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New owners roll out plans for a Legoland on the old Cypress Gardens' site

WINTER HAVEN — Star-crossed Cypress Gardens is getting another makeover.

This time, the park's fifth owner since 1991 will try kids and Lego bricks as saviors rather than more thrill rides or Southern belles in hoopskirts.

Merlin Entertainments Group, which bought the property earlier this year, rolled out its plan Thursday to reopen the theme park as Legoland Florida in late 2011.

With up to 50 new rides, shows and attractions, it will be the biggest of five Legolands worldwide. The park is packaged to entice parents and kids 2 to 12 years old to spend a day immersed in a world that revolves around plastic Lego bricks, one of the world's most popular toys.

The plans include reopening the historic botanical garden that founders Dick and Julie Pope carved out of a cypress swamp in 1936 and fashioned into what was claimed to be Florida's first theme park. The once-famous water ski shows could return in the form of a Lego-themed stunt show, and the park will get its own studio with a full-time staff of Lego model artists. Cypress Gardens' leftover midway thrill rides and one or both of its wooden roller coasters will be sold.

Merlin bought the shuttered park for $22 million and will spend "hundreds of millions of dollars" rebuilding it, said Nick Varney, Merlin's chief executive officer. He discounted doubters who question whether the park can overcome an off-the-beaten-track location 30 minutes southwest of Orlando, the demise of some predecessors. So far Anheuser-Busch Cos., the owner of Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., and a management group headed by a former Walt Disney Co. executive all struck out trying to make Cypress Gardens profitable.

"We're building a destination that ultimately we hope to transform from a day trip into a two or three night stay with our own hotels," he said. "We already have two of the three necessary elements here that drew close to 1 million a year at their peak: a fine water park (which will have a separate admission) and a botanical gardens that took my breath away the first time I saw it."

Hoping to convince "local people their botanical gardens are safe with us," Varney ticked off a list of Merlin theme parks in Europe that are built inside castles up to 1,000 years old or centuries-old gardens.

The Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., has averaged 2 million visitors a year and reported attendance gains four consecutive years through the 2009 recession, despite being an hour south of Disneyland. (Busch Gardens, in comparison, draws 4.4 million a year.)

Varney, who steered Merlin to dramatically step up its U.S. presence, in the Orlando tourist corridor in particular, was drawn to buy an existing park. Building park infrastructure from scratch in Orlando would have cost Merlin $100 million more and consumed five years, twice the time needed to get the Cypress Gardens' property ready to open.

The centerpiece at Legoland Florida will be a town-square-sized hub with detailed, miniature replicas of cities, sites and people like the White House, Mount Rushmore and Abe Lincoln modeled from more than 40 million plastic Lego bricks.

Unlike the $100 million-plus mega-rides common in Orlando theme parks, Legoland buys off-the-shelf midway rides, then heavily rethemes them to create interactive experiences for adults and kids. Legoland classics include a design-your-own car to race against one created by a parent, a kiddie coaster shooting game with laser guns, and a fire truck ride that includes hosing down a smoking building. Kids also are rewarded with an official-looking Legoland driver's license after successfully making their first spin on the Volvo Driving School ride.

Legoland Florida will be priced about the same as Busch Gardens in Tampa. That's about $7 to $10 less than the big three Orlando parks, which currently want $86.29 including tax, though two-thirds of all theme park visitors pay discounted admission. Legoland also offers senior discounts and sells more annual passes than most parks.

State, city and county officials are thrilled Polk County's onetime biggest tourist draw will be back in business.

"It's 1,000 jobs when we really need them," said with a Florida panther fashioned from 6,200 Lego bricks.

A total of $5 million in government incentives helped lure Merlin. For creating jobs, Merlin stands to get $150,000 a year for 10 years. The county committed to $350,000 a year in joint advertising, plus public road improvements at the park entrance that were left undone after previous owners closed the park.

"This is huge for us," said Tom Patton, the county director of economic development and tourism. "We restore a missing leg on the stool that supports our tourist industry. It also puts us on the map in Europe with both a well-known brand and a major European company."

Theresa Collins, sales director for the nearby Best Western Admiral's Inn, believes in making dreams reality through visualization.

"We've heard rumors Legoland was coming for months," she said. "So for Christmas this time I bought several sets of Legos and built my own castle."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

About Merlin Entertainments Group

. Who: Fast-growing British entertainment company with a hand in 60 attractions and theme parks in 13 countries.

. Owner: Controlled by Blackstone Group, a U.S. hedge fund that owns SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment including Busch Gardens and half of Universal Orlando. Minority interests are held by Danish toy maker Lego Group and an investment arm of the government of Dubai.

. Attractions: Four Legolands including one in Carlsbad, Calif., and indoor Lego Discovery Centers in Chicago and Minneapolis. Also five other full-sized theme parks, six hotels, the London Eye Wheel, nine Madame Tussauds attractions, 27 Sea Life aquariums, Warwick Castle in England and four year-round haunted house attractions called the Dungeon.

. Size: Claims to be world's second-largest attractions operator behind Walt Disney Co., with attendance of 38 million in 2008. Annual revenues are about $1.5 billion.

Source: Merlin Entertainments Group

New owners roll out plans for a Legoland on the old Cypress Gardens' site 01/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 1:08pm]
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