From life-size animals to scale models of famous buildings, Lego's models help distinguish this as one of the most intricately themed parks in the world. Indeed, Legoland California reminds me why I feel in love with theme parks when I was a child. For children between the ages of three and 12, there is no better theme park in America. I cannot fathom why so many parents drag their children to parks like Disneyland, Universal Studios or Knott's Berry Farm, with their crowds and limited engagements for kids, while foregoing the opportunity to visit this gem.
Do not expect Disneyland-sized crowds at Legoland. Indeed, this park, with its limited capacity, couldn't begin to handle them. On its busiest day, I doubt that Legoland welcomes many more than 15,000 visitors. Summer weekends at Disneyland routinely see more than four times that. That said, many of the principle theme park veterans apply to a visit to a park like Disneyland apply here: Look for discounts, buy your ticket in advance, if possible, and arrive early, so that you can be waiting at the gate, ticket in hand, when the park opens at 10 a.m. (We bought two-for-one tickets at our local Costco.) Bring drinking water, wear comfortable walking shoes with socks and slather on the sunscreen.
Do note that Legoland is not open 365 days a year. The park closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the traditional school year. And extended hours here mean an 8 p.m. close, not midnight as at larger parks. It is a mericiful policy, in my opinion, as it protects Legoland's young visitors from vacation-crazed parents who would otherwise be tempted to subject their elementary-age kids to the inhumanity of a 9 a.m.-to-midnight theme-park marathon.
So, where to go when you enter the park? If you are visiting with kids, you simply will not be able to drag them past all the Lego models on your way to popular attractions like the Dragon, Sky Cruiser and Driving School. So just decide in which direction to head: left or right?
If you've kids ages six and under, I recommend starting to your left, and visiting the Safari Trek and Fairy Tale Brook first. Then continue around the park clockwise. If your children are older, go right first, heading to the Technic Coaster, followed by the Aquazone Wave Racers and Bionicle Blaster. Then head counter-clockwise toward Castle Hill and the Dragon coaster. (You can come back later in the day to visit the Racers 4D theater show.)
Dining options at Legoland California aren't quite up to the quality of SeaWorld San Diego, but do exceed those now available at Disneyland, Universal and Knott's. (I wouldn't dare eat at a Six Flags park.) The pizzas at Ristorante Brickolini had too much cheese for my taste -- my wife and I easily could have split one of the personal pizzas, and my two kids could have split a single pepperoni slice. The Knight's Table offers good barbecue -- not on the level of the much-missed Big Thunder Barbecue at Disneyland, but satisfying nevertheless. This summer, the Fun Town Market restaurant has been offering an Island Buffet dinner, with Jerk Chicken and Hawaiian Pork, among other selections. All restaurants I visited offered salads, as well.
While adults without children will not find as much to hold their attention here as they would at Disneyland or Universal, parents should not mistake Legoland California for a children's park. The majority of attractions here are enhanced by a parent's participation, whether it be in showing a child a penny to help explain the significance of the Lincoln Memorial in Miniland, or helping a child pull his or her way up the Kid Power Tower. Yes, some attractions are available only to the kids themselves. But I have felt no greater thrill in any theme park than watching my six-year-old daughter successfully navigate traffic at the Legoland Driving School.
A few words about that: Legoland offers two Driving School attractions, a Junior Driving School, where three-to-five year-olds learn to drive miniature cars around an oval, and the regular Driving School, where six-to-13 year-olds navigate a city-style street grid. These aren't Disney-style Autopia cars, guided by a rail. Your kid is one his own here, steering and pushing an accelerator pedal to stop and a brake to go. Older children are shown a traffic safety video at the regular Driving School, and expected to obey the rules of the road, including intersections, stop lights and signs. What a delightful introduction to driving and traffic safety!
Given the immense number of attractions here, and the short operating hours, I'd suggest a two-day stay for first-time visitors. Carlsbad, Calif. offers several excellent hotels within a five-minute drive of the park, and Legoland would make a splendid addition to week's stay in the San Diego area, with additional visits to SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. Those visiting the Los Angeles/Orange County area will find Legoland in Carlsbad about an hour's drive south of Disneyland on Interstate 5.
Overall I think it's one of the least talked about parks in So Cal. it may not have extreme thrills, but that technic roller coaster's one of the best rides in all of California.