Legoland California has plans to add more blocks

Times Staff Writer

Legoland California, already the fastest-growing amusement park in North America, announced a $20-million expansion Tuesday, including a new themed area and a 36,000-square-foot aquarium.

A 350-room Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa -- with an entrance to the park -- is also in the works, fitting into the larger strategy to extend the length of time guests spend at the park.

Although the 128-acre Legoland in Carlsbad is the least-visited among Southern California’s amusement parks, last year its attendance increased 16% to more than 1.6 million visitors, a sharp rise at a time when most parks saw modest growth or a decline in attendance, according to InPark Magazine, which tracks industry statistics.


That growth rate, higher than that of any other theme park in North America, is the result of significant capital investment by park owners Merlin Entertainments Group, which in 2005 purchased the four Legoland parks in California, Germany, Denmark and Britain. In the last 3 1/2 years, Legoland California has added 15 attractions. It opened the $10-million Pirate Shores in May and added Miniland Las Vegas.

“We are aiming to be one of the global players in the market for what we call location-based entertainment,” said Nick Varney, chief executive of Merlin. “We’ve got a very aggressive growth strategy.”

The company, which also owns Madame Tussauds wax museums and 26 Sea Life aquariums in nine countries, was acquired by private equity firm Blackstone Group in 2005. Merlin is aiming for public listing by 2009.

In the next few years, the company plans to spend $500 million on capital projects, adding four or five attractions a year at Legoland California and, ultimately, a themed hotel. Several other projects are being developed in the U.S., including Madame Tussauds Hollywood and an indoor Legoland Discovery Center in the Midwest.

“They didn’t have the capital; now they do,” said Robert Niles, editor of website Theme Park Insider. “They seem to be spending it wisely.”

Niles said Legoland played well to its core audience: parents who want an active experience for their young children.

As part of the expansion, Legoland will add a Land of Adventure, to open in March. It will include four attractions: Lost Kingdom Adventure dark ride, Beetle Bounce drop ride, Cargo Ace plane ride and Pharaoh’s Revenge foam ball pit.

The aquarium will be two stories and will charge a separate admission fee of less than $20.

Sea Life, which first opened in Scotland in 1979, now has a combined attendance of more than 6 million visitors. These aquariums focus on child-friendly exhibits and are heavily involved in conservation efforts, with campaigns such as seal pup rescue efforts and sea horse breeding.

“What Legoland California has brought to theme parks in the United States, Sea Life Legoland . . . will bring to aquariums in that it is 100% aimed at inspiring and captivating children on a level that can’t be found anywhere else,” said John Jakobsen, the park’s president and general manager.

The aquarium faces stiff competition, Niles said, noting its location between Sea World in San Diego and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Still, he said Carlsbad was an attractive destination with nearby beaches and an outlet mall.

“What makes it especially compelling is you package that with a day at Sea World or the Wild Animal Park. It becomes part of the whole San Diego County vacation experience,” Niles said.