WINTER HAVEN — After steering her own little trackless car, piloting a small motorboat and maneuvering a wave runner through churning water, Jaime Paulio declared that Legoland was "better than Disney."
"Here you're doing really cool things on the rides," said the 10-year-old from Winter Haven, "not just sitting on them.''
It was music to the ears of park creators who today officially open their theme park for families with kids ages two through 12 on the site of the ill-fated Cypress Gardens.
"Most theme parks are about passive attractions," said Nick Varney, chief executive of Merlin Entertainments Group. "We bring a new dimension of engagement and interaction to the market."
With annual pass sales and group bookings exceeding expectations, Varney announced Thursday that a new and improved water park will reopen in May. It will feature build-your-own rafts fashioned from oversized Duplo blocks. He also said that Legoland plans to open its own themed resort hotel within a few years.
What did you expect from this state-of-the-art children's science center and play area on steroids that spreads 50 rides over 125 acres? Legoland is a place where people who don't want to get spritzed watch for wet pavement on the sidewalk.
Attractions brim with push-button canons that shoot water, lasers, smoke, foam and plastic balls. In the firehouse show, kids help move fire trucks into position, pump up the hydrants and spray hoses to douse the flames.
Of course, there are face painting ($10 to $15), family pictures ($20 and up), caricature artists ($20) and framed artwork based on your child's handprint ($15). The Lego store sells everything from $2.99 Mini Mystery Figures to a $39.95 Star Wars Star Destroyer kit with 10,221 pieces.
The centerpiece is Miniland, an acre of iconic buildings and novel street scenes ingeniously crafted from Lego bricks. Remote control vehicles get directions to start and stop from a wire buried in the pavement. The blocks may be the same ones sold in stores. But they are glued together, then sprayed with UV protection to help them last for 15 to 20 years.
The reopening of a failed theme park that first put Winter Haven's small tourist industry on the map 75 years ago has been met with enthusiasm but a reticent reserve.
After all, Merlin, which bought the place for $25 million and poured more than $100 million into a total overhaul, is the seventh owner to try making a go of Cypress Gardens since the founding Pope family sold it in 1985.
"There is a lot of excitement in the business community, but a certain amount of 'let's wait and see,' '' said Bob Gernert, executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. "But we are hearing far more buzz about Legoland from around the country than the last time Cypress Gardens was reopened."
"We're really hoping and praying it works this time," said Carol Ann Stewart, general manager of a nearby Denny's.
Experts think Merlin, armed with one of the world's most powerful kid brands, kept such a lid on expenses that it has a good chance of pulling it off.
"Merlin really did their homework and provided an A-plus product," said Dennis Spiegel, an industry consultant. "But their investment is a fraction of the much bigger theme parks, so it's a very manageable risk."
First-year attendance expectations are around 1.5 million, about 500,000 fewer than the highly profitable Legoland park in California drew in 2010. It's also a fraction of the 4.2 million who visited Busch Gardens in Tampa in 2010.
Because redoing Cypress Gardens cost a third of making a new Legoland from scratch, Merlin can make money from fewer than a million visitors. Trouble is, that's a hurdle most of its predecessors never got over.
Merlin is counting on locals, getting up to a third of its attendance from church and school group field trips sold at deep discounts. The park offers schools approved science and math lab demonstrations in a curriculum created by the nearby college, USF Polytechnic in Lakeland.
The big challenge is tapping the Orlando theme park market, which is a 45-minute drive away. Legoland runs shuttle buses to Orlando hotels and expects to enhance package-ticketing opportunities once Merlin opens a Madame Tussauds, a Sea Life Aquarium and a 425-foot observation wheel in Orlando in 2013 in the hopes of becoming a multiday resort itself like Disney.
There is already friction. Lego is forbidden from selling tickets or posting ads for Legoland at its company-owned Lego store at Downtown Disney. Walt Disney World, in the meantime, is spending more to double the size of Fantasyland than Merlin spent on Legoland to appeal to the same crowd.
In fact, the biggest Florida city conspicuously absent from Miniland is Orlando, although there is room for expansion.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.