WINTER HAVEN — On the eve of its grand opening, Legoland Florida announced an opening date for its companion water park and confirmed plans for a Lego-themed resort hotel that could help it become a multiday destination for families with young children.
The water park is scheduled to open in May, said Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments Group, the company behind Legoland Florida. It will require an upgrade to a regular ticket to Legoland theme park, instead of being a separate gated attraction.
Although the new water park is in the planning stages, Varney said it will feature Lego elements, including the ability to build your own Lego raft and float down a river.
Like the rest of Legoland Florida, it's designed to appeal primarily to the age range of kids who play with Lego building blocks and products.
"It will be totally awesome, and it will be totally Lego," Varney said.
The plan is for the hotel to open in 2014 or 2015, he said. Land-use specifications for the site entitle Merlin to construct as many as 500 rooms of lodging.
The additions could broaden the appeal of the attraction, which opens to the public today with an unusually keen focus. The newest theme park in the nation caters almost exclusively to a narrow demographic: children between the ages of 2 and 12.
"Anytime that you have an opportunity to get people to stay over, it's to your advantage to do so," said Fred Cochrane, the principal owner of California-based Cochrane Consulting, which specializes in attractions and entertainment-center planning.
"I think a water park, if it's well-designed, is going to satisfy the young crowd," he said. "Kids love to splash around from birth."
Unlike other Central Florida theme parks that cast a wide net, Legoland "is not all things to all people," said Adrian Jones, Legoland Florida general manager.
"Some people say that's a weakness of ours, that we target that [age group] so aggressively," he said. "We don't believe that. We want to be the best within that category."
As a result, Legoland's rides and shows are more sedate than supersonic. The park has four roller coasters, but they all fall in the not-too-harrowing "junior" coaster classification. Legoland officials often note that the park does "pink-knuckle rides," not white-knuckle ones. That philosophy explains the removal of the Starliner, the wilder, wooden roller coaster purchased by Cypress Gardens, which operated on the Legoland Florida site from 1936 to 2009.
Lack of thrill rides may be a turn-off to teenagers, and that's OK with Jones.
"A lot of moms are reassured that there are no teenagers running around," he said.
A park dedicated to kids appeals to that demographic, said Robert Niles, publisher of the Theme Park Insiders website. He has visited the Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., "dozens" of times, he said.
"My kids absolutely loved it," Niles said. "They preferred it to Disneyland because it was more for them. They didn't feel tiny. They didn't feel like they wasted all their time in line. They didn't feel like they were surrounded by people."
Legoland has a "mellow Danish vibe," Niles said, referring to the birthplace of Lego. Other Legoland parks are located in Denmark, England and Germany.
"It's not designed to be a high-volume theme park where you are cranking through thousands of people an hour on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean," he said.
Instead, "it's very much more a play-focused experience. There are things you can get on and climb, and games you play and things to explore," Niles said.
Legoland Florida to add water park, themed hotel
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