Oh, to be a kid again. The new LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Bay Area will have its Grand Opening on June 14, just in time for summer, and aligning perfectly with the state’s reopening as COVID cases drop and vaccinations continue en masse.
Located in the Great Mall, this “Ultimate Indoor LEGO® Playground” takes up more than 31,000 square feet of space that was once home to many a Sears appliance. Originally set to open in April, 2020, the long-awaited first Discovery Center on the west coast will soon finally be a reality. Says General Manager James Judy, “We’re looking forward to finally having this place full of visitors, and I can’t wait to see the looks on kids’ faces.”
There are over 20 LEGOLAND® Discovery Centers throughout the world (not to be confused with the LEGOLAND® Resorts and Theme Parks), all owned and operated by the British company Merlin Entertainment. (Oh, and yes, in case you were wondering, we need to put this symbol – ® – after every instance of LEGO® or LEGOLAND®, on account of The Lego Group being the largest toy company in the world with some very highly-paid lawyers. Also, LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies, which does not sponsor, authorize, or endorse the newspaper you are reading.)
OK, where were we? Oh yes – fun! And lots of it. The new LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Bay Area boasts a range of interactive and educational experiences geared toward children ages 3–10 and their families. Hop on the Imagination Express, a mini dark ride where you wave a magic wand to collect points (very similar to Disney’s Toy Story Mania). Or enjoy a short film in the LEGO® 4D Cinema, where your favorite LEGO® characters star in a 3D adventure with real-seeming wind, rain, and snow effects.
There’s also the LEGO® NINJAGO Training Camp, which includes a laser maze, a LEGO® Racers area where you can build and time your own vehicle on a test track, the Great LEGO® Race VR Experience where you can race against friends while dodging realistic obstacles in a virtual LEGO® world, and Pirate Adventure Island, an immense indoor play structure modeled after a LEGO®-themed pirate ship.
There are also Earthquake Tables, where you can build your own skyscraper and test its shake-ability. And there’s the LEGO® Friends Heart Lake City area, where you can add your own creation to the skyline. And there’s DUPLO® Park, where little builders can play and build in safety. AND there’s the Build Challenge Circle, where a host will tell a story and guide you in creating whatever comes to mind.
And if that wasn’t enough, there will also be character meet n’ greets throughout the day. Plus a cafe, special party rooms for birthday celebrations, and the LEGO® retail store. And did I mention the Creative Workshop, where Milpitas native and Master Model Builder Sam Suksiri will lead hands-on workshops on building some pretty amazing stuff?
Of course, at the center of LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Bay Area (literally: around which all of these other activities are arrayed) is the piece de resistance, the coup de grace, the icing on the cake. Call it what you will, just don’t call it late for dinner. It’s a LEGO® creation like none other. Referred to as simply “Miniland,” it’s a collection of over 35 iconic Bay Area landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, Levi’s Stadium, the Winchester Mystery House, Chase Center, Alcatraz, and Oakland City Hall. Laughs Judy, “When you hear there’s a miniature LEGO® city, everyone pictures something that fits on their kitchen table. It’s a little bit more than that.” Indeed, Miniland took a team of 45 LEGO® Model Builders, 9 LEGO® Designers, and 4 Technicians more than 7,150 hours to build. There are even hidden characters located randomly about (I noticed Aquaman, looking in fine form).
Milpitas has also been allotted some real estate in Miniland. Currently there is a marching band on display there, but Judy hints that they have some ideas for future projects. Talks with the City have been ongoing.
When asked about the challenges of opening and operating during a pandemic, Judy shrugged. “Probably our biggest challenge has been on the construction side. It took a lot longer than we anticipated because of quarantine restrictions. When the first Stay-At-Home order came in March, 2020, everything came to a screeching halt. Getting the construction team back took awhile. We finally just got our certificate of occupancy.”
The model team also had to deal with quarantine restrictions, as most of them were from out of state. Suksiri remembers it well: “It was quick and then slow.” Suksiri was hired last January, after competing in a Brick Factor build competition, which is how Master Builders are chosen for all LEGOLAND® Discovery Centers. Applications came in from all over the Bay Area. After three rounds of intense building, Suksiri got the job. He spent his first week training at the Master Builders Headquarters in Florida, which is where most of the theme park and discovery centerpieces are built. A few months later, COVID-19 came along.
“This past month has been very busy,” says Suksiri. “A lot of cleaning. Training staff. Checking electronics and lights. And organizing all of the brick.” And that’s the key word…brick. As obvious as it may sound, it’s what the LEGOLAND® Discovery Centers are all about. Says Suksiri, “They call this the ultimate indoor playground and I think that’s exactly right. We have a lot of attractions, sure, but for most kids who come here it’s about the building. That’s the focus. Where else can you come and just play all day with such an amazing collection of LEGO® bricks? For me, this is a childhood dream come true.”
As California transitions to a more open state, with masks no longer required for those who have been vaccinated, some might have concern over the opening of a new LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Bay Area, where children play with the same bricks all day, not to mention touch the same surfaces. Says Judy, “We’ve had 10 months to prepare for this moment. We’ll be doing online reservations so we can manage capacity in the building at any one time. We’ve got hand sanitizer stations, electrostatic sprayers to clean the play areas, brick-washing machines to clean the brick that we rotate out, and social distancing stickers. We’ll probably still do mask mandates a little longer than the county and state until the time comes when we feel completely comfortable. We’re doing all of the things that you have to do right now until this pandemic is completely over.”
Single-Day Admission Passes to the LEGOLAND® Discovery Center are available for purchase online, starting at $23 per person. A limited number of tickets will be available for June 8-13, ahead of the Grand Opening. Annual Passes are also available for purchase through the Center’s website.
What more can be said? Oh, I know:
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
Photo credit: All photos by David Newman.