came for opening day from Davie, Florida with her son Sam, age 11, a huge LEGO fan, and her boyfriend. “We loved it! Sam liked the Driving School and I liked the Water Ski show and the fact that they kept elements of the old Cypress Gardens,” said Randi. “We all loved Miniland USA. We came up for opening day for two reasons. Friday was my birthday and Sam has wanted to go to Legoland since he heard that there was one in California. I was afraid he would be too old to enjoy it but there was enough there to keep him happy,” said Randi. “My boyfriend wanted to go because his brother lives in Denmark and does some promotional writing for LEGO, so he felt a connection.”
Here’s what you need to know to do Legoland right:The park is located in Winter Haven, Florida, 45 minutes southwest of Orlando and 45 minutes from downtown Tampa. The 150-acre family theme park was built on the site of the former Cypress Gardens, which had been billed as Florida’s first commercial tourist theme park. Cypress Gardens opened on January 2, 1936 as a botanical garden and over the years, it became known for its lush gardens, water ski shows, and Southern Belles that roamed the park in wide Antebellum hoop skirted dresses. Cypress Gardens closed in 2009 as a result of declining attendance. The majority of the park was totally cleared for Legoland but a few of the elements were kept and incorporated into the new plastic theme park.
Designed specifically for families with children ages 2 to 12, Legoland features more than 50 family rides, interactive attractions, and shows. In a nod to its past, guests are greeted by a plastic belle wearing a wide hoop dress made entirely from yellow LEGOs.
First things first: Lockers are available at the entrance to the park in “The Beginning” area for a fee. There are no lockers near the rides so stash your stuff as you enter. Strollers are allowed into the park or can be rented, $9 for a single and $14 for a double. Wheelchairs can also be rented for $10 per day. One mother with a daughter in a wheel chair made a point of telling me how accommodating the staff was in helping her daughter get on and off of the rides. (She saw my press pass).
If you need a place to stay, there are not that many choices close to the park. We stayed less than 2 miles from the park and while the hotel was clean and the staff was friendly, it was a no-frills hotel for sure. A list of hotels near the park can be found on the Legoland website. Legoland has plans to build a water park and a themed hotel within the next two years. Guests staying in Orlando are able to pick up a shuttle from Orlando Premium Outlets on Vineland Avenue. The bus leaves at 9am and returns upon the park closing. The shuttle can be booked for $10 at www.Legoland.com.
The first attraction guests see inside the Fun Town area is the Island in the Sky. This ride was part of Cypress Gardens and was updated and refurbished for Legoland. This giant 153-foot tall observation tower features an elevating arm and a round spinning platform that provides guests with a 360° view of the entire park and beyond. It is a slow-moving rise up with a simultaneous spin, and all ages are allowed to ride (or sit, rather), but those afraid of heights may opt to pass.
Children will love the Factory Tour inside Fun Town. This attraction is supposed to provide a first hand look at how the LEGO bricks are made from factory to finish but could have been much more realistic in this mom’s opinion A pile of plastic pellets and a few spinning wheels and voila! Out pops a LEGO brick.
The Grand Carousel in Fun Town is a one-of-a-kind two-story carousel with painted ponies and is just lovely.
Don’t miss the show in the Wells Fargo Fun Town Theatre, a 700-seat theater that shows Three different 4-D movies throughout the day. Tip: Bring a sweater and watch the looks on your children’s faces towards the end of the movie. It’s pretty magical.
Halfway into the park is Miniland USA, where guest could spend hours inspecting the details of the sculptures made from 50 million bricks. You’ll feel like a giant as you walk through this area of the park. Miniland features iconic American places and scenescapes from around the country built entirely from the colorful bricks. The buildings have been created with painstaking details and include buildings from Las Vegas (“There’s the Mirage!” yelled one excited dad) and the entire New York City skyline, including tiny jets of water that shoot up from the fountain in Rockefeller Plaza, while a fleet of animated yellow taxicabs navigates the streets of Times Square. The Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, The Empire State Building, the Guggenheim Museum are also featured, along with a Broadway billboard featuring an image of a green witch with “Bricked” written above her black pointy hat. (A nod to “Wicked”).
Florida scenes include Key West’s Mallory Square, and tiny sunbathers on chaise lounges in front of the pastel South Beach Art Deco hotels along AIA. The Daytona International Speedway was complete with thousands of LEGO fans in the stands and racing cars on a track.
Across the way is a re-creation of the White House (including the first family and “first dog”), the U.S. Capitol building, Smithsonian, Washington and Jefferson monuments, and parts of Georgetown. An animated marching band parades in front of the Capitol.
Miniland was built with 50 million LEGO bricks, glued with a special polymer glue so that enthusiastic visitors are not able to take a souvenir home with them should they be tempted. (Okay, I admit I checked to see if the pieces were glued together. Not that I’d ever take a brick though.)
Duplo Village is ideal for toddlers and their imaginations. They can fly a plane, drive a car or explore a whole town. This area was designed with the little one’s height in mind and they will love the DUPLO Farm attraction which will let them slide, climb and crawl through and around a whole host of friendly farm animals. Note to nursing moms, curtained private areas with rocking chairs, microwaves, bottle warmers and changing tables can be found inside the Duplo Barn.
Also inside Duplo Village is The Big Rig Rally. This lets little ones ride a semi truck and drive through the desert to deliver their cargo. (Minimum rider height is 36″, kids shorter than 48″ must be accompanied by a responsible rider 48″ or taller.)
The Lego Kingdoms area takes kids back to medieval times with the LEGOLAND Castle. I thought the castle would have been made entirely from LEGOs, so this was a bit disappointing to me.
The Dragon is an indoor/outdoor steel roller coaster that features a behind-the-scenes view of life within the enchanted LEGOLAND Castle. (Minimum rider height 40″, riders under 48″ must be accompanied by a responsible rider over 48″.) The Royal Joust invites kids ride LEGO-themed horses through a number of medieval scenes where they encounter other riders in a simulated joust. (Maximum age 12 years and maximum weight 170 lbs, minimum height 36″.)
Halfway into the park is the Lego Technic area which features the Test Track Rollercoaster. This fast-moving ride has steep drops and herky-jerky movements. One of my daughters loved it so much she went on twice while once was more than enough for my other daughter. My husband and I enjoyed riding the Technicycle, a pedal-powered spinning machine that shoot riders into the air.
Imagination Zone emphasizes exploring and creation and features a 20-foot-tall by 10-foot-wide replica of Albert Einstein’s head made entirely from LEGOs. LEGO® City features a scaled-down town created just for children. My daughters loved the FORD Driving School, a “real-life” freestyle driving experience for children ages 6 through 13. Children are able to receive an official LEGOLAND driver’s license, but be warned, the license costs $15.00 each. (This bit of information was not provided to guests until after the kids drive around and navigate a city street.) It took a while to get through the line and “driving school” which instructed the children to stop at all stop signs and indicate the direction they were turning with hand signals, but we saw children cutting each other off and making their own driving lanes, much like real adult drivers. The length of the time the children were able to drive seemed to be extremely fast, but still, my daughters loved it.
For the younger kids, they can attend FORD Jr. Driving School, a pint-size version driving school course for children ages 3 through 5. For children who prefer the sea over the land, Boating School allows them to captain their own mini-vessels. (Minimum rider height is 34″, riders less than 48″ must be accompanied by a responsible rider at least 48″ in height) Don’t miss the regulation-size red Ford Explorer made from 380,000 LEGO bricks. (You couldn’t even if you wanted to!) The entire automobile is made from LEGOs and makes for a great photo opp! The detail of the Explorer was very impressive. The replica weighs more than 2,600 pounds (about half that of a real Explorer) and was assembled by 22 people in Connecticut, unveiled at a Ford Assembly Plant in Chicago and traveled to Rockefeller Center in New York before coming to Florida. It was pulled on a trailer with large windows by a genuine Ford Explorer.
The project began when LEGO designers and engineers met with Ford designers in Detroit The Explorer features the Ford logo, dual exhaust, a button to pop the hatch, a spare tire beneath, gas tank lid, grill, side mirrors and license plates that read LEGOLAND.
Of course there are ample shopping opportunities throughout the park. Our favorite was the Minifigure Market located inside Fun Town. Children are able to mix and match hair (or hats) heads, torsos, and legs to create their own custom minifigures. $10 gets you three minifigures or kids can make as many as they like and attach their creation to a giant Lego man inside the store. I had a great time making my own minifigures (including one that looked just like Elphaba from Wicked.) We bought a silicon ice cube tray that makes LEGO men ice cubes, a LEGO brick key chain/flashlight and a container of pick LEGOs for the ride home.
Even the nametags on all of the park employees are made from LEGOs. Insider tip: Many park employees attach LEGO Minifigures to their nametags. A little-know secret is that Legoland staff members who are wearing a minifigure will exchange minifigure parts with young park attendees if they have a minifigure part to trade. I saw one little girl trade her minifigure head with the ride attendant at the Island in the Sky. It’s a fun way for the staff to interact with the children.
A unique attraction was the water-skiing show on Lake Eloise, which features skiers dressed in the iconic yellow-headed Lego man costumes. This Legoland Florida-only show pays respect to the old Cypress Gardens ski shows. The storyline is about Pirate’s Cove and features fun flips and tricks. Tip: You will get splashed if you sit in the first few rows.
After walking through the park your children are going to get hungry. Legoland’s signature snack is Granny’s apple fries, a creation made from Granny Smith apples, cinnamon and sugar served with vanilla-cream dipping sauce. Restaurants are spread throughout the park and choices include hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken. For vegetarian families like mine, we were happy to see that choices also included Asian fusion dishes, pasta and pizza. Cappuccino and café late is also available for parents.
If the grand opening crowds maintain, and if you wanted to see the entire park and experience every ride and attraction, you would probably need two full days at Legoland. Final tips: be sure everyone wears comfortable shoes because it is endless walking. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen and hats and you should have a fun trip.