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Florida's new Legoland park designed just for kids

This is what a theme park built for children looks like: Kids are driving slow one-seater toy cars while their parents watch from the sidelines. They are steering boats, turning water cannons on each other, playing with Lego toys while their parents hold their place in line for a ride. The roller coasters are not too high, not too fast. There are no teens necking in dark corners.

The park is Legoland California, near San Diego.

On Oct. 15, its sister park opened in Winter Haven, about 40 miles from Orlando. It will be the only major park in central Florida designed for ages 2-12.

Legoland is not intended for visitors of all ages; it doesn't have heart-in-your-throat roller coasters or rides with complicated story lines and expensive cutting-edge visuals.

What it does have is statuary and cityscapes built of Lego parts and rides that look like they were.

It has attractions that demand a little more participation by the kids - hoist yourself up a tower with a rope on a pulley; steer a boat that is not on tracks; shoot a stream of water at a fake fire; clamber up a chute made of rope mesh.

It has "pink-knuckle" rides, small coasters just fast enough to give a youngster a thrill but not so scary that the small knuckles gripping a safety bar turn white.

And it has plenty of opportunities to play with - and buy - Lego toys.

"The whole proposition is about bringing the Lego toy to life and creating an interactive world," said Peter Ronchetti, general manager of Legoland California. The park's target age of 2 to 12 "is an age where children use their active imaginations. That is the environment we create for them."

Parks that appeal to teens have roller coasters and discussions about G-forces and inversions, Ronchetti said. "That's not about creativity and engaging the imagination. That's about thrills.

"Here we make the children the heroes. The children get in the car and drive. It's probably the first time the children have taken charge, driven a car, sailed a boat."

Some people argue that Legoland is not alone in targeting kids that age and will have trouble competing with other parks, especially Disney. "Magic Kingdom is really geared for families with kids that age," said Julie Neal, co-author of the guidebook "The Complete Walt Disney World 2011." "Disney's Hollywood Studios has parades with Pixar characters."

Others say Legoland got it just right. "Look at Coastersaurus," said Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com, referring to one of the park's pink-knuckle coasters, which has a top speed around 20 mph. "It's just the perfect amount of thrills for a young kid. You don't want to scare the bejesus out of them. If they're 4 years old, they're going to think they're conquering the biggest thing in the world. They're gonna be there, hands up."

Legoland Florida is the fifth Legoland Park. The first opened in 1968 in Billund, Denmark, home of Lego toys, followed by parks in England, California and Germany. A sixth will open next year in Malaysia, and Merlin Entertainments, the parks' British-based parent company, says it is actively looking for more sites.

Although the parks have different layouts and some different rides and attractions, they have more in common than they do differences, chief among them the orientation toward children.

In focus groups, Ronchetti said, "Some of the parents were very keen for us to extend our range beyond 12 years. The answer is no, we're focused on younger children. We will not extend the age range. It would in a sense dilute the mission if we extend it to older families."

Several parents at Legoland California agreed.

A mom who gave her name only as Christina explained what she likes about Legoland while keeping an eye on her 7-year-old daughter, who was maneuvering a toy car on a miniature street in Driving School: "There is a lot of interactive stuff for children to do, so it keeps them very busy."

At Disneyland, about 60 miles north, she said, "There are a lot of rides that are a little scary, so I would say this is more kid-friendly."

Her comments were echoed by Joe Taricani, whose 7-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were trying their hands at driving.

"Disneyland is overwhelming for them," he said. "They're still not at the age where Disneyland makes sense for us. These parks are more comfortable for this age."

Legoland promotes its parks as being more interactive than other parks, starting with the Lego toys that are available for children to play with at different stations.

In the Imagination Zone, youngsters can build a Lego car, play with a robot hero, or build something from bricks.

"Kids come to Legoland and they say 'I want to build.' So we made a room for them to build in," said Julie Estrada, spokeswoman for the California park.

Legoland Florida was built on the site of the former Cypress Gardens, which closed for good in 2009 - 73 years after it opened. Some elements of Cypress Gardens were restored and incorporated into Legoland, but most of the old park was razed and cleared away down to bare earth - and underground. "We essentially built a new park on an old site, it's 80 percent new," said John Ussher, Legoland's director of development.

Models, statues and other elements are built with 50 million Lego bricks, glued with a specialty polymer to ensure they are reinforced - just in case anyone thinks a piece of, say, Bob the Builder would make a nice souvenir.

The park will have about 50 rides and attractions. The first rides that guests will see as they enter are the Island in the Sky and the Grand Carousel, inspired by the Lego carousel model. Many will be the same attractions that the other parks have: Driving School, the Dragon coaster, Kid Power Towers, the Royal Joust, the Miniland cityscapes.

Holdovers from Cypress Gardens

But each of the parks has its own character. In Florida, some of the unique elements will be holdovers from Cypress Gardens, Ussher said.

The Lake Eloise ski stadium remains, but the water ski show will be replaced with a pirate-themed water stunt show. The rotating Island in the Sky, a 153-foot tall observation tower, has been refurbished. The historic botanic gardens have been restored; waterfalls, Lego models and a scavenger hunt are being added.

Two of Cypress Gardens' roller coasters have been modified to make them more child friendly: Swamp Thing, a suspended roller coaster, is now the Flight School ride, and the Triple Hurricane wooden coaster is now the slower Coastersaurus.

In addition, the Florida park's Miniland - cityscapes and other scenes created in painstaking detail from Lego bricks and other parts - will have three "clusters" that the other parks don't: a fantasy cluster with swashbuckling pirates on two ships battling each other; a Florida cluster that includes models of the Capitol in Tallahassee, the beaches of northwest Florida, Bok Tower, the Florida Keys, South Beach and more; and another with the Kennedy Space Center and Daytona International Speedway.

Still in question is what to do with Cypress Gardens' Splash Island water park, which was part of the purchase of Cypress Gardens but is not included in the new park. Adrian Jones, the new park's general manager, said "it's lovely, it would be lovely to use it," but it has to be refurbished. He said the company wants to see how successful Legoland's first few months are before making a decision about the water park.

Legoland California opened a water park attached to the main park in May 2010, the first water park at any Legoland. It's not a separate park, as the ones owned by the big Orlando theme parks are, but a $12 add-on to general park admission, open Memorial Day to Labor Day. With its lazy river, water slides and toddler play area, "it's been hugely successful," Ronchetti said. Some people spend four or five hours just in the water park, he added.

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