Samland Goes Blocky For Legoland California
by, 02-22-2012 at 09:44 PM
The way my mind thinks, the concept of LEGOLAND is pretty simple. Combine one or more family rides, with one or more child only rides, a child’s playlot, a place to eat, a place to shop, and a bathroom. Find a theme that ties these elements together. Bonus points if the theme reflects a LEGO product. And stuff those lands with fabulous LEGO brick models that sometimes move or make sounds. Arrange these pearls around the perimeter of the park and link them together with a winding path string that has little surprises of its own. Then, in the center of it all place Miniland U.S.A., the park’s soul.
Did I mention just how incredible the LEGO brick models are?
This was my first impression when I arrived very early one recent morning.
I had been to LEGOLAND before, but that was many years ago. Because the park’s great strength is how it serves a particular demographic (families with children, and that is not me) I didn’t have a strong desire to go back. But with time has come change, so I packed up the car, plugged in my iPod to listen to my backlog of WDW Today podcasts, set the GPS for Carlsbad, and headed south for the weekend. I also planned on visiting Sea World in San Diego and will report back on that next week.
Like many of you do, I got to the park before it opened, had my ticket in hand and glided through the turnstiles to wait in the forecourt plaza called "The Beginning". It had rained on the drive, but the sky look like it was going to cooperate as some patches of blue skies started to peek out.
The arrival experience is lacking. The utilitarian box that the SeaLife Aquarium came in dominates one side of the entrance and a construction site for the new LEGOLAND Hotel to open in the summer of 2013 dominates the other. In between are ticket booths that appear to be made of LEGO bricks and a lot of confetti embedded into the ground. I must confess that I have not seen a picture of what this hotel is supposed to look like, but I can only imagine a structure made out a material that looks like huge Lego bricks. The idea reminds me a of BBC program starring James May who built a house, including a toilet, made out of Lego bricks. But I digress. My first impression was, “Okay, the magic must be inside.”
Merlin Entertainment, owners of LEGOLAND is following in the footsteps of Disney by creating a resort with multiple activity nodes (the theme park, the Aquarium, LEGOLAND Water Park, and the future hotel).
It seems they are also working hard to attract a local audience of young families with children who use the facility as their local park and older folks who find it a safe, pleasant environment for exercise.
Once past the turnstiles, you enter The Beginning. Here are the basic services such as Guest Services, strollers, the photo center, a snack store, and a store called The Big Shop. A gathering space faces a lake with many LEGO models, including comical dinosaurs and LEGO people trying to build a bridge. I would later learn that these sculptures come alive with sound as the Coast Cruise boats pass by.
By the way, I learned the employees are called "Model Citizens". Get it?
Like other parks, LEGOLAND allows guests to gather and ropes block the paths to the attractions until opening. I had two options; go to the right where most of the “thrill” rides are and where most of the crowd was waiting or to go the left. I choose the path less traveled.
First stop was Dino Land, which should not be confused with the one in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Mixed amongst the tropical trees and shrubbery are colorful “life-size” LEGO models of dinosaurs. The Coastersaurus is a cute kiddie coaster and there is a nice child’s playground where they dig up bones called Dig Those Dinos. Need to buy dino related LEGO sets? They have a store for that.
The next destination is DUPLO Village. Passing between Dino Land and DUPLO Village is one of those little “in-betweens” that I found to be a delight. As you walk along you will see an array of rocks along an embankment. Now, normally you would hardly notice such a thing. However, these rocks appear to have faces. Even more awesome is that they are singing. You see they are LEGOLAND’s rock band. There are experiences like this throughout the park.
I must confess this trip is a lesson in the LEGO culture. I learned that DUPLO blocks are meant for children age 1.5 to 5. Therefore, DUPLO Village is geared to the toddler set. Personally, I found this frustrating at times. For example, a ride on the Safari Trek, a car ride on an electric rail that you through a collection of LEGO model animals, to see the models of monkeys, giraffes, and elephants meant looking like Gulliver while on his travels.
The scale of many LEGOLAND attractions assumes that the primary rider is a child, and in many cases the expectation is for the parents to patiently wait until their kids are done playing. Don’t get me wrong; there are family attractions, as we shall see. But there are far too many attractions where the family cannot share the experience. Okay, I am stepping off my soapbox.
Another attraction in DUPLO Village is the very surreal Fairy Tale Brook. What starts out as an innocent boat ride turns into a voyage into something that would have made René Magritte proud. Prepare to see the Big Bad Wolf snorkeling, the Three Little Pigs working out to kick his butt, and Prince Charming on a cell phone. There is so much more.
I also discovered one of my favorite things in the entire park. In the Waterworks interactive play area is a fountain with LEGO model instruments and little pads that you step on. If you step on the pads quickly enough in the right order you can actually play a tune. Okay, so I ran around the fountain a few times. It was early. There are other interactive fountains that are activated by turning wheels, pressing buttons, or doing some other thing.
The lush landscaping fades away and we are in the middle of the urban LEGOLAND, Fun Town. There is a lot going on at this end of the park. The Volvo Driving School returns to Walt’s original vision for Autopia; a place for kids to learn how to drive safely. With no tracks, children from 6 through 13 make their way around a street grid obeying the traffic rules or they get thrown into jail sanding down the rough edges of mutant LEGO blocks. There is even a Volvo Junior Driving School for the real little ones (3 to 5) that goes around an oval. Of course, the entrance is marked with a full-size Volvo which has been modeled out of the plastic bricks.
Buildings with clever LEGO characters line the edges. There is an amphitheater featuring a cute slapstick show that teaches us the proper way to put out a fire. Remember; put the wet stuff on the hot stuff.
I enjoyed walking through Adventurers Club and activating all of the special effects. The LEGO Factory Tour features machines that press out the blocks in incredible slow motion. Like many spots in the park, there are places where kids can sit and play with the blocks. Other activities include The Police and Fire Academy where families can battle it out against one another.
Sadly the “high places” attractions were closed for refurbishment. The Kid Power Towers and the Sky Cruiser are family oriented people powered vehicles that give guests a chance to play and get an overview of the entire park.
Next door is Pirate Shores, a land of water-based attractions, including the Skipper School (not on a track but the world’s slowest boat ride) and the big family oriented attraction, Splash Battle. If you lost out to the fire challenge in Fun Town you can take your revenge on that other family with this ride. You get in a boat equipped with water guns that is not really a boat but a vehicle on a very visible track. As you move along, you are encouraged to fire upon the other families. If you don’t, they are certainly going to shoot back at you. Bystanders can also get into the action with the water guns triggered from outside the fence.
By the time you get to Castle Hill, at the backside of the park, you realize just how compact LEGOLAND is. This is one of the areas where people who got there early were running. The Dragon roller coaster was one of my favorite rides. It starts off slowly, moving through a castle where we encounter various crudely animated LEGO models. I was especially impressed with the dragon. As you exit the castle, the ride changes into a nice, reasonably long kiddie coaster.
The other big ride here is the Knight’s Tournament. Two riders are placed at the end of a Kuka robotic arm. There are five levels of ride intensity. "One" is very mild and "five" will twist your brain. In some cases, the intensity of the ride is determined by the height of the rider. I kept picturing myself strapped in at the end of one of these on a moving track inside of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure.
The Wild Woods Golf is a lovely miniature golf course that fully takes advantage of the LEGO models. This is one of the repeatable features for locals. As much as I would like to have ridden the Royal Joust, I am just too big. Another well-designed child’s play area is called The Hideaways. The variety of play areas is outstanding.
Castle Hill is also the home of the mythical Granny’s Apple Fries, which have become a signature dish. These are Granny Smith apples deep-fried in a light batter, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with a vanilla sauce. Do I have to say more?
The Land of Adventure contains the park’s one family dark ride. Lost Kingdom Adventure is like Buzz Lightyear at the Disney parks where you shoot at targets with a light gun and total up individual scores. Of course, all of the targets are LEGO models and the animation is limited or non-existent, but the ride is cute, good eye candy for the kids, and has that tongue in cheek humor that permeates this entire park.
The Imagination Zone is where you will find the LEGO Technic Test Track, an incredible wild mouse rollercoaster. What may seem like a harmless kiddie coaster is a butt tightener of the first order. There is also the very clever Aquazone, where you steer a hydrofoil while other guests are trying to get you wet with water cannons. The LEGO Mindstorms area is where the hardcore LEGO fans go and lots of youth groups. This is where you can board the Coast Cruise, which sails on the lake you see at the entrance. As it passes some of the huge models, they animate or make sounds that support the sculpture.
As I stated at the top of this piece, the heart of LEGOLAND is Miniland USA. The area is made up of six landscapes based on U.S. cities including New England, Las Vegas, New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans (under repair), and California. There is also a special area themed to the Star Wars series.
Of course, I had to look up the statistics and LEGO claims that it took more then 100,000 hours of model making to put together what you see today. More then 23 million bricks have been used to build these models. And they are spectacular. In general, they are built at a 1 to 20 scale. Most of the skyscraper are at a 1 to 70 scale.
In many cases, pushing a button will active some form of animation. Whether it is cows and chickens moving in a barn, a marching band in front of the U.S. Capital building, or making a Stormtrooper fly around a tree.
I found myself sitting on the ground to get a really good perspective of the models and their attention to detail. I was recently in San Francisco and was riveted by their version of that beautiful city. The New York skyline is an exhibit for an architecture class. The highlight of Washington D.C. is the animated marching band in front of the Capital building. Look deep inside of the Lincoln Memorial and you can see the statue of the legendary President. The Las Vegas scenes are as over the top as the city itself. My one let down was Southern California. Northern California is well represented by the San Francisco set but all points south are summed by RVs parked by the beach, the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Bowl, and LEGOLAND sign replacing the iconic Hollywood sign.
The lineup of famous buildings at the same scale in such close proximity was just a joy. Not only are the buildings something to look at, but also throughout the scenes are little vignettes of life such as band concerts, people picnicking, or folks lining up to view a parade.
Sadly, some of the models are beginning to fade from the sun. In many cases, the animation was broken such as the cable cars in San Francisco not running, the President’s motorcade stalled or other small details. But those are minor quibbles and something that a little TLC should fix.
In the end, I enjoyed my visit. The bathrooms were clean and plentiful, the employees were capable, and the food not bad. I know I will not be going back anytime soon but that has more to do with the fact the park is not targeting somebody like me then anything about the park itself.
For those that have visited, what do you think?