A New Florida Theme Park With Old Roots

Florida’s newest theme park looks kind of familiar.

Some of the attractions, from the Island in the Sky elevator that offers a panoramic view of this quiet part of the Sunshine State, to the rickety wooden roller coaster called Triple Hurricane, remind you of a place you experienced long ago.

The Southern belles, looking as picture-perfect as ever, greet guests with their Hollywood smiles. And there are the colorful gardens framed by banyan trees along Lake Eloise.

It’s Cypress Gardens. I mean, it’s Legoland Florida.

It’s Florida’s newest– and its oldest– theme park.

Cypress Gardens, which opened in 1936, was for decades the must-visit Florida attraction. It was known for its whimsical topiaries and water-ski shows that featured dangerous-looking stunts.

And, of course, for the belles.

But the park fell on hard times and went through a series of owners before closing permanently in 2009.

Will this reboot of Cypress make it? And more importantly, is it worth visiting? If Legos are the building blocks of a successful theme park, then this place should do just fine. And there are plenty of Legos here: animals, people, and entire cities made out of plastic bricks.

Whereas previous versions of the park offered real Southern belles, the ones in Legoland Florida are made of Legos, of course. From a distance, they look almost lifelike.

I always felt a little sorry for the young ladies who had to stand in the oppressive heat, wearing those gorgeous but noticeably restrictive dresses.

This isn’t a replica of Legoland California, which one Legoland executive referred to as a “concrete jungle.” (Here’s my writeup of that park from 2009). It is, instead, an effort to preserve an historical property with the help of a few Legos, and a Central Florida flair that says “we can keep up with Disney, SeaWorld and Universal, thanks very much.”

Our kids (ages 4, 6, and 9) enjoyed this park immensely. Most of the attractions are made for young children, whether it’s a safari ride that shuttles you around a track with elephants, zebras, and lions made of Legos or a medieval horse ride around a plastic jousting course. Adults may roll their eyes at these mini-thrill rides, but their offspring will beg them to “do it again!”

I covered the opening of Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, the previous incarnation of this park, and I think this one is far more compelling and sustainable.

But it’s still hobbled by the same problems of its predecessor, notably its location.

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Winter Haven is almost an hour’s drive from Orlando’s other attractions. A proposed high-speed rail would have made it easier to get there, but the project is stalled and may never be built.

The other issue: compared with the giant theme parks in Orlando, this one is relatively small and limited – a day-trip, at best, but not a destination unto itself. Yet Legoland seems content with its status as a smaller, somewhat out-of-the way attraction, and knows how to make it work.

The best thing about Legoland Florida is that it preserves the oldest commercial theme park in the state, saving it from bulldozers and condo developers.

For that, we should be eternally grateful.

Elliott writes The Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home.

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