30 October 2012

The Plastic Nation: Legoland

You shouldn't go to Legoland to play with Legos.  I had always assumed that it was a kind of utopian nation full of bricks - a place where the landscape was made of mountains and floes of plastic.  It seemed the land's only pass-time would be pawing through the Legos, admiring all the strange and unusual pieces - something like collecting butterflies or rare wildflowers.  "Look at this strange wheel, and this remarkable helmet from the early 1980's."  Serious work would consist of grand building projects, dozens of kids banding together to create cityscapes and space fortresses.  I imagined building something very impressive (maybe a spaceship or a space-car) that everyone would admire - "no big deal, really," I'd say, "all it takes is hours of practice and a healthy imagination."  Maybe one of the Legoland chief architects, who I suppose would be elfin creatures who were paid richly to sit around and play with toys all day, would notice what I had built and offer me a job ("we don't usually hire kids, but you've got so much talent…").  I'd be let into those secret rooms in the factory where they design special pieces, and there I would play at being god and create the raw matter of plastic life, the elements that form the universe.  "I'd like a four-long, two deep slope with about four screens painted onto it and several knobs, made of clear plastic and…"
Well, that's not what Legoland is like at all.
On a frozen, white-edged morning we took a bus through rolling farmland to Denmark's original Legoland, on the outskirts of Billund.  On the way, we watched the sky lighten over cow pastures and sleepy towns.  Drawing closer, huge buildings began to pop up - square, massive, windowless factories.  They could have been anything, except that there were refrigerator-sized Lego bricks in front of them, and some had giant Lego people standing on their roofs. I assumed that this was what we had come for and got excited, but it turns out those are just the manufacturing buildings.  They're off limits.
We were let out in front of the Legoland hotel (where I'm sure the beds are very hard and bumpy).  Across the street were the ticket booths and lines.  Strange, tinny music echoed in the cold air.  Little kids ran around in snow suits.  We bought tickets and went in.
And here's what we discovered: there are millions and millions of bricks at Legoland, but almost all of them are fenced off.  This is a theme park.  The theme is "Legos." That doesn't mean you get to actually touch any.  People come for the rides.
Well, that's not entirely true.  There are a few instances where you can get up close with some of the toys, but these chances are few and far between.  Here, for example, you could sit with a shockingly dressed prostitute in the "Legoredo" wild-west section of the park.  The rest of the western themed section was almost empty of bricks, except for a few big displays - a 1.4 million brick Mount Rushmore and another huge "running of the buffalo."
Most of the rides and areas are based on older product series - Knight's Kingdom, Polar Land, Pirates, Vikings - that children today might not even recognize.  There are roller coasters and spinners, splash-rides and pop-shot booths.  It's not much different than most theme parks.
The most interesting part of the park is "Miniland", where famous European cities and world monuments are re-created in miniature.  Amsterdam, Bergen, Copenhagen, the US Capitol Building, the Statue of Liberty (etc…) are set up in fine, pixilated detail.  The visual effect is fun: there are trees towering over skyscrapers and grass growing up around tiny people.  Leaves drifted in the streets and the whole of everything was covered in frost.  Little trucks drove through the streets, powered by battery.  Barges floated in the canals.  The Cape Canaveral tableau emitted steam when the shuttle was about to "take off."  Young men walked carefully between the displays, picking up twigs and dusting tiny courtyards.  There were boats to ride in between some of the bigger creations, and a nearby "safari" had near life-size models of exotic animals.  This part of the park was great, and it was where adult visitors lingered the longest.  Here were the fun Lego creations we had expected to see.
Over a thousand pieces are produced every second, stamped in one of three factories on two continents.  Rubber World magazine recently recognized the toymaker as the world leader in tire production, based on units produced - 381 million in 2011.  Lego, by its own estimates, has produced over 400 billion pieces since 1949, when they began making the "automatic binding brick."  Incredibly, the pieces from that first year are compatible with modern bricks - there have been changes made to the plastic and the process, but not to the basic design.
Tastes have changed, though, and Lego began losing money in the late 1990's.  The company was forced - they say - to change the focus of the bricks.  Instead of sticking with the free-form pieces that made them famous, they began creating more specialty pieces that would grab the attention of children used to video games.  In fact, they began making video games, then movies and clothes.  Most of their old product series were scrapped in favor of movie tie-ins: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Lord of the Rings and others - there's even Spongebob Squarepants Legos.
The company also opened more theme parks.  The Billund one is the first, built in 1968, but there are five other, newer parks and three more on the way.  Lego says that 1.4 million people visit each of the six parks annually.  I believe it.  Legoland was packed.
The best part about these toys is that they seem limitless.  Nothing else is like them. Legos are a magical base substance that allows the builder to create incredible shapes, machines, towns, vehicles, castles, whatever. And not only that, but this act of creation is fast, easy and fluid - unlike, say, carpentry or sculpture.  But the most incredible thing about Legos isn't that they can be used to build, but that they can be taken apart and used in a different way, then a different way, like a process of alchemy and atoms.  What is built is only a temporary form, brought into being or reduced to its elemental parts on a whim.  They give someone the ability to think and imagine in three dimensions.
Which is why the themepark was a little disappointing.  Not only were the rides less Lego-centric than they could have been, the rest of the place just didn't feel that imaginative.  They do have brick-shaped french fries, but that was the only theme-specific food - what about Lego waffles (their waffles were normal shaped)?  Or Lego-decorated brownies, carrot cake and cookies?  How hard would it be to put on a few dollops of frosting?  And what about a few bricks to actually, you know, play with?  Instead, there's a Nintendo video game center and a movie theater.
Legoland Billund is the biggest tourist attraction in Denmark outside of Copenhagen, and it's easy to see why.  There are millions of people around the world who love Legos, and who are willing to travel all the way to a fairly remote town for a big Lego experience.  We weren't the only twenty-something travelers there without kids.
Sadly, we left a little disappointed.  Not that it wasn't fun.  It just wasn't the experience I'd dreamed of.  It's not a place I would recommend, unless someone really likes tame amusement park rides and happens to be close by.
Still, it was fun to think about the toys again, and to see Miniland.  The tiny, leaf-covered houses and people were perfectly charming.  They were weathered and a little faded from the elements.  It had me wanting to build something.

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