This is not your father's Lego. For that matter, it's not yours, either. For Lego has grown way beyond those brightly colored rectangular plastic blocks we played with as kids. And that's what Southern California's newest amusement park, Legoland, is all about.
Just off Interstate 5 in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, Legoland California is to Lego what Hershey Park is to Hershey chocolate: a kid-oriented playland that celebrates its namesake both by telling visitors all about it -- 2 million Lego bricks are manufactured every hour, 16 million a year -- and making it the centerpiece of a ride-filled fantasy world.
Drive the winding entrance road to Legoland's 5,200-vehicle parking lot, and one thing quickly becomes clear: It's going to be a long time between subdued colors. Everything about Legoland is bright, from the multicolored letters lining the entrance road to the brightly colored employee uniforms and the blue, white, yellow and red Lego man who greets visitors inside the park gates, patting youngsters on the head and posing for picture after picture after picture (Lego people, it appears, never tire or frown).
The first thing you'll see after forking over the entrance fee is the gift shop. Avoid it for now. Who wants to carry around a bunch of souvenirs all day? You may want to avoid it altogether; while the selection is impressive, so are the prices, which tend to run considerably higher than what you'd find at the local discount toy store. Of course, your kids may make that impossible, but at least do your best to persuade them to wait.
The 128-acre park (comfortable walking shoes are a must) is divided into six themed sections, offering everything from Old World flavor to 21st century technology. Kids should have a blast, especially since many of the rides offer them the chance to do decidedly adult things (like ride a car ... cool!). And adults whose inner children haven't outgrown those plastic blocks with the round holes that allow you to build all sorts of wonderful creations will get a kick out of the Lego lore spread through the park.
Turning left as you enter the park, you'll pass by a lake filled with Lego dinosaurs that move and Lego firefighters with hoses that work (prepare to get wet on a windy day). You'll also hear the first of the ubiquitous talking Lego figures -- they all sound suspiciously alike -- a guy dangling over the water who cries out every few minutes, "I don't know how much longer I can hang on ... Whoa down below!").
Even more impressive than the dinosaurs, however, is the Safari Trek, a walking tour of an African wildlife reserve complete with gorillas, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, elephants, even snakes. Every animal is made of Lego blocks, and the craftsmanship is remarkable.
The first of the six theme areas you'll encounter is Village Green, a small-town fantasy land that includes a water works (another opportunity to get wet), a fairy tale boat ride that takes visitors through some of their favorite childhood tales, and a train ride that takes kids for a slow spin along an oval track.
If you're hungry (already?), there's pizza and other Italian food at the Ristorante Brickolini. There's also the first of the park's several shows, a theater where "Backstage Secrets" features a behind-the-scenes magic show featuring a pair of exuberant young actors as your guides. Magician Mark Wilson (on film, but interacting with the two guides thanks to some clever timing) is more than willing to reveal a few the tricks of his trade ... but not all!
Now follow the signs to the Ridge, highlighting three activities that shouldn't be missed: The Amazing Maze, where guests walk through an elaborate, serpentine course; the Sky Cycle, where kids get to peddle their way along an elevated track; and the Kid Power Tower, a self-propelled ride to the top of a tower (you'll be able to see the ocean), culminating with a free-fall (not really, but it feels that way) to the bottom.
Continuing on your more-or-less clockwise course (pay attention to the directional signs; it's easy to get lost), head for Fun Town and you'll soon hit the Junior Driving School (ages 3-5) and Driving School (ages 6-12). Even if your youngster doesn't want to get behind the wheel (hard to imagine, but possible), stop for a moment and watch the junior drivers. Just as on any real highway, you'll see the full spectrum of drivers: the confident types, who act like they've been doing this all their lives; the scared-silly first-timers; and the blissfully clueless, for whom it doesn't seem to matter whether they're driving in a straight line or heading straight for disaster. Not that disaster's possible; these buggies make bumper cars seem downright risky.
Next you'll enter Fun Town, where the rides include boats and airplanes. There's a walk through a land that goes from Amazon rain forest to ancient Egypt to the Arctic (more impressive Lego creations). And there's a Lego "factory tour," where you can watch as machines stamp out Lego brick after Lego brick.
For a rest, stop at Rudy's Cool Club, a '50s-style ice-cream parlor where the house band is the Rocking Robots -- four animatronic figures.
From here, it's on to Castle Hall, a medieval land where rides include a simulated joust; the Hideaways, a playground complete with rope climbs and slides; a Builder's Guild, where youngsters can hone their own Lego skills; and the Dragon, a relatively mild-mannered roller coaster that takes visitors through an enchanted castle.
You're better than midway through the park, so maybe lunch is called for. Check out the barbecue at the Knights' Table, or the tortillas at Castle Wraps.
For adults, Legoland's highlight is probably Miniland USA, where Master Lego builders (they're definitely better than I ever was) have crafted miniature versions of Washington, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and the California coastline. It took them three years and nearly 20 million Lego bricks to put together all this stuff; and the results are amazing. A personal favorite: the U.S. Capitol, complete with a marching band playing John Philip Sousa.
The last area you'll visit is the Imagination Zone, where Lego meets the computer age in workshops that'll give your kids the chance to try the latest in Lego products. There's even a place to build your own Lego car and test it on a track.
By now the day is almost over, and it's back to the beginning and that inviting gift shop. If you're lucky, your kids may be tired enough to let you get away with minimal damage (the little canvas bags filled with candy and decorated with a Lego boy and girl make for a nice keepsake at only $5.95).
WHEN YOU GO... Admission: $32 for adults, $25 for kids 3-16 or seniors 60 and over; children under 3 free
Hours: Through June 18: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Summer hours: until 9 p.m. daily.
Information: 760-918-LEGO (5346) or www.legolandca.com.