San Diego County in Running for Theme Park : * Tourism: Danish manufacturer of toy building blocks says it has narrowed its list to three U.S. sites and four in Europe. Firm has successful park in homeland.


San Diego County is in the running for a $100-million theme park planned by Lego Systems, the Denmark-based manufacturer of the ubiquitous Lego toy building blocks, company officials said Thursday.

San Diego is pitted against Boston, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area and four as-yet unidentified European cities for the Lego World park that is scheduled to open in 1996, said David Lafrennie, a spokesman for Lego's Enfield, Conn.-based subsidiary.

Lego's interest in San Diego sparked an enthusiastic response in the county's recession-weary tourism industry, where a glut of new hotel rooms has depressed occupancy levels.

"I would love to see another attraction in San Diego," said Reint Reinders, president of the Greater San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It would enhance our overall attractiveness to visitors, no question about it."

The proposed Lego World will borrow heavily from a successful 24-year-old theme park that Lego operates at its corporate headquarters in Billund, Denmark. Lego, a privately held toy company, is run by the Christiansen family, which founded it during the Depression.

The Danish park evolved from a visitor's center at Lego's manufacturing plant into a world-renowned park that now attracts a million visitors a year. Tourists are drawn by the park's unique collection of famous objects--including Mt. Rushmore, the space shuttle and the Statue of Liberty--that are crafted from tens of millions of Lego blocks.

The new park will include modern amusement rides and a number of attractions--castles, towns, space ships and pirate ship sets--which will be made largely of Lego bricks or "Lego-like" materials, Lafrennie said.

Lego officials envision the park as part of a "larger project or development . . . (such as) a golf course or a museum," Lafrennie said. Lego, which will build the park, is seeking a partner to build the rest of the development.

Lego, which is "in serious negotiations with developers and municipalities" on both sides of the Atlantic, soon will narrow the field to three locations, Lafrennie said. A final decision on the park's location will be made late this year or in early 1993.

Some theme park observers said Thursday that Lego's worldwide competition mirrors the highly publicized process that led Walt Disney Co. to locate its proposed $3-billion theme park and hotel complex near its Disneyland property in Anaheim. Prior to selecting Anaheim, Disney officials bargained with city leaders in Long Beach and Anaheim, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in public improvements.

San Diego business and civic leaders said Thursday that the proposed park, which would accommodate about 1.5 million visitors annually, would help to buffer San Diego's economy from ongoing defense spending cuts that threaten local military bases and manufacturing jobs.

"We've been telling the city mothers and fathers for some time that . . . tourism is going to be San Diego's second-largest industry," behind construction and manufacturing, said hotel industry consultant Bruce Goodwin.

While San Diego's two largest attractions, the San Diego Zoo and Sea World of California, each draw over 3 million tourists annually, "there's always room for another major attraction," said Jan Schultz, a San Diego-based tourism industry consultant.

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