LEGOLAND Florida: A Study in Reimagining a Park for the Future

September 1, 2011 No Comments

On October 15, 2011, something unique will have happened when it comes to the amusement industry in America.  That’s the date that the only new United States theme park will open for 2011.  Yet, unlike recent past parks (such as the ill-fated Hard Rock Park in South Carolina), LEGOLAND Florida will have an air of familiarity to it for many guests. This month the Large Park Report explores how LEGOLAND’s first foray east of the Mississippi River marks a major change in strategy for how to develop a new theme park in today’s new economy.

A [Re]Newed Theme Park

Building a brand new theme park from the ground up can be an extremely expensive project.  Not only do you have the hard costs for the actual attractions and other public areas of the park, but you also have to develop the extensive infrastructure to support the whole effort.  While guests don’t see the miles of piping, wiring and other underground support systems, they are crucial to making a park operate smoothly.
With today’s new economic realities though, the idea of building a brand new theme park requires some major financial creativity.  The biggest challenge is to figure out how to spend enough money to make the park compelling while also not spending more than makes fiscal sense.  That’s why LEGOLAND’s new Florida theme park offers such an interesting case study in theme park economics.
Calling LEGOLAND Florida a “new” park is a bit of a misnomer since the 150-acre park is built largely on the site of the former Cypress Gardens park in Winter Haven, Fla.  While the park is primarily comprised of all-new, LEGO-themed attractions located in 10 “themed zones,” the park’s developer, Merlin Entertainments Group, opted to preserve several key features from Cypress Gardens such as the 75-plus-year-old botanical gardens that includes the iconic Banyan tree first planted as a seedling in the park in 1939.
Fortunately for Merlin Entertainments, most of the park’s infrastructure is not as old as this famous tree.  Over the years, Cypress Gardens’ different owners updated and modified various aspects of the park’s physical plant and operating systems.  The opportunity to utilize this existing infrastructure was one thing that most interested the company in the former Cypress Gardens site.
In an earlier interview I did with Adrian Jones, the inaugural general manager for LEGOLAND Florida, he discussed the benefits of rebuilding on the framework of a former theme park site.
“By converting an existing property we are shaving nearly a year off the typical ‘green space’ construction timeline,” explained Jones.  “With a majority of the infrastructure already in place, we’re able to focus on developing the property to our standards instead of laying pipes and cables. We also can’t overlook the cost savings we benefited from by buying a property with so much of the infrastructure already in place.”
That is not to say that this approach is not without its own challenges though.  In particular, it’s difficult to fully evaluate the condition of the underground infrastructure until you actually start the renovation.  
As Jones plainly admitted, “[One] of the main challenges is not knowing what lays underground until you start excavation.”
This means that hiring experienced infrastructure contractors and investing the time to comb through old maintenance and building records is a crucial action item if you seek to build upon existing infrastructure.  
When you consider that 50 million LEGO bricks will be used to assemble many of the park’s features, one can imagine the importance of not having to go back after the fact and fix unresolved (and often underground) infrastructure challenges.  Indeed, even novice LEGO builders understand the frustration of having to redo a single LEGO project—never mind a whole theme park’s worth of the addictive colored blocks.
That’s why Merlin Entertainments decision to build their second U.S. LEGOLAND park will be watched very closely.  If, in fact, the quicker built out and reduced construction costs are not offset by the challenges of building modern attractions over decidedly less modern underground infrastructure, then the park may become a model for recreating a new theme park on an existing physical plant platform.
With capital and equity tight for most new entertainment projects, this strategy could represent a creative new way to invest in attractions-based development more efficiently on many different scales.  
This October while many of the park’s targeted 2-to-12-year-old audience is enjoying signature attractions such as the Lost Kingdom Adventure dark ride or Miniland U.S.A. (and its LEGO-themed replicas of the White House, U.S. Capitol, and Empire State Building), many amusement industry observers will be carefully watching to see if all of these exciting additions operate as expected in this [re]newed theme park built partly on the past that might represent a new model for the future.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at cemerson@faulkner.edu.)

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