Kids today are constantly bombarded with eye-popping special effects, from movies to computer games to entire theme parks. But on a hilltop above Carlsbad, Calif., about a half hour north of San Diego, a new amusement park offers a delightful reminder that simple "kid-powered" activities are often the most fun. Legoland, which opened in March last year, is full of fanciful creations, hands-on activities, and rides and attractions that engage kids’ brains as well as their adrenal glands. The Lego Group, the Danish company that makes the plastic bricks, has imported 30 years of experience integrating creativity and family-friendly fun into its European parks. Legoland California is a place where younger children in particular can have a ball even without high-octane, death-defying thrills.
Legoland is designed for kids ages 2 to 12, although 10 is probably the upper limit for kids to feel engaged by most of the attractions. But my family spent a full day there recently, and what we gave up in adrenaline jolts, we recouped in all sorts of creative, lower-key thrills.
The first Legoland was built in Denmark in 1968 after Lego factory workers started snapping together toy brick "overruns" and making scale models of local buildings and landmarks to augment the company’s factory tour. Over time, the park added rides, restaurants, and other features. Legoland opened a second park in Windsor, England, in 1996. Like these parks, Legoland California offers several kinds of attractions within its compact confines: rides, stage shows, and play areas; creativity zones where kids have access to huge stores of Lego toys; and 5,000 Lego sculptures that took 67 people three years to build. They range in scale from a fiery red, 9-foot-tall, 34-foot-long dinosaur "foreman" named Bronte to teeny little dogs, made of just a few plastic parts, walking along a Miniland street.
As in every Legoland, Miniland is the heart of the park, and is made up of a mesmerizing set of landmark and city replicas. Legoland California’s Miniland features 20 million Legos assembled into models that are scaled at 1:20 and 1:40. And the detail of each scene—from several locations along the California coast (including San Francisco’s Pier 39, complete with barking sea lions) to a New England harbor—is extraordinary. To my surprise, every single age group, from toddlers to seniors, seemed enthralled by this area of the park.
Although the California Miniland was assembled in Denmark, the designers worked from thousands of photographs of the real-life scenes. Our favorite was New Orleans, a city that we had visited years ago during Mardi Gras. Lego-built floats, complete with revelers tossing beads to the crowd as jazz blares from the speakers, actually progress down the street. "They even have the ladders," my 10-year-old daughter, Marie, said excitedly when she saw the teeny Lego versions of the rickety ladders that Mardi Gras bystanders erect to better view the wild floats and bands. I also loved the Manhattan scene that showed little workers deep below the New York City streets yanking a Lego alligator out of the sewer—a deft play on that apocryphal legend of baby alligator pets thriving in the sewers after being flushed down city toilets.
Now, Legoland California has its own shop where five full-time model makers are constantly working on new Lego models—such as the life-size Lego skeletons, bats, and spiders that dotted the grounds at Halloween. The California model makers and designers face some special challenges. This Southern California park gets much more sunshine than its European counterparts, explains Jonna Rae Bartges, a spokesperson for Legoland California, so the bricks not only need to be sprayed with a coating that blocks ultraviolet rays before they’re installed, but they will probably have to be replaced every three to five years.
One thing to understand about Legoland is that, contrary to popular assumption, the park is not made of Legos. Rather, they decorate the park, sometimes as featured statuary; sometimes peeking out of nooks and crannies, like the Lego lady on a balcony watering Lego petunias; sometimes they star in a scene, as in the Lego Taj Mahal. And, as well as brightening things up, these touches inspire kids to be creative with the simple bricks.
The park prides itself on the fact that most of its 40 rides are "kid powered," including the Kid Power Tower free fall ride where riders hoist themselves up with a pulley system before a brief, exciting free fall back down. In this park, younger kids get to enjoy imaginative but safe rides that often don’t exist in other venues. My 3-year-old, Blair, was delighted to sit next to me in the Sky Cycle and help propel the snazzy car around a gently sloping track. "The kids can ride everything that they can see, instead of running up to a ride and then finding out they’re too small to get on it," says Andy Ordonez, father of two kids, ages 3 and 7, from Mountain View, Calif. And, they aren’t overwhelmed by flashing lights, blaring music, or screams from death-defying rides. In fact, there are very few things in Legoland that tower or thunder above you. Attractions are not simply different from those at other parks, they’re lower to the ground, less mechanical looking, and much, much quieter. The little Sky Patrol helicopter, for example, only goes up and down and side to side, but my two kids whooped with glee trying to spin away from each other.
The park’s Village Green area encourages kids to play with water instead of soaking in it—a blessing because, although water in amusement parks can help to cool off overheated kids, parents may not always have thought to tote towels or a full change of clothes. At Legoland, kids big or small can jump on small bouncy platforms that send a little sprinkling fountain skyward. And some of the water guns let kids shoot at various moving, Lego-constructed targets without drenching each other. Meanwhile, on the other side of the park, a far faster and more boisterous Aquazone ride that appeals to older kids is set off on its own for those who go far out of their way to get wet.
Legoland certainly has its commercial side—its Big Shop, for example, boasts the largest selection of Lego toy sets in the country—but we didn’t feel pressured to go home with bags stuffed with Lego-ware. The park also limits the number of folks who can attend on a given day, out of deference to the many small children here whose days could quite literally be ruined if they had to wait in long lines and navigate super-crowded walkways. During the summer months, it’s a good reason to come early: When the turnstiles have ticked off 15,000 visitors, the gates are shut for the day.
This respect for children is also evident in a slew of small details. There are large, family bathrooms with changing stations and short sinks for the kids. There are low food counters in the restaurants so your little ones can see. And the park rents lightweight strollers that even offer your tiny traveler a little steering wheel.
Legoland shows are appropriately slapstick and action packed for small children. "The Big Test" show featured lots of splashing water and acrobatics as a ragtag fire department taught safety lessons and tried to pass its fire-fighting test ("We put the wet stuff on the hot stuff—yeah!"). On Castle Hill, dragons and princesses rule the roost, and the "Medieval Merriment" show offers a goofy romp and a "kidapult" catapult prop as some castle denizens offer up a kid to satisfy a fiery dragon’s appetite. There’s also a roller coaster for older kids called the Dragon and a nifty Royal Joust ride where kids ride galloping Lego hobbyhorses. It’s like liberating carousel horses from the track and letting them—and their little riders—kick up their heels.
The Imagination Zone is where kids can get elbow deep in Legos (or in the bigger Duplos that toddlers can handle better). It even offers a high-tech ramp where kids can construct and race cars. Some kids have so much fun here they have to be physically dragged out. It’s great to watch families work together, with moms and dads hunting down the right bricks as kids snap away.
There was one attraction in the Zone that my gang skipped. Legoland has a product line called Mindstorms, which includes both computer software and "smart" bricks that allow a device, such as a robot or a space vehicle, to be remotely controlled. The park offers an area where about 120 kids a day can interact with computers to design and build these toys (you must make reservations when you arrive). Plunking my kid in front of a computer at an amusement park is not appealing to me, but I can imagine how, in some situations, such a resource would save the day for older kids.
On the day we visited Legoland, the park seemed a bit understaffed, especially on some of the rides where younger children required help getting tucked into seat belts. The poor guy trying to run the Junior Driving School for toddlers had the almost comically impossible job of trying to explain the concept of steering to little children who would yank the wheel one way, grin at their parents, and keep piling up harmlessly. Regular Driving School for kids from 6 to 12, however, is very successful. The kids are shown a video and then allowed to drive a car around an obstacle course.
Legoland is an hour south of Disneyland and a half hour north of SeaWorld in San Diego, so it’s a good park to include on a swing through Southern California amusement parks, particularly when you’ve got younger kids who’ve been getting the short end of the theme park stick. There is already a list of celebrities who enjoy bringing their families here, from Jason Alexander of Seinfeldto the uproarious Roseanne.
Unlike so many parks where you can watch families almost literally fall apart in the late afternoon when kids are tired and tantrums erupt, families at Legoland seem to pace themselves better and enjoy the mix of physical activities and quiet, creative play. In the Imagination Zone I saw more than a few parents shake their heads in happy amusement when they realized that one of the most popular activities is a simple pegboard where kids can write messages. "I actually had moments when I felt relaxed," Ordonez says. "The kids were having fun without being overwhelmed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt relaxed in an amusement park before."
While not made entirely of Legos, as popular thought might have it, Legoland California is home to 5,000 Lego sculptures, more than 40 rides, and a bevy of other kid-worthy attractions.
Legoland is proving to be most popular with the 2-to-10-year-old set, but even adults seem to be amazed at the level of detail—such as tiny Lego dogs—that designers included in the park.
Photography by Andrew Kitchen
This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Legoland opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. in the winter, later the rest of the year. Hours may change. Admission is $25 for kids between 3 and 16 and seniors 60 and over, $32 for adults, and free to kids under 3. For more information call (760) 918-5346, or see www.legoland.com.