Show and tell in Legoland

At the California theme park, a blind dad and his 6-year-old daughter build memories, one brick at a time.
Ryan Knighton

I lost my sight nearly 20 years ago, yet some challenges never seem to get easier, particularly as a father. Consider how difficult it is to play. You wouldn’t want me riding bikes with Tess, my 6-year-old daughter. We don’t play catch, either. Draw pictures? Her artistic ability surpassed mine the moment she could pen a circle. And though I’m a writer, I can’t read to her.

What we can do, however, is play Legos. In our house, Legos are a touchy-feely, equal-opportunity toy. Close your eyes. Give it a whirl.

Hundreds of billions of Lego’s modular plastic bricks have been manufactured since 1947. A Danish invention, Legos are—by sales and ubiquity—the most successful toy in the world. They are also the premise of their own amusement park franchise, with a Legoland in Carlsbad, California, 40 minutes north of San Diego, and a four-hour flight from our home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Here Tess could explore a toy that is the mutual stuff of our childhoods. She’d just have to tell me what it looked like. And where to go. And when to stop.

As our taxi approached the Legoland Hotel, I struggled to keep up with her descriptions. “Papa, the hotel looks like Legos,” Tess said, “and there’s a dragon on it. Oh, and there’s a horse. And a pirate.” Her joyful inventory of massive Lego sculptures went on and on. The dragon, I learned, was taking a bath. “It’s squirting real water at people!” Tess cheered. “For real!”

“Can you see the reception desk?” I asked as we entered the hotel.

“What’s a reception desk?” she said.

“It’s where the hotel people check us in.”

“What’s ‘check us in’?”

Handing the power of navigation over to a 6-year-old is labor-intensive. When we travel, she fills in the details of the world around me, and then I feel like I live inside her picture. It’s a unique intimacy, but given the vocabulary and attention span of a child, it can be frustrating for both of us. Often I have been in “a place” where I am surrounded by, you know, just “stuff.”

Here in the hotel’s lobby, Tess was already describing a world of strange sights. Children waded in a pool of Lego blocks. Some kids climbed the Lego castle, while others scrambled through a pirate ship festooned with manic toddlers.

“Hello, my little friends,” a voice boomed. “Have you seen my horse?”

A Lego knight had come to life in front of us, animated by a large man inside a costume. Children screamed in terror and booked it for safety.

Luggage in tow, we found our way into the elevator, and the moment the doors shut, the hotel’s music system cut out, a disco ball spun, and ABBA belted out eight bars of “Dancing Queen.” For three floors Tess and I rode in a private dance party. Then, right before the doors opened again, the music faded and the soft bossa nova of “The Girl from Ipanema” resumed.

There was a glue holding all of this together: In every corner, a new surprise with endless possibility. Our hotel room had a treasure chest that could be unlocked by a code hidden in clues around the room. The floor in the hall had a whoopee cushion built into it. Pounce just right and a voice cries, “Oh! You stinky pig!”

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