Friday, July 26, 2013

Legoland – A How To Guide

As a child, my favorite toys were Legos.  There were many other contenders but none were as dynamic or long-lasting.  I held on to them so that I would one day be able to play with them alongside my children.  About a decade ago I was incredibly excited that Legoland came to be.  A whole amusement park themed with Legos!  My wife and I went to visit the park on the way back from San Diego one afternoon and were a bit disappointed.  Sure, there were Legos everywhere and we had a good time, but the park was a far cry from Disneyland or even Knott’s Berry Farm.  It had potential, but after going on all of the rides that fit adults and after seeing all of the displays, we were done in 3-4 hours.

Legoland has come a long way.  They now have a water park, an aquarium and now even a hotel.  There are so many rides and attractions, it can take a couple of days to get through everything.  The park is no longer a place to stop by on the way back from San Diego, but a destination of its own.  There are so many options available to families at Legoland depending on the experience desired or amount of money to be spent.  Researching in advance of my trip this Summer, I was unable to find a central website to describe the Legoland experience.  No one I knew had been to Legoland since the hotel had been built.  Hopefully this article can serve to address the questions that you may have in advance of a trip you are considering. 

Be ready to get your credit card running.  To take even the simplest of trips to Legoland will set your family back several hundred dollars – more if you plan to stay at the hotel.  Much like Disneyland, your ticket purchase is separate from your hotel purchase.  One would think that they would bundle these into a discounted package.  As of the time this article was written, that’s not the case.  After an exhaustive search of legitimate sites selling discounted tickets, it is the least expensive for those with the Santa Barbara Axxess Card .  For just $69 each we were able to get two-day park-hopper passes.  Costco offers a similar deal at $79.  AAA and other locations offer deals as well, but none came close.  Before purchasing, it’s good to acclimate yourself to the park’s offerings and decide how long you will be spending at the park.  The “park hopper” ticket, like Disneyland, lets you travel between each different park at Legoland.  You may choose to skip the aquarium, as most do, but on a hot day, the water park is pretty nice.  The water park is relatively small for now, but you can see where construction is making it larger from the higher slides.  Currently, the water park does not have a separate entrance from the park – one must already have been through Legoland to get to the water park.  This is not the case for the aquarium, which has a separate entrance.

The beds come with their own personal night light that my kids enjoyed.  There are currently three types of rooms, separated by floor.  The bottom floor has a medieval theme, floor two has an adventure theme (ala Indiana Jones) and the third floor has a pirate theme.  The more expensive rooms have more Lego wall clings as well as additional Lego creations.  If you have always wanted a snail made out of Legos that is the size of your head but you lacked the ability to create one, you may take it home with you.  Your whole room is filled with items like this.  You are warned, however, that you will be billed $100-$1000 for each item missing.  Since you purchased the premium room, you also get additional themed pillows and bed coverings.  Your child will be given a code (or a game to find the code) to a safe that is in the room containing a gift.  The basic rooms receive gold coin candies while the premium rooms receive a mini figure or small Lego set.  The rooms also have a small tub of Legos for the kids to build with while you sit at the provided desk and ponder why it is that someone would steal a $100+ Lego snail fixture.  

In my opinion, if this is your first trip to the hotel and you don’t look like the Mr. Gold minifigure, go for the less-expensive room.  This way, you will appreciate the differences should you get the premium room in the future.  There is so much Lego theme throughout the hotel that you will already be blind to most of it anyway.

If you have decided to go all the way and get the hotel room, you are in for a treat.  It will be an expensive treat, but a treat.  Rooms cost between $170 and $370 per night, depending on the type of room and amount of Lego features that you would like in your room.  If you purchase the basic room, you and your family will have a good time and likely not even know that you’re missing anything.  Your room is similar to a suite in that there is a master bed for the parents and bunks for the kids in separate areas.  Your areas are separated by the bathroom and a walking space but there is no door to lock between.  If you’re hoping to have some adult time in your bedroom without your kids walking in on you, you’ll have to wait until they have fallen asleep.  Your kids will enjoy some very safe bunk beds with safety bars to keep them in.  If you have three kids, the hotel has a built-in trundle to pull out beneath the bottom bunk. 

The whole hotel room is set up to be kid safe and friendly.  The bathroom door slides and never fully closes.  It offers privacy to the outside, but a kid can never close their fingers in the door (ruining an otherwise nice vacation).  There is even a kid potty seat built in to the toilet so that families with those potty training (or just really small butts) can pee without bringing the attachment.  The only thing missing is a Lego-themed channel on the TV.  Your kids won’t notice as they’ll be playing with Legos on the floor.  Your kids will notice the complimentary juice pouches and water next to the large Lego head (you know, your ice bucket).

The hotel experience itself is fantastic.  They have gone to great lengths to make things fun and easy on you.  When you pull up to the hotel valet, you will notice a large Lego dragon.  It is rumored to occasionally roar or blow out smoke from its nose, but I never witnessed this.  Valet parking is included in the hotel stay.  

When you enter the lobby, you and your family will notice the giant pool of Legos.  Typically when I have a load of baggage to unload, my wife and I will split up to conquer more ground faster.  One of us will unload the car while the other checks in and gets the keys while the kids are told to remain in their seatbelts.  With the Legoland hotel, this type of strategy is unnecessary and even detrimental to the experience.  Let your kids out first and walk them over to the Lego pool (don’t worry, they won’t drown) while you take a deep breath and unload the baggage, valet the car and get checked in.  If you got to the hotel earlier than your check-in time and the room is not available, your kids will have no problem building in the Lego pool for hours.  Eventually they will get adventurous and wander up the ramp to the giant Lego castle.  This castle is nice but looks cooler than it really is.  Children will naturally want to climb all over it, but it is for show-only.  There are more tubs of Legos and a chalkboard, but otherwise it’s mostly for show.

If you make your way down the hallway, you will come upon the elevator.  Even if you stay on the first floor, take your time and get on that elevator.  While you wait for the elevator, your kids can jump on the whoopee cushion carpet that makes the expected sounds.  Inside the elevator you will hear soothing elevator music like The Girl From Ipanima.  Once the doors close, though, the lights dim and disco lights turn on.  The music switches to various disco or funk hits.

Dining at the hotel there are three options.  The first can be seen from the Lego pit at the hotel entrance.  Near the play castle is a café serving up coffee, juice and snacks.  If you want a quick bagel to go, this is your place.  Down the hall towards the rooms is the Skyline Bar.  This area of the hotel will serve alcoholic beverages but also has a decent menu of foods for the hungry.  You will notice that the food is significantly less expensive than room service (as can be expected) but they are essentially the same items and not a far walk.  The bar also has an impressive alcohol selection.  Your food can be ordered to go and enjoyed at the café while you watch your kids play with Legos or back in your room.  Don’t think about bringing it into the park, though, for you are only supposed to bring in bottled water.  Across from the Skyline Bar is the Bricks Restaurant.  The restaurant serves up buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Similar to Disneyland (in my opinion) the food is just okay.  The restaurant does their best to cater to as many possible people and cultures simultaneously, but as a result ends up with bland and basic options.  Still, it’s incredibly convenient and I am always one to make several trips to the omelet bar.  I recommend getting creative with the staff.  If you are there early enough that it is not too busy, their staff will make creative options for you like chocolate chip pancakes or chop up chorizo for your fourth omelet.

The hotel also offers a decent amount of in-hotel entertainment at no extra charge.  While we attended, there was a Lego building competition.  Around 50 kids competed, including my own.  Each kid got to stand on stage and explain their creation.  It was incredible to see these kids, all proud of what they had made.  At night we had a Lego pool party with a projected movie.  The first half of the pool is only 18 inches deep, so even toddlers can go in, and have independent fun playtime.  The Skyline bar opens up to the pool area, so parents can enjoy a drink while kids are misbehaving in the pool.

If there’s no other reason to stay at the hotel, it’s the early admission.  Similar to Disneyland’s Magic Morning, hotel guests get to enter the park an hour earlier than standard patrons.  As you enter the park, you may be under the impression that your privilege is less than special as the ticket-takers allow for anyone to enter.  Soon after passing the gift shops, though, you realize that the non-hotel guests are trapped while you are allowed to proceed.

I find it necessary to create a strategy for the park itself.  I like to maximize every possible bit of enjoyment possible to my stay and will occasionally go to extremes to do so.  Before visiting the park, I recommend downloading the line app Ride Hopper.  This app for your droid or iPhone will allow you to find out the wait time on any of the various rides in the park.  Also, you can get a map and schedule from the lobby of the hotel in advance.  Sit with your family and decide which rides you believe you will want to visit.  There are carnival-style games that you can do anywhere that distract you and take your money.  Skip past those and get over to the Volvo cars.  There is a course for 3-5 year olds and another for 6+. This course is no autopia – your kid drives independently of you in a safe car around a track with the goal of not crashing.  Attendants are there in case of traffic congestion to help them along.  There are gates on the side for easy pictures.  

Depending on the ages of your kids and their heights, you will want to plan out your day accordingly and hit the rides that will have the longest lines first.  Only a sucker will wander the park aimlessly standing in line for 90 minutes per ride and going on only 5 rides for the price of admission.

If you have some extra cash to throw around, you can purchase VIP passes.  If there was ever a class system, this is it.  For $150 (in addition to your tickets), your kids can go to the front of most lines via a special entrance – just show your VIP “Premium Play” pass.  They are not cheap, but if you have the money but not the time or patience, it could be the way to go.  These passes also give you free food at several of the restaurants.  For those without the spare cash, Legoland offers many build stations along the lines of the rides that take longer.  Your kid will spend their time building a Lego creation instead of noticing that they’re getting dehydrated in line.

Finally, being surrounded by Legos nonstop, you will undoubtedly need to purchase some.  Legos in the gift shops are consistent throughout the park and they are essentially the same as they are anywhere – it is a highly regulated toy.  You can likely, however, get by fairly inexpensively.  If you have three or fewer children, you can go to the build-a-minifigure at one of several gift shops and have them assemble the head, torso, legs and hat custom to their liking.  Three custom minifigures for $10 is not a bad deal and can make for some great pictures and much-needed downtime from the rest of the park.  If you are staying at the hotel and are not checking out for at least 2 hours, you can charge your purchase to the hotel room and have it delivered for when you’re out of the park – no having to tote around very small and expensive toys all day!

This article, while long and detailed, should fill in the holes for parents considering a trip to Legoland.  While my tips may not apply to everyone, hopefully you learned something new and can gain some additional enjoyment from your trip.  I’m very interested in any other tips that you may have – I plan to go again with my kids in the future.