On the Allure of the Devil’s Caltrops, or A Visit to the LEGOLAND Discovery Center

LEGOs.

We grew up with them. We like them. We love them. One look at a pile of bricks and the itch to stack and build hits most of us instantaneously. As we grow up, they morph from a toy into a medium of stress relief, connection, and artistic expression.

But step on a stud or single brick ONCE and you’ll experience a pain that will sear itself into your psyche and you’ll never look at a LEGO with that same sense of benign wonder again. There will always be a lingering sense of danger with these things.

I visited a LEGOLAND Discovery Center recently. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly about the place.

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The Good

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1. Everything. Just fucking everything. IT’S LEGOS!!! LEGOS!!! LEGOS!!! LEGOS EVERYWHERE!!!!! Build the towers and cars of yours dreams. Build what you always wanted to build when you were little but couldn’t because you didn’t have the right bricks or enough bricks, or simply didn’t have any LEGOs.

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There are even adults-only nights where you can pre-game till your heart’s content (or till you’re tipsy enough to be buzzed but can still make it past security like you’re totally cool and not intoxicated in any way, shape, or form) and be the Master Builder you always wanted to be.

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Or just get lit then hop into a car on the Kingdom Quest ride and shoot at skeletons and spiders with laser pistols and get giggly at dragons and shit.

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2. Free stuff. The attraction begins with a tour of a LEGO “factory” and you get to see how LEGOs are made. At the end there’s a souvenir LEGOLAND Duplo brick you can take home.

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3. Dedication to the bit. I noted in a previous post that the Crayola Experience really drives home the Crayon theme. The LEGOLAND Discovery Center goes above and beyond in relaying the product to the consumer. LEGOs are everywhere and everything, yet it doesn’t feel like a shrine or, as with Disney parks, like you’ve been absorbed into their world and trapped in an overbearing marketing scheme. Instead, it’s as if we all plunged into a big box of LEGOs and got to hang out for a while.

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Signs feature LEGO minifigures,

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the entrance is shaped like a minifig,

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and the bathroom stall doors are decorated with various LEGO themes.


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LEGO art lines the walls, including this mini exhibition of iconographic art, artists, and fashionistas in LEGO form.

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4. Coffee. Oh my goodness, they sell coffee (Peets brand). Real coffee. Actual coffee.

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Good, hot coffee (or a cappuccino) that you can drink while you sit and watch your kid run like a maniac through the Fire Academy jungle gym, LEGO’s version of Kiddie Thunderdome. The Fire Academy is, I guess, designed to mimic the challenges and pitfalls firefighters must face as they… run across rope bridges, go up and down bumpy ramps, and dodge an onslaught of toddlers and young children.

5. Playspaces. Aside from Kingdom Quest and Fire Academy, there are other attractions based on LEGO products:

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Duplo Village (for the youngest LEGO fans),

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LEGO Friends (the pink- and purple-hued household-themed sets geared toward girls),

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and earthquake tables to shake the crap out of your towers.

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There’s also an actual ride, Merlin’s Apprentice, that spins and raises or lowers itself based on how fast the ride goers in each gondola pedal.

6. 4D cinema.

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Every 20 minutes or so there’s an entertaining mini 4D movie based on a LEGO franchise (last year we saw a film based on their LEGO City sets; this visit’s offering was on their medieval world) with wind, vibrations, mist, and foam we willingly believe is snow. And you get the added joy of children in 3D glasses groping at the air and ducking at random things “flying” at their heads.

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7. This guy.

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The LEGO wrestler minifig perched atop a Fire Academy tower. I briefly had a modified “EC-DUB! EC-DUB! EC-DUB!” chant stuck in my head (“LEGO-DUB! LEGO-DUB!”) before I remembered the match linked below and felt queasy:

The Bad

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1.Hypochondria. Oh my god. All those kids. All those LEGOs. Those kids touch those LEGOs.

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2. Size. It’s large but not spacious and, despite timed entry, seems to fill up quickly. There’s no real place to get away and hide for a bit. Seating is limited to the seats in the LEGO Friends area (aka Girlyville), and the tables and chairs in the cafe.

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There might be benches and chairs throughout — in fact, there probably are, I just didn’t see them because of the crowds of people on them. Add strollers, easily-topple-overable toddlers, wide-eyed kids, and parents standing around the Fire Academy as their kids tire themselves out and you’ve got a very crowded room that can get very claustrophobic very quickly.

The Ugly

1. Kiddie pools filled with LEGOs.

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Dear God, WHY?!?! I saw children jumping in these things! “Step right up, kids, and jump right in to a basin full of the Devil’s caltrops!” Have these people never stepped on a brick hidden in a rug in the middle of the night? Did the people who thought up this attraction never have that experience? Imagine that meeting. “Let’s give folks a chance to have sharp, hard plastic with 90-degree angles dig and poke into their soft tissue. You saw that match! Listen to the crowd roar!”

2.Karaoke in the (problematic) LEGO Friends area.

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An area based on a line of products intended for girls (and boys, in theory), aged 5 through 12. With this playlist:

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Who in their right fucking mind decided that THESE songs were appropriate for children? For young girls? For young boys? For a product that was originally intended to inspire gender-neutral individuality and creativity and strength of one’s own power to create and build and educate? How — why? — did a company go from producing this advertisement thirty-plus years ago

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to having a stereotypical “girls” area with an attraction that features such stunning, age-appropriate and aspirational lyrics as:

Hey girl it’s now or never, it’s now or never
Don’t overthink, just let it go
And if we get together, yeah get together
Don’t let the pictures leave your phone (oh oh)

One Direction, Live While We’re Young

Most of the other songs, while happy-sounding and upbeat, frame women as objects to be obtained (or unable to be obtained. Amirite, single ladies?) with a value placed on sexualized appearance.

High heels (high heels)
Red dress (red dress)
All by yourself, gotta catch my breath

Jonas Brothers, Burnin’ Up

I just sat there and listened to these young girls sing Taylor Swift songs about breakups and shit (snark note to Taylor: If all these relationships keep turning out the same way, maybe it’s you) and thought, “Holy fucking shit. This is wrong.” In this little corner where I’d expect “girl power” to translate to “build a kick-ass roadster, yay!”, I got saccharine, auto-tuned, pop stereotype hell produced by middle-aged men who should burn for marketing this shit. It’s not just the lyrical content that irritated me; it was that the music itself simply fucking sucks. And the “let’s play house” nature of the area irked the fuck out of me, too.

I swiftly moved my girl out of Girlyville when an eight-year old started belting out a line about being a bee hunting for honey. Fortunately, other music drowned her out: the siren song of the Devil’s caltrops. It’s strong and we went off to do his bidding. Build towers on the earthquake table. Build, race, and crash cars. Do some sweet karate maneuvers with a dude dressed as Ninjago character, Kai.

In short, we went back to what made LEGO great. And what it was was beautiful.

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