WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - It’s been a decade since Florida’s oldest theme park underwent a massive transformation, one plastic brick at a time. On October 15, 2011, Legoland Florida opened on the site of the iconic Cypress Gardens park in Winter Haven.
Through the years, Legoland has added a hotel, water park, and even a "beach," all while maintaining the heritage of the classic park.
History of Cypress Gardens
Cypress Gardens, Florida's first theme park, was born in 1936, based on an idea from Dick Pope Sr. and his wife Julie. The gardens initially included 8,000 different flowers from over 90 different countries, and the addition of the waterski team made the park even more famous.
The park and gardens, with their famed southern belles, was the setting for many movies, but through the decades, struggled to compete with larger theme parks that opened around Orlando. After a brief rebranding attempt as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, Cypress Gardens closed in 2009.
Transition to Legoland
In 2010, Merlin Entertainment, the parent company of Legoland, bought the 150-acre property for $22-million. With much of the infrastructure already in place, it didn’t take long to convert the park space to the second-largest Legoland in the world.
Legoland Florida opened on Saturday, October 15, 2011, featuring more than 50 kid-friendly rides, including four roller coasters, and of course countless Lego models.
"It’s really nice, seeing all the things that they built with it," one young fan exclaimed on the park’s opening day.
"We are built for kids," general manager Adrian Jones later told FOX 13. "We don't want teenagers. Teens will want bigger coasters. But if you are a family that wants their first theme park experience in a safe environment, Legoland is what you pick."
Slideshow: The models and minifigs that greeted parkgoers when Legoland opened.
Park designers preserved a large section of Cypress Gardens' botanical gardens, including its famous banyan tree. And the waterski show still takes place every day on Lake Eloise, with the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team performing every third Saturday.
"We really did take care of the Cypress Gardens heritage," Jones continued. "We really value that. It's what makes Legoland Florida different."
Additions through the years
While the park’s footprint on opening day was already large, Legoland has continued to expand through the years.
There’s also a beach resort in the middle of Winter Haven. The Legoland Beach Retreat across the street opened in 2017 on Lake Dexter with 83 cottages, a brick-filled pool, and other amenities.
"The saw-tooth detail on top of your bungalow, the lighthouse behind us, are actually out of the Lego sets and we scale it up 25 times to make it feel like kids are actually in their favorite toy box set," designer Keith Carr explained.
And of course, the sections of the park itself have grown and changed as new Lego themes and products have hit the market, featuring everything from Duplo to Technic and Ninjago to The Lego Movie.
Legoland’s model makers
The most unique aspects of any Legoland park are the minifigs and models. Everything from mummies to dinosaurs are built out of bricks – and many of those models are made nearby in Lake Wales.
The Merlin Magic Making Hub opened in January of 2016 in a nondescript building filled with master model builders for LEGO parks, Discovery Centers, and hotels around the world.
That’s where digital blueprints become actual models, one brick at a time. And yes, they do use a special glue, but that doesn’t make it any less fun for those who get to build Lego for a job.
"This is definitely very much a dream job," model builder Max Petrosky said when the hub opened. "When you're a kid you play with Lego, you know? To actually make a living, actually working with Lego, it's just really incredible."