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Building blocks of child's play

Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is Denmark's most popular tourist attraction, but a monument to a plastic block is second. About 1-million people a year visit Legoland, an extraordinary entertainment center featuring huge objects built out of Lego blocks (up to 1.5-million blocks per construction), great rides and a miniature castle that took 15 years to complete.

Leg godt is Danish for "play well." Dane Ole Kirk Christiansen created the multicolored, interlocking playthings, and once said: "The world of the child is as infinite as its imagination. Give free reins to its creativity, and they will build a world richer and more imaginative than any adult can conceive."

His first blocks were made of wood. But in 1947, Denmark's first injection-molding machinery for toy production was installed in Christiansen's little village of Billund (about 150 miles southwest of Copenhagen). The concept of the "LEGO system of Play" was developed by his son, Godfried Kirk Christiansen, who, as a 12-year-old, became a part-time apprentice in his father's workshops.

Legos, for those not in the parenting or grandparenting business, are small, brightly colored, plastic, snap-together building toys that are marketed in more than 110 countries.

The Lego System A-S is the biggest toy manufacturer in Europe; wholesale revenues exceeded $500-million in 1989. There are now about 1,300 different Lego parts available in one or more colors.

In Denmark, where the plastic brick as it exists today was patented in 1958, they are a national obsession of sorts. Sets of them, available for public use free of charge, are everywhere: in banks, in hotels, in restaurants, on ferries, in airports.

There is at least one Lego-emblazoned postage stamp in Denmark. And, according to the company, Lego products are found in 90 percent of Danish households with children under age 15.

Lego products are found in 90 percent of Danish households with children under age 15.

a town with a regional population of about 7,000 people, 1,250 of whom are Lego employees _ that percentage undoubtedly is higher.

To be sure, Legoland, which first opened in 1968, is to the manufacturer what Disneyland and Disney World are to Walt Disney Productions: a publicity lightning rod and a commercial flagship. However, Legoland is more reasonably priced and infinitely cozier than the Disney complexes.

The 1,000-acre Legoland is part amusement park, with rides, restaurants and other attractions, and part architect's dream, with charmingly detailed and amazingly automated miniature exhibits depicting scenes from around the world.

It is the miniature scenes _ generally built at 1:20 scale and composed mostly of Lego bricks _ that distinguish it from other theme parks.

Among the most impressive of these scenes were two separate models, one of the port of Copenhagen and the other of the canals of Amsterdam.

In addition to architecturally correct row houses, warehouses, shipyards, model trains, drawbridges and landscaping, these exhibits include working ferries and cargo ships loading, unloading and traversing real water, all automated by electronic computerized remote control.

Among the other impressive offerings:

Sitting Bull towers 45.5 feet tall and contains 1.5-million blocks. A re-created Mount Rushmore took 1.5-million blocks, the Great Bison hunt took 2.7-million, and the Statue of Liberty took 1.25-million.

here is a Lego safari display with life-sized elephants, lions, tigers and monkeys.

An automated Scandinavian airport _ complete with planes taxiing down the runways _ is based on those in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Goteborg, Sweden.

Miniature rural scenes from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway's fiords and West Germany's Rhine River valley.

Denmark's first monorail, traveling 10 feet above ground over the traffic school and playtown.

Wild West country, with horses, an old-fashioned store, sheriff, panning for gold, Native American women who bake bread over a campfire, a mining train and a horse-go-round.

Titania's Palace, which took 15 years to assemble, may be the world's most impressive and expensive miniature palace.

It has more than 3,000 pieces, a large number of which are fashioned from real gold, silver and precious stones.

Nearby is an outstanding collection of more than 500 antique dolls and doll houses dating to the year 1580.

There is also a toy collection of more than 1,200 items, the majority of which are mechanical tin toys dating back to the year 1825.

Puppets, band and parades compete with four large "sandboxes" filled with Lego blocks for those in a building mood. There are daily building competitions with prizes for the winning children.

And, of course, there are rides. Not abrupt roller coasters, but in the main gentle rides that seem to fit into the nurturing Lego philosophy: a mini-boat ride that cruises past replicas of an Egyptian temple and the Acropolis; a tame helicopter ride; a train ride through the park; a ride to the top of an observation tower overlooking the park and Billund; mini-cars that are more like real cars than bumper cars and encourage responsibility, not recklessness, behind the wheel. A good young driver can even earn a Legoland driver's license.

One full day is plenty of time to see the whole park, and a family of four could do it for between $75 and $100, including a Danish lunch or dinner.

"We try to be a family park, giving pleasure and fun to children," said Knud Hedegard, the park's managing director.

"Our intention, our experience, is that people will spend four to five hours in Legoland."


How to get there: Legoland Park is approximately 150 miles from Copenhagen and 170 miles from Hamburg, Germany. There are flights to the airport at Billund, bus tours leave daily from Copenhagen, and there is a fine network of railroads and highways leading to the park. The drive takes about four hours.

One word of caution to those traveling by car: Make an advance reservation for your car on the ferry between Halsskov and Nyborg; failure to do so could result in a long wait in a long line on E66.

Tours leave from Copenhagen via PaaskeTours, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 8:15 a.m. to 9 p.m. Adults pay $40; children under 13, $20. Two-day weekend, including overnight stay: adults, $106; children, $53.

Daily admission is about $5.50 for adults and $2.80 for children; the park is open May 1 _ mid-September from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. There is an extensive range of restaurants at reasonable prices.

Where to stay: There are at least five hotels in Billund proper: Hotel Gasterhof, Billund Kro, Hotel Propellen, Hotel Vis-a-Vis and Motel Svanen. Rates range from $60 to $100 per night for a double with private shower and toilet. Most include a Danish breakfast.

The Vis-a-Vis, which is the most expensive of the five, is adjacent to Legoland. The others are a long walk from the park. There are at least two campgrounds nearby, one in Billund proper a short walk from the park and one in Vorbasse, about nine miles to the south.

Adjacent to Billund is the new Vejle Center Hotel.

Lego products are available at an outlet store on the grounds, including many not available in the United States. Prices, however, run about the same as they do here, thanks mostly to Denmark's 22 percent value-added tax. Foreigners spending more than 600 Danish kroner (about $90) on goods to be taken out of Denmark are entitled to refund of the VAT. Ask a store attendant for the proper forms and procedures.

Information: For more information contact:

Legoland Park, DK-7190, Billund, Denmark.

Billund Turisbureau, DK-7190, Billund, Denmark.

The Danish Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., 18th floor, New York, NY 10017, (212) 949-2333.