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A look behind the bricks of the new Legoland theme park

Aside from being the world's most painful toy to step on in the middle of the night, Legos are ingenious in both their simplicity and in the creativity they inspire. We took a spin though the new 150-acre Legoland Florida theme park in Winter Haven, opening to the public on Saturday, to see how it all clicked, and we've snapped together bits of information on what's at the park and how you can best build a visit.

Little Florida

The heart of the park is Miniland USA, with 3- to 6-foot skyscrapers replicating numerous cities, and plenty to interest Tampa Bay residents in the Florida section.

Notice the streets of the mini Ybor City, populated with Lego punks in Mohawks, shoppers bearing packages and windows stocked with wares. Part of the downtown Tampa skyline, including the "beer can" building, is there, too, along with the Glazer Children's Museum. There's even the Tampa Theatre with moviegoers in line to get tickets. You'll also recognize Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. But c'mon, where's the Sunshine Skyway bridge?

The Daytona Speedway replica has cars that really race around the track as the scoring pylon flashes the time and laps, just like the real thing. Visitors on the sidewalk should get out their binoculars to fully appreciate the level of detail of the Lego people in the grandstands, right down to the vendors selling hot dogs.

The Cape Canaveral replica has a countdown clock, just like NASA. Every 10 minutes, the clock counts down to blastoff and smoke comes out of the space shuttle like it's readying for takeoff.

The Florida replicas are laid out in roughly the same geographic pattern as the state, with Key West, South Beach and the Everglades on one end, and Panama City's sugar-white beaches at the other.

New York to Las Vegas

Allow some time to appreciate the rest of Miniland's many street scenes. In New York tiny jets of water shoot up from the fountain in Rockefeller Plaza, and there are little Lego break-dancers and a Broadway sign promoting The Sound of Plastic. Over at the White House, the Lego Obama family, including Bo the dog, stands on the steps. The Obama outfits are based on their Inauguration Day wardrobe. Also represented is Las Vegas.

Check out . . .

The Dragon, an indoor-outdoor steel roller coaster, is the signature new feature with a funny behind-the-scenes view of life within the enchanted Legoland Castle.

The Aqua Zone Wave Racer is a JetSki-like ride in the water, but kids on land have a part, too. They can shoot their little brothers on the ride using multiple water cannons.

The Boating School ride puts kids in a slow-moving boat that, in a very un-Disney fashion, isn't on a track. The kids are free to steer through the river maze. Asked if they were concerned about 9-year-olds at the wheel, Bill Vollbrecht, the senior project designer for the park, shrugged. "We don't want to limit what children can do around here." (Minimum rider height is 34 inches; riders less than 48 inches must be accompanied by a responsible rider.)

Over at the Ford Driving School, kids ages 6 to 13 must first sit through a video on road safety and then they get to take over a car — again without limits on where they steer it. If they drive safely, they get a driver's license that allows them to skip the video on future visits. (There's also a junior version for ages 3 to 5.)

The Coastersaurus is a repurposed wooden roller coaster left over from Cypress Gardens. It stands out among the sea of plastic, and it is the only wooden coaster among Lego's five theme parks around the globe.

On the Safari Trek ride, kids will cruise past Lego elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes and lions. Not only are they stunning models, they also move and squirt water.

Kids are armed with laser guns to shoot at mummies and other targets in the Egyptian tomb-themed dark ride, Lost Kingdom Adventure.

Look for the giant Einstein head to find the Imagination Zone, a hands-on play area with loads of Lego bricks where kids can create cars or robots and run them on a test track.

Ghosts of Cypress Gardens

In a shout-out to Cypress Gardens, there's a life-sized Southern belle in a hoop skirt. Unlike the wandering models who strolled the park back in the day, this belle is made from 62,000 Lego bricks.

"We are really proud of bringing back the historic beauty of Cypress Gardens," said marketing manager Jill Swidler, the model for the Lego Southern belle.

A dress from the Cypress Gardens archives fit Swidler, so she wore it as designers took 3-D pictures to lay the groundwork for the piece. Everything but the head was made in California and shipped to the park. The head was specially made by a Lego artist in Florida and is a wonder to behold.

In another shout-out to the old Cypress Gardens, whose lush Polk County grounds were remade into Legoland, there are water ski shows, complete with a 43-foot pirate ship built to look like it's made of Legos. Beware: There's a splash zone in the first few rows from the ship's cannons. Kids also can shoot three water cannons at the ship, commanded by "Capt. Brickbeard."

For the water ski show, Lego characters come out on water skis and "Miss Miranda" does a routine that reminds us a bit of the iconic Go-Go's video.

Insider tips

• Go online at florida.legoland.com and sign up for robotics classes, which begin in November. Book them before you go, because they fill up quickly. The prices change with the season, but expect to pay $5 to $8 per class.

• Be mindful that this park is aimed at 2- to 12-year-olds. Teenagers might be bored by midday since most of the rides are aimed at the little tykes. Of course, Legos are timeless for legions of adults, who continue to build as a hobby.

• To plan your visit, the park's designer recommends that after you walk in the main entrance, you make a right into the Duplo play area, where there are climbing zones and playgrounds, and work your way counterclockwise around the park. Allow the most time for Miniland.

If you go

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. In the busy tourists months around the holidays and in summer, hours will be extended later in the evening, to 8 o'clock at the latest.

Directions: From Tampa, take Interstate 4 east to Exit 27 (Polk County Parkway). Take Exit 14 Winter Haven (second toll booth) at State Road 540 and travel 8 miles to U.S. 17 N. Take U.S. 17 N 2 miles over the bridge to Cypress Gardens Boulevard and turn right. Go about 5 miles, and Legoland Way will be on your right.

Deals: If you order online today or Friday, it's $65 for adults, $55 for kids ages 3-12. But as of opening day Saturday, they go up to $75 and $65. A Florida resident annual pass is $129 for adults, $99 for kids. A Plus Pass for $159 gets entry for 12 months, free parking (normally $12) and discounts. A Senior Garden Pass is $60 for weekday admission and parking. Specially marked Pepsi cans have coupons for a free child's ticket with one adult.

Contact: Call toll-free 1-877-350-5346 or visit florida.legoland.com.

CORRECTION: An AAA coupon offer for child's admission expired Sept. 30. Previous editions of this story appearing in print and online incorrectly stated its availability.

BY THE NUMBERS

50 MILLION: Number of Lego bricks used to make the park's models.

50: Family rides, shows and interactive attractions.

4: "Pink-knuckle" roller coasters.

3: Life-sized elephants, made of Legos, of course.

62: If divided equally, there would be 62 Lego bricks for every man, woman and child on Earth, according to LEGO: A Love Story by master model builder Jonathan Bender.

A look behind the bricks of the new Legoland theme park 10/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 13, 2011 3:41pm]

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