LEGOLAND – a huge draw to families with younger kids – arrives in Central Florida in October 2011 if everything goes as planned. The company that owns it, Merlin Entertainments, has a strong track record of success with four existing Legolands in the world and two other ones planned. (“Legoland” will be printed in lower case from now on because all-caps looks funky.)
But even with a strong track record, will Legoland survive in the competitive Central Florida market? The company is taking a huge gamble, investing $100 million in land 45 minutes south of Walt Disney World. It’s taking over Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s oldest parks, with plans to incorporate at least a few elements of its predecessor into the design – a vast botanical garden and ski show.
It’s an interesting combination. The ski show and gardens appeal strongly to older adults, but Legoland considers its core audience to be children age two to 12. It seems like a solid draw for grandparents traveling with their grandkids, but will it entice enough people from Orlando to succeed?
Legoland has released only a few details so far. The original gardens, for example, will not undergo a major change, which pretty much means none of the Cypress trees will be made out of Legos. However Cypress Garden’s famous ski show – it’s signature attraction – will presumably have lots of Legos participating. (Many old Florida postcards feature the ski show and, specifically, a stunt in which colorfully clothed skiers form a pyramid. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of Legos doing the same thing.)
Confirmed Legoland info includes:
• Florida icons built out of Legos. In the California park, the company built famous city sites out of Legos, such as the Golden Gate Bridge. While a decision has not yet been made on which Florida attractions to include – and it’s hard to imagine Lego promoting Disney or even getting copyright permission to recreate Cinderella’s Castle or the Epcot ball – we must assume that there will be at least one enormous alligator built entirely out of Legos.
• About 50 rides and attractions in nine themed lands.
• There will be some overlap between California rides and ones built in Orlando. At the least, Legoland Florida will have a Lego-themed roller coaster, bumper boats, and a laser-gun ride that takes place in the dark.
Why Legoland could succeed
Younger kids still believe in magic, and Legoland takes a childhood toy, puts it on steroids, and brings it to life. For kids who spend hours building up and tearing down Lego buildings at home, Legoland is a dream come true – a must-see if they’ll be in Orlando. It won’t matter if the parents have doubts. They’ll take the kids to shut them up.
Legoland rides mimic those in other parks, but they’re ratcheted down for the younger set. It’s not a section for kids; it’s an entire theme park for kids. While a few rides will have height requirements, the bar is pretty low (literally in this case), and most kids won’t feel as if they’re missing out.
In addition, Legoland’s location in Winter Haven, about 45 minutes south of Walt Disney World, gives it strong community backing and affordable labor. Cypress Gardens had many fans in the area, not to mention a business interest that drew tourists to local hotels and restaurants. Legoland will bring that back. The company also saves on construction costs by using many existing Cypress Gardens buildings.
Why Legoland could fail
Legoland also has challenges, however, not the least of which is the amount of stuff to do near Orlando. You can’t do everything in Orlando in one week – why spend 1.5 hours round-trip in the car to drive somewhere else? In California, Legoland is a success; but the Disney parks and Universal Studios are only a one- or two-day diversion for tourists driving up or down the coast, so it’s easy to slip Legoland into the vacation mix. Winter Haven, while quaint, is not a must-see city on most visitors’ itineraries, and few ever venture farther south than Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Will Legoland’s appeal outweigh the lost opportunities of skipping a day at another Orlando theme park? Maybe, maybe not. Families will decide.
Cypress Gardens failed twice, and the area does not have a strong track record. While it boomed in the early Disney days when only two Orlando theme parks vied for tourist attention, it stumbled as more parks opened. It was sold, closed, bought by employees, closed, rebuilt with bigger rides, and it still failed. Merlin Entertainments clearly thinks it can change that pattern.
The success or failure of Legoland may, in the end, be based on marketing. Disney, Universal, and Sea World already offer ticket packages designed to encourage guests to stay one or two more days in their parks. That works against Legoland. But Merlin Entertainments also owns other businesses, such as Madame Tussauds, which gives it some marketing muscle. And it can appeal directly to its core audience – the kids – on television. Some kind of free bus transportation might make the trip easy and appeal to visitors without rental cars.
In addition, the company could have long-term expansion plans, though nothing has been announced. They could add a full-day water park, a Cartoon Network miniature golf and arcade, or other family-friendly venues. If the company can turn Winter Haven into a full-service, three-day destination for young families, it might not only succeed but also thrive, nipping at the financial heels of Disney and Universal as it does so.
Legoland Florida does not yet have a website. For park info, visit the corporate website at: http://florida.legoland.com.