Do the math. Combine 40,000,000 Lego Bricks, with 85,000,000 yearly Florida visitors, and it’s easy to see why area business leaders are excited about this week’s announcement that Legoland Florida will set up shop just miles north of Lake Wales.
Construction of a new theme park at the former water skiing showplace adds up to a major financial plus for area businesses and additional jobs for local workers.
Lake Wales businesses are poised to take advantage of the Legoland takeover of Cypress Gardens. Thousands of pre- and post- construction jobs will be created at the 150-acre attraction.
Governor Charlie Crist and State Senator J.D. Alexander heard officials from the United Kingdom's Merlin Entertainments discuss plans to add an amusement park during Thursday's press conference at the shuttered park.
Plans call for Merlin to create a place where Legos are king, with rides and interactive attractions geared toward children ages two to 12, using 40 million of the interlocking plastic blocks. The company will add to its portfolio of 60 other attractions, located on three continents.
Polk County controls a 30-acre section of the botanical gardens, which Merlin representatives promised to keep intact.
Linda Brann-Heier, general manager at the Lake Wales Bob Evans Restaurant, said visitors to the international attraction will put people in the seats of local restaurants.
She estimated that business dropped at Bob Evans by about 10 percent, and the number of new hiring has been static, after the landmark attraction most recently closed its doors.
"They'll come from the south and north and the east and west," exclaimed Brann-Heier. "It will attract a tremendous amount of people to the area."
Melissa Woodward is the sales manager at the Lake Wales Hampton Inn. She agreed with her business counterpart across U.S. Highway 27. She anticipated that construction workers will stay in local hotels for weeks at a time, until the projected late-2011 reopening of the park.
"And after it's built, people will flock to the area," said Woodward, about an influx of overnight guests she expects at the hotel.
Betty Wojcik, Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, said that Legoland will benefit other area attractions and the real estate market.
Lake Wales Economic Development Director Harold Gallup, noted that any new major tourist attraction is positive.
"Those tourist dollars from Cypress Gardens had evaporated and now it will be replaced by something newer, different and more attractive," said Gallup.
Alexander told the audience about a Bartow High School Class trip. His senior class got off the train at Grand Central Station, in New York City, and when the students looked up, they saw a huge painting of Cypress Gardens.
"Cypress Gardens is the identity of the region," said Alexander. "We thumped our chests and said, 'I'm from there.’ "
Dick Pope Sr. created the park during the Depression era. The park and gardens most recently closed in September of 2009. It was a double body blow to the Ridge, after Winter Haven also in 2008 lost Major League Baseball spring training when the Cleveland Indians moved to Arizona.
Cypress Gardens, which originally opened in 1936, has been protected since 2004 by state-owned conservation easements that protect 30 acres of botanical gardens and leave 120 acres available for attractions and other tourism-related businesses. The gardens will be maintained by Legoland, officials said Thursday.
For all the pageantry surrounding Legoland's arrival, its success is by no means assured.
In the tourism business, location is a crucial factor. And the former site of the botanical garden in Winter Haven is "somewhat of an odd place" to put a Legoland, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based consultant.
"This is not going to be a cakewalk, that's for sure," Speigel said.
Located in a county with a population of about 600,000, Legoland won't have a large pool of people in the immediate area from which to draw local traffic, though Merlin no doubt hopes it will be able to lure residents from Orlando and Tampa as well. Tapping into Orlando's tourist traffic is no sure thing, either, as the park is at least a 45-minute drive from Walt Disney World and even farther from Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.
Its geography — along with a staid roster of attractions — is a big reason why Cypress Gardens was plagued with poor attendance for years. The historic park endured multiple closures and failed reinvention attempts during the past decade, shutting most recently in September, when its former owner declared they had "exhausted every possible approach" to keep it open.
"People who come to Orlando have a pretty full plate," Speigel said. "To jump in a car, drive a couple of hours, it has to be really special."
Like Cypress Gardens, Legoland's other U.S. park is not in a big city. But unlike Winter Haven, Carlsbad, Calif., is directly off an interstate highway — and it is midway between two even larger metro markets, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Still, Merlin has a lengthy track record. And Legoland is a coveted property because of its appeal to families with young children.
"No question, knowing Merlin as we do ... they've considered all of these factors," Speigel said. "They know what they're dealing with in terms of the location."
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services contributed to this report.)