There’s more to Orlando-area vacation options for your family than just that magical mouse – or Harry Potter. For years, I planned every Florida visit around Disney fun, from cruises to theme park packages. If we were anywhere near Orlando, I would be likely to book a “character meal,” when you get to dine with any number of characters at a Disney property. On one previous visit to Orlando, I even became one of “those moms” by pushing my then 4-year-old to ride the Tower of Terror at Disney’s MGM Studios. He’s never forgiven me, and I’ve never forgiven myself. As a result my now 7-year-old flat-out refuses to ride anything that might even slightly ruffle the hairs on his head. On our last mouse-centered vacation, my “scarred” son and husband (no great lover of thrill rides himself) would stand and dismally watch as I enjoyed ride after ride with our younger child.

So, in an effort to restore my elder son’s faith in both his mom (me), and amusement parks, we planned a trip to Legoland. The former Cypress Gardens, located in Winter Haven, was transformed Lego brick by Lego brick into Legoland and opened in the fall of 2011. Staying true to the Winter Haven tradition of Cypress Gardens, Legoland has retained the historic garden areas. A creative haven of fun, Legoland is a quieter, gentler theme park geared toward ages 2 to 13. That said, there’s still plenty of action for tiny thrill seekers such as our 4-year-old, and older siblings and parents will also enjoy themselves.

From Fun Town, with its beautiful two-story carousel, to the action-packed Land of Adventure featuring the Coastersaurus and Lost Kingdom of Adventure rides, there’s a nice range of rides in-between “slow and easy” and the “chills and thrills” category. Amid all the attractions, there’s plenty of opportunities to sit, rest, relax and enjoy shows.

The Pirate’s Cove Live Water Ski Show, complete with water-skiing pirates, guards and a princess (of course), will make a splash (literally!) with the entire family. The Fun Town 4D Theater offers several different shows throughout the day; we caught the Lego Racers show and experienced quite the ride, complete with wind, snow and water. The entertaining Fun Town Fire Department offers the “Big Test” live show featuring upbeat music, zany fun and acrobatics while also teaching fire safety.

Perhaps the most inspired part of Legoland is its Miniland. Made from millions of Lego bricks, this is where you’ll find miniature replicas of the Kennedy Space Center and Daytona International Speedway as well as entire areas dedicated to California, New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and to pirates sailing the high seas. It’s almost like a vacation within a vacation. Many of these displays are fully functioning, complete with lights and sounds.

The highlight of the day for my boys was the Ford Driving School (for ages 6-13) and the Ford Junior Driving School (ages 3-5) a “real-life”’ driving experience. Kids enter the driving school, have their picture taken for their driver’s license (available for purchase at $17 each, or you can receive a basic license with no picture for no cost). They also watch a safety video, receive a drivers’ orientation, and then take to the track for a hands-on driving test.

Lego brick-building opportunities abound throughout Legoland – even in the restaurants, which cater to younger diners and include fruit as an option with kid meals. The Fun Town Pizza and Pasta buffet seemed quite the bargain with “all you can eat pizza and pasta” ($10.99 for adults, $6.99 children) – but my boys did not want to miss a moment of fun by slowing down for lunch. I was happy to find a kids’ grilled cheese meal, complete with fruit and milk for just $5.49, which could also be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort.

I owe Legoland a lot. Its relaxed, family-friendly fun was the elixir needed to mend past theme park damages. As my 7-year-old and I strolled through Miniland again to “ooh and ahh” over the sheer genius of that section, a shy smile crept across his face as he said: “Race you to the Dragon roller coaster, Mom!”

Three quick tips for Legoland fun:

  • Make your first stop the Islands in the Sky ride near the Legoland entrance, because it provides a slow, spectacular view of the park.
  • There’s a reason for the long line at Granny’s Apple Fries – be sure to try these addictively yummy treats!
  • Legoland offers shuttle service from Orlando Premium Outlets on Vineland Avenue. If you plan to spend the entire day at Legoland, climb aboard a motor coach for the 45-minute drive, which drops off/picks up at the park entrance; a great way to avoid traffic stress and save on time, fuel and parking fees. (Reserve on the Legoland website in advance; $10 per person.)

One Legoland Way, Winter Haven, Fla.
Hours: Vary (often 10 a.m.-5 p.m.), so it’s best to check schedule.
Tickets: $75 ages 13 and up; $65 ages 3-12 and seniors.
Parking: $12 cars, $15 campers/RVs

– Dana diLorenzo

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