Friday, April 6, 2012

Legoland Florida Review

Legoland Florida is the latest theme park to emerge in central Florida. It's located in Winter Haven which is about forty-five minutes from Disney World and the other area attractions. It's a decent drive to get there if you are staying near Disney but not horrible by any means. Luckily, my family doesn't have to worry about all this driving nonsense since we live less than 2 miles from the park.

As we watched the park being built, our excitement grew as new structures could be glimpsed from the road. We took a leap of faith and purchased annual passes. Since opening in October, we've been six times with many more visits planned. The passes were well worth it as we absolutely love Legoland.

We still haven't experienced everything Legoland has to offer but I have a pretty good feel for the park and figured it was time to share my thoughts.

First off, everyone needs to know that this park is geared towards families with young children which is exactly the make up of my family. I have two girls, aged three and four, respectively, and my son who is one. I feel my girls are just on the outside of the age 'sweet spot' for Legoland (between six and ten) but they still get tons out of the park.

The fun is too plentiful to mention it all l but I wanted to cover  some highlights. Legoland features four different roller coasters. My girls can ride two of them, The Dragon and Coastersaurus and they love them both. The Dragon takes place in a medieval castle. The theming is great and the village atmosphere outside the castle really sets the scene.

The Dragon starts off simple enough with a comfy air-conditioned ride through the castle. You first witness larger-than-life Lego figures having a brawl in a tavern. The atmosphere darkens as you come upon the Dragons liar and you pass right underneath the moving, Lego dragon. The girls tend not to love this part. Once past the dragon, the sorcerer casts a spell and you are suddenly outside and climbing. The ride transforms into a gentle, but still thrilling coaster that goes through a few minor dips with tight turns. The girls can't get enough of the coaster. If you plan your time of day, you could get on the ride multiple times in a row as they pump the guests through the que rather quickly.

Coastersaurus is a hold-over from the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. It was a good decision to hold on to this wooden coaster as it has a good sense of speed and enough dips and jostles to give a good thrill. The dinosaur theme is a little slapped on but the large Lego triceratops outside the ride is one of the most impressive Lego builds in the park.

Just outside of Coastersaurus is one of the newest eatable treats in the park. It's a called a waffle spear. It's long triangle of waffle that is speared by wooden skewer. The waffle is then dipped in warm chocolate sauce and covered in rainbow sprinkles and powdered sugar. It is amazing. I want to go back right now just for one of them.

The Royal Joust is another favorite. It's a single child at a time on a lego horse. The horse gallops along on a circuitous route through a jousting field. One drawback is your child must be four to get on the ride or at least old enough to lie to the operator.

In the Land of Adventure there are two attractions that stand out for us. The first is the Lost Kingdom Adventure. If you are familiar with the Magic Kingdom, this ride is similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride where you ride through a shooting range and try to rack up the points with your light gun. The theme is Indiana Jonesish with treasure, skeletons, and mummy tombs. Hint: shoot the red lights for bonus points.

The other ride is such a simple concept but so completely effective. Beetle Bounce is a kid-friendly hydraulic lift ride. Think Tower of Terror kiddie-size. My girls giggle nonstop while we are bouncing up and down on the ride. It's a lot of fun and can be ridden many times in a row.

Being that the park was built on the site of one of Florida's first theme parks, Cypress Gardens, Legoland wanted to retain some of the aspects of that well respected park. Cypress Gardens was known for their lush gardens and elegant water ski shows. There is now a pirate-themed water ski show that we enjoy. It's not the most elaborate show but it has a few chuckles and the kids get invested in the lady hero pirate. You can never have enough heros for the girls.

We made it into the 'Cypress Gardens' themed area of the park for the first time on our last visit. This area is beautiful. It's flowers and trees are amazing and there are charming paths that wind through the foliage. It's kind of tucked away and may not seem worth the effort to enter because there are no rides but it is very much worth the time to check out. It's breathtaking.

The regular Drive School is for ages six and up so we've yet to have one of our children experience it. But, the girls do get to do the Junior Driving School. Each child gets their own Lego motorized car that they drive completely on their own around a small track. There's no rails. The little ones really press the accelerator and steer the wheel. I'm really impressed at how well such young kids do on this ride. The girls absolutely love it and feel like they are rock stars when they get their driver licenses at the end.

By far, the highlight for daddy is Miniland USA. The work and detail put into the structures is staggering. They capture so many of the key areas of major U.S. cities and most of the major Florida landmarks. It is out in the middle of the sun so the wife and kids can't really hang for long. I'm planning a trip in the future just for myself to spend a good two hours looking at all the detail.

I've got to get to some nitpicks so let me quickly run through some other attractions that we like. The 4-D show is entertaining. Three different shows air on a rotation. We've only caught one of them but it's certainly unique. Bring a sweater. When the fans start blowing it gets very cold.

The technic area is nicely done. The technic coaster is very high up but not much of a thriller. The water spin ride is whiplashtastic and you will get nice and wet.

We like to take a break in the Duplo area. It has a couple of nice play areas for the kids and the baby station is tucked away here so it's a frequent visit for us. The rides in this area are nothing to go crazy over but if you have young kids they'll enjoy them.

Also, don't miss the Big Test Live Show, it's very funny with good stuntwork.

The eating options at the park are kind of hit or miss for us. I guess this starts my nitpicking. The best option for sit down eating is the all you can eat pizza buffet. It's a very reasonable price, especially compared to other fare at the park. They have your normal burger places but they are all way over priced but I suppose in-line for theme parks these days.

Cost in general for Legoland Florida is on the high side. Parking is outrageous at $12 a car. I have the parking pass lumped in with my annual pass so I don't really feel that sting but it is an extreme cost. Admittance to the park is also quite high. They are in the price neighborhood of Disney, Universal, and Sea World and while I absolutely love Legoland, I don't see it as being in the same league as these A+ parks. I'd call the park a solid B on the same scale which should bring down the ticket to the high $50s or low $60s and not the $75 it is at the gate ($68 online).

They advertise the park as workable for ages two and up but I have to disagree. I'd make sure your child is at least three and a minimum of 38 inches or even safer, 42 inches. Young children get a lot out of the rides but the problem is the height requirements and the vehicle restrictions. If your child is under 48 inches, every single ride is one adult and one child. No more no less.

I run into constant problems with my two girls. A lot of the time, my wife will hang back with our 1-year-old and I'll try to quickly take the girls on a ride. Well, with the 1 to 1 ratio I just mentioned, I'm always left scrambling on what to do with the extra child. When the park first opened, I was able to get an employee to ride with my other child but that's not really an option now. My wife is now having to wait in line with us and I ride with one child and then swap the child out.

This child swap is an understandable problem for thrill rides and parks like Disney have rules in place for instances like this but Legoland seems to be flying by the seat of its pants. No, the real issue is that there just aren't rides here that a family can go on. Peter Pan, Dumbo, Winnie-the-Pooh, Small World and many others like it are rides that the whole family can go on together, babies and toddlers included. For being a family park, Legoland makes you make some very tough decisions on who is going to get to ride what ride because not everyone is getting on.

What exacerbates the whole riding situation is a clear lack of signage to indicate what rides your child is allowed to ride. There are signs but they are almost always buried within the que of the ride. Two bad examples of this pop to mind. The jousting ride is great fun but as I mentioned above, your child has to be over four. The entrance to the que is a set a ways up from the main walkway. Only when you walk all the way up and read the fine print on the sign do you finally understand that your excited, yet only three-year-old little girl can not get on the horse (hence the lying for future attempts).

The other example is the driving schools. The main driving school is stuck in the back corner of area. You literally have to walk past the junior school to get the main school only to find out your child is to young. Back you trek to the junior school that you just passed and could have just stopped at if there had been prominent signage in place explaining the limitations. These seem like minor things, and I  can admit  they probably are, but you run into stuff like this constantly with the rides and after the fifth or sixth time, the frustration really starts to build.

OK, I have vented. Don't let the last few paragraphs deter you. All parks have negatives and I feel a lot of the problems could be easily fixed with a little more attention to detail. The prices aren't going to come down but that's just theme park visiting these days.

I have left off many of the other stellar aspects of the park. Like I said before, after six visits, we still haven't experienced it all. A new water park is being added in May and that will be very welcome. If you are in central Florida or are planning an extended trip to the theme parks in the area, I think you'd be very remiss to skip Legoland. Do your research. The park has odd operating hours and sometimes closes during the week. Get there early as there is a ton to cover, especially considering the park usually closes between five and six pm.

I do hope you come and visit. My family really needs Legoland to be a success. Winter Haven is a decently sized city but a successful theme park will bring so much more to the area, like Target! We are oh so tired of going to Super Wal-Mart for everything. So make the drive. Maybe we'll see you there. I'll be the one covered in a chocolate waffle.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Podcastpalooza Part 2

Let's jump right in to round two. There's no categories this time around, just more awesome podcasts.

WDW Today iTunes
Matt, Mike, Len, and Mike are marathon podcasters. Not only do they put out three 20 minute episodes a week but Mike Scopa and Len Testa are actual real marathon runners. WDW Today is a podcast that covers everything you need to know about Walt Disney World. The focus is more on giving advice for vacationers vs. commenting on rumors or news. The information is tremendous and the podcast is very entertaining with Len, in particular, being very funny and quick witted.

The Unofficial Guide's Disney Dish with Jim Hill iTunes
Len Testa from the WDW Today podcast has started putting out this show with Jim Hill. Each episode, the gentlemen pick a destination at Walt Disney World (a park or group of resorts) and record themselves as they take a leisurely stroll. Jim Hill is one of the most connected people to the history and inner workings of Walt Disney World. He is a fountain of Disney knowledge. If you want to know why certain decisions were made at the World then this is your podcast. I should warn you though, some of the meaty dishes they serve up will leave you distraught at what could have been over the years. Disney has shelved some amazing ideas, almost always for the wrong reason, money.

Mike and Tom Eat Snacks iTunes
Michael Ian Black, probably best known as a commentator on VH1's myriad of pop shows like I Love the 80s, is one half of this hilarious snack-commenting duo. The other half, Tom Cavanagh, is best known as the lead actor on the TV show Ed. The set-up for the podcast is that each week, they pick a snack, rate it, and comment on it. Oh, but it is so much more than a simple food rating show. The guys are best friends and if they talk about the actual snack for longer than five minutes, it is a rare event. They are improv actors so if subject comes up, no matter how wacky, they'll just run with it until they completely exhaust it. You will be laughing nonstop as you listen and you might learn a thing or two about Fritos.

The Tobolowsky Files iTunes
Stephen Tobolowsky is an amazing story teller. You probably best know him as Ned Ryerson from the movie Groundhog Day. (Bing! Watch out for that first step, it's a doozy). Tobolowsky has been a character actor in Hollywood for a very long time but his stories of acting are just the tip of iceberg. This man has lived and his ability to tell stories is one of the most amazing gifts I've ever listened to. He puts you right there and the emotion he conveys is staggering. This is a can't miss podcast.

Those are the main ones I wanted to talk about but I do want to mention a couple of quick ones.

Fuzzy Typewriter iTunes
Paul Montgomery is one of the main writers on the iFanboy site. He runs this personal podcast where he covers whatever fancies him. He also runs a book club through the podcast.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine Podcastalley
Jeff Goldsmith ran this podcast for years. It has since ended but the backload is still on the internet to explore. Jeff hosted movie screenings and would then have a Q&A with the writers of the film afterwords. This is a great podcast for writers, movie aficionados, or anyone that wants a peek behind the curtain of Hollywood.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith iTunes
This is the podcast Jeff moved to after he left the Screenwriting Magazine. He continues with his great interviews and it's still going strong.

How Did This Get Made? iTunes
A few stand-up comedians, some of them recognizable from the VH1 shows, put out this podcast. They pick a generally agreed upon, awful movie and ask the question, How did this pile of trash get made? Who made these decisions? Who put Richard Prior in Superman 3? These are valid questions that need answering.

Weekend Confirmed iTunes
This is a great video game podcast that covers a lot of the same ground as the GiantBomb guys. Jeff Cannata (the best thing about the TotallyRadShow) is a co-host so follow this podcast just for him alone.

There you go. That's what I listen to. I told you it's almost like having a second job. A second job while I'm working my main job. But, I do love them. I hope you will too.

Part 1