Legoland additions keep clicking

Cabins at new Legoland beach-themed retreat will look like they're made made out of Legos

Now that Legoland Florida Resort has your attention, it wants you to stay awhile.

The theme park, which opened in Winter Haven five years ago, has been in growth mode since its beginnings on the grounds of the former Cypress Gardens attraction. Now it has turned to accommodations, opening an on-site hotel this year and unveiling plans to construct a beach-themed retreat with 83 duplex units.

"Accommodations and the hotel, specifically, is absolutely the key," said Adrian Jones, Legoland Florida's general manager. "It's the unwritten piece of marketing. That says if you've got a hotel, you can stay there overnight so there must be more to see and do around it."

The new complex, which has not been publicly named yet, will be constructed across from the theme park on Cypress Gardens Boulevard. It will be Legoland Florida's first expansion beyond its original property. Going up first is an example cabin, a model home of sorts.

"It literally looks like it's made of Lego. … I think if you're a Lego fanatic, you're going to love these little cabins," Jones said. "The beach-retreat concept is unique to Legoland Florida Resort."

Since opening, Legoland has added attractions within the theme park. Among the enhancements are the revived water park, a leftover from the Cypress Gardens era; the Lost Kingdom Adventure dark ride; alterations to the Duplo area; a remodeled Imagination Zone; and Mia's Riding Adventure, a disc coaster in the park's new Heartlake City section, which also features a live stage show.

Next year, it will open a World of Ninjago section of the theme park.

"We will continue to add to the park, but we will do it in a little bit different way," Jones said. "The key point is: We opened the park without enough indoor, high-capacity rides."

There were doubters when Legoland moved into Winter Haven, about an hour's drive from Orlando, said Dennis Speigel, president of the consulting firm International Theme Park Services.

"I think going in, we in the industry questioned the location and would people go," he said.

"In the short five years that they've been open, I think they've made some dramatic inroads to the theme-park industry, particularly in that area, that location," Speigel said.

Naysayers had other valid reasons, Jones said. Cypress Gardens, which opened in 1936, had had multiple owners and some bad luck, he said, including three hurricanes smacking the region in 2004.

"The Orlando machine, as I call it, was filled with some incredible brands pushing Disney, Universal, SeaWorld. … There was no brand for Cypress Gardens to fall back on," Jones said. "Lego is a powerful brand — so we always stood a fighting chance of being successful."

Accommodations have long been companions to Central Florida's theme parks. When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, guests could choose to stay on Walt Disney World property, either at the Polynesian or Contemporary resorts or at the Fort Wilderness campground. Disney World now has dozens of hotel and time-share resorts.

Universal Orlando just completed Sapphire Falls, its fifth on-property hotel, but its first theme park was open nine years without a hotel. SeaWorld has been open 42 years without its own hotel; CEO Joel Manby said in February he plans to add lodging.

Legoland has operated in some ways that vary from traditional practices at Central Florida attractions. During select times of the year, it closes for two days a week. It also concentrates on the narrow 2-to-12-year-old market.

"In the early years, that was problematic. It just shrunk the potential visitor market so much. But they found the right formula," Speigel said. "I think from an efficiency standpoint, obviously, if they felt they could make more money by doing seven days, they would do it. But this seems to fall within their business plan."

Kelly Green, a Legoland annual passholder from Orlando, said she makes multiple trips to the park with her 9-year-old son Daniel.

"He said the Legoland rides are more for him," she said. "These are the starter coasters, and he likes going on them back to back to back to back."

She finds the drive to the park to be annoying.

"I wish their hours were a little longer. For such a haul, we like to milk as much as possible, so even one more hour later would be fabulous, in our opinion," she said.

The park has added more operating days and longer hours each year, Jones said.

"It is our intention to move toward the 365-day operation," he said.

More overnight guests could increase that need, he said.

"It's pretty clear that you fill the rooms easier when the park is open," Jones said.

Legoland Florida Resort is owned by Merlin Entertainments Group, based in the United Kingdom. Since the theme park opened, Merlin has expanded its Central Florida holdings by introducing the Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life attractions to Orlando's International Drive.

"I think it was a big step for Merlin," Speigel said. "At the time, I think it was a big gamble, but it was part of their plan. They needed to expand and grow to do their IPO. This was part of the plan. it was part of the plan that worked, really. It helped them."

The company is now "fully fledged marketers promoting people to come to Central Florida in our own right," Jones said.

"The dynamic has changed somewhat. It was all about day visitors. They came down and it would be an add-on to another trip to Orlando," he said. "We are now seeing a little bit of change where they're using Legoland as a little bit more of a base. They are still doing Orlando but they are saying, 'Our little Johnny or our little Marie love Lego.'"

dbevil@orlandosentinel.com and 407-420-5477

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