It’s hard to say who enjoys LEGOLAND more: the little ones running around in a magical world created by 60 million LEGO plastic bricks, or their parents who get a kick out of it too. This theme park in Carlsbad, on the north side of San Diego County, first opened in 1999. It’s conveniently located within an hour or two of a variety of theme parks and attractions in Southern California—but it’s also just few minutes’ drive to a state beach. With both onsite and nearby hotels, as well as its own water park and aquarium, LEGOLAND California has grown from a tribute to the plastic bricks into the kind of place a family could spend a few days.
Walk through Miniland USA for a visual and structural jaw-dropper: expansive miniaturized recreations of Washington D.C., New York, and San Francisco, as well as scenes from several of the Star Wars movies (including an enormous LEGO Death Star). While the focus here leans towards making little ones smile, there’s plenty to entertain bigger kids and grown-ups too: the park has more than 60 rides, shows, and attractions—including three rollercoasters, live shows by the LEGO Friends, and entertainment and meet-and-greets related to various LEGO incarnations, from Ninjago to The LEGO Movie and LEGO Batman.
A hands-on spirit permeates LEGOLAND California more than most theme parks, from the kid-made vehicles in the Build & Test play area to the pulley-driven Kid Power Towers ride. LEGO Ninjago World takes that magic to another level, focusing on LEGO’s line of spunky ninja characters.
The one-acre NINJAGO World zone sits near the park’s entrance and is festooned with LEGO statues of guardian dragons and ninja warriors, as well as four play areas—each designed to cultivate a different ninja skill. There’s Zane’s Temple Build, where kids can build with LEGO bricks along the perimeter of a LEGO Asian temple. Nearby, kids can test their balance on the playground-style Kai’s Spinners, showcase their agility on Cole’s temple-oriented Rock Climb, or test their speed by pushing lit-up buttons in Jay’s Lightning Drill speed cage. Recharge at the Ninja Kitchen with a banh mi sandwich on crusty baguette or a steamed bao bun, filled with your choice of crispy pork belly, lemongrass chicken, or baked sweet chili tofu—another good example of LEGOLAND California’s ability to diversify its menu beyond hot dogs and pretzels.
Then get ready for the main attraction: NINJAGO The Ride. The 4D interior-style ride seats up to four riders in a car, then glides through 13 areas guarded by NINJAGO foes like Lord Garmaddon, King of the Skulkuns, or the snake-like Great Devourer (who, it turns out, can only be defeated if everyone in the car works together). Wearing your 3D glasses, you fire at targets and earn points along the way. But rather than using a laser gun, you “shoot” with your hands, like a wizard. Sensors over the lap bar help bring that magic to your fingertips—a cool fantasy-come-true for riders of pretty much any age.
“We’ve really taken the principle of ‘hands on, minds on’ to a whole new level,” says Peter Ronchetti, general manager of LEGOLAND California Resort. “We’re firing the imagination to another degree by using gestures to propel fire and ice. It’s bridging the gap between the old way of using physical props—bricks and the like—with the new world of virtual technology.”
Walking through this star attraction, which recreates—in ultra-miniature—seven iconic American regions—and you’ll likely find yourself pointing, gasping, and shaking your head in amazement. Skilled teams used 20 million tiny LEGO bricks to create incredibly detailed dioramas for Miniland: stretch limos pulling up in front of a Hollywood movie premier, tiny tourists lining up in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and even a street parade in New Orleans—not to mention a version of the Las Vegas Strip with 10 hotels. Check out the version of San Francisco’s Pier 39 and listen close—its soundtrack was recorded at the actual California pier.
Take your time here—the more you look, the more you see. For a different perspective on this section of the park, take the Coast Cruise ride, a no-minimum-height boat excursion that motors around the lake surrounding Miniland and gives you close-up looks at other LEGO-rendered world sites such as the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, and Mt. Rushmore.
As Miniland has expanded over the years, so has its fictional counterpart: the LEGO Star Wars area features scenes from the iconic film series, from the planets Tatooine and Naboo, as well as a Death Star that measures eight feet in diameter.
The name of the game at LEGOLAND California is discovery and wonder. Everywhere you look, there is a playful use of LEGO bricks and rides with mechanically-themed whimsy, whether it’s at Driving School, where kids learn the ways of the road in LEGO-esque mini-cars, or Safari Trek, where riders drive animal-striped Jeeps to wind around a world of life-size giraffes, elephants, and tigers (all made of—you guessed it—LEGO bricks). At Fairy Tale Brook, climb aboard a whimsical boat shaped like a giant leaf to float past recreated scenes from classic stories such as The Three Little Pigs (whose brick house is made of, yes, plastic bricks).
For your child’s first roller-coaster experience, take a spin on tot-friendly Coastersaurus, billed as a “pink-knuckle” ride—enough for a thrill but not white-knuckle, I-want-to-go-home-now-mommy scary. Expect to get wet on rides like Splash Battle, where riders not only shoot water from their own ships, but can get fired upon by the water cannons powered by spectators.
For quieter downtime, take the behind-the-scenes factory tour, which shows how LEGO bricks are made, or let your little builders get creative in hands-on Duplo Play. Sky Cruiser is always a crowd-pleaser (and crowds it often has), but who wouldn’t want to pedal colorful LEGO-themed cars on tracks overlooking the park? The two fastest coasters are the still-fairly-mellow Technic, in the park’s Imagination Zone, and the free-wheeling Dragon (but even on these two rides, the height minimums are just 42 and 40 inches, respectively). For shortest lines, aim to get to the park early, head straight for furthest-away rides and attractions, then work your way back towards the entrance.
LEGO animals. LEGO T-shirts. LEGO lunch boxes. And even LEGO wedding cake toppers. Shops are scattered around LEGOLAND California, offering anything from ready-to-build kits to The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie memorabilia.
Many stores reflect nearby rides and attractions, so if your child pines for a knight in shining armor (albeit one built out of plastic bricks), head for the King’s Market, adjacent to The Dragon and The Knights’ Tournament rides. You’ll also find Medieval-era costumes—including tiaras, foam swords, and foam shields—if that dress-up box at home needs some new items.
Indeed, there’s a shop for every kind of LEGO love, starting with the all-encompassing Big Shop and the Ninjago-related toys at Wu’s Warehouse. For LEGO Star Wars toys, check out the Empire Emporium, located just beyond the LEGO Death Star; fans of the LEGO Friends will want to peruse the Heartlake City Boutique. To go old school, go to the LEGO Club House, where you can buy non-kit sets of LEGO bricks, or just buy loose bricks by the pound from colorful bins.
Insider tip: Buy a few bricks at the LEGO Club House and build a few mini-figures, then look for the park’s “Model Citizens” (a.k.a. employees). If there’s a mini-figure dangling from their name badge, kids can use their own mini-figure to trade for it.
When it comes to mealtime and snacks, LEGOLAND definitely knows its audience. All over the park you’ll find restaurants and stands serving kid-friendly fare—lots of hamburgers, hot dogs, and an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Pizza & Pasta Buffet (for a welcome dose of greenery, there are also salads).
But LEGOLAND also offers diverse, adult-friendly fare. In the Castle Hill section, feast like a king on the ribs and barbecue chicken at Knights’ Smokehouse BBQ. In the Ninjago section, choose from banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches on steamed bao buns. In the Heartlake City section of the park, snack on Nutella-slathered crepes. In the SeaLife Aquarium, the Ocean Journey Café offers gourmet macaroni and cheese, Angus beef sliders, and other fare—all locally sourced (and you don’t need to be attending the aquarium to eat there).
No matter what, save room for Granny’s Apple Fries, a LEGOLAND creation of Granny Smith apple slices cooked until tender and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Dip them in the accompanying vanilla cream sauce for an extra treat. The fruit fries are available at Castle Hill.
Dietary restrictions in your family? Kids with nut allergies can find options at Burger Stop, Castle Burger or Fun Town Hot Dog, while gluten-intolerant tummies can find options at Garden Restaurant, or stir-fries at Wok ‘N’ Bowl Ramen.
Now you no longer just visit fantasyland, you live in it. This temple to everything LEGO has nailed every detail down to the brightly-colored rooms and a lobby featuring a giant mosh pit full of plastic bricks, so kids can build away while grown-ups check in. The rooms come in a variety of themes, including pirates, adventurers, LEGO friends, and, as of spring 2017, Ninjago warriors.
And you can’t walk around a corner without stumbling across larger-than-life LEGO sculptures, made with more than 3 million bricks: Head into the Skyline Café, and the mini cityscape has Spider-Man scaling a building and a wizard reading a book by a rooftop pool. Industrial-strength glue holds the sculptures together, so go ahead and touch. Or, better yet, use them as inspiration—there’s a LEGO brick box in every guest room.
Those rooms have a unique family-friendly approach too: separate sleeping areas for grown-ups and kids (up to 3 youngsters can sleep in bunk beds or a pullout trundle bed). The kids’ quarters are more fun, with walls painted with LEGO themes and characters. Even if you’re staying on the ground floor, don’t miss the hotel’s disco-themed elevator, which is nearly a ride in itself. Guests can also enjoy poolside movies and early entry time into the park.
Scheduled to open in 2018: A second, all-castle-themed hotel on the park grounds, with wizard, princess, and knight-themed rooms.
Chill out at this lively water park located inside LEGOLAND California—which you enter either by upgrading your ticket or buying a bundled ticket at the entry gates. (Just check the LEGOLAND calendar first: the water park is seasonal, open every day in summer, but with blackout dates in spring and fall.) One side of the water park is classic LEGO-themed, while the other side is jazzed up with the lions, crocodiles, and other talking-beast characters from the LEGO-inspired TV series and toy line Legends of Chima.
Slip into your bathing suits to jump into the ultra-cool Lion Temple Wave Pool, where walking under the LEGO lion archway could get you doused by 400 gallons of water every minute from 30 feet/9 meters above the wave pool. Forget a swimsuit? You can buy suits and goggles at the shops by the water park’s entrance, stow your regular theme-park clothes and sneakers in lockers, and borrow life jackets for little swimmers.
Granted, this is still LEGOLAND, so there is more to do than just splash or ride the slides.There are plenty of hands-on toys, including water cannons and giant squirt guns. Climb up the pool’s 40-foot/12-meter-high floating mountain to watch the endless water wars below. Help the kids build their own boats to take on the water slide, or just let them go at it while you retire to a poolside cabana, a worthwhile splurge for the day; it includes lounge chairs, a mini fridge, complimentary drinks, and the most important commodity of the day—shade.
LEGOLAND California makes things extra-lively for events and holidays throughout the year—whether it’s annual celebrations or special occasions, like a week highlighting a new Star Wars display in Miniland, or perhaps celebrating the enigmatic LEGO Batman. The Carlsbad theme park shows its national pride in July for its patriotic Red, White & Boom celebration, with games, dance contests, and early-evening fireworks for July 4. For Halloween, the goal is to entertain—not frighten—the smaller set. There’s a “Brick-Or-Treat” party every Saturday night (and some Fridays) in October, with special entertainment, costume contests, giant LEGO Halloween models, fireworks, and of course plenty of sweet treats.
At Christmastime, the park brings snow—yes, real snow—to Southern California, using it to dress up various sites around the park, including the world’s largest all-LEGO Christmas tree (a cool fact, but how much competition does it have?). Build a snowman using LEGO bricks, sing carols with the Jingle Jammers, and stock up on LEGO brick gifts too. Come right after Christmas and you can take part in a family-friendly version of New Year’s Eve, with live music and a bedtime-friendly “brick drop” at 6 p.m. On special nights in December, add holiday fireworks and light shows to the mix.
With up-close experiences, touch pools, and extraordinary walk-through tanks, this sister site to LEGOLAND California helps kids (and grownups) learn about all kinds of aquatic life. Upgrade your regular theme park ticket for about $20 more, or bundle your park ticket with passes to the aquarium at a discounted rate. Exploring the aquarium can take just about an hour, but you can extend the time easily if you come for one of the scheduled events, like the tank feedings or the animal encounters.
More than 5,000 creatures, including sharks, rays, seahorses, octopi, and tropical fish (including entertaining “hey, that’s Nemo!” clownfish) swim, crawl, and slither through their underwater environments here, with plenty of ways for us landlubbers to enjoy them. Check out the Jellyfish Discovery Zone, where 100 of the enigmatic creatures dance around their own version of a disco, with ceiling-high tube tanks and rainbow-colored spotlights. You can also watch seahorses get their daily fill of brine shrimp, or learn how aquarists use food to enrich the mind of the aquarium’s surprisingly savvy giant Pacific octopus.