All morning, rain did not just fall. No, it biblically lashed and pelted greater San Diego County, horizontally hammered the entire region, particularly the theme park dedicated to Denmark’s most lucrative manufacturing export. Come early afternoon, though, the storm clouds parted, and the sun had reclaimed its rightful star billing, giving the grounds at Legoland an alluring sheen, a glistening burst of festive primary colors.
By this time, though, the precipitation was a river of children’s tears. Legoland, perhaps the only amusement park based on a toy that improves fine motor skills, was closed and would remain so the rest of the day. A single, blue-and-yellow-uniformed worker stood at the shuttered turnstiles, giving the bad news. Kids’ reactions ranged from lip-quivering acceptance to full Three Mile Island meltdowns. Parents had that shell-shocked survivor’s look, facing the daunting prospect of finding something, anything, to entertain the brood and restore familial equanimity.
If they were smart – and, of course, had the not-insignificant financial means – their answer was only about 50 paces away.
The Legoland Hotel, not merely a logistical extension of the park, is almost an attraction unto itself. Now, most kids can be entranced for a while by the novelty of sleeping away from home, jumping on the bed with abandon and reveling in the wonders of the ice machine down the hall. But rare is the hotel built and geared almost exclusively for children, from its exclusively plastic brick artwork lining the hallways to the room-door keyhole placed strategically at toddler height.
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In the chaotic welter of the lobby on this rainy afternoon, kids sprawled on the floor as if it were their living rooms, scooping pieces from the pretend fountain and snapping pieces into place on elaborate, ever-morphing fantasy forts and (mostly the boys) weapons of mass distraction. Parents either hovered at a safe distance, discreetly checking their smartphones, or shed their shoes and got down on the carpet with the little ones and created.
A literal river of Legos, under Lucite flooring, led from the lobby up to an adjoining Castle play area, replete with forts and a mazelike pirate ship. Stray Legos lay strewn across the landscape like a Pollock canvas, while finished objets d’art adorned every wall and counter top. Around happy hour – but, really, for kids, isn’t that every hour? – as pajama-clad children participated in “Elf Games” and prepped for the cutthroat nightly Model Building Competition, many parents retreated to the nearby Minis Lounge to nurse a well-earned craft beer or glass or two of red wine and decompress from the day’s prepubescent dramas.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Melissa Schlichtling, of Helena, Mont., as son Zane, 9, disappeared into the castle and daughter Sonja, 7, put the finishing touches on a tri-colored Lego “wand of dreams” she figured had a good shot at winning the model-building contest. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without (the hotel) today. I like that it’s not just kid-friendly but actually made for the kids.”
Across the lounge, a 30-something dad named Wayne from Littleton, Colo., grasped a beer in each hand, which is why he declined to give his last name. With mussed hair and a thousand-yard stare, Wayne confided that it had been a rough day having their Legoland excursion aborted. But the kids, and Wayne, too, rallied gamely. They found plenty to do, Wayne said, but the park had better be open the next day, the family’s last in town, or who knows what fury might be unleashed by his restless brood.
“They are in their element right now,” he said. “The rides at the park are really secondary. It’s really anything Legos for them. So, the hotel was a good call.”
A good call, sure. But also a little pricey, mind you, starting at $250 a night and running up to $349, plus a $25 resort fee. But many parents said that what you get for your money, this full immersion in Lego lore, is more than worth the expense.
Hang around the lobby awhile during check-in time, and observe the initial reactions of the kids as they pass under the hulking green dragon, made of no fewer than 400,000 Legos, at the front entrance. They are, to a one, transported to another realm. Some are so initially overstimulated that they spontaneously burst into tears; others simply drop their bags and sprint to the Lego pit. Their parents, too, sport goofy grins, enchanted, perhaps, by how the clichés of an upscale hotel (the “fountain,” the “artwork,” the elegant sconces ringing the bar) are reproduced à la Legos.
It really is another world. From a distance, what looks like a pixelated Lichtenstein pop-art piece behind the check-in desk is a wall-scape of 5,000 mini Lego figurines. An animated bicycle slowly pivots the length of the work, its wheels serving as giant magnifying glasses showing, on closer inspection, intricately built action figures.
That’s one of, according to Legoland’s crack PR staff, 3,500 models placed around the three-story hotel that takes up perhaps two city blocks. There’s a human-scaled Lego concierge across from the Lego fountain, a miniature-scaled city with a skyline and detailed domestic scenes inside apartments lining the walls of the Skyline Cafe (where five IPAs are on tap), elaborate models too numerous to mention inside Bricks, the buffet-dining restaurant, and even, next to the elevators, planters made solely out of the ubiquitous plastic cubes.
On the first floor, in a corner, is a painting of a Lego worker in full hazmat suit. The dialogue bubble reads, “Hey, was that you?” Below him is a circle painted on the carpet with words every parent dreads (at least after repeated usage): “Whoopie Cushion.” Yes, when kids step on it, audible flatulence ensues, followed by a voice of the put-upon hazmat guy saying, “Oh, you stinky pig!”
If that doesn’t send the little ones into paroxysms of mirth, wait until the arrival of the elevator, a prime example of the kid-centric nature of the place. When the doors open, you hear a Muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Then the doors close. The light goes out, a disco ball overhead illuminates and the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” fills the space and envelopes the senses. One middle-aged woman was so overcome, she broke into full dance mode, single-finger arm thrusts, à la Travolta, while her ’tween daughter tugged on her sleeve to please, Mom, for the love of God, stop.
Other kid-friendly touches are more practical, but things not encountered at most hotels.
The buffet table at Bricks is 18 inches lower than standard size, and there are port holes cut into the restaurant’s walls in case a child feels the urge to climb in and eat his or her pancakes there. Lego characters roam the dining room during breakfast and lunch, posing for selfies with kids and making balloon animals for them. The pool is shallower than standard dimensions, and even the health club has kid equipment and Lego “exerciser” figures.
The in-room bathrooms are equipped with flip-down potty seats for those in training and a wooden foot stool so they can reach the sink faucet.
Elaborate Lego sculptured creations meant to hew to the themed floors – Kingdome, Pirate, Adventure – are the only Legos that aren’t hands-on. Most of the more than 3,400 models can be found in the 250 guest rooms, where a cards explain the estimated value on each “model” at between $90 and $960 and warn that damaged or missing pieces “will result in a charge to your pre-authorized credit card.”
No worries, though: The hotel knows its clientele and provides a bucket of Legos for kids to create masterpieces. That’s in addition to the “treasure chest” (doubling as an in-room safe). Guests must solve four clues in something of a scavenger hunt around the lobby area to get the numbers for the combination lock. Inside is a trove of goodies – two packages of Lego Mini Figures and chocolate gold coins.
“The best part,” said Schlichtling, the Montana mom, “is there’s a new treasure every morning (courtesy of the house cleaning staff). That’s a nice touch.”
Another impressed mom was Brittney Allen, of Lake Elsinore. She said she liked that her two children, ages 7 and 4, had what she dubbed a room-within-a-room, calling it “very cool and decked out.”
A three-quarter’s partition separates the sleeping areas in the average 350-square-foot room. It’s a fun alcove for the kids, with bunk beds (plus a trundle bed), a flat-screen TV mounted to look like a fireplace and theme-appropriate signs. Example from a “Kingdome” room: “Ye Olde Adults Keep Out!” Parents, meanwhile, enjoy a modicum of privacy in their portion of the medieval castle (or pirate ship, or safari hut). It, too, is fully themed, right down to a Lego-constructed cask of ale sitting on the shelf above ye olde desk.
No one stays in the room long, though, because the hotel staff keeps things hopping in the lobby. On the night of the rain-induced park closure, the Castle Play Area was SRO, with pajama-clad kids running headlong into one another prepping for the Model Building Competition, presided over by Princess Snowflake and Rosie the Elf. Schlichtling’s daughter, Sonja, checked out the competition, while Mom mused that perhaps some families were unsure on the rule that parents cannot help their kids in construction.
“I saw one man down here making the state flag of Colorado (out of Legos),” she said. “He was having way more fun than his kids were.”
Fifty-three kids entered their Lego creations, proudly displaying them on the stage while being interviewed by Rosie the Elf, whose job description must include cat-herding, because she deftly kept the kiddies in line and in order of registration. One kid, holding a sword/candy cane, cut in line and tried to make Rosie believe he was the registered contestant, a boy named Ethan. Rosie was not fooled: “You’re not Ethan! We need to take our turns.” With that, the kid released his sword like a comedian doing a mike drop and bounded off the stage.
Not to gender-stereotype, but a good three-quarters of the boys brandished “Christmas swords,” while the girls favored snowmen and women. The winner, however, as a Frank Gehry-like castle by another boy named Ethan. Yeah, no parental help there, right?
By the end of the pajama party, near 10 o’clock, and the onset of “Quiet Time,” kids were strewn on the lobby carpet as if cast by a sleeping spell. Parents scooped them up and whisked them off to bed, hoping that the weather would hold and Legoland itself would be open the next morning.
By 10 a.m., the rain that had resumed at first light had passed, the sun shone brightly and the park was drying out. Turnstiles twirled, and kids and parents gladly left behind the fun of the hotel for the fun of the park.
There, the older kids (12 is about the upper range for Lego-goers) gravitated toward the rides or to Miniland USA, where 1:20-scale models of New York City, the Vegas Strip and New Orleans, among other locales, were on display alongside displays from the various “Star Wars” episodes. The main attraction for the younger set was the Junior Driving School, where kids can drive scaled-down electric cars through a city neighborhood.
“It’s really fun,” Sonja Schlichtling said. “You can earn a driver’s license. It’s very simple. The red pedal is the stop and the green pedal is the go. There are traffic lights and stop lights.”
“Thank goodness,” her mother added, “it’s not bumper cars. People don’t go crazy.”
That seems a theme at Legoland. It’s a more laid-back experience, perhaps because it’s smaller and less frenetic than its theme park rival 80 miles north on Interstate 5, Disneyland. Legoland’s lines were almost nonexistent during the off-peak season (mid-December in this case), but even at the height of summer, there aren’t two-hour lines for two-minute rides. Many of the attractions were hands-on Lego-building involving children and parents.
Oscar Gutierrez, of Yuma, Ariz., brought his son Omar to celebrate his eighth birthday. The two were fast at work in the Hero Factory, where kids can construct superheroes with heaping mounds of Legos and accessories.
“It’s a good idea, Gutierrez said, “for parents to spend time with their kids actually doing something, not just watching them on a ride.”
Sometimes, though, parents go hysterically overboard. Dad Aaron Lewis, of Simi Valley, accompanied his two boys, 12 and 7, to the City Build and Test Track, which simulates drag racing of cars you build out of Legos. While the boys made functional, speedy cars, Dad went all out, producing a foot-long, aerodynamic contraption with all sorts of spoilers and do-dads. When they got to the starting line, the elder Lewis’ car failed to move from the starting line – repeatedly. Then, it fell apart. Finally, on the fifth try, it shot down the track, crashing in 3.2 seconds.
“That’s called a design flaw, honey,” mom Nagwa Khilla told Lewis.
Lewis: “I’m no master of physics, that’s for sure.”
Khilla: “That’s OK. The kids have fun playing, and we have fun playing with the kids. This is their place.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
Where: 1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad; Legoland Hotel, 5885 The Crossings Drive, Carlsbad
Winter hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays)
Cost: Legoland: $73-$83; Resort Hopper (including Sea Life Aquarium and Water Park): $97-$107
Information: california.legoland.com; (877) 534-6526