text and photos by Wendy Ripmeester
Benjamin shifted from one foot to the other. Evita stood on her toes and craned her neck to look past the turnstiles into the park. It was a fresh Sunday morning in October, “shoulder season” as they say, and the lines were only a few families deep.
“Look!” small voices shouted, and my gaze followed a dozen or so pointing fingers to a figure approaching the gate. A minifigure actually, and a life-sized one at that.
Emmet, the generic construction worker and hero of The LEGO Movie, was unmistakable in his orange safety vest. He was strolling towards the park gate with a staffer, a Model Citizen as they’re called here at LEGOLAND Florida, to welcome visitors and open the park for the day.
The newest of the LEGO theme parks, LEGOLAND Florida opened October 15, 2011 in Winter Haven, between Orlando and Tampa. When the first LEGOLAND launched in 1968 in Billund, Denmark, it had a greeter, too. Godtfred Christiansen, creator of the plastic bricks we know and love, personally received visitors at the gate.
In designing the LEGO “system of play” and LEGOLAND theme park, Godtfred paid the same attention to quality and detail as his father and company founder Ole Kirk Christianson had to LEGO’s original products: wooden blocks and toys. Father and son lived by the motto etched on a plaque in their workshop: “Only the best is good enough for our children.” From what I’ve seen of the company, the toys and now the theme park, the entire brand reflects this value in practice.
It’s no surprise, really. The name LEGO comes from the Danish word leg godt, meaning play well. At LEGOLAND Florida, that was certainly our plan.
Waiting in line at the gate, we poured over the park map. Then, taking a cue from Godtfred, we designed our own “system of play” for the day. In no time we had a checklist of the LEGO worlds Ben and Evita wanted to visit, built around minifigure photo ops and live shows.
So, while the first children to spill through the turnstiles encircled Emmet, we made a beeline for the far side of the park. Our goal was to beat the crowds to the LEGO City Ford® Driving School. At this time of year, this was not the challenge we thought it might be. There was no waiting as Ben and Evita climbed into motorized cars and navigated LEGO City neighbourhoods on a leisurely Sunday morning drive.
Then Flying School shook things up—literally. One of LEGOLAND’s four roller coasters (all designed for kids 12 and under), this floorless coaster began with a jolt and followed with plenty of jerky curves. Evita gripped the shoulder pads with lips clamped shut, while Ben’s were wide open in a scream. One Flying trip was enough. Instead, Evita chose the LEGO Technicycle for repeated rides, where pedal-power propelled flying bicycles high into the air. Ben’s choice was the Lost Kingdom Adventure. This was an indoor Indiana Jones-style quest in an Egyptian temple to pick off spiders, mummies and artifacts with laser blasters shot from a self-piloted all-terrain roadster.
A stroll through MINILAND USA was more my speed. Inspired by the hugely popular brick sculptures at the Billund LEGO factory in the 1960s, Godtfred built MINILAND as the central feature of all the LEGO theme parks. Each showcases national landmarks of the park’s host country. Here we visited attractions such as Florida’s Daytona International Speedway and Kennedy Space Center, Manhattan’s Grand Central Station and Times Square, the Las Vegas strip and the White House—built from 32 million LEGO bricks.
Also at MINILAND, brick recreations of battles from the first six Star Wars episodes stirred the kid and movie fan in me. While my husband Gregg and I lingered to admire the models, Benjamin and Evita ran ahead. They jostled to be first to press the buttons that made sculptures come to life and the Millennium Falcon rise from the ground to escape stormtroopers.
After seeing these minifigures, we built our own to join in the park’s minifigure trade. For U.S. $9.99, Ben, Evita and I dug through a hodgepodge of legs, bodies, heads, hair, hats and accessories to create a minifigure each (though you could also bring your own from home). Then we scouted the park for Model Citizens for possible trades, since they all wear minifigures perched on their nametags.
Evita and I hit the jackpot at the Fun Town Minifigure Market, trading our frankenfigures for real LEGO minifigures spotted among the hundreds on display. Benjamin chose to keep his own creation as a souvenir. It was a mini selfie of sorts, with a wide smile, spiked hair and an I love LEGOLAND T-shirt.
Next, it was time for the kids to really get their build on in the Imagination Zone. At the Hero Factory, they pulled together menacing custom characters from a jumble of space-age limbs, helmets, armour and weapons. But it was the Build and Test race facility that brought out their inner Master Builders.
Signing out two sets of rubber tires at check-in, Gregg and I set the kids loose to raid the LEGO brick bins, build contraptions of their own, and race them on digitally-timed tracks. I suspect this is what Ole had in mind when he chose the company name, LEGO. By chance, he found out later that this Danish word for “play well” means “I put together” in Latin.
To give mom and dad a break, we stepped into the adjacent Cypress Gardens, a lovingly restored remnant of the botanical garden and theme park that occupied the LEGOLAND Florida site from 1936 to 2009. Life-size LEGO brick versions of southern belles in flowing dresses dot the park. They are reminiscent of the costumed ladies that were part of the original attraction. The Battle for Brickbeard’s Bounty, a live action show with water ski stunts, pays tribute to the days when Cypress Gardens was known as “water ski capital of the world.”
Moderate temperatures and thinner crowds weren’t the only perks of visiting LEGOLAND in October. With Halloween around the corner, Mortimer the Mummy and Mad Scientist minifigures joined the regular cast of characters from The LEGO Movie, CHIMA and LEGO Friends. Ben and Evita went “brick-or-treating” among tombstones, with candy doled out by Model Citizens in Halloween gear. In the evening, we donned 3D glasses and gathered with other park visitors at the lakefront to see fireworks transformed into flying LEGO bricks.
Scooping a sleepy Evita into my arms as we ambled to the park gate, her head on my shoulder, I thought of Ole and Godtfred and the LEGO promise to play well. There was no doubt we did. And my hunch was, after a visit to LEGOLAND, we would sleep well, too.
When Florida’s Too Far to Go for LEGO …
LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in Vaughan Mills (Toronto) has some of the same attractions as LEGOLAND Florida on a smaller scale, with a lower price tag to match. There’s no exchange rate either. You’ll find a 4D cinema; MINILAND featuring Canadian landmarks and Star Wars scenes; a laser ride; and an Imagination Zone where you can build and test racecars and try your hand at constructing earthquake-proof buildings. You won’t find many amusement rides here, though. For that, you can head over to Canada’s Wonderland, less than 10 minutes away by car.