It's a Lego fan's dream come true: Legoland Florida opens this weekend in central Florida, the first Lego-themed outdoor park in the United States since Legoland California opened in 1999.
Built on the former grounds of Cypress Gardens, one of Florida's first theme parks, Legoland Florida has preserved much of the historical and natural beauty of its predecessor.
Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, Cypress Gardens featured Southern belles in large hoop skirts walking around the carefully manicured grounds greeting guests. Its famous water-ski shows were glamorized in movies and the 1982 music album and video for the Go-Go's song "Vacation."
After Disney World opened in 1971, Cypress Gardens' attendance started dwindling, and after several attempts to revive the park through new ownership, it closed in 2009.
Legoland officials were thrilled to find Cypress Gardens available, as it's about an hour drive from Orlando, considered to be the theme park capital of the world.
"We were excited about the actual site, the heritage and history," said Adrian Jones, Legoland's general manager. "We talked about the hairs standing up on the back of our neck in term of the sheer beauty."
There was criticism about Legoland's choice of Cypress Gardens, a location with a history of failure.
"We knew the problem that Cypress Garden had before," Jones said. But he said he believes the popularity of Legos and the beauty of the gardens will attract guests -- and, he says, annual pass sales have been strong.
Legoland Florida still features a water ski show, this one featuring a Lego pirate, and an elegant Southern belle still greets guests as they enter the park -- but she's made entirely out of Legos.
It took Legoland more than a year to transform the 75-year-old park's outdated and crumbling buildings and overgrown garden into a modern facility, without removing the historical charm of the cypress trees draped with Spanish moss.
This week, annual pass holders were allowed a sneak peek at the 150-acre park before its official opening Saturday.
"Legoland! Legoland!" chanted Denise Valletutti, along with her kids Savannah, 8 and Noah, 12, while their car climbed to the top of Technic Test Track, a roller coaster-like ride.
The chants were quickly replaced with screams on the way down.
The family skipped school in order to beat the crowds, though they plan to be there on opening day anyway.
"We'll be back whenever we can," Valletutti said.
Legoland Florida is the largest of the five Legoland parks, located in Denmark, England, Germany, and the United States. Future parks are planned to be built in Malaysia and Dubai. There are also smaller indoor Legoland Discovery Centers around the world, including several U.S. shopping malls.
Legoland Florida is geared for kids ages 2 to 12 and features 50 rides as well as Miniland USA, the heart of every Legoland Park. This park's Miniland USA features Florida destinations in the form of intricate Lego structures, including NASA's Kennedy Space Center, featuring the space shuttle spewing smoke, ready for takeoff.
Designers started building Lego sculptures two years ago, with the help of a computer program that "Lego-izes" models into a brick pattern for assembly.
The larger models are hollow, with a steel frame to keep them strong and stable in the park.
But park designer Bill Vollbrecht says there's nothing special about the Legos they use to construct the models.
"We always use the parts and pieces that are available to kids at home," said Vollbrecht, who also designed the California park.
"It really shows that this is a real model made out of real bricks that kids can see the pieces and recognize."