CARLSBAD, CALIF. — The first hint that the US version of Denmark's legendary Legoland will offer a different theme park experience comes as you approach the new 128-acre site.
There's a quaint roundabout in the road, the sort you see all over Europe but is rare in American cities. Suddenly, you're swirling in a cooperative pool of cars, all quietly turning out as they need to with no unattractive beeps, lights, or rude traffic encounters.
Cooperative, interactive, gentle. The roundabout is a metaphor for what lies ahead.
First, there's the Legoland parking. Simple and close. No long tram rides just to reach the entrance. And the front gate is playful but not screamingly commercial. Large Lego pieces dance around the arches taking you into the elegantly landscaped park.
Of course, the knobby plastic bricks are the foundation of the park - quite literally, as you stroll past the towering brontosaurus leaning over a lake near the entrance to the tiny sunbathers in the miniature Central Park. And Lego sets are on sale throughout the park stores. But somehow, with the emphasis on creativity, this amusement park come off as brazenly commercial as some theme parks.
Eight-year-old Russ Stoops, here from Delaware for the opening last week, enthused that the park "is so participatory and that makes it really cool. Even when you're just looking at all the stuff made out of Legos, you want to know how they did it."
Although the park is built to accommodate 15,000 visitors (small by Southern California theme park standards), the idea is to involve each child in the Lego experience. Thus, an entire "land," the Imagination zone, is devoted to construction projects and the two main rides ("Kid Power Tower," "Sky Cycle") encircling the park require actual muscle power from the rider to make them go.
After a day in this environment, it is clear that US theme parks - with their competition for bigger, faster, scarier rides - could take a page from the Lego handbook, especially where parents are concerned. Remarks Laurie Manifold, parent to an eight- and four-year-old, "you can actually build your own experience here. You can't do that at Universal Studios."
Each of the six "lands," a theme park staple these days, finds its own way to work this basic message. The heart of the park is Miniland, site of a 1/20th scale skyline of Manhattan (think Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge) San Francisco, New Orleans (complete with a funeral procession), Washington, D.C. You can also see Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House.
All scenes are built from regulation color and size Lego pieces. "Did you know that the Einstein face has over a million Legos?" asks a child. 1.12 million, to be precise. It took 20 million Legos to make Miniland alone - 30 million total for the entire park.
Across from Miniland is the Imagination Zone, chock-a-Lego-block full of hands-on building and testing experiences for young and old hands. A 45-minute class on programming robots lies behind one set of doors, race-car construction and racing behind another. Yet another zone provides construction experiences for various ages. According to Anne Sawvell, a facilitator in the education department, although this zone may not take up the acreage of the other lands, "it is the most important thing here."
On the other side of the park, Fairy Tale Land offers stunning landscapes of African animals, classic characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, the three little pigs and Billy Goat Gruff. All lead back to a huge pile of books at the end of the ride.
Hideaways at Castle Hill, provides a place for kids to let off steam on the ropes, nets, and slides. The only roller coaster, the Dragon ride, is at best a "pink knuckler," and includes a meandering tour through caves full of treasures and magical creatures.
All in all, it's hard to find fault with such a gentle place, with the exception of the less-than-genteel ticket prices: $32 for adults, $25 for children ages 3 to 16. The park simply doesn't provide the variety of rides and experiences of a Disneyland or Universal Studios with nearly equivalent price tags.
One hopes that if Legoland officials learn anything from these other parks, they'll keep it simple and do nothing more than lower the entry fee here.
The company has two other Legoland theme parks, one in Billund, Denmark (opened in 1968 at the Lego Group headquarters) and another in Windsor, England (opened in 1996). A fourth is planned for Germany.