Legoland -- A New Kind of Theme Park

My race car is a dud, too slow to beat a snail. I quietly switch to building houses. The auto designers around me are too busy to notice, working at a furious pace to get their brightly hued creations ready for the test track.

Young Turks -- some not even in first grade -- are advising gray-haired Old Timers in their 60s. The energy level is so high it's as if everyone ate creativity-stuffed sandwiches for lunch.

Welcome to a new kind of theme park. Legoland California, the Danish company's first in the United States, opened last spring and only the third in the world after Billund, Denmark, and a second opened three years ago in Windsor, outside London.

We're 30 miles north of San Diego in Carlsbad, Calif., in the middle of Legoland's Imagination Zone where kids of all ages can build and test their own Lego creations.

``We've been here for an hour and a half, and I can't get my kids to leave,'' said Katie Koster who lives nearby in Orange County and was watching her 6- and 8-year-old sons race their cars against each other on the track. ``From a parental view, having the kids so challenged is great,'' offered Jacqueline Gutwirth, who was visiting from New York with her 8-year-old.

Besides the race track for their cars, children, parents and grandparents can see if their Lego buildings would withstand earthquakes. They gape at the 15-foot-high face of Albert Einstein, created from 1,120,000 Lego bricks.

Everywhere in the park are giant Lego creatures for inspiration -- a nine-foot-tall red dinosaur, pink pelicans, Little Red Riding Hood, a cell-phone-wielding prince, a giant Lego dragon that's the mascot for the park's solo roller coaster. There's even Darth Vader.

``The difference between us and other theme parks is that we give children the chance to create the experience rather than sitting there and letting it happen,'' explains Janni Drejer Laursen, the park's creative director. ``We don't only want to entertain them.''

The other big difference is that this 128-acre park is mostly geared for young children, with 40 fanciful hands-on Lego attractions, shows and gentle rides even toddlers can enjoy.

When kids aim the water cannons at the Duplo Zoo, a giant Lego elephant flaps his ears, a monkey swings his arms and an alligator opens his mouth. They steer, accelerate and apply the brakes in their little electric cars at the Driving School, control the height and spin of the helicopters at the Sky Patrol and pilot propeller-powered boats. They tug on a cable to pull the chair on the Kid Power Tower up 30 feet and laugh like crazy as they're dropped back down.

While other theme parks, from Universal's Islands of Adventure in Florida to Cedar Point in Ohio to Great America in California, are working hard to please this crowd with special kiddie areas, the atmosphere remains more frenetic with huge adult and teenage crowds drawn to much-hyped thrill rides.

``This is so much more relaxing for me than another theme park,'' offered Connie Pollock, mom of a kindergartner and toddler. ``We could sit in the shade while our little ones ran wild in the colorful play areas.''

That's because the park was carefully designed with the youngest visitors and their parents in mind. The bathrooms are equipped with pint-sized sinks and toilets. Restaurants, where the made-to-order meals are decidedly better than standard theme-park fare, showcase food at kids'-eye level. There's an area in Fun Town where moms may nurse or warm a bottle. Some men's rooms are equipped with changing tables.

Most of the rides are designed for preschoolers as young as 3 to go solo, feeling oh-so grown up as they wave from their tiny cars or helicopters. Nor will they want to leave the 13,000-square-foot Playtown that looks like it was constructed from giant Duplo blocks. ``It's nice for parents and kids to be able to switch roles and let the kids lead the way,'' suggests Legoland's Laursen.

But be forewarned that lines still can be long and difficult for young children to tolerate. (Fall probably will be less crowded.) Nor will the older kids in the gang be as enthusiastic as their younger siblings. My 11-year-old nephew Michael Fieldman, for one, would have preferred to be elsewhere most of the day, though he gave the Imagination Zone a thumbs-up. ``We won't come back,'' said Debra Cardella, a Californian. ``We were looking for a little more gusto for the price,'' agreed Jamie Ralph, who is from Kansas.

As Legoland officials work to provide more for older kids, there's one area of the park that's worth the price of admission in my book for anyone who spent happy hours as a child with a bucket full of Lego bricks.

Conjure up those memories and go straight to Miniland to marvel at New Orleans, the California Coast, New England harbor, Washington, D.C., and New York City -- all painstakingly created from 20 million Lego bricks. It took 100 model builders three years to construct. My nephew Michael wasn't bored here. He shot an entire roll of film. More than 23 separate animations make the models come to life. See a rock band play in Central Park, a jazz funeral march in New Orleans and divers explore a sunken ship beneath the harbor.

But the best part was discovering the not-so-obvious together. The kids are still laughing about the guy strategically placed ``on the potty'' in the Grand Central Station.

(LegoLand costs $32 for adults and $25 for kids 3 through 16 and 60-plus seniors. Show your AAA card for a 10 percent discount. Call 760-918-5346 or www.legolandca.com where you'll also find a neat area for kids.)

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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