Children and parents get a run at the new rides...

Children and parents get a run at the new rides at the Legoland Florida theme park, Central Florida's newest theme park in Winter Haven. (Aug. 28, 2011) Credit: Legoland Florida

The kids are in their glory -- driving pint-size cars around a streetscape, steering real boats through a winding river, building imaginative towers of multicolored bricks.

This is Legoland, Florida's newest theme park, this year's must-go place for the under-10 set. You won't find rides with mind-blowing computer animations or entire villages devoted to popular movie characters. Nor will you see dazzling laser-light shows or spontaneous parades.

Here, innovation takes a different form. There's Miniland, where cities such as Washington, D.C., and Manhattan have been wholly reconstructed out of Legos with painstaking accuracy. At Legoland's Rescue Academy, families work together in fire trucks or police cars to respond to a simulated emergency. Elsewhere, kids are encouraged to touch, climb, experiment, play -- there isn't a lot of sitting and watching. A water park is planned for next summer.

But Legoland isn't a crowd-pleaser. Although officially designed for ages 2-12, spokeswoman Jackie Wallace concedes the park's "sweet spot" is kids ages 6-9. Young teens (and most tweens) will get bored -- fast. The park's location in Winter Haven requires an hour's drive from Orlando or Tampa. And its $65-$75 admission fee also gives some pause.

Last Saturday, Legoland's second weekend in business, a few thousand visitors streamed leisurely through the park's themed neighborhoods, which are spread across 150 acres (Legoland does not release attendance figures). The park seemed busy but not crowded. Wait times for rides rarely topped 20 minutes, although a few attractions had to shut temporarily for technical problems.

Here are some early reviews and impressions.


THE RIDES

HITS Among the park's 20 or so rides, kids raved about the Ford Driving School, an interactive experience for ages 6-13 that starts with a short video on the finer points of good driving etiquette and safety. Then, kids take the wheel in miniature cars to drive freely (but slowly) on two-way streets, maneuvering foot pedals to brake at traffic signals and stop signs, concentrating hard to navigate intersections and a tricky roundabout. Their parents -- the lot of them wielding cameras and smart phones -- coached from the sidelines.

"It's like driving, but for kids," says 8-year-old Christian Lachman, of West Palm Beach, whose family has already opted to buy annual passes that start at $99.

Legoland's four "pink knuckle" roller coasters -- which deliver more chills than intimidating thrills -- were also a hit. The Dragon, a steel coaster in the medieval-themed Lego Kingdoms area, was deemed "pretty awesome" by Sophia Demoya, 9, of West Palm Beach. Her brother Brody, 8, favored Flying School, another steel coaster that suspends riders in a sitting position, legs dangling. "It's fast," Brody says. "It feels like you fly."

MISSES Technical problems. Around 1 p.m., the Test Track coaster in the Lego Technic neighborhood quit working mid-ride, stranding a family of four out on the rails for the better part of 20 minutes (the ride reopened later in the day). Similarly, Island in the Sky, a tall rotating platform that gives riders a 360-degree view of the park, was temporarily stalled due to mechanical problems.


ATTRACTIONS

HIT Miniland. It took 50 million Legos to build the attractions seen in the park, and the vast majority of it is here. Families can wander among the cityscapes of national landmarks and popular U.S. cities a half-dozen times through the day, and the novelty still doesn't wear off. There's a resplendent Manhattan skyline with an Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and oh-so-intricately crafted interior of Grand Central Terminal. The Washington, D.C., area has every landmark you'd expect (including Lego figures modeled after the Obama family on the stoop of the White House) and many you wouldn't. In San Francisco, note the sea lions lounging at Fisherman's Wharf. Equally impressive is the amount of space devoted to recreating Florida destinations such as Ybor City in Tampa, Miami's South Beach, the Kennedy Space Center and Daytona Speedway.

Rachel Lee, 17, a self-described Lego maniac from Jacksonville, Fla., was enthralled with the level of detail that went into constructing the models. "I hate imagining how long it took," she says.

MISS The Lego Factory Tour is touted as a "firsthand" look at how the little bricks are made from scratch, but visitors are simply ushered through a smallish room as a looping audio track narrates a few token stations before spitting the crowd into a retail shopping area. This can't really be how Legos are made.


FOOD

You don't come to Legoland to eat. The park's offerings are mostly bland standard-fare kid stuff -- burgers, hot dogs, ice cream -- but prices are quite fair ($9.50 buys a basic burger, fries and beverage). For something more substantial, you'll have to trek back to the park's entrance for a food court-style market with hot entrees or -- better option -- stand in line at the pizza/pasta buffet with outdoor seating that overlooks Miniland ($10.99 adults, $6.99 kids).

On the must-try list: The park's signature Granny Apple fries ($4.99) are freshly deep-fried apple sticks powered with sugar and cinnamon, served with whipped vanilla cream for dipping.


SHOPPING

As expected, there are ample opportunities to buy all things Lego. The park's marquee Big Store is stocked with basic starter sets up to the heart-stopping 3,152-piece Star Wars Super Star Destroyer that goes for $399.99.

Choosy types can handpick individual Lego pieces -- fat, skinny, translucent, oddly shaped -- from 240 bins lining a long wall (don't fill that bag too much -- it's $35.96 a pound).

Purchases can be held for pickup as you exit the park later.


COST VS. VALUE

Theme parks have never been cheap, particularly if you're bringing the whole family.

Rachel Lee's father, David, says he was "a bit surprised" by Legoland's $75 a person admission fee. He'd come on the spur of the moment, after hard persuasion from Rachel. His son Robby, 14, was amenable to tagging along. "It's $250 for the three of us," says Lee (parking is another $12).

For Ivette Lachman, the cost versus value problem was solved by simply paying a little bit more for annual passes. Legoland, she says, is perfect for families with young children who don't want to spend a full day careening through Orlando's megaparks. Because the park closes at 5 (6 on busier days), "you get to do the park, and you still have time for dinner," Lachman says.

What's more, she appreciates the learning aspect behind many of Legoland's rides and attractions, which encourage building, listening or solving problems. Lachman says, "They get to be creative in ways they never imagined."


GOOD TO KNOW

WORKSHOPS Kids ages 8 and older can sign up for a free 45-minute program called Lego Mindstorms, which involves learning how to program Lego robots to perform certain tasks. Space is limited and slots tend to go quickly, so proceed to the Imagination Zone first if your child is particularly gung-ho about science or computers.

SHUTTLE SERVICE Legoland operates daily shuttle-bus service from Orlando that arrives in time for the park's opening and departs after closing. Round-trip rates are $5 as part of a grand opening special; they'll eventually be $10.

DISCOUNTS For an extra $15, park tickets can be extended to a second day's visit. Specially marked Pepsi cans are currently offering a code for a free child's admission with the purchase of an adult admission. Several budget chain hotels such as the Holiday Inn and Best Western are offering "Bed and Brick" packages that include a room and park admission.


READER TIP

I visited Legoland with my daughter-in-law and 6- and 7-year-old granddaughters on the second day it was open. Not at all crowded, no lines. Highlights were the Ford Driving School where kids got to drive their own cars and obey traffic rules. The mini cities were great -- New York, San Francisco, Vegas, Daytona, Key West. In one area, kids could build their own cars and then race them on tracks.

It's expensive, but we had bought our tickets beforehand and got one free child's admission with each adult ticket. Otherwise, it is overpriced.

SUBMITTED BY Noreen Stackpole, Lake Grove

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