Lovin' LEGOLAND

For grandkids who play with building blocks, it's the theme park beyond their wildest dreams

By Kara Williams

With a young grandson obsessed with little plastic building bricks, and a fearless granddaughter who loves amusement park rides, my mother insisted we make a day trip to LEGOLAND last year.

Thrilled to visit a theme park that didn't involve a giant mouse, I didn't need much convincing to check out LEGOLAND California, on the coast in Carlsbad about 30 miles north of San Diego. While the park may be lesser-known than its wildly popular neighbors (think: SeaWorld and Disneyland), we found it no less exciting and entertaining.

Indeed, with more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, LEGOLAND offered something for all of us. Our party included my son, then 4, who owns more than 6,000 LEGO blocks; my independent daughter, then 6, who never met a theme park ride she didn't like; and 60-something Grammie. She appreciates an amusement park with healthy dining options, plenty of shaded areas for rest, and a safe and clean environment for the kids.

[photo photo2 align=right max-width=100]"What I liked was how manageable and how easy to navigate the park was," says my mom. While LEGOLAND is, in fact, bigger than Disneyland (128 acres versus 85 acres), the layout and intertwining pathways make it feel more intimate than it really is. Eight distinct areas, including a hands-on Imagination Zone, the Pirate Shores water rides and medieval-themed Knights' Kingdom, are arranged in a circular fashion around a central lake.

Engaging Every Age

LEGOLAND is marketed to families with children between the ages of 2 and 12. The park's youngest guests have their own specially-designated toddler play areas, while a few thrill rides appeal to tweens. Send adventurous types directly to the tummy-churning Knights' Tournament, a ride we nicknamed "The Claw."

[photo photo3 align=left max-width=100]While kids over 10 will find the rides a bit tame overall, older LEGO enthusiasts will appreciate the personal tutorials on how to build with intricate robotic parts at LEGO Mindstorms in the Imagination Zone. Other building opportunities are available for children of all ages, from stacking large DUPLO blocks to racing LEGO cars against other visitors' creations.

Children ages 4 to 8 are especially engaged at LEGOLAND, since many of the rides rely on kid power to get them going. Independent preschoolers and early elementary school-age children with the "do-it-myself" mentality will love the cars they can drive solo, planes they can pilot up and down, and boats they can maneuver through a curvy course. "The kids clearly liked being in the driver's seat while I was the passenger," says Grammie.

Fabulous Fun Town

[photo photo4 align=right max-width=100]Many of these interactive rides can be found in Fun Town, where my mom snapped dozens of photos of 4-year-old Ben driving a battery-operated car around a small track at the Volvo Junior Driving School. "I liked getting my very own license," he says. He liked it so much, he went back twice more to lap the course.

Several times a day, talented performers put on a slapstick musical at the Fun Town Stage. My kids giggled plenty at the antics of the volunteer firefighters who were having trouble putting out a fire. A few buckets of water hurled at the front row audience earned lots of laughs, too.

All the grownups in our group appreciated the healthy dining options, a nice departure from your typical theme park food of burgers, fries, and pizza. We had lunch at the Fun Town Market Restaurant, where meals are freshly prepared. The expansive salad bar, Asian stir-fry and Philly cheese steaks (okay, not so healthy, but yummy) all got a thumbs-up.

One Day or Two?

One area of the park my kids didn't want to leave was The Hideaways in Knights' Kingdom. Dozens of children ran across catwalks and climbed the rope ladders on this multi-level, wooden play structure. "Even though we couldn't see the children the whole time, it was all self enclosed and felt safe," remembers my mom, who appreciated the nearby benches for taking a breather.

[photo photo5 align=right max-width=100]Another must-visit for all ages is centrally located Miniland U.S.A. Here, entire city scenes — such as San Francisco, New Orleans and New York — are replicated with millions of LEGOs. There are also Washington, D.C., monuments, the NASA Space Center and boats you can control remotely.

We covered most of LEGOLAND in one full day, bypassing the water-based rides in Pirate Shores since it was November and too cool outside for us to get fully drenched. But the kids convinced us they "reeeeeaaaaallly" wanted to return the next morning for another round of LEGOLAND fun.

We'd thought ahead and booked suites at the nearby Residence Inn Marriott so we could return for more fun the following morning. Had rooms been available, we would have stayed at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort adjacent to LEGOLAND with its own private entrance to the park.

We don't have another trip to California planned anytime soon. But, if we do make it to the West Coast in the near future, and my son continues to love his LEGOs, I won't be surprised if we make an excursion once again to this very manageable — and magical — gem of a theme park.

It's likely my mom won't need any persuading to join us. She recalls, "I just loved watching the kids enjoy themselves."

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