Legoland comes to Florida

For nearly 20 years, the people behind Legoland parks have longed to have a presence in Central Florida.

“Central Florida is a Mecca for theme parks. Since Disney World opened in 1971, if you have a credible theme park brand, you have to be there,” said Adrian Jones, a Legoland executive.

In 1992, when the only Legoland was the original in Billund, Denmark, the Lego company searched in and around Orlando for a spot to build a park with Lego-themed rides aimed at children age 2 to 12, but didn’t find a site that suited it. Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened. Lego built three more parks, in England, Southern California and Germany. And during it all, said Jones, Orlando “was always on our radar.”

Then nearly five years ago, Legoland’s operators — by then under new ownership, although still with ties to Lego — learned that the owners of the struggling Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven were looking to sell.

With its lakefront setting and botanical gardens, “it was probably the most beautiful site we’ve ever looked at,” said John Ussher, director of development for Legoland. The company liked the location, midway between Orlando and Tampa. And because the property already had the right zoning and infrastructure, the usual process of buying land, getting permits and building a theme park could be cut by at least five years. They paid almost $25 million for the business, including the property.

Legoland Florida will open Saturday on the old Cypress Gardens property, about 40 miles from that theme park Mecca. But will its proximity to Orlando prove to be an asset or a liability? Will Legoland be able to share in the wealth of visitors who come to the big parks? Or will its size, limited hours, and 40-mile drive discourage families?

Legoland executives say they are counting on the affection that grown-ups and kids alike have for Lego toys, Floridians’ sentimental attachment to the botanical gardens, and the attraction of a park designed just for kids age 2 to 12. They anticipate the park will draw 1.5 million to two million visitors a year, in the same general range as the other Legoland parks.

By contrast, Orlando’s seven big parks — Disney’s four, Universal’s two and SeaWorld — drew a combined total of about 64 million visitors last year, according to The Global Attractions Attendance Report by the Themed Entertainment Association. The parks do not make their own numbers public.

The new Legoland will have a few of the old Cypress Gardens attractions: the water-ski show on Lake Eloise (but with a new pirate theme), the towering Island in the Sky (a 153-foot-tall rotating observation tower), two roller coasters that have been modified to suit younger riders, and the botanic gardens that were the mainstay of the park since it opened in 1936. The old park’s signature Southern Belles will be represented by Lego models.

But most of the rest of Cypress Gardens has been razed, every square foot of paving replaced. Most of the 50 or so attractions are brand new, incorporating 50 million Lego bricks, and include several places where children can play with — and buy — Lego toys . The rides and attractions are geared toward younger kids — “pink knuckle” rides Legoland calls them, that will thrill but not terrify youngsters.

A few rides, such as Driving School, where youngsters ride alone, are child-sized, but most are large enough for adults, too. Legoland parks do not want to attract teenagers and don’t have attractions designed for older kids.

Admission will be cheaper than the big parks, but the hours will be shorter. Tickets will cost $75 ($65 for ages 3-12 and over 60), $10 less than Disney and Universal for a one-day, one-park ticket. Annual passes cost $129 for adults, $99 for kids. There are no Florida resident discounts. For about half the year, the park will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, and closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It will be open seven days a week and later in the evening in summer, holiday weeks and about six weeks at spring break time.

Legoland’s parent company, Merlin Entertainments Group, is also getting a foothold in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive. Unicorp National Developments has submitted plans to build a $100 million tourist complex featuring Madame Tussauds wax museum, a Sea Life Aquarium and the Orlando Eye, a 425-foot-high observation wheel similar to the London Eye, on the site of the former Mercado shopping and dining complex. Those attractions are tentatively scheduled to open in 2013.

With the two projects, Merlin — relatively unknown in the United States — hopes finally to become a player in Theme Park Central and plans cross promotions with its other parks.Polk County, which lost its main tourist draw and hundreds of jobs when Cypress Gardens closed, is counting on it. But the failure of Cypress Gardens and other parks demonstrates that mere proximity to Orlando isn’t enough to sustain a park.

Cypress Gardens, which Dick and Julie Pope opened in 1936, was sold by the Pope family in 1985 and changed hands several times afterward. New owners added roller coasters, carnival-style rides and a water park and renamed it Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in hopes of boosting attendance, but it went into bankruptcy and later closed for good in 2009.

Splendid China, a showcase for replicas of Chinese landmarks that was indirectly owned by the Chinese government, closed in 2003 after 10 years of operation. It was hurt by complaints of poor maintenance and the tourism downturn after 9/11. By the time if closed, the number of daily visitors could be counted in the dozens.

Merlin’s deep pockets — the company reported revenues of $1.249 billion in 2010 — will make a difference. Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme park management at the University of Central Florida, said Legoland doesn’t have to make a profit to survive the first three to five years .

Despite the overall size of Merlin Entertainments, there’s an element of David vs. Goliath in the battle for park visitors. Magic Kingdom alone drew almost 17 million guests last year, roughly 10 times what Legoland expects. SeaWorld, the smallest of the major Orlando parks, drew 5.1 million. Even Busch Gardens, off by itself in Tampa, drew 4.2 million. In comparison, 1.5 million to two million visitors are a modest expectation.

“I just can’t see it being a success. I can’t see it drawing people away from Orlando,” said Julie Neal, coauthor of the guidebook, The Complete Walt Disney World 2011. “Between the Disney parks and [Universal’s] Harry Potter, there are tons and tons of things for kids just that age. It’s just not different or special enough to pull people away. And it’s going to be up against [Magic Kingdom’s] new Fantasyland, which is opening next year.”

Dickson sees more potential for Legoland to succeed than Neal does, but he also sees barriers. “They’re only going to operate five days a week, and that concerns me. Their hours are more limited. I think their price point is a little high — for 10 am to 5 p.m., it seems a little steep. And I’m concerned about getting the guests there.

“The guest is going to have to make a decision not to go someplace else. I think the smaller attractions will feel it. I don’t think the big guys will feel a major blow. It certainly won’t have the effect of increasing the attendance in Orlando that [Universal’s] Wizarding World of Harry Potter did. If I’m here, I’ll go to Legoland, but I won’t go to Orlando just to go to Legoland.”

However, the park will benefit from its association with a hugely popular toy, he said.

“Anybody who grew up with Lego bricks is going to find something there. It’s a fun environment, and they do some really, really interesting things. Their engineers are really creative,” he said. “If I had 6- or 7- or 8-year-olds, I would probably drag them down there even if they weren’t interested in Legos.

“I’m hoping it does very well. It’s a great concept. It’s a great park,” Dickson said. “It’s a different niche than Disney, Universal, SeaWorld.”

Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com, has visited all the Legoland parks and finds that they have their own charms. For one, he said, kids love Miniland, the scenes — miniature New York, Las Vegas, Star Wars — built with millions of Lego bricks and parts that move when a spectator pushes a button. “My daughter is 5. She will play in Miniland for hours. When she was 2, she would play in Duplo Land for hours. We had to pull her away.

“The biggest challenge will be getting people out to the park. The park itself will be great, but will people drive down U.S. 27 to get to the park? That’s going to be the biggest challenge. If they can overcome that, I think that will be awesome.”

Jones, the new park’s general manager, said the park schedule will be adjusted if there is demand for longer hours or more weekdays. And there will be a shuttle to take guests from Orlando to Legoland, although it will make only one round trip a day, leaving Orlando at 9 a.m. and returning after Legoland closes.

Although some parents have pushed for the parks to add rides for teenagers, Legoland executives are adamant about sticking to the 2-12 age demographic, saying that extending it would dilute their mission. “Beyond the age of 12, we say ‘go visit some of the big thrill coasters’ ” at other parks, Jones said.

He expects many families making multi-day visits to Orlando will put Legoland on their itinerary. And Legoland will draw some visitors who otherwise wouldn’t have come to Central Florida, he said.

“People do multiple theme parks,” he said. “Will we affect Walt Disney World? Probably not. People want to see Disney. Will they go to Universal? If they have young children, they’ll probably come to Legoland.

“This is probably about us bringing more tourists to Central Florida,” Jones said. “It’s more about we offer a choice. Historically, when there is a new theme park, you see growth in the number of visitors coming to Central Florida.”

Mark Jackson, director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, said Legoland’s marketing strategy will start with people within a two-hour drive of the park and spread from there: the rest of the state, the southeast, North America and finally, international travelers.

Polk County has a big stake in the success of Legoland. Eager for the Cypress Gardens property to reopen, county commissioners agreed to pay Legoland an incentive of up to $500,000 a year for 10 years from tourist taxes.

The payoff is in jobs. The park will have 1,000 employees, about 700 of them permanent, 300 part-time or seasonal, with an annual payroll of $15.2 million. An economic analysis by Gordon Kettle, professor of economics at Polk State College, projects that overall, the park will generate $435.6 million and 6,357 other jobs in Winter Haven and surrounding communities.

“It’s not just people paying attendance at the park,” Kettle said. “A much bigger impact will be that those people will stay at our hotels, they’ll eat at our restaurants, we hope they’ll shop at our stores.”

Jackson expects that many of the storefront vacancies along Cypress Gardens Boulevard near the park will fill with new businesses that will cater to Legoland guests, and that the economic benefits will spread, creating jobs in food and beverage, retail, accounting, legal, construction services and other sectors.

Even before the park opens, the county is seeing results, Jackson said. At least partly in anticipation of Legoland’s opening, Direct Air, a small Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based airline, in June added eight flights a week out of nearby Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, which had not had commercial flights since the late 1980s. The flights are to Myrtle Beach, Hagerstown, Md., Springfield, Il., and Buffalo-Niagara. The airline will add flights to Plattsburgh, N.Y, and San Juan in November.