Legoland Florida opens its doors to the public in the crowded theme-park market that is Central Florida on Saturday. Here are a few of the ways, big and small, that the Winter Haven attraction is designed to stand out.
At the park's Rescue Academy, families and other groups can vie in a competition that reminded me of a "Survivor" challenge, but without mud, growling bellies, back-stabbing or immunity idols. Teams crank their way down a straightaway in Lego City emergency vehicles, then pump water from a hydrant into a second-story window. When the "fire" is out, they race back in a return trip in the first vehicles.
It's exhausting, fosters teamwork, is fun to watch — and it's apparently unique.
"It makes a family of four work together for several minutes. … It's almost the ultimate family-bonding experience," says Robert Niles, publisher of the Theme Park Insider website. "I've never seen anything like that, in the same way, at a theme park."
Coastersaurus is the sole wooden coaster among the five Legoland parks worldwide and the only one in Central Florida. It's a repurposed ride — once known as Triple Hurricane — from Cypress Gardens, which operated at the Winter Haven site from 1936 to 2009. Other rides, notably the low-key ones in Duplo Village, are refurbished ones from the Cypress Gardens days.
Legoland also preserved the botanical gardens, restored the Island in the Sky attraction, repurposed and redecorated existing structures and installed a new water-ski show, which features Lego pirates and is a nod to Cypress Gardens' famed productions.
Boys and girls are royalty at Legoland, where they receive grown-up treatment on some attractions. At Ford Driving School, youngsters aged 6 to 13 are able to drive freestyle, without a rail to guide them, inhibited only by 3 mph speed, traffic rules and a pesky roundabout that, as we know, is a real-life obstacle for full-sized Florida drivers. Reward for kids: a Legoland drivers license.
Although adults can fit on some rides, those with long legs will encounter knee-knocking challenges.
Legoland's signature snack is Granny's apple fries, a sugary, cinnamon concoction made from Granny Smith apples and served with a vanilla-cream dipping sauce. There's a store devoted to the sweet-and-sour serving ($4.99) in the Fun Town area. Eat'm while they're hot. You can also buy a whole apple, hold the sweetness, for a buck there.
Food options are spread across the park and include hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken (breaded in "secret recipe coating"), pizza, pasta, Asian fusion dishes, rotisserie chicken and soups plus cappuccino and caffe latte for adult palates.
It's all about the Lego. From the giant dinosaurs at the entrance to the tiny figures atop Legoland name tags, the thousands of models are made from regular Lego bricks that real folks can buy. The centerpiece is Miniland USA, which showcases American skylines made of Lego, including unique-to-Florida scenes such as Daytona International Speedway.
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Where: 1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday, with some exceptions around the holidays
Cost: $75 general, $65 ages 3-11 and 60 and older