Theme Park Insider

How Merlin Took a Lesson from Disney and Spread the Legoland Brand Around the World

September 14, 2015, 8:49 AM · In the early 1990s, Disney was strongly considering expanding its theme park empire into U.S. cities such as Chicago and New York with smaller parks, which were being referred to as "mini Magic Kingdoms" by insiders. For a variety of reasons, Disney never built one of the mini-parks, and the company moved instead to keep building full-sized parks in other countries, such as Disneyland Paris.

So what's this have to do with today? Presently, Merlin Entertainment's Legoland brand is expanding rapidly by taking Disney's old idea and running with it. The company has opened nearly a dozen of its smaller Legoland Discovery Centers in less than a decade, with many more in the works. These Discovery Centers often include a dark ride, a 4D movie, several smaller rides, and interactive building areas. It's actually brilliant for a smaller chain of theme parks, as it becomes a great ambassador for its full-sized parks, encouraging visitors to consider a day at those parks on their next vacation, in addition to (or instead of) visiting a competing park. I'm wondering if any other company will see Merlin's success and get on board.

Legoland Discovery Center

The Legoland Discovery Centers are generally reviewed very favorably. The only real complaint anyone has is that they're just so crowded, with the occasional gripe about expense — which are usually the two best problems for a theme park company to have. A big park chain could take this business model and turn these mini-parks into giant, profitable commercials for the real deal.

So what could have made Disney put the brakes on this idea all those years ago? Perhaps they were afraid it would cheapen their Disney resort experience? Maybe they didn't think they would be as big of a draw as these Discovery Centers seem to be? Local politicians could have seen it as an opportunity to try and overtax the giant corporation, which turned them off. Which leads us to think of what could have been.

Picture, if you will, in your nearest city, a structure similar in size to the Legoland Discovery Centers, with a large set of mouse ears as a beacon into a Disney Experience. People go in, experience a unique movie, a dark ride of some sorts that's really just pushing the parks on people, interactive games, and smaller rides, and families leaving at the end of the day with their kids asking "When can we go to Disney World?" It's possible, if done correctly.

You could design your own mouse ears, play interactive games about the parks themselves, and meet a character or two, Perhaps the dark ride could have been some sort of journey through the magic of Disney and its franchises. Soarin' was just a big love letter to California — why not make a ride based on those same principles to showcase how great the parks are?

With the Legoland Discovery Centers being built seemingly monthly, perhaps it's time to revisit the idea. The naysayers would say that one of the things that makes Disney the number-one theme park destination in the world is that you are immersed in a fantasy world, and that something like this could never have the same effect on somebody. Well I don't think it should try, rather I would say that it should only mystify the park experience that much more.

It should be a day trip leaving people pining for the full experience, yet still satisfied. Those of us who have gone will only think about it that much more fondly, and those of us that haven't would be dying to go. Sure, it could cheapen the experience if not done with enough care, but you'd have to have faith in the Big Mouse to make sure it was an amazing day experience leaving people hungry for more. With Internet sales, we are seeing malls go the way of the dinosaur. Perhaps now is the time to consider pulling some Disney Stores in favor of a day experience to really capture people's imaginations.

Most people with families can afford one big vacation a year, maybe two if they're lucky. Those same families make several day trips throughout the year, turning a Saturday into a family fun day. An outpost for your favorite theme parks could be a very profitable business, and serve as a showcase. Merlin seems to have figured that out. Legoland Discovery Centers have hit on a great business model. Will anyone else follow?

Replies (12)

September 14, 2015 at 10:54 AM · A great article. I'm sure the honest reason Disney didn't go with the concept was the fear it would cut into attendance at the resorts. The best way for Disney to do such a concept would be to open mini parks that only contain one land. I still think a third Magic Kingdom is viable, but Disney would have to be willing to have it eat sales at the existing resorts for the benefit of increasing profits overall. Disney, as much as it wants to be a global company isn't as strong as a brand worldwide to justify all its resorts, even if they don't own or pay for all them. Another U.S. Resort on the other hand could actually help the struggling global parks as it picks up the slack. Maybe Shangahi will be a hit, and Hong Kong and Paris will experience a turn around with the help from some adjustments, but only time will tell.
September 14, 2015 at 11:24 AM · That's my guess too.... just with economic changes it seems like something worth revisiting. Keeps the money in house for merchandise. For people who love Disney and the countless amounts of visitors they have I really couldn't see these experiences stopping anyone from wanting to visit the real thing. If they're afraid that it would make the parks less of a unique experience I guess I can see the point, but I'd still go to both anyway ha ha. For a place like Universal it would probably be a huge success
September 14, 2015 at 11:22 AM · I understand the need for the policy, but it's disappointing that Adults can not visit LegoLand Discovery Center locations without being accompanied by a child. I just discovered they offer an Adults night (at least in Atlanta) but it's one night a month. If I'm traveling and in a new city, odds are not good it will line up with such a limited oportunity. As a fan of Lego, and LegoLand parks (I've been to both US and the original park in Denmark) who is also childless, it's a displeaser that entry is denied.
September 14, 2015 at 11:41 AM · I see the Disney Hole (were DisneyQuest Philadelphia started but never finished construction) almost every day and feel sad.
September 14, 2015 at 12:08 PM · Great idea for families looking for a day trip, kids birthday parties, couples date for disneyphiles (aren't we all), etc. I hope the higher ups at Disney read this article!
September 14, 2015 at 1:28 PM · I went to LEGOLAND many times, but not Discovery Center. I would guess this is about building lego sets, which is easily portable to a smaller space. Other companies could offer fun activities in a smaller space. Disney has vast experience building water parks, kids play areas, princess salons, themed dining, and themed stores. Plus Disney built up a vast empire in video gaming especially with Star Wars and Infinity. Disney can consider a large building that caters to these hobby aspects plus host birthday parties with bounce houses and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for girls and pirate/Star Wars makeovers for boys.

Universal can do this too by hosting Harry Potter fans, plus themed playgrounds featuring Minions and Bart Simpson. With the Ninetendo agreement, certainly have some video games and walk around Donkey Kong characters.

Instead of a theme park, Disney could duplicate Aulani's success by just having a DVC resort with a water park. Maybe build one in Texas that has a port in Galveston. Imagine staying there for a few days and then go on a Disney cruise.

September 14, 2015 at 8:20 PM · There was a rumor about Disney trying to mimic the great wolf lodge model. Add in a reprogrammable simulator, shooter dark ride and play areas and this could work. This could be done with video mapping to change the look on a daily basis in a controlled lighting environment.
September 14, 2015 at 10:56 PM · Not only are Merlin doing this with Legoland Discovery Centres - they have Dungeons, Sea Life and now Shrek's Adventure rolling out too...
September 15, 2015 at 7:41 AM · There was a Disney community concept years ago called Club Disney with facilities in So Cal, Denver and Phoenix. They were Disney owned attractions meant to bring Disney to the local community. Sadly they did not last long.
September 15, 2015 at 8:55 AM · Disney's regional entertainment failed for several reasons. First, being Disney they insisted on building signature stand alone buildings unlike Merlin who uses pre-existing buildings in malls. This adds higher costs. The brands they rolled out were full of issues. For instance CLUB Disney charged parents admission when there was nothing for the adults to do. This caused value for money issues with parents. Disney was in experienced in operating attractions beyond the berm of the parks. Disney also struggled maintaining Disney standards in appeared ce and show quality on a regional basis. Finally, the concepts needed to work on a national rollout in order to be profitable. Once Wisner and Levitt realized these concerns they pulled the plug only one year into operation.
September 15, 2015 at 3:48 PM · This article gives Merlin an enormous credit which they simply don't deserve. They churn out Legolands and Sea-Life Centres because they are unimaginative and lazy. They've hit on formulas and just repeat ad nauseum, with barely any effort put into it. Find a suitable building, fill it with a 4D cinema, blaster ride, off-the-shelf family ride, brand and theme like all the rest - and voila! Watch the money roll in, then have the audacity to claim to be the 2nd-biggest theme park company in the world.

It's all the same stuff everywhere, like McDonalds. And that's fine, but sometimes you want something better. Something where someone's put a bit of effort in. I like what they're doing at Blackpool Tower, but it is just another 4D cinema. Alton Towers and Chessington have Sea-Lifes, Thorpe Park and Warwick Castle have variations on the Dungeons - it's very rare something truly great and original turns up at these theme parks.

Another outlet means they can put the Annual Pass price up, and their overall visitor numbers rise again so the shareholders are happy. But there are loads more lessons they need to learn from Disney.

September 15, 2015 at 4:59 PM · Dreamworks is also doing the same thing. In Manila, Philippines, they opened a new indoor interactive play and creativity center in City of Dreams (a casino in he Manila Bay Area) called Dreamplay, where there are about, I believe, 12 original attractions. I've never been inside but from the outside it looked like Dreamworks is stepping it up notch in terms of high quality entertainment.

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