Joe Burbank, MCT
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — This is what a theme park built for children looks like: Kids are driving slow, one-seater toy cars while their parents watch from the sidelines. They are steering boats, turning water cannons on each other, playing with Lego toys while their parents hold their place in line for a ride. The roller coasters are not too high, not too fast. There are no teens necking in dark corners.
The park is Legoland California, near San Diego. Its sister park opened on Oct. 15 in Winter Haven, about 40 miles from Orlando. It is the only major park in Central Florida designed for children ages 2-12.
Legoland is not intended for parkgoers of all ages; it doesn't have heart-in-your-throat roller coasters or rides with complicated story lines and expensive cutting-edge visuals.
What it does have is statuary and cityscapes built of Lego parts and rides that look like they were.
It has attractions that demand a little more participation by the kids — hoist yourself up a tower with a rope on a pulley; steer a boat that is not on tracks; shoot a stream of water at a fake fire; clamber up a chute made of rope mesh.
It has "pink-knuckle" rides, small coasters just fast enough to give a youngster a thrill but not so scary that the small knuckles gripping a safety bar turn white.
And it has plenty of opportunities to play with — and buy — Lego toys.
"The whole proposition is about bringing the Lego toy to life and creating an interactive world," said Peter Ronchetti, general manager of Legoland California. The park's target age of 2 to 12 "is an age where children use their active imaginations. That is the environment we create for them."
Parks that appeal to teens have roller coasters and discussions about G-forces and inversions, Ronchetti said. "That's not about creativity and engaging the imagination. That's about thrills.
"Here we make the children the heroes. The children get in the car and drive. It's probably the first time the children have taken charge, driven a car, sailed a boat."
Some people argue that Legoland is not alone in targeting kids that age and will have trouble competing with other parks, especially Disney. "Magic Kingdom is really geared for families with kids that age," said Julie Neal, co-author of the guidebook "The Complete Walt Disney World 2011." "Disney's Hollywood Studios has parades with Pixar characters."
Others say Legoland got it just right. "Look at Coastersaurus," said Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com, referring to one of the park's pink-knuckle coasters, which has a top speed around 20 mph. "It's just the perfect amount of thrills for a young kid. You don't want to scare … them. If they're 4 years old, they're going to think they're conquering the biggest thing in the world. They're gonna be there, hands up."
Legoland Florida is the fifth Legoland Park. The first opened in 1968 in Billund, Denmark, home of Lego toys, followed by parks in England, California and Germany. A sixth will open next year in Malaysia, and Merlin Entertainments, the parks' British-based parent company, says it is actively looking for more sites.
Although the parks have different layouts and some different rides and attractions, they have more in common than they do differences, chief among them the orientation toward children.
In focus groups, Ronchetti said, "Some of the parents were very keen for us to extend our range beyond 12 years. The answer is no, we're focused on younger children. We will not extend the age range. It would in a sense dilute the mission if we extend it to older families."
Several parents at Legoland California agreed.