Most parents wouldn’t think of wearing paper-thin flip-flops around so many Legos. After all, these brightly colored bricks aren’t merely the building blocks of countless childhood imaginations; they are the IEDs of adult orthopedics.
But this isn’t your typical kiddie play date. I’m at just-opened Legoland Florida with my 9-year-old son, Ewan, and his pals Emmie, 9, and Ethan, 11.
This fifth — and largest — Legoland park in the world is less than an hour’s drive east of our home in Tampa. In other words, an ideal Saturday outing.
At midmorning, the parking lot is already half full. As soon as we stroll under the Legoland Florida sign (made with Legos, natch), we know that we’re in Lego heaven. Smiles on kids and grown-ups alike, and not a stray piece of geometric plastic anywhere. (Granted, the park had been open only a week.)
There are clearly some hard-core Lego fans here, both kids and nostalgic middle-agers decked out in Lego T-shirts. More than a few clutch original Lego creations.
My son is still firmly in the Lego loco camp. Only a few months ago did he concede that it was time to return the Lego-building table to neighbors who’d lent it to us until their then-newborn son was old enough for it. Ziploc bags of Legos are now stashed in drawers.
My gang makes a beeline for the closest roller coaster, the Dragon. “That was kind of tame,” Ewan says afterward. This from a kid whose last trip to Busch Gardens in Tampa included seven back-to-back sorties aboard the gut-churning (to me) SheiKra coaster.
To be fair, the park touts itself as the only one in Central Florida aimed at the 2- to 12-year-old crowd. Interactive attractions, live shows and 50 rides are of the not-too-scary “pink knuckle” variety.
With Emmie’s turn to pick the next activity, she opts for Boating School. The drivable craft are pokey, but we quickly warm to the ride when we realize that we can treat the boats like aquatic bumper cars. Ethan’s next selection, of Coastersaurus, a wooden coaster, also wins universal approval. “That was like a pinball machine,” Ewan says deliriously.
Legoland Florida also has a true theme park rarity: sculptures that kids willingly pose with for photos. My charges are among hordes who can’t keep their hands (and feet) off so many life-size — and larger — critters and cars obsessively constructed from 50 million-plus Lego blocks around the 150-acre park. We’re talking everything from wee vampire bats suspended from the ceiling in the Castle coaster to Albert Einstein’s 20-foot-tall mustachioed melon greeting visitors to the Imagination Zone.
The park’s most classic — and impressive — use of Legos can be found in Miniland USA, a kind of 3-D map of American landmarks rendered in umpteen little plastic bricks. Washington’s monuments are painstakingly re-created, as are New York’s skyline, San Francisco’s waterfront and the Las Vegas Strip. The Sunshine State even gets its share of miniaturized models.
Besides finding ways to avoid riding more extreme coasters myself, my second goal at amusement parks is scoring decent grub. I’ve lied without conscience to my son about a particular restaurant’s being closed rather than stomach cruddy food.
If lunch at Cap’n Brickbeard’s Burgers, in Pirates’ Cove, is indicative of park provisions, no fudging about food will be necessary here. I ask the cashier to repeat himself when I think he’s just told me that kids’ burger-and-fries meals come with a choice of pear or apple (as in actual whole fruit) and water or milk to drink, with soda an off-menu item. He did. Hmm, this isn’t the cotton-candy-and-fried-dough Central Florida amusement park scene I know and fear. Naturally, I break down and spring for sodas.
We happily munch, seated at a covered picnic table beside Lake Eloise, turtles nosing around submerged cypress trees. Here on this property once stood the state’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens, opened in 1936. Cypress Gardens was a childhood favorite of my wife, Gail, and her three brothers, who grew up in nearby Lakeland. I remember visiting it myself during a summer vacation trip from Washington. But in later years, we, like apparently many others hankering for ever-flashier entertainments, abandoned its lush gardens and Southern belle-themed spectacles.
Legoland Florida retains a few of the Gardens’ vestiges. There are still some belles, albeit in plastic form. And the old water-skiing show now gets the Lego treatment, with good and bad Lego pirates clashing aboard a Lego pirate ship and on various speeding watercraft. True to the times, our coaster-crazed crowd doesn’t stick around long enough to find out whether the inflatable shark catches the pirate fleeing by Jet Ski. Off we race to the next ride.
Also updated are ticket prices, which, at $75 for adults and $65 for ages 3-12, aren’t cheap. But a day at Disney, a half-hour farther down the road, can be even more expensive. Of course, when you offer to take someone’s kids to the hot new amusement park, you’d be surprised how much spending cash is thrown your way.
Even with less-than-totally-insane rides, my gang only reluctantly agrees to leave when the park closes. And then I have to gently bribe them with another round of ice cream and a stop at a gift shop. Loaded with Lego loot, including a foot-tall Lego Darth Vader, we head happily home.
The consensus in the car is that the park is probably better for kids 8 and younger. “But I really had fun,” Ethan says.
Abercrombie is a writer living in Tampa.