WINTER HAVEN — Nick Varney is chief executive officer of Merlin Entertainments Group, a British conglomerate valued at a reported $3.67 billion.
It owns or operates more than 70 entertainment venues, including theme parks and aquariums, and a few hotels, on four continents. Prominent among the businesses are the Madame Tussaud's brand, the iconic London Eye, and rising now in Winter Haven, the fifth Legoland park in the world.
It is building at the site of the defunct Cypress Gardens park, which real estate documents show Merlin purchased for at least $22.3 million.
About 1,000 workers are still constructing the park — both with real bulldozers and a reported 50 million of the trademark little plastic bricks. The park opens Oct. 10 to those holding season passes, and Oct. 15 to everyone else.
The St. Petersburg Times interviewed Varney, who has a marketing background and a disdain for neckties, during his brief stop at Legoland last week, before he jetted off to Dallas.
What made you want to develop a park in this part of Florida?
Florida is the biggest family tourism market on the planet, (with) a resident market that has the highest propensity for theme parks in the world. … (Florida's success) is still the benchmark by which people evaluate theme parks and their resorts.
The opportunity that presented itself in Winter Haven was too good to refuse. We walked around what was then Cypress Gardens. The hairs on the back on my neck stood up.
You could see the potential of putting a Legoland in a fantastic location, with infrastructure and new rides, and a bit of a heritage with the botanical gardens.
It would not only make it the biggest Legoland park but also the most beautiful theme park in the world.
Does it concern you that you're maybe an hour's drive from the Orlando and Tampa population centers?
From our research, well over 80 percent of the (theme park) tourists park cars there, and so they are mobile. We knew they are comfortable driving for an hour because they also go to Tampa and they go to (the Visitors Center at) Cape Canaveral.
You could do without so many traffic lights as you come down the road to Winter Haven (from Interstate 4), but I don't think it is that big an encumbrance.
And when all is said and done, it probably would have meant us spending an awful lot more money if we had a central Orlando site for the park.
What were the advantages to buying an existing theme park?
We looked in the obvious places — around Orlando, a little bit around Tampa. And we knew if we were in central Orlando, we would have more visitors. We made some tradeoffs to move here, but we would not have had as special a park.
My project managers will moan and b----- about all they have had to accommodate to create the park (atop the Cypress Gardens footprint). But it takes time and money to build something this size.
You could spend three to four years just getting the permits, taking care of environmental and wildlife matters, getting permits for car parking, developing the road access, finding a supportive community. (Polk County is providing $500,000 in incentives a year for 10 years.)
It could have taken seven years, if we started from scratch, to create the park. Instead, it has taken us two years.
And it would have been a half-billion dollars (from land purchase through completion of construction). We have not spent that much, though I'm not going to tell you what we did spend.
And besides saving time and money, we have the atmosphere here — we are on the edge of a lake, we have all of those iconic trees (the company says it dug up and later replanted about 600 trees) and landscaping. I'm tremendously proud that we can offer the heritage and natural beauty of Cypress Gardens.
You have been able to repurpose some Cypress Gardens structures and have even "calmed down'' the thrills of a couple of the roller coasters to better suit your target demographic of 2- to 12-year-olds. Were there any significant surprises in the renovation process?
Finding alligators about the property was a surprise. We had a large one wander into our offices once.
And the heat has been difficult for the workers.
But we know that when you peel back the fascia from an old building or dig up a pipe, that you may find things you didn't expect. So you allow for that in your contingency plans.
We have a very precious reputation for bringing things in on budget, part of the expertise of our company.
What more do you plan for the property?
We will be able to open the water park (the existing Splash Island). I can't say how soon, just "Watch this space.'' And we will have a Lego-themed hotel.
Former St. Petersburg Times staffer Robert N. Jenkins is now a freelance writer. His website is bobjenkinswrites.com.