My time off was starting to accumulate in a way that demonstrated that I really wasn't taking enough time off, and I was starting to burn out. At first I thought about how I wanted to take some kind of epic vacation, but I scaled it back to mostly not doing much of anything at all for a week. Still, I wanted to get out and do something cool that was new to us, and around that time the new Legoland Hotel opened up in Winter Haven. I knew that was something Simon could get behind, so we decided to do a couple of nights there in the middle of the week. After almost two years, we still had not been to the park.
Let me start with the hotel. It's a really beautiful property. It exceeded my expectations in almost every way. At 150-ish rooms, it's big enough to have great service, but it's not too big. The lobby instantly greets you with the sound of kids playing in the bricks, and connects to the buffet restaurant and the bar area next to a castle. Just beyond that is the pool, a heated treasure with foam bricks floating around. The elevators are flanked by a whoopie cushion in the floor, and once inside, disco lights and music immediately turn on the moment the doors close. If you've ever played the Lego video games, you'll appreciate that.
The rooms are available in several themes, and apparently it's the pirate themed rooms that fill up first. Fortunately, that's what we scored. Immediately inside the door, a sleeping area with bunks and a TV greet the kids, and with a pull-out, they can sleep three there. After crossing through some storage space, the well-decorated bathroom is bright and shiny. The bathroom has a stool for the kids, and an anti-slam toilet seat with the inset training seat. The main bed is enormous with plugs for your gadgets on either side, and a desk with a fridge sits under the TV. There's also a safe, though they didn't buy the right kind, as these require a key from the front desk. There is a keypad to set if you're clever, but straight keypad safes would have made more sense since you can't lose a PIN. There are Lego objects built all around the room. Ours included a great skull and crossbones over the bed, while a number of bugs were found elsewhere in the room. There are also graphic prints covering some walls and borders, plus a custom printed carpet for the entire suite. It was a really great room.
The room has a treasure hunt that leads to a few clues that together open the "safe" in the room. Inside you'll find some kid activities and stuff to do in the park. It's a really brilliant start to the stay.
The main restaurant offers buffets in the evening, though it's a little steep at $20 for adults and less for kids. Still, the breakfast buffet is included with your stay, and it's completely awesome. They have the usual assortment of breads, meats, eggs, potatoes, drinks, cereal, fruit, etc. They also have lox, an omelet chef, muffins and cinnamon buns (rationally sized). While you're eating, Lego characters (including the female-patronizing "Friends") walk around to talk to the kids. It's probably the third best breakfast buffet ever, second only to the Disney cruises and the one at Paris in Vegas.
The stuff available at the bar is pretty good, too. In addition to having locally sourced stuff on tap, they have a number of appetizers and sandwiches throughout the day, and a few dinner plates in the evening, plus an assortment of stuff for the kids. The bartender even makes the rounds out to the pool.
Speaking of the pool, it's heated and fantastic. It's not huge, but it never got super crowded while we were there, and I'm assuming the occupancy for the hotel was pretty high. My favorite thing about it is the foam Lego bricks. There is a boardwalk just beyond the pool, down by the lake, which looks recently improved, with some other pieces rotting away. Those are presumably from the Cypress Gardens days. They've also done a gas fire pit down there, but I'm not sure how much use it's had. It really does feel like a resort hotel, and it's fun to see the Island In The Sky popping up above the pool every few minutes.
People keep asking me if the hotel is worth it, given cheaper alternatives at Universal and Disney. Well, if you want to stay at a Lego hotel, this is pretty much your choice. I wouldn't pay the holiday rates (over $500 per night), but in the mid-200-something range I think it's worth it for our family.
As for the park itself, there is a lot of history there with the former Cypress Gardens, and through the failures of the park during the oughts, including the reboot from the Kent Beuscher days (I can't think of any person in business that had as much bad luck as him), much of it is still there. Comparing the park today to what it looks like on Bing Maps, I think the important parts have been preserved while Merlin has otherwise taken a clean approach to building out the park. It's really quite beautiful, end to end.
This is not a park with huge thrill rides, and I don't think anyone expects that it would be. I do think there is enough to do to keep parents interested and riding with their kids, and maybe even enough for teens to stay engaged. All four roller coasters are relatively tame for what they are, but still a lot of fun. Coastersaurus is a gem of a little wooden roller coaster, and very well maintained. The mini-Millennium Flyer train is a little tight for the legs, but still very fun. Project X is a fantastic Mack mouse ride too.
Having a 5-year-old, it's like the park was made for him. There are a lot of small transport kinds of rides, as well as some really unique rides. The jousting horses are neat, the dark ride is fun, the Dragon coaster has a long dark ride element, the splash battle is epic, they have a double-deck mini-carousel, a themed Disk-O, free-driving electric cars, boats to drive in a channel... there is a lot to do. Simon was pretty content just to walk around Miniland, where the big Lego building models are, to push the buttons that made stuff happen.
There is a water park as well, for a small upcharge or included in annual passes, but we didn't use it, as we were content to use the pool at the hotel.
We walked through the classic Cypress Gardens on Tuesday, and they're quite lovely. The centerpiece is this enormous Banyan tree that is completely remarkable. It's great to see the care that still goes into maintaining these grounds.
The only entertainment we really took in was the ski show, which is another shout out to the park's very long history. It was a lot of cheesy kid humor, but still fun.
I can't say much about the food in the park, for two reasons. One, most shops had given up by the time we were looking for dinner on Tuesday, as the park was thinning out because of nearby thunder that shut the park down most of the day. There was a lot of cold food sitting out. We might have tried the pizza/pasta buffet if Simon would eat it. (We ended up going down the road to a Zaxby's.) The other reason is that we simply ate at the hotel. That said, our on encounter at the ice cream shop near the driving school on Thursday was pretty awful. They were understaffed and unmotivated, and it took 20 minutes for them to serve the two families in front of us.
Operationally, the park has some issues. I hate to say this because I found the ride operators to be really fantastic and great with kids, but it's not their fault. The park apparently has a policy of shutting down nearly everything when there is lightning within 30 miles. That's pretty much all of Florida in July, most of the time. It's completely infuriating. Simon was three away from getting on the joust ride Tuesday when they got the call. Poor kid was so deflated, but like a champ, he suggested we try again the next day. Still, we arrived at the park at 12:30 that afternoon, and saw stuff run for maybe a half-hour all day. Their lightning policy appears insane compared to other parks.
One other complaint is that some of the queues need better shade, and they all need to abandon the queue rails they're using. They have metal bars that kids can bang up and down in the holes, and the resulting sound is like nails on a chalkboard.
These issues aside, it's a lovely park and a fantastic attraction if you have young kids. If you're going there as an adult without kids, you may or may not enjoy it unless you have a Lego fetish. Simon really loved it, and I loved it in part because of the hotel stay. I think I would have liked it more if Simon would have braved Coastersaurus sooner, and not as we were leaving. Still, we bought annual passes, so we'll be back. The "awesomer" passes were a no-brainer, because they get us into the Orlando Merlin attractions as well (the Orlando Eye, aquarium and wax museum).