Legoland Expansion Set To Build Up Polk County’s Tourism Pull

“The Lego Movie” World has opened at Legoland Florida, representing its largest expansion since the theme park came online in Central Florida in 2011. 

Legoland Florida’s third accommodation, the Pirate Island Hotel, is under construction and set to open about a year from now, adding 150 rooms to the 318 Legoland offers.

With Legoland situated between Tampa and Orlando, in Winter Haven, on the site of the former tourism  destination Cypress Gardens, it’s all part of the plan to grab a larger slice of the Central and West Florida tourism pie, with Disney and Universal to the east and Busch Gardens to the west.  

Rex Jackson, General Manager, LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Winter Haven

“In 2015, when we opened our first hotel, we transformed from a park to a resort, and resort expansion continues to be a priority for us,” said Legoland Florida Resort General Manager Rex Jackson. “That we have been able to open a hotel in 2015, another in 2017 and a third coming in 2020 is speaking to the importance of becoming a multiday destination in the theme park capital of the world – Central Florida.” 

Located “130 kid steps” from the main entrance to the theme park, the five-story Pirate Island will feature an expansive pool, hundreds of Lego models, many character experiences, a pirate-themed restaurant and a kid-friendly nightly entertainment area, the company said. Kids will sleep in boat-shaped bunkbeds surrounded by pirate décor and, of course, treasure chests of Lego building blocks.

Legoland fans helped decide the theme. 

“Due to the success of our existing accommodations, we realized a third hotel was needed to keep up with our high consumer demand. Veteran guests and excited newcomers alike shared their opinions, and Lego Pirate was the overwhelming favorite,” said Legoland Florida Resort hotels director Kevin Carr in announcing the hotel.  

Legoland’s Pirate Island hotel room

The expansion of rides and attractions offer hotel guests more reasons to stay an extra day or two. “We like to say we are a park built for kids. All our rides and attractions are designed to empower kids 2-12 and create those special moments with their families,” Jackson said.

“The Lego Movie” World, created in partnership with entertainment company Warner Bros., features three new rides inspired by the blockbuster movie and its recent sequel. Merlin Magic Making, the global creative and delivery division of Legoland’s parent company, Merlin Entertainments Group, re-created the characters and the cityscape of Bricksburg, where guests can experience Emmet’s Super Suite.

“Two years ago, Lego Ninjago World opened—at the time, the largest expansion. We continue to make investments in the park every year. We continue to look for ways to add to our experiences our guests can partake in,” Jackson said. “ ‘The Lego Movie’ World is the largest investment and the largest area in terms of the level of theming and the impressiveness of the theming and the technology that is going into some of the rides that we are adding into the land.” 

Customers expect Legoland to provide engaging experiences—not only for kids but the family, Jackson said. He noted “The Lego Movie” World is opening shortly after the release of “The Lego Movie 2,” the sequel to the 2014 movie. “We talk about theater-to-theme park. The ability for us to have a new land opening that incorporates the characters and the storyline in such a quick succession, that is strategic in nature.”

Three years ago, Legoland Florida commissioned an outside consultant to conduct an economic impact study, Jackson said. The results showed that from when Legoland opened in 2011 to around 2015 or ’16, Legoland’s economic impact to Winter Haven and the Central Florida area was about $1 billion. “So obviously when you look at employment and construction jobs in the continued expansion, the economic impact is substantial,” said Jackson.

Today, Legoland Florida employs about 2,000 people, Jackson said. 

Legoland Florida, like other attractions, will not reveal attendance figures. An organizing body, the Themed Entertainment Association, estimates theme park attendance but its report with 2018 attendance estimates will not be out until June, a spokeswoman said. 

In 2017, Legoland did not crack the top 20 parks in North America, which was topped by 20.4 million visitors to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and other Disney properties holding down the top five. Busch Gardens of Tampa slipped in at No. 12 with 3.96 million visitors in 2017, the report said.

When Legoland Florida was announced—set to be the second U.S. Legoland property—Merlin Entertainments received an incentive package worth $5 million across 10 years from Polk County. 

Mark Jackson has been executive director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, more commonly known as Visit Central Florida, since 2003. He helped negotiate the deal to bring Legoland.

“Probably one of the toughest years of my career,” said Mark Jackson, who was once a professional water-skier at Cypress Gardens. “Obviously, it was a professional, as well as personal, project. At the time, and it still is, the largest Legoland in the world. Its footprint is actually bigger than the Magic Kingdom. At 150 acres, it’s a sizable park.” 

And it has continued to be a mutually beneficial partnership, he said.

“We have engaged in nonstop partnering, everything from billboards to print ads to electronic and digital ads. We attend trade shows together. We undertake various projects. We had these cabs painted up to promote Legoland and Visit Central Florida in London. The list goes on and on.” 

Legoland’s success has served as an important catalyst for other economic development in the Winter Haven area, including new hotels such as a Courtyard by Marriott. Higher hotel prices at Legoland resorts have spurred other properties to increase rates, too. In November, an 87,000-square-foot indoor field house and conference center will be opening about four miles away, he said. 

Legoland attracts both tourists and Florida residents who are going solely to Legoland and also families visiting other theme parks in Orlando or Tampa. Florida residents get discounts on annual passes, and a number of special events throughout the year are designed to keep customers coming back.

“It’s a very interactive park, a wonderful family park, which is a little bit different from the other attractions in Central Florida. It’s been a successful business model, attendance continues to go up and their success is evident by the fact that they are investing heavily in a third accommodation,” Mark Jackson said. “All good news for Polk County.”

Rex Jackson, the Legoland Florida general manager, would not disclose the investment into the two developments. But Legoland’s expansion follows Disney and Universal Orlando Resort, which are also adding hundreds more resort hotel rooms. Both entities also have major new attractions planned to open this year, including Disney’s highly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Universal’s Harry Potter-themed roller coaster ride. 

 “A lot of our focus is on ‘The Lego Movie’ World,” he said. “We do view that launch as a transformative launch for us as a resort—the popularity of the property, the investments we are making into the rides. The flying theater attraction is a big step forward for us in terms of the types of rides, the types of experiences we provide to our guests. On the heels of that, in 2020, we will have the new hotel opening, a fully immersive pirate-themed hotel that continues to expand our resort footprint.”

“We are committed to annual investments to enhance the experience of our guests in the park and in our resorts as well.” ♦

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