San Diego County is one of seven places in the world in the running for a $100-million theme park planned by Lego Systems AS, 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 park 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 attraction visited by a million people a year. Tourists are drawn by the park's unique collection of famous objects--including Mount Rushmore, the Space Shuttle and the Statue of Liberty--that are crafted largely from tens of millions of Lego blocks.
The new park will add a wider assortment of amusement rides and a number of attractions--castles, towns, space ships and pirate ship sets--that 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 in late 1992 or early 1993.
Like San Diego County, all of the contenders are proven tourist destinations, Lego officials said. The county of 2.5 million residents made Lego's list because "you've got millions of (additional) Southern Californians who can get here in their cars," said Jan Schultz, a San Diego-based tourism industry consultant.
Lego officials opted to ignore America's theme-park capitals--Orlando, Los Angeles and Orange counties--to avoid competition from firmly established amusement parks.
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. Before selecting Anaheim, Disney officials bargained with city leaders there and in Long Beach, 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. "Any tourism attraction, like the Lego park, is a good addition."
While San Diego's two largest attractions, San Diego Zoo and Sea World of California, each draw more than 3 million tourists annually, "there's always room for another major attraction," Schultz said.
Lafrennie declined to comment on specific locations being considered in San Diego. However, sources in San Diego said that Lego is looking at sites in the city, South Bay and North County.
The proposed park's attractions will "closely parallel" Lego's well-known line of building blocks, Lafrennie said.
One part of Lego World will feature oversized building blocks and downsized attractions aimed at younger children. Other attractions and rides will be built out of Lego blocks or "Lego-like materials," Lafrennie said.
Given Lego's sterling reputation among parents around the world, amusement and theme park industry observers predicted that the company will produce a first-class park. For example, Lego products reportedly are found in nearly 80% of European homes.
"The neat thing about Lego is that they are a creative tool for children of all ages," said Amelia Gordon, a vice president at Sequoia Creative, a Sun Valley-based amusement park design firm. "You would hope and imagine that . . . what they want to do is use all of those (building-block) shapes they have to stimulate people."
But soaring costs for land and attractions could limit what Lego can build for $100 million, said Dave Holtz, founder of Lafayette-based Holtz Entertainment Cost Consultants. "You're not going to get a Disneyland, which can be in the half-billion to one-billion-dollar range," Holtz said.
"With the costs of rides today, a good (roller) coaster can cost $5 million to $10 million," Schultz said. "And, given the land costs in San Diego County, I couldn't see them doing a theme park the size or scope of (Valencia-based) Six Flags Magic Mountain."