CARLSBAD, CALIF. — Some people say you can't really put a price on fun. But I'm guessing a lot of those people are billionaires and mortgage defaulters.
It seems to me that being a parent, especially at the moment, is all about putting a price on fun. And being the parent of a 4-year-old, I am learning, means facing up to an epic collision of price and fun: the amusement park. What it offers, what it costs, what weaponry and waiting it will entail. In my household, we've just confronted this dragon for the first time, at a place that actually has a talking red dragon.
No, not Disneyland. We thought we'd aim for less commotion, smaller crowds. But we did like the idea of an overnight stay, and we'd heard that the people at Legoland had been up to a few things lately, including the opening of a Sheraton next door.
So we dodged Disneyland and its sibling California Adventure (each of which charge $59 to $69 for admission), we sidestepped Universal Studios Hollywood ($57 to $67) and SeaWorld ($55 to $65), and we headed to Carlsbad for Legoland. With our 10% auto club discount, admission cost $44.96 for the little person and $53.96 each for the larger ones (prices have since increased $2).
First we caught a break: That Sheraton, which opened in February, is roomy, with helpful staffers, a big, kid-friendly pool area, a sliver view of the Pacific (best from the third-floor rooms) and its own Legoland entrance. Things were slow when we arrived -- just before noon on a Friday -- so the hotel let us check in early, stash our stuff, then march down the path, hand over the greenbacks and grab ahold of five full hours of interlocking rectangular plastic fun.
Grace Li Qi, our 4-year-old, went all clingy as we neared the gates. But the first thing you see, entering from the Sheraton, is a playground of slides and ropes. So if the lines are too long or the rides are too scary, or not scary enough, you have that fallback.
Approaching the core of the place, you hit Miniland, where most of the models are. Minimal motion, minimal lights, minimal noises -- this looked like a scaled-down slice of heaven to me. Grace took it in quietly (but bragged about it to her dentist later). We browsed past faux San Francisco, artificial Los Angeles (insert redundancy joke here), pseudo New Orleans, facsimile Manhattan and fake Las Vegas Strip, all constructed of Lego pieces. Las Vegas was added last year, giving visitors a chance to compare a fake Manhattan skyline with a double-fake Manhattan skyline.
Then, led to the quickie-wedding chapel by Grace, we gaped as a tiny, curvy woman -- red miniskirt, red boots and apparently bare bulbous white breasts -- emerged from the chapel with a little old man.
Grace had questions. So did we. But instead of searching for answers, we moved down the line to the farm area and enjoyed the barnyard noises. (Legoland spokeswoman Julie Estrada later explained that the bride is wearing a snug white blouse, and that Legoland's Las Vegas has no nudity, no alcohol and no gambling. All I can say is the bride looked topless to us.)
Legoland, which covers 128 acres, opened in 1999. The Lego mother ship in Denmark sold the park in 2005 to Merlin Entertainments Group, which spent $20 million on upgrades here in 2008. Though its target audience is children 2 to 12, its gentle nature appeals most to younger kids, but not too young. Kids under 36 inches tall can't go on some rides.
Once Grace's confidence was up, we headed into the Land of Adventure, which opened in March. Loosely based on Egypt, this zone features the Lost Kingdom Adventure (the park's first indoor "dark" ride); Cargo Ace (low-flying "airplanes"); Beetle Bounce (which holds kids snugly as they climb and plunge about 15 feet); and Pharaoh's Revenge (foam-ball mayhem in a sort of bouncy house).
It's a big park and we missed plenty, including "Journey to the Lost Temple," a 25-minute musical comedy that premiered in May; and the 36,000-square-foot Sea Life Aquarium, which opened next to Legoland in August. (The aquarium closed "for modifications" Nov. 11 and is scheduled to reopen Dec. 26, Its separate admission fee is about $10 if you add onto a regular Legoland ticket, $11.95 to $18.95 for the aquarium alone.)
We loved the off-season weekday pace. On the other hand, even though the cost of admission is the same as on weekends, some features shut down on slower days. Pizza Mania was closed at lunchtime. The 4-D racers show was dark. Princess Lily of Castle Hill, who greets weekend visitors in person, apparently sneaks off on Fridays to get her tiara buffed.
Other big-fun moments: Grace loved jumping back and forth, back and forth, back and forth over a red plastic chain between poles in front of a closed attraction. And in the minutes before the 5 p.m. park closure, Grace and a couple of other ragamuffins kept at the playground ropes and slides like little Cinderellas.
I know. You're waiting for the money math. Here it is:
For the five hours of Legoland (including $35 lunch and $2 to steer a toy tugboat), we paid about $190. Add the $200 hotel room, the parking and dinner and breakfast at the hotel, and our 24 hours in Carlsbad cost about $600. Or, another way, half my mortgage.
Grace turns 5 in about six months. There's been talk of a theme-park birthday, and I'm sure it would be fun. But maybe we'll take another lesson from Legoland. Does anybody know where I can buy a red plastic chain and a pair of poles for my backyard?
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO LEGOLAND
Legoland is just off Interstate 5, 30 minutes north of San Diego, at One Legoland Drive in Carlsbad.
Legoland is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days. (Except for the summer months and holiday weeks, the park closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) Adult admission is $62, children 2 to 12 are $52. Auto club members get 10% off. It's an additional $10 to park; (760) 918-5346, www.legoland.com.