From Tiny Plastic Bricks... A Mighty Theme Park

Our vacation leader, my 4-year-old son, Alex, thought Walt Disney World would be a swell place to go on a holiday. But a little research revealed it would likely be 100 degrees or so in Orlando the week we were to arrive. With visions of the Magic Kingdom locked in Alex's steel-trap mind, I searched desperately for an alternative. By chance, a friend suggested Legoland in Denmark. I checked the weather: 70s and sunny. Goodbye, Orlando. Hello,Billund!

It's about 550 miles from Brussels, where I live, to Billund, where Lego Group, the privately held $1.5 billion toy company, has built an improbable amusement park almost entirely out of its famous thumbnail-size stud-and-tube plastic bricks. You can fly to Billund directly from most European capitals, including Brussels. But we only learned that after checking into Hotel Legoland ($100 a night for two parents, one child). So we drove, which gave me plenty of time to experience the charms of Canadian folksinger Raffi, the Pied Piper of the preschool set. After the nine-hour drive, his rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game will always hold special meaning for me.

UNLIKELY SPOT. I hadn't expected to find a bustling international airport so far off the beaten track here in Denmark's Jutland region. But I learned that having a million Legoland visitors descend on Billund (population 5,234) each year justifies quite a few flights. There's also the vast air-cargo operations of Lego's main factory (110 billion blocks sold since 1949). And because Billund's landing fees are among Europe's lowest, airlines send neophyte jumbo-jet pilots here to practice.

It's a tribute to the lure of Lego that a 25-acre amusement park could thrive in this remote area. "We thought we might get 200,000 visitors the first year," admits Ernst Christensen, a former barber and amateur magician who helped dig the harbors and rivers that, along with 38 million Lego bricks, are part of the miniature villages of the park's Miniland. "The first year we got 675,000," says Christensen, a jack-of-all-trades for Lego, with duties ranging from serving as Santa Claus to roving brainstormer to unofficial company historian.

More than 20 million visitors, two- thirds of them adults, have come to Legoland since the 1968 opening, which explains why Lego is looking for U. S. and Western European sites for Legoland clones. People come for the one-dollar rides--21 in all--that Legoland calls "activities." My son liked the roller-coaster "activities" best because they were "scary."

Adults tend to loiter at Lego's miniature models of architectural monuments and famous sculptures. Miniland's replicas (the scale is 1:20) include Amsterdam town houses, Rhine River barges, and the Statue of Liberty. Soon, one becomes engrossed in figuring out just how all those itsy Lego bricks are put together--and seeing if Legoland got the details right.

The construction technique for the 1.5-million-brick Mt. Rushmore replica (which also contains 40,000 pieces of Duplo, the eight-times-larger brick that Lego introduced for toddlers in 1969) seemed a bit too daunting to decipher, as did the one for the 50-foot-high bust of the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull (1.4 million Lego bricks). But Leo Leth, whose 12-person crew created the giraffes, lions, and zebras of the Safari ride, helped me out.

REAL STUFF. Leth, who started at Legoland as a waiter in 1972, works in a top-secret shop just a few steps from Legoland. He and his "sculptors" have to keep 7,000 different Lego pieces in mind (1,371 basic bricks and elements in up to 12 colors) when looking for a way to fashion something tricky such as the inner ear of a lion or the eye of a space monster. "We use nothing but standard parts," he says. "Sometimes, we have the factory give us a slightly different color so we can be more realistic, but that's about it."

As one who had toyed with beingan architect, I asked Leth how toughit might be for a novice to build adream house out of Lego, somethingI had been mulling while watching Alex at play. "Is there some instruction manual I might buy?" I asked. Alas, most of the tricks of the trade are in his head, the product of years of trial and error. Leth merely passes them on to his workers by showing them, hands-on, much like a medieval master craftsman to apprentices. But he did share a few secrets. Acetone is used to keep those millions of bricks in place. "It melts them together," he said conspiratorially. And a number of the big structures--the giant elephant in the Safari ride, for example--have steel support rods inside.

For those considering serious Lego projects, he added, there's a subsidiary, Modulex, that puts out a more sophisticated line of small-scale accessories, such as gutters and custom windows, tailored for architects.

BRAIN TEASER. Leth, Christensen, and others among the 650 people employed at Legoland seemed to enjoy their work. "I have the best jobin the world," says Christensen. "I get paid to play." That should please the late Ole Kirk Christiansen, the onetime carpenter who founded Lego and whose descendants control it. He fashioned the name Lego from leg godt, Danish for "play well."

"Play and learn" is the philosophy behind Lego products, which include its Technic models that come with electric motors and computer programs. The park's Dacta Land provides kids a chance to play with PCs, motors, and Technic components. It's one of several indoor attractions that include an 18-room fairy house called Titania's Palace, a doll collection, an antique-toy museum, Lego-filled play tables, and daily building contests.

For more than four decades, as Cabbage Patch Kids and Transformers have waxed and waned, Lego has stayed in fashion. Just six eight-studded plastic Lego bricks can be combined 102,981,500 ways. As Alex has shown me time and again, there is more than one way to make a Lego model. Some models are based on Lego's plans, some on his. It is probably that ability to encourage a child's creativity that has made Lego the No. 1 maker of construction toys in the world and the No. 5 toy manufacturer overall.

Eighty percent of Northern European homes and two-thirds of U. S. ones have Lego bricks in them, thanks to a continuous flow of new offerings, including pirates, knights, and lots of other tiny figures that encourage kids to invent plot lines and characters that rival anything Hollywood can come up with. All of the sets are interchangeable with earlier ones, partly to please parents but also to encourage youngsters to use their brains rather than their channel changers. The people at Lego practice what they preach. Says Christensen, currently an unofficial Legoland idea man: "I still play with Lego myself."

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