CARLSBAD — Legoland California is a theme park with a premise as simple as a Lego brick: Kids and parents deserve some respect. In other words, don't scare the bejabbers out of the little ones; challenge older kids with attractions that demand some thought; feed everybody well; and give mom and dad a break from the abusive, wallet-draining hucksterism that pervades modern theme parks.
For the most part, it works.
Yes, this is an amusement park designed, owned and operated by one of the most recognizable names in the toy business. In 1997, the Danish Lego Group earned worldwide revenues of $1.1 billion selling its famous plastic bricks to children--and adults--in 138 countries. And the company makes no secret of the fact that the Carlsbad park can help boost sales even further. When Legoland Windsor opened in 1996, for instance, Lego saw "double digit" growth in its toy business in England.
Make no mistake: The park, which opens Saturday, is a 128-acre altar to Lego. But unlike the Saturday morning cartoon shows with shameless product tie-ins, Legoland California operates so subtly and intelligently that most parents don't seem to mind. And most kids are oblivious. Perhaps that's because Legoland California really is a different kind of theme park.
In an era when parks like Disneyland and Magic Mountain compete to have the biggest, most expensive thrill rides in Southern California, Legoland takes the opposite approach. Its rides are decidedly tame--the most daring being a short "pink knuckle" roller coaster called the Dragon. Instead, kids spend time exploring tombs, or hoisting themselves to the top of a 35-foot tower, or pedaling fantastic creations around an elevated track, or marveling at 1/20th-scale models of American landmarks--all made out of Lego. Here's some perspective: The $130 million it cost to build Legoland California is only slightly more than Universal Studios spent in 1996 on its "Jurassic Park" ride.
Says Legoland California's president, Bob Montgomery: "It's a more intimate park."
The approach has worked for Lego at its two other parks in Windsor and outside its headquarters in Billund, Denmark. It remains to be seen whether it works in Southern California, where kids are weaned on the adrenaline of the Matterhorn and the spectacle of flaming sound stages. Two weeks ago, a group of Southern California kids and their parents visited the park with me and a photographer during a preview day. Our mission: To see whether Legoland was any fun.
Like Lego itself, the park is not cheap. Adult admission runs $32. For kids under 16 and seniors over 60, it's $25. Parking runs $6 per car, $10 for spots near the entrance. It's cheaper than Disneyland, but there's also less to do. On average, guests at Lego's other parks stay about six hours, 35 minutes. Our group spent six hours in the park--and although we managed to hit all the highlights, we felt rushed and had to skip a few things we wanted to see and do. Because so many of the rides depend on interactivity or move riders through in defined batches, the waits can be relatively long.
Overall, though, Legoland is small enough to navigate easily, and it's possible to at least see everything on a first visit. "Our guests have small legs," Montgomery says. "They can't go for 10 or 12 hours." Like the other two parks, Legoland California boasts attractions that appeal to different ages--although "an 8-year-old boy is most blown away by the park," Montgomery says. Our group included three boys--ages 6 to 9--and one 9-year-old girl.
The most common assessment from 6-year-old Timmy Colvin was "cool!" But not every kid thinks so. All of the parents in our group were struck by who was not at the park on the day we visited: teenagers. Legoland California does not expect the crowds of young people that flock to other theme parks. At Lego's European parks, for instance, just 5% of visitors are between 15 and 24. Says park spokeswoman Chamara Pittman: "We managed to create an uncool environment."
Unless, of course, you are 8--or still think you are.
Themed areas with names like Village Green, Fun Town and Castle Hill surround a man-made lake at the center of the park. On the far shores lie intricate Lego models of the Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. All can be viewed up close on a boat tour that also passes the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore. The main entry court--aptly named the Beginning--houses lockers, restrooms and, of course, shops. Even in the entry court, Legoland makes it clear to guests that this is no ordinary theme park. The Market Place convenience store sells bananas, apples and oranges--hardly traditional theme park fare. There are family restrooms, and the men's room has a diaper changing table. Fun-house mirrors make even a potty break an adventure.