Lean back and stare up at the sky for LEGOLAND California’s eye-popping 4th of July fireworks in Carlsbad, about 45 minutes north of San Diego. The park’s “Red, White and BOOM” festivities have a decidedly retro feel, featuring classic activities like burlap sack races and water balloon tosses. Kids can bust a move during the Character Dance Parties, join LEGO building events, and join (with mom and dad) the stroller parade. Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty—on stilts—make a patriotic appearance, bands play in the LEGOLAND water park, and fireworks light up the night sky.
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 colourful 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.
Long before perfectly average Emmet had to save the world, Legos were just a bunch of really cool building blocks. But ever since 2014’s The Lego Movie became a 3-D animated blockbuster, Legos have taken on new star power—and Legoland California knows it. Now, an expansive, interactive attraction, The Lego Movie Experience, lets you get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Kids get all start struck seeing their favorite mini-characters and scenes as peer in at the movie’s soundstage and models, including pirates, robots, flying ice cream trucks, school bus tanks, and the movie’s stunningly self-centered Batman.
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 armour (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 colourful 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). 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 fantasy land, you live in it. LEGOLAND California has two hotels right outside the Carlsbad theme park entrance—each with their own colourful themes, restaurants, pools and playful features—from a disco lift to a slide in the lobby.
Both properties are designed with travelling families in mind. The hotels’ junior-suite-style rooms—emblazoned with colourful walls and LEGO models as art—have separate sleeping areas for grown-ups and children. The children’s quarters have bunk beds, their own TV and a LEGO brick box for impromptu building. Both foyers feature giant mosh pits full of plastic bricks, so kids can build away while grown-ups check in. Plus, all hotel guests enjoy both complimentary breakfast buffets and early entry into the park (up to an hour, depending on the season).
Choose your hotel based on the theme: the original, 250-room LEGOLAND Hotel offers four room themes—pirates, adventurers, LEGO friends and Ninjago warriors—and larger-than-life LEGO sculptures, made with more than 3 million bricks, all over the hotel. Head into the Bricks Family Restaurant and neighbouring Skyline Café, and check out the mini cityscape that 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. Outside, there’s a real pool, too, with soft LEGO bricks that can be used to build in the water. Meanwhile, don’t miss the hotel’s disco-themed lift, which is nearly a ride in itself.
The LEGOLAND Castle Hotel, meanwhile, opened in 2018 with 250 rooms based on three kingdom-oriented themes: wizards, knights and princesses, with LEGO art ranging from owls to cats and fire-breathing dragons, and tiny star lights embedded in the ceiling over the children's bunk beds. The Castle’s lobby offers its own diversions, from the slide that runs parallel to a flight of stairs, a Knock Knock Door that tells jokes and a small 'dungeon' ready for photo ops. Its courtyard area has its own pool, a LEGO-stocked playground and a big screen TV set on a small lawn, playing LEGO films daily. The hotel’s Dragon’s Den restaurant has live entertainment (jesters who take requests when you spin the wheel on the wall), and a parent-friendly bar.
With either hotel, remind your children to pack their LEGO Mini Figures, which they can trade with staff at the hotels or in the park.
Your little boy or girl may not yet own their first set of DUPLO bricks, but they’ll still be drawn into this fantasy world made from millions of miniature bricks. Gentler rides and play areas are delineated by a cuddly teddy bear on the park map. Toddlers can chug around on a pint-size choo-choo, 'pilot' a plane two metres in the air or dig in the sand for dinosaur fossils. (Tip: before you get to Carlsbad, check out the theme park's handy Know Before You Go page.)
Much of the magic happens in Miniland USA, where you’ll find to-scale LEGO replicas of iconic landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Las Vegas Strip and New York’s Central Park, where short attention spans will love searching for itty-bitty sunbathers or people practicing tai chi. That’s if you can peel your tiny Wookie away from the Star Wars attraction next door, where scenes from the films and cartoon have been painstakingly recreated. What could be more mind-blowing than the attention to detail here? The amount of bricks needed to make it all happen: more than 32 million.
For children five and under, DUPLO Playtown is the place to slide, climb and explore playhouses and other interactive structures—which include a hospital, a barn and a supermarket—decked out with buttons, games and, of course, plenty of giant LEGO bricks. The LEGOLAND® Express Train Ride gently navigates hairpin turns as it chugs through a sprouting LEGO garden. It’s a great introduction to theme park fun for smaller children just beginning to ramble around on their own. For older LEGO fans, DUPLO® Playtown has the impressively looming Kid Power Towers; children and parents can ascend to the top for panoramic views of the park before 'free falling' back to the ground.
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. 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.
The SeaLife Aquarium is also home to one of the best-kept dining secrets of LEGOLAND Calfornia: The Ocean Journey Café, a mellow, market-style restaurant with all locally sourced cuisine, from fresh salads to Havarti-and-cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches and Angus-beef sliders.