WINTER HAVEN, Fla.—County officials, community leaders, and concerned citizens visited Legoland Florida on Sept. 28 to see for themselves if the theme park was the good neighbor it claimed to be for Winter Haven, Fla.
Orange County residents toured the park with Phil Royle, community relations director for the proposed Legoland New York park, and spoke to community leaders in Winter Haven about the impact the park has had on the city.
A resident of Glen Arden and a board member of its parent company Elant, the Orange County Partnership’s president and director of business attraction, the president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, and the president of the Orange County Citizens Foundation were accompanied by J.P. McGuirk of Focus Media. (Full disclosure: Merlin Entertainments paid this reporter’s travel and accommodations for the visit.)
Maureen Halahan, president and CEO of the Orange County Partnership, said she had never been in a Legoland park and expected “a more Disney-experience.”
“I expected it to be much busier in size and scope … more busy, a lot more waiting, a lot more noise. This was, honestly, a low-energy park.”
She said it seemed more of a learning experience for park visitors and “and people coming together enjoying these bricks,” she said, referring to the iconic Lego brick.
Mary Jane Sorrell, a resident of Glen Arden, Elant’s continuing care retirement community in Goshen, which directly borders the proposed park site in Goshen, said she wanted to find out all the facts. “I needed to know specifics about traffic and about the general scope of the whole program. I had no idea of what we were bargaining for.”
She said many residents had concerns that increased traffic would make it difficult for emergency vehicles to get to the retirement facility when needed. She had questions about noise, loss of open space, and concerns about quality of life.
Nancy Proyect, president of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, expected a typical amusement park. “I’ve been to Disney, I’ve been to Sesame Place [a Pensylvania amusement park] and I thought it would be somewhere in between those.”
She expected the park management would talk a “good game” and not live up to the community’s expectations. She expected to see some traffic issues. “I thought that there would be an amusement park plopped down in the middle of the community.”
A Park for Goshen?
Since her visit, Sorrell said she believed the park would be good for Goshen. “I’m really so impressed with the whole project that I don’t understand not wanting to boost our economy in Orange County.”
Sorrell added, “the rides are so low they could not be seen from the highway and probably not from our facility even if we sat on the top of the roof.”
Elant board member Donna Cornell accompanied Sorrell and said she would wait to share her views until she spoke with the Elant board.
“The economics of the project made sense from the beginning,” Halahan said, so the Partnership supported it based on the job figures and the capital investment.
Proyect said her skepticism changed to support. She discussed her concerns with Katie Worthington, president of Winter Haven’s Chamber of Commerce, “who couldn’t tell us a better story about how Legoland had become a part of the community.” Worthington told Proyect how the company preserved, and even enhanced, the botanical garden left by Cypress Gardens.
She said the there is a strong business community growing up around the park. The greatest success is about quality of life, Proyect said. She took an early morning run during the visit and met a young girl working at a store near the park. The girl got experience in culinary arts at the park, which she applied to a project in Junior Achievement, a national organization not connected with Legoland.
Proyect was impressed that employees were joining local service organizations. One served on the board of the local Humane Society and did a fundraiser at the park for the organization. “They really do become a part of the community and I didn’t expect that,” she said.
Victim to ‘the Mouse’
Merlin took over the Cypress Gardens property in 2010 after several other developers attempted to make it successful. Merle Bishop, planning director for the city of Winter Haven, said that Cypress Gardens was the original theme park in Florida.
The community worried when the park fell on hard times and wanted to find some way to keep Cypress Gardens alive. “They just fell victim to ‘the Mouse,'” Bishop said, referring to Disneyland about 30 miles away.
The Orlando area, about an hour from Winter Haven, brings hundreds of thousands to the Disney mega-park. “Disney came in and sucked up all the tourists from all the other little theme parks, the mom and pop theme parks around the state,” Bishop said.
Theme park developers came to Cypress Gardens and went, Bishop said. “Then Legoland came in and maintained that and it’s been successful.”
The visit occurred on a Thursday during the park’s “shoulder season,” at the end of summer peak and before winter. Julie Estrada, public relations director for Legoland California who met with the group, said the park has 10,000 visitors on a normal day during this time.
The park initially was administered by the county, Polk County. In 2015, the city of Winter Haven incorporated the park.
The city is working to make the park a destination, said Bishop, instead of a day trip from the Orlando theme parks. An overlay district was created for the area around the park for quality development. Bishop said the city is planning more landscape and signage along Cypress Gardens Boulevard, which leads into the park.
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