A Pilgrimage To Legoland

Seeing the light at the California outpost of the world’s cheeriest cult

I’m inching through traffic — six jammed lanes of it, beneath a flawless blue California sky. The highway is funneling us all into Legoland, America’s largest and most-visited toy-themed park, and I’m fighting a mounting sense of panic — specifically demophobia, the fear of crowds.

It’s spring break, and at 10 a.m., when we finally reach the parking lot, there are already thousands of cars extending to the horizon in every direction. Rivers of people are surging towards the entrance, battling for tickets, teeming through the turnstiles. I’m reminded of the Muslim hajj, or the various Hindu festivals that attract mind-boggling masses of humanity.

I’ve never been to a theme park before, and the scale is daunting. I’m worried we will even make it through the gates. What on earth, I ask myself, was I thinking?

Then I cast an eye at Sam, my 10-year-old, sitting in the passenger seat wearing a rapturous expression straight out of a Raphael fresco. He doesn’t give a hoot about crowds; he is literally about to enter kid paradise.

“They have a giant model of Manhattan,” he informs me, reading from his Lego Club magazine. “It’s made from two million pieces…”

I take a deep breath and try to channel my inner pre-teen. Of course, I too once worshipped at the altar of the interlocking plastic brick, with hundreds of pieces scattered around my family home like shrapnel. But back then Lego was a quaint, low-tech phenomenon. Now it’s a global juggernaut, with hundreds of themed sets, its own hit movie and, yes, sprawling international parks like the one into which we are now being inexorably drawn.

The pioneer Legoland opened in Billund, Denmark in 1968; Sam and I are about to enter the first U.S. incarnation, in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. It opened in 1999 and extends over 128 acres, with an aquarium, a Lego Hotel and a Lego water park. (Another opened in Florida in 2011. There are now Legolands in Malaysia, the UK, Germany and, soon, Dubai…)

It’s all a bit overwhelming. Privately, I find myself hoping there’s a Lego cocktail bar on the premises.

Somehow, as we join the entry line, my Grinch-like resistance begins to soften. Families in our immediate vicinity have come from as far away as India, Brazil, and Iceland, and the Babel of languages suggests the idea of Lego as a global, secular religion — a benign cult that cuts across cultures and unites generations. According to the company’s estimates, over 400 million people around the world have grown up building with Lego. Every year, children spend five billion hours playing with it. And there are now over 400 billion pieces in existence — 62 per person on the planet.

Like all good cults, Lego has its own creation myth. The bobbled brick was invented in Denmark in 1932, the depths of the Great Depression, by a down-on-his-luck village carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen. Ole Kirk started out crafting wooden furniture for callous-handed Danish farmers, but expanded into toys to help make ends meet, often trading them for food. He called his bricks Lego, from the Danish “leg godt,” or “play well.” (In a happy linguistic twist, that’s also Latin for “I put together.”)

Lego has also, like any world religion, faced viciously contested schisms. In the beginning, the company produced a limited range of shapes, all rectangles and squares — a rigorously pure design that earned it a place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example. But in the 1970s, exotic new forms and curves infiltrated the canon. The first mini-figure was produced in 1978 (today there are six billion in existence, the biggest shadow army in the world), and the floodgates were opened.

To the horror of purists, kits today contain prefabricated animals, trees, space monsters. Pretty much every pop-cultural hit has its own themed set, from The Avengers to The Hobbit. There are highbrow kits such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, and a new robotics system, Mindstorms, which has inspired high-tech kiddie boot camps from Silicone Valley to Bangalore.

So it stands to reason that Lego also has its sacred sites. And as I feel the throng start to surge through the gates, I’m struck by a joyful epiphany. I shouldn’t let the crowds annoy me; I should embrace them! I hand our tickets to the cheerful teenage attendant and achieve a form of Zen acceptance. We’re all together here, pilgrims of the plastic brick.

In the blink of an eye, we’re through the turnstiles and let loose inside an explosion of primary colors: we’ve leapt from black-and-white reality to the acid-bright Land of Oz. Giant rainbow-colored sculptures loom at every turn. The music being piped over the loudspeakers is “Everything is Awesome” — the official brand hymn, from the surprisingly witty film that has grossed over $486 million worldwide. (I’ve seen it three times, and am compelled to join the chorus of protest that it was snubbed by the Academy in the Best Animated Feature category this year).

I’m also relieved to see some real greenery — manicured gardens, lush ferns and shady eucalyptus trees. There’s even a lake, across which vaguely brick-shaped barges are gliding. Still, I’m paralyzed by the options. (Sixty attractions!) Staring at the map, I don’t know where to turn. I look at Sam.

“The Death Star,” he instructs me. Obviously.

We dash along a path past an enormous Lego spider. A red Lego dragon rears in the distance. Soon we burst into the Star Wars section, containing a vast Lego diorama for each episode of the series. We’re agog at the Millennium Falcon, the desert landscape of Tatooine, the domes of Naboo. There is Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, where Luke Skywalker grew up, and an excellent alien Cantina. But the pièce de résistance is the Death Star. It looms above us, an intricate ball thirteen feet in diameter.

“More than 500,000 pieces,” Sam informs me.

If I’ve been trying to maintain even the faintest patina of resistance, now’s the time that it falls away. This is undeniably cool. We have our photos taken next to a pint-sized Lego sculpture of Darth Maul.

Next up: an educational tour of planet earth. We rush to the lake, where a barge takes us past a Lego Sydney Opera House, a Lego Taj Mahal and a Lego Eiffel tower. In an area called Miniland USA looms a 1:20 scale New York City, complete with a pleasingly retro vision of Times Square in the 80s (no prostitutes, but otherwise pretty accurate). All but hidden inside Grand Central Station is a Lego man using a Lego toilet.

Nearby is a Lego New Orleans, a Lego Washington DC, a Lego San Fransisco and, in a nice bit of meta-commentary, a Lego Las Vegas that includes fake mini-versions of its fake monuments.

As much as I’m enjoying myself, I can’t help but notice how far things have strayed from the humble, egalitarian roots of Ole Kirk Christiansen’s original invention. It’s not just the scale and the sophistication of the place; there’s also a distinctly un-Scandinavian class system at work here, with VIP parking sections and VIP tickets that will set you back a cool $259 for adults, and $253 for kids. These allow the wealthy to skip the lines, which they do without any visible traces of guilt as the masses look on resentfully. And the commercial side is, of course, shameless, with modeling sets for sale at every turn and all paths leading to the aptly named Big Store.

And yet somehow, the combination of whimsy, earnestness, and attention to detail overcomes any sense of resentment. One lesser-used path goes past a string of historical statues including Shakespeare, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Churchill and Einstein, prompting a father-son educational exchange. There’s even a nod to West Coast history, via life-size figures of “49ers” — the miners of the 1849 Californian gold rush, who sport beards, sacks, pick-axes, and manic grins. And yes, in answer to my earlier prayers, there’s a bar, which I’m much in need of after our action-packed, eight-hour day.

The Legoland Hotel is booked up months in advance, so that night Sam and I end up at a random motel nearby. It’s a little creepy, a cross between the Bates Motel and one of the 1950s roadside lodgings catalogued in Lolita. But it’s also an unexpected relief, the grays and beiges a welcome respite from the day-long deluge of color.

“So how do you rate Legoland?” I ask as Sam crawls into bed, clutching his souvenir set like a holy relic — a piece of the true cross, perhaps, or the Buddha’s tooth.

Of course, I already know the answer: “Everything was awesome,” he says, with a beatific look in his eyes.

And like all good pilgrims, we will spread the holy word. In a few days, we’ll be back in the East Village, and Sam will testify to his friends about the lifesize Lego R2-D2, the Lego Mount Rushmore and the Lego New England harbor where kids can pilot radio-controlled Lego boats — inspiring a new wave of the faithful, no doubt, to head west to the promised land.

Photography by Kendrick Brinson

The Autograph Collection is part of the Marriott International portfolio.