The next day we tackled the 128-acre amusement park, bracing ourselves for the fun and inevitable taxation. What did I expect? The usual. Bare concrete, blazing sun, competing pop songs deafening us from every ride, endless lines, and of course over-sugared, crying children. What did we find? None of it.
Legoland is actually designed more in the spirit of a zoo or city green space. Pathways tempt you in every direction. I could feel the gentle slopes of hills and the dappled light of generous tree canopies. Bridges stitch over creeks. One of those bridges, activated by a pressure switch as we crossed, made spooky, creaking sounds as if about to collapse underfoot. Sure, the jungle-themed roller coaster had a robust queue of kids, but waiting was often integrated into the fun of a ride, if not essential to it. For instance, a boat carried Tess and me around a waterway to fire our ship’s squirt guns at all the people waiting in line. But they had their own water cannons mounted on the fence. Their retort was full and wet. Tess told me when to fire. What she didn’t tell me was when to duck.
As we wandered the park, a map bloomed in my mind. This happens wherever I go: My feet trace a shape and that shape becomes a picture that I hold up to the world. Legoland was a pinwheel. Each spoke held a theme, be it castles and princesses, or pirates and ships, or animals and jungle adventure. As we walked clockwise from the gate, the rides grew in sophistication. First, a Duplo Village for the toddlers; then, Lego cars kids could drive around a little city to earn their Lego driver’s license. (Tess refused to let me go for mine.) By the completion of the pinwheel, you could be seated in something as extreme as the Knights’ Tournament, a ride in which two people are strapped into the clawed hand of a giant knight and shaken stupid.
“Why am I standing in sand?” I asked Tess at one point in the afternoon.
“Because you have to dig, Papa.”
I was confused. We were standing ankle-deep in Tess’s favorite ride, which wasn’t really a ride at all.
“I found a foot,” she shouted. “For real. A real dinosaur foot!”
We were excavating in a pit that concealed three concrete dinosaur skeletons. For the next half-hour we shoveled and brushed, following the leg up to the head and over to the tail. If travel is about making memories, Tess and I had just uncovered one together. She was so happy and astonished. So was I. The design of this park understood something elemental about kids and fun. No pandering. No condescension. Whatever it is, a ride or a hotel room or even a footbridge, you have to make room for imagination.
Tess continued to scoop and brush. Me too. It was something we could do together, a rarity in this world. As my hand felt around for the dinosaur’s skull, something flashed. A memory. I am pretending to dig for dinosaurs on a beach near my home when I was Tess’s age. I’m holding a big plastic bucket, the same kind in which we keep our Legos. My brothers and I would fight over that bucket, each of us trying to lay claim to the best pieces buried in the jumble. All those blocks of brilliant color—colors I haven’t seen in 20 years. Now here I was doing these same things with my daughter. Digging sand. Playing Legos. It’s as if we want to rebuild our childhood for our kids and hand it to them: “Here. Do it like this.”
We strolled a path, munching fried apple slices dipped in whipped cream, until we reached the center of the pinwheel. There stood models of American cities. The New York skyline. New Orleans. The Las Vegas Strip. All were built to scale, and all to the level of detail that even the rooftops, which nobody can see, sport replicas of the air-conditioning units found on the actual buildings. The park let Tess and me hop the fence and wander among the cityscapes. She put my hand on tiny buses and trees, swiped them over a “lion”—which was, in fact, a sphinx. To touch these models felt like I was holding a pixelated world. Some 27,000 sculptures adorn the park, using more than 60 million Legos. Each one is assembled and maintained by hand. Nothing has been custom-made for the park; they only use what is commercially available. Theoretically, anybody can build whatever they see in Legoland.