Legoland
Popular park continues to expand, lives up to hype

More than a decade after its opening, Legoland California continues to post excellent numbers for both Legoland and their new Sea Life Aquarium, one of several attractions the park has added over the past few years.

"I think we really have an advantage," said park publicist Julie Estrada. "We're geared to two to 12-year-olds and parents will spend money on their kids."

The numbers no doubt have been bolstered by the addition in 2008 of the Sea Life Aquarium with its 36 displays enclosed in a mammoth 36,000-square-foot, two-story building. Opened late summer 2008, the aquarium contains more than 250,000 gallons of water – 200,000 of which are devoted to the Lost City of Atlantis, a display featuring sharks, rays and tropical creatures all swimming in an elaborate depiction of the lost city made of – what else – legos.

We especially enjoyed the acrylic tunnel that puts you right in the middle of the tank with dozens and dozens of creatures swimming around you. It's the best place ever to get a close up few of a sting ray – there are several and they seem to gravitate to the tunnel swimming within inches of your face.

Young visitors also will enjoy the Discovery Zone Touch Pool with its hands-on opportunity to interact with several species of sea creatures. Altogether visitors to Sea Life Aquarium will see about 200 species of sea life.

Families will want to know that there is a separate charge to get into Sea Life Aquarium, although there are combo tickets that help bring down the price.

When Legoland came to the San Diego area back in 1999, it helped put the city on the theme park map. Seaworld had long tempted Los Angeles visitors – even though it is about a 90-minute drive south – but it was Legoland that now closed the deal for many families who now saw too many good reasons to ignore San Diego.

Legoland certainly has lived up to the pre-opening hype. On any given summer weekend day, you're likely to see as many as 10,000 people enjoying the 128-acre park. The park has caught on with local residents as well, with more than 70,000 people buying annual passes to the park.

While directed at kids between 2 and 12 years of age, the park has found a way to involve parents, grandparents, teenagers and people of any age. The whole idea is to provide as much interactivity as possible. People don't just go on rides – they'll actually do things like build model racing cars or participate in pirate ship water fights.

They'll also marvel at the number of creations that can be made from the lego – the basic building block invented more than 50 years ago that has come a long way from the simple four-walled structures we oldsters built when we were kids. Legoland features more than 15,000 detailed lego creations throughout the park, ranging from animals to model cities to a life-size replica of a 2006 Volvo SUV.

Legoland currently has nine fulltime model-builders who are actually paid to play with their lego blocks all day long. This type of lego building is aided by computers, but it still takes considerable talent – so much talent that one of the positions was filled recently by someone who had to compete with hundreds of applicants across the country who auditioned by making their own lego creations and then submitting themselves to a grueling gauntlet of skills testing and interviews.

Those lego creations are fascinating. If you can imagine several American cities depicted in miniature – and everything built from lego blocks – you can quickly get the idea of how intricate these lego displays are. The kids love them, and parents are amazed by them.

Legoland has continued to expand well beyond its original complement of rides and attractions, and Sea Life Aquarium is only the latest in a long list of additions. In 2006, the park added the $10 million Pirate Shores area of the park, a block of attractions featuring two new rides – Splash Battle and Treasure Falls. Splash Battle puts visitors on board miniature pirate ships each equipped with water cannons to fire at other ships and at unsuspecting spectators – although spectators can also fire back. The Treasure Falls ride is a mini-flume ride with a 12-foot drop. Both rides will get you drenched.

Water also figures big in the two attractions included in Pirate Shores – Soak-N-Sail and Swabbies Deck. The Soak-N-Sail is a maze-like playground-platform where kids are greeted with plenty of squirting water and two buckets that dump between 300 and 600 gallons of water on the participants.

Legoland is located in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego. About 4,000 hotel rooms have been built in Carlsbad – second only to San Diego in San Diego County – and a tourism infrastructure has sprouted right along with the accommodations. In addition to Legoland, the city in recent years has added major-league upscale shopping at Carlsbad Company Stores, the Museum of Making Music and top hotels and resorts.

The beaches also make Carlsbad attractive to family visitors. "We've got a great little North Coast up here," says Frankie Laney, public relations director for the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The San Diego North Coast is probably the premiere destination in San Diego County."

An endless blue horizon awaits the visitor to Carlsbad – a stretch of beach that allows you to walk unobstructed from Oceanside to well south of Carlsbad. It's not the heavy-duty surfing scene of Orange County, but there are plenty of surfers, families and young people enjoying the Carlsbad sunshine on just about any given day.

If you're looking for a fun area to stroll when you're not at Legoland, Carlsbad has a quaint downtown area. Along State Street you'll find numerous one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, and proprietors who know that tourists are their bread and butter. Everything in this area is within walking distance, including a wide beach that offers good swimming and even better people-watching. Expensive vacation homes are set back from the beach and, further down the coast you come upon a scenic walkways that are well used by locals and tourists whose exercise routines become almost spiritual when performed in this incredibly scenic environment.

Late in the day, State Street and downtown come alive as visitors stroll through the area in search of a restaurant or outdoor café. A vibrant music scene has emerged in recent years, with outdoor bands at the Coyote Café and several other bars offering live music. On any given night downtown Carlsbad attracts many of the young people who might otherwise go to San Diego's Gaslamp District except for the distance.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Legoland is in Carlsbad, which is a half-hour drive north of San Diego on Interstate 5 and is one of several beach communities in North San Diego County.

WHAT: Legoland is a theme park directed at kids, ages 2 to 12, but also is quite entertaining for teenagers and adults. The rides are toned down from most theme parks but the roller coasters and several other rides will be fun for you to take your youngsters on. Carlsbad is an up-and-coming vacation destination close enough to San Diego to be a good base of operations for the area.

WHEN: Any time of the year. There are fewer visitors in the fall and spring shoulder seasons.

WHY: Legoland is focused on kids, but it is entertaining for all ages. The park would be great to combine with Seaworld, making the trip to San Diego more than worth while.

HOW: For more information on Legoland, phone 760-918-LEGO or visit www.legoland.com. The Carlsbad Convention and Visitor Bureau can be reached at 800-227-5722 or www.visitcarlsbad.com.

Photos: Coaster ride at Legoland, entrance plaza, new Swabbies Deck attraction, pirates interacting with visitors to Pirate Shores

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Disneyland, Marine World, Balboa Park and Kids Attractions in San Francisco.

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