The success of the Lego Movie has no doubt brought newfound interest in the three year old Legoland Florida amusement park, geared toward kids and families, located about an hour south of Disney World on the old Cypress Gardens stomping grounds. With ticket prices and annual passes priced more cheaply than most of its Central Florida counterparts, along with free admission for teachers, Legoland has positioned itself as a tempting change of pace. On my recent trip there with a two year old and a ten year old in tow, the kids both enjoyed themselves greatly. But those of us old enough to understand how a theme park is supposed to work spent most of our day scratching our heads at the park-wide incompetence.
But let’s start with the best aspects of Legoland, and there are plenty to go around. The eye-in-the-sky ride near the front of the park, retained from Cypress Gardens, offered a great view of the rest of the park and make it easier to plan the rest of our day. The double decker carousel complete with Lego horses was a hit with both kids. The roller coasters within the park, all kid-sized to varying degrees, made for family fun. And the garden full of cityscapes from around the world, New York City in particular, were incredibly detailed and impressive.
For all of its attractiveness, however, Legoland Florida is severely understaffed – and the staff members it does have on hand don’t tend to know much about the park they work in. When we first approached the entrance, we stopped at the information booth to ask which of the three lines to stand in for getting the free teacher pass. We were told the line on the left, and only after waiting in it were we informed that it was actually supposed to have been the line in the center – which had roughly one hundred people standing in it.
After eventually reaching the counter, the teacher in our party provided the credentials listed on the website, one of which was the “most recent paystub.” The employee stated that the paystub wasn’t valid because it was from June. Our efforts to explain that teachers don’t work over the summer, and that June was in fact the most recent paystub, fell flat until he finally sought out a supervisor. Much as it feels like bad form to gripe about being given something for free, it’s difficult to imagine how a customer service rep whose job is to approve teacher credentials could somehow not know that teachers don’t get summer paychecks. It almost felt as if the employees had been told to purposely make it difficult for teachers to get the free tickets as promised, so they’ll end up paying to get in. And even after the ticket was granted, we then had to wait another half hour in the main entrance line to get into the park due to too few turnstiles being staffed.
Unfortunately, the incompetence and lack of sufficient staff wasn’t limited to the front gate. At one point we asked an employee where the nearest restroom was, and we were told to go to the other end of the park; we then poked around and found that the restroom was a mere ten feet away. The cafeteria-style restaurant we ate at had just one employee for serving the entree, then moving down and serving the vegetables, and so on, as the line backed up. And for reasons which remain a mystery, every ride we went on had a sign stating that the wait time was roughly three times as long as it actually was. Ninety minutes meant thirty, thirty minutes mean ten, and so on.
There is also noticeable wear and tear across the Legoland park. The fence poles in the line for the eye-in-the-sky ride have become loose, and the various children in line couldn’t resist spinning them repeatedly in the name of creating cacophony. The white colored legos used in the cityscapes have noticeably yellowed due to sun exposure. And while the adjoining water park was lively and a hit with the kids, we nearly didn’t go into it due to the sign out front stating that no one was allowed in due to it being over capacity; when we asked about the sign, we were told we could go inside and there were no capacity issues, though no employee made any effort to take down the sign.
Still, this is an impressive theme park, particularly for one which was built out of the scrap of a previous failed one. That includes keeping part of the old gardens in place, complete with the historic tree. There are pirate ship shows along the waterfront, a Star Wars themed area, race cars for kids, and numerous other fun diversions. Notably, aside from a Ford logo slapped on a few rides, most of the attractions were refreshingly free from the corporate sponsor overload which threatens to shatter the magic at some competing theme parks. Then again, perhaps if Legoland had more sponsors, it could afford better upkeep.
In all, Legoland Florida feels like an initially ambitious project which has since been scaled back into an understaffed, undertrained, and undermaintained profit center. It’s enough to make the adults in attendance, particularly those who are accustomed to the everything-done-to-perfection mantra of the staff and maintenance efforts at Disney theme parks to the north, feel as if they’re being left shortchanged. But if the ultimate goal is for the young kids in the party to have a good time, that’s almost a certainty. It’s worth noting that Legoland is not owned by the Lego Group which makes the familiar toys, but instead in conjunction with the British theme park collective Merlin Entertainment. In adjacent theme hotel at the entrance to the park is scheduled to open for business in 2015, which should draw more attention and visitors to the park. Hopefully, Legoland will use the hotel opening as an opportunity to recommit itself to delivering a higher quality product within the park itself.