CARLSBAD, Calif. -- While tramping downstairs for morning coffee or navigating the densely littered floor of son's room to wake him for school, I've been stepping on -- and cursing -- these tiny bits of plastic for about five years now.
They are, to him and his peers, the stuff of childhood: Legos, the ubiquitous bricks that can be combined to create anything from a 21-piece Bionicle action figure to the 3,449-piece Death Star straight out of Star Wars. My 10-year-old son's mania is particularly virulent: He regularly juxtaposes his accumulated allowance savings against the cost of various kits in the Lego catalogs, and he counts the days till the arrival of the next Lego magazine in the mail.
One set, Vladek's Dark Fortress , so inhabited his thoughts last fall that for weeks he announced somberly each morning at breakfast that he had ``dreamed about the fortress again last night."
So when we decided this year that we would visit friends and relatives on the West Coast over school vacation, there was no doubt that our itinerary would include a visit to Legoland California, a 128-acre theme park devoted to all things Lego, in Carlsbad, on the Pacific coast 30 miles north of San Diego.
It may seem astonishing that a toy could have so great a grip on children's imaginations as to drive a big theme park, but the Lego Group's clever linking of its products with various cultural crazes -- Harry Potter, Batman, Star Wars, and Spider-Man , to name a few -- gives the toys a narrative history that, particularly for boys, seems irresistible.
California's Legoland (there are three others, in Denmark, where the blocks were born, Britain, and Germany) is a 3-D version of the company's catalog, and will delight any devotee of the plastic bricks. Many of its attractions are traditional offerings -- roller coasters and bumper cars, for example -- dressed up in Lego clothing. So even children, and their adult companions, without the slightest interest in Legos will have a good time.
Entering the park, visitors are greeted by life-size mechanical elephants shooting water out of their Lego trunks. These are among the 15,000 or so intricate models sprinkled throughout Legoland that were built at a workshop that is itself one of the park's exhibits.
Like the company's Lego kits, the park itself is subdivided into various themes. There is a Knight's Kingdom, with such medieval-flavored rides as the Royal Joust, in which children ride mechanical horses through medieval scenes, and the Dragon, an indoor-outdoor roller coaster in an enchanted castle. Another section is titled Dino Island and features a Coastersaurus -- you guessed it, a Jurassic-flavored roller coaster -- and another is called Dig Those Dinos, where junior archeologists can uncover skeletal ``remains" of dinosaurs buried in a 2,400-square-foot sand pit.
Although some of the rides are restricted to older children -- many have height requirements -- the park has a lot to offer the younger ones. Explore Village in particular offers gentle fare for the stroller set: Fairy Tale Brook is a boat ride that incorporates various characters from the Grimms' tales ; a musical fountain allows youngsters to step on colored circles, prompting a Lego-themed mechanical orchestra to play; and a miniature train totes children around a course. In the Knights Kingdom section, the Hideaways, a huge three-level climbing structure with slides, obstacles, rope ladders, tunnels, and monkey bars is so intricate that parents are challenged to keep an eye on their children.
The section where my son seemed to linger longest was the Imagination Zone, presided over by a huge Lego bust of Albert Einstein. This area offers a mixture of rides and hands-on play. The Technic Test Track coaster was a thrilling 26-mile-per-hour coaster ride that was worth the long wait in line, and something called the Bionicle Blaster, a version of which I remember from my childhood visits to Rhode Island amusement parks as the Roundup, was a stomach-wrenching near-collision of 12 cars weaving around one another.
Less frenetic offerings here are Build and Test, where youngsters can build vehicles and race them on digitally timed tracks; Maniac Challenge, where visitors can borrow kits like ``Tommy Technosaur" and ``Radical Racer" to build; Duplo Play, a play space loaded with the larger Lego blocks designed for small children; and an intriguing Lego Mindstorms exhibit, where computerized Lego robots may be built.
Most memorable for me, however, was the section called Miniland USA, which is the heart and soul of Legoland. Here, in a series of wildly whimsical displays, are Lego constructions representing six parts of the country, created using more than 20 million Lego bricks, with more than 3,500 bonsai plants used as landscaping in the tableaus.
A sprawling Lego Manhattan includes replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge, Guggenheim Museum, the Flatiron , Chrysler,
The New Orleans reproduction includes ornate black railings on the buildings of the French Quarter, an above-ground cemetery, Mardi Gras revelers, a jazz funeral including walking mourners and a hearse, and a baseball diamond with players pouring Gatorade over their manager.
San Francisco, the Everglades, Washington , D.C., the Kennedy Space Center, Daytona International Speedway, a New England fishing village, a container shipping port -- all are reproduced with painstaking attention to detail. Many of them feature computer-controlled vehicles such as trains emerging from tunnels and ships navigating waterways, using more than 170 miles of underground wiring.
Legoland receives as many as 11,000 visitors a day in summer and school vacation weeks , and on the day we visited, the park at times seemed hard put to accommodate those numbers. Many of the attractions were besieged by long lines of visitors, and posted signs advised us that we faced a 60-minute wait. On some occasions, those warnings proved inaccurate, and we waited only a fraction of the time listed. Still, be advised: Visitors are unlikely to see or do everything they want in a single visit.
This summer, Legoland opened a new section that should help disperse the crowds a bit. Pirate Shores includes such water-themed attractions as Splash Battle, Treasure Falls, Swabbies Deck, and Soak-N-Sail.
And, of course, the park offers ample opportunities to shop, including an exhaustively stocked gift shop strategically placed at the entrance. For my son, a serious student of Lego product information, this was a prime objective, to be explored with due diligence, a mission evidently shared by the crowds of other children we saw leaving with armfuls of booty.
Contact David Desjardins at firstname.lastname@example.org .