You probably know the answer here, but but a recent survey found that respondents asked to name Florida’s first theme park overwhelmingly voted for…
Walt Disney World Resort, right?
Actually, it was LEGOLAND.
Don’t be, entirely.
Because Florida’s very first theme park is what is known as LEGOLAND, then going by another name:
Beating Disney to the punch
Maybe you haven’t heard of it.
It was a lot different in those days when Cypress Gardens opened a famous and beloved botanical garden with bathing-suit-clad water skiers.
Not exactly in Orlando, just off of Interstate-4, about 29 miles South of Walt Disney World. Or 45 minutes from the heart of what we know today as the theme park capitol of the world.
This requires some explanation. But first consider where we are going eventually with this:
The Biblical version of David versus Goliath.
It’s also a story of someone named Dick Pope (a name you may not know today, and Walt Disney, a name everyone today knows).
Full of surprises
But there are things here that may surprise you (not so much the David story, maybe).
But things such as you think that LEGOLAND is just for kids, right?
And certainly not for coaster-loving adults who get their thrill fill not only at Disney but Universal, and even Sea World, right?
You also probably don’t know that in some parts of the world, LEGOLAND is the giant. There, its theme parks are more popular than Disney.
We’ll also give you some ideas why LEGOLAND is like Disney and why not.
And some tips on your possible next visit there.
We’re taking a look at LEGOLAND Florida Resort now because it is poised to celebrate its fifth birthday this year.
More fireworks. A lot more events ala Disney such as foot races, etc. (more on that later).
Let’s start with Cypress Gardens.
It actually closed in 2003. But part of it continued in a smaller way at LEGOLAND.
Florida’s first theme park began in the 1930s
Hard as it is to believe in these fast-changing times, Cypress Gardens goes way back to 1936. Even before World War II.
It was started by Dick Pope Sr., who is almost as famous as Walt Disney for his vision of modern-day entertainment (and also as a founder of theme parks).
Pope’s park featured water ski shows and beautifully dressed Southern belles. But also was famous for its plant life: exotic, native and ornamental plants of every variety imaginable.
The water ski shows made it famous.
More than 50 water ski records were broken here.
Its site in Winter Haven became the Water Ski Capital of the World. Many movies and television shows were filmed here.
Champion swimmer and movie star Esther Williams was filmed here. Other visitors included Elvis Presley.
Florida was Cypress Gardens
Tourists or visitors routinely associated Cypress Gardens with Florida -- until 1971. That was when Disney opened in Orlando.
The simplest explanation of what happened next was that water ski shows and flowers could not compete. It was old Florida versus new Florida, a Disney land offering magic.
The winner was obvious.
Cypress went through several owners and feeble comebacks until 2010 when Merlin Entertainments bought it.
Their plan: the fifth LEGOLAND, based of course on the beloved construction toys. Worldwide, there are five of them.
You already know about Disney.
Disney has grown into the Goliath to tiny LEGOLAND.
Disney is the size of a large city. Its 40 square miles is the size of all of San Francisco. It has 25,000 acres of land. Its 60,000 cast members make it the largest single site employer in the US. It has 27 themed resort hotels, nine non-Disney hotels, etc.
For those who have not been here, LEGOLAND is not that different from Disney or Universal. It is much smaller, of course. It only covers 150 acres.
While Disney gets 20 million visitors a year, an estimated two million or one tenth of that get all the way to smaller Winter Haven.
Smallest theme park competes with biggest
CNNviewed its opening this way:
“Fifty miles south of Disney World is Orlando's smallest theme park: Legoland Florida. Despite its stature, the new kid on the block has grand ambitions.”
The article quoted Legoland officials:
"You're hardly an entertainment company without having some kind of presence in central Florida," notes General Manager Adrian Jones. He added:
"The Lego brand is huge...it has the ability to cut through the big parks in Orlando."
The story continues: Jones hopes to capitalize on the classic toy's appeal to young children.
"The heart of Lego is around five- to eight-year-old boys," he says, adding that Legoland doesn't need to poach visitors from rival parks, as the theme park industry keeps growing. “And so, too, is Legoland,” CNN said.
Soon after its opening, Forbes Magazine said a highlight of the park itself is Miniland, USA, which features reproductions of American landmarks such as the White House and the New York City skyline.
By pressing a button, you can do things like make the monkeys hop in Central Park. The park also has a safari trek, with life-sized giraffes, zebras and lions all built from Lego bricks, and a Lego factory tour.
More than Legos
“But there’s more than just Lego gawking to be done at Legoland,” Forbes writes.
The park also has 50 rides (including three roller coasters) and a “clubhouse” where kids can take tips from Lego Master Model Builders.
There’s also a Lego Driving School where kids test their skills on simulated city streets. And robots where you can build your own programs.
“Yes, these are adults who play with Legos all day,” the story adds.
LEGOLAND advertises that it was built for families but also for kids ages 2-12. But it is like Disney World and any other theme park in that it has more then rides, though it only has those 50 (including shows and attractions).
Adults also welcome
But like Disney, it also has a water park (though it is only five acres). And it has hotel rooms, though only a single, 152-room property on site (it does have its own LEGO theme with a view of Lake Eloise, apparently named after some former famous water skier).
Hotel guests get some of the same privileges as Disney or Universal guests: early park entrance, for example. As well as other amenities such as fountains, pools, and splash pads.
The hotel has an enormous fire pit and offers a S’more package for families to roast more than marshmallows. Also discounts for guests
There are also roller coasters such as the Jungle Coaster ride and even a Test Track, ala Epcot. A wooden rollercoaster is called the Okeechobee Rampage family coaster and there’s Swamp Thing, an inverted version of a coaster.
Disney may be adding its very own Star War Land but LEGOLAND has its own version: made of bricks, of course. There’s a life-sized Darth Vader made of 1.5 million bricks.
No surprise that LEGOS are everywhere. LEGO guys all over such as a LEGO Knight or Captain Brickbeard.
LEGOLAND in common with other parks also has educational programs such as master builder sessions.
And just as guests trade pins at Disney, visitors at LEGOLAND trade blocks. Guests can watch LEGO movies and take part in treasure hunts. And sure, there are souvenirs on sale.
Like Disney but different too
LEGOLAND is also different from other parks in many ways, including the fact it is not always open during expected hours. They change during certain periods.
For nostalgia, there’s even old botanical gardens (thanks to Cypress Garden efforts).
Here’s a half dozen tips for visiting LEGOLAND:
Costs are less than Disney
Another point we should make is that LEGOLAND has some advantages over Disney and other parks:
---It is more affordable, money-wise. It is very difficult to be specific over costs because as you know, even ticket prices vary according to days and other factors.
But one estimate is that a family of four can do LEGOLAND for less than $500, perhaps less than $400. One comparison at Disney sets that figure at a more common number of over $1,000 (again, this can vary according to many factors).
Also, ticket prices are invariably kept under Disney’s lead in adding price increases. This is a deliberate act for the park to be more competitive.
---Lines are invariably shorter.
---It’s much easier to get around. Walking times and efforts are minimized.
---The food offerings are often better. They are certainly not up to the higher standards of Disney’s upscale restaurants. But overall, it can be healthier.
Try the Apple Fries, please
For example, the park’s own signature dish is not turkey legs but Apple Fries (made from Granny’s Apples with cinnamon). There are also baked potato chips. You are allowed to bring in food and drinks. And lockers in the front of the park let you store food as well.
If you want to plan ahead, the year will bring more fireworks and a lot of other events.
With only one exception, the Brick Dash 5K Run and Fun Walk in April, all events are included with park admission at no added charges.
We’ll list list a few of them here for your early planning (more information can be found at LEGOLAND.com or http://Florida.LEGOLAND.com/planning-your-visit/park-hours/ for complete dates, etc.
The Lego Movie 4D, A New Adventure where the last film left off. It premieres here Jan. 29.
The new story was created for the park and that is the subject matter as Emmet, Unikitty, Benny and other characters open their own park. The 12-minute movie will play several times a day in the Wells Fargo Fun Town Theatre. Expect wind, water and fog from 4D effects.
More coming attractions
Beginning Feb. 5, there is also a 4D movie every weekend with meet-and-greet characters (some never seen before).
A nightly fireworks display is also set to start in early February.
Can’t wait for warmer weather for the water park? Mark your calendars for March 12, when the new season begins. . LEGOLAND Water Park will be open on select dates March 12 through October, with daily operation in June, July and August.
The Brick Dash 5K Fun Run and Walk is more than a race: also a charitable fundraiser. Set for April 16. Open to all ages. Registration is required. And there’s a small fee.
Night Lights is the new attraction to celebrate summer from June 18 to July 31. Kids (and adults) can stay up past their normal bedtimes to see Lego light displays and high energy dance parties. July 4 brings a special patriotic show.
Even Star Wars
Star Wars. Yes, here too. Sept. 10 and 11 brings Lego Club Weekends with the force explaining tricks of the trade for model builders enthralled with the force. A chance to build a Star Wars set and other out-of-this world model activities.
October brings “Brick or Treat” with Halloween activities. “Friendly frightening” is the theme with scavenger hunts and more.
Later in the month, there’s Firefighters Fridays. Educational activities on Fridays with real-life firefighters demonstrating their work.
October 15 is the celebration of the park’s fifth birthday with celebrations of the hotel and other new additions, as well as some surprises.
Christmas Bricktacular is you-know-what with some dates in December. A life-size Lego Santa and reindeer, among other prizes and chances to build many models. That is followed by another New Year’s Eve celebration with dance parties for the older set as well as younger visitors.
Something to keep in mind with LEGOLAND.
Setting a foothold or competing with giants can be tough, but to continue its popularity, LEGOLAND officials have shown they know that in the theme park industry, there have to always be new initiatives. Because in this business, there are no easy rides.
So expect to keep hearing more from them. ###