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Long before the Mouse arrived, tourists flocked to Central Florida attractions that focused on the bizarre beauty of our region’s flora and fauna

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Long before the Mouse arrived, tourists flocked to Central Florida attractions that focused on the bizarre beauty of our region’s flora and fauna. A few of those arboreal antecedents to today’s theme parks still operate (Gatorland, Sarasota Jungle Gardens and Weeki Wachee Springs), while others like Florida Reptile Land and Texas Jim’s Sarasota Reptile Farm and Zoo are long forgotten, except for their “extinct attraction” websites.

The granddaddy of Florida attractions nearly suffered that same fate. Winter Haven’s Cypress Gardens, founded by Dick and Julie Pope in 1936, was long renowned for its lush greenery, water-skiing shows and frequently photographed Southern belles. In the early days of Walt Disney World, the competing parks enjoyed a cross-promotional symbiosis. But by the 1990s, Disney’s avaricious expansion and the explosion of other amusements increasingly discouraged tourists from driving their dollars down Route 27 to the sedate but still attractive attraction.

The post-9/11 tourism slump and 2004 hurricanes eventually drove the venerable venue to the brink of extinction. New owners attempted a revival by rebuilding the vintage Starliner wooden roller coaster, expanding the attached water park and rebranding as an adventure park. But the park closed for good in late 2009, and its botanical treasures seemed fated to be reclaimed by the 
wilderness.

Enter Merlin Entertainment Group, which announced in January that it had purchased the property and would develop it into Legoland Florida. You might not know the name, but Merlin is actually the second-largest theme park company in the world; along with corporate parent Blackstone Group, it controls or co-owns Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Universal Orlando and many others. I loved my 2005 visit to the Legoland California, but Florida’s version will be the largest theme park yet based on the universally popular building blocks.

Little has been known about Merlin’s plans or progress in resurrecting the park – until now. On Oct. 21, I was among media invited for a morning “hard hat” tour of the construction site and an unveiling of the attractions currently being installed. That’s why last Thursday I was busy hitting every stoplight south of Lakeland when I should have been sleeping. While the helmets we were handed were mostly for show (we weren’t allowed near any earth-moving), I did get a glimpse of what you can expect when the park’s projected October 2011 opening arrives.

If you’ve been to any of the other Legolands around the world, you’re already familiar with almost all of the features planned for Florida. Like its sister parks, Legoland Florida will be aimed at the 2 to 12 age demographic, with a mix of mild thrills and high-touch interactive experiences that focus on fun for the little ones, rather than catering to older siblings and parents. Here are some of the amusements you can anticipate, as revealed by Legoland Florida’s general manager Adrian Jones.

Miniland USA There are miniature versions of Las Vegas, Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and other iconic American cities made from millions of standard Lego bricks. Florida landmarks like Bok Tower Gardens will be represented, but Merlin’s Orlando competition won’t.

Duplo Village Soft play areas, water fountains and baby-care centers for the 
wee guests.

Castle Hill “You have to have a castle to have a successful theme park,” joked Jones. Legoland features a modest roller coaster through a dragon’s den, with a princess dress-up playground outside.

Land of Adventure Sally Corp.’s superb dark ride Lost Kingdom Adventure (like a pre-teen Men in Black Alien Attack) and a Jeep Safari past Lego beasts.

XTreme “Pink-knuckle” introductory thrill rides like the Technic Test Track coaster and an Aquazone water carousel.

Lego City There are kid-sized driving schools and the Fun Town Fire Academy where the whole family can help extinguish a pretend blaze.

Of course, you’ll also find the world’s largest Lego retail store (featuring licensed sets like Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and healthier-than-average carnival food (the fried cinnamon apple sticks are addictive). You’ll also see significant elements of the original Cypress Gardens being carefully restored, like the long dormant waterfalls. Old rides like the Island in the Sky observatory and Triple Hurricane coaster are being spruced up and re-purposed (though the Starliner, dismayingly, has been dismantled), and the legendary water-skiing shows will return as a pirate-themed stunt show. Even the butterfly conservatory and Southern belles will be back, albeit in plastic-brick form.

Merlin’s $100 million investment proves the company’s serious intentions. With future plans for hotels and additional attractions, it’s aiming to “build the ultimate family resort.” It just remains to be seen if it can lure enough vacationers to make the hour drive from Orlando’s epicenter. The Lego brand is seriously powerful bait (witness the crowds at Downtown Disney’s Lego store), and road and signage improvements underway should ease the long trek, as will plans for round-trip charter bus service.

If you’re burning to get your build on, early-bird tickets ($65 adults, $55 kids 3-12) and annual passes ($99-$159) are on sale at http://florida.legoland.com. Personally, I’m holding off to see how it all turns out before springing for my $2,500 lifetime ambassador pass – that kind of cash could buy a boatload of bricks.

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