WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Those colorful plastic bricks that play havoc with vacuum cleaner motors, hurt like *&%$##@ when you step on them barefoot and elicit hyperactive glee in boys of a certain age, have taken on life-size dimensions at the latest Legoland park.
Legoland Florida, which opens Saturday, touts itself as the only Central Florida theme park to target the 2- to 12-year-old set. It sports 50 attractions in 10 themed areas, including not-too-scary "pink knuckle" rides, live shows and interactive attractions. And of course, there are Lego sculptures — 50 million bricks' worth, give or take a few thousand. Life-size elephants inhabit the Land of Adventure. Albert Einstein's 20-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide noggin beckons visitors into the Imagination Zone. A regulation-sized shiny red Ford Explorer (comprising 380,000 bricks) wows 'em in Lego City.
But the park's most visually remarkable section is Miniland USA, which spotlights iconic American places painstakingly rendered in tiny plastic bricks. There are Washington, D.C.'s, monuments, San Francisco's waterfront, the Las Vegas Strip and New York's skyscrapers. Florida gets its own chunk of Miniland real estate to show off state landmarks, from South Beach's Art Deco hotels to Tallahassee's Capitol. (Hey, they left out Walt Disney World!)
At a preview last week, a brigade of minivans and SUVs streams into Legoland's sprawling parking lot. Chants of "Lego-LAND! Lego-LAND!! Lego-LAND!!!" reverberate across the asphalt as swarms of the park's core target customer, boys ages 6 to 10, spill out of the vehicles and rush toward a giant WELCOME sign rendered in bright, primary-colored Legos.
Heaven for Lego fans
Inside the park, Johnny Loncaric, 10, of Bradenton, Fla., pronounces Miniland "awesome," and declares that "for the Lego freak, this place is like they died and went to heaven."
And for him?
"I'm not quite there, yet," he says.
Frank Lawrence is. The public transportation employee from Orlando counts himself among diehard Lego fans. He once traveled cross-country to attend a Lego Maniac Convention. He owns hundreds of sets, dating back to No. 115, a generic building kit he got as a kid in the days before Legos got complicated. He has continued to acquire the plastic bricks in adulthood: No. 570 (firehouse); No. 710 (wrecker with car); circa 1979-80 town, castle and space systems, etc.
"I'm a 45-year-old kid at heart. This is how I grew up," Lawrence says. "I'm happy Legoland has come to Central Florida."
Other preview visitors aren't quite as enthusiastic. Adam Markle, 35, of Prospect Park, N.J., is browsing in the Studio Store searching for commemorative Legoland Florida pins. He's wearing Green Lantern-themed shoes and a hat studded with Disney World pins and explains (needlessly, perhaps), "I'm a compulsive collector."
That includes Lego models, which he has on rotating display at home.
Markle's take on the new park: "Not bad for a soft opening, but I'm not coming back until I'm at least four sizes smaller. I wait a half hour in line and find out I can't fit in the seat."
Consider yourself warned.
Indeed, the rides are designed for a younger set (though most will accommodate adults). Individual lap bars fit snugly across tiny waists. Curtained areas with rocking chairs are reserved for nursing mothers in the Duplo Barn (a play area that caters to tots). A "buffet" of Lego bricks is set out in the restaurants for restless kids who'd rather build than eat.
This is the fifth — and largest — of the Legoland parks. (Another U.S. location, near San Diego, opened in 1999.) The Florida attraction occupies the 150-acre site of the state's oldest theme park, Cypress Gardens.
Opened in 1936, that park was known for its water-ski spectacles on Lake Eloise and Southern belles parading amid its lush gardens. Unable to compete with the razzle-dazzle — and sheer volume — of Orlando-area amusements an hour away, Cypress Gardens was shuttered in 2008. But Legoland operators have restored the gardens (including relocating 600 trees) and resurrected the water-ski show (only this time it features Lego characters in a good-pirate/bad-pirate scenario). The belles are back, too, albeit in plastic.
Also remaining are a number of the former park's rides, now revamped, including two of its roller coasters. Management is hoping Baby Boomer nostalgia will lure past denizens.
"It was all about keeping the identity of Cypress Gardens. You don't buy 100-year-old oak trees," says general manager Adrian Jones.
He is at a table in the Legoland coffee shop, when a woman approaches. "We haven't even gotten past the gift shop and this is the best day ever!" she gushes.
Jones swears she isn't a plant. "Legos are a great leveler," he says. "No matter where you come from, no matter what creed, everybody has a Lego story."
A pricey proposition
Perhaps. But to have a Legoland story, costs a lot more than a box of $29.99 Lego Basic Bricks. Adult admission is $75; ages 3-12 is $65, plus tax. Add on some extras — $10-$15 for face-painting, $5.49 for mac 'n' cheese on the Kids' Choice menu; $3 a shot at midway-style games, multiple shopping opportunities at the Lego stores, and $19.99 for the set of commemorative photos on the way out — and this is a potentially pricey memory.
Legoland Florida is heavily marketing to locals, with low-cost season passes providing an incentive to return again and again. Jones says he also anticipates two-for-one deals and other promotions.
Robert Niles of ThemeParkInsider.com, a website that tracks the business, believes that with its sharp focus on families with small children, the park will attract a following, as its California counterpart has.
"A distinguishing characteristic of Legoland is that it focuses on active play and that severely restricts the capacity of the park," he notes. "You can put thousands of people an hour on (Disney's) Pirates of the Caribbean and cycle them though. But Legoland has some lower-capacity attractions. If they were to get the same numbers as the Magic Kingdom, the place would be swamped and wait times would be hours."
"It's a niche market," he adds. "It's not a theme park for everyone, but Legoland is compelling to kids."