Time to start another mini-series, like my recent Japanese adventures. As I’ve mentioned in passing, I visited the original Legoland theme park in Billund, Denmark two times as a child, back in the 1980s. It just so happened, the third chance came this summer. I will cover this topic over the course of the next weeks/posts.

To begin, I am happy to report that Legoland is still the same and then again, it is not. At first sighting it is almost quaint – and very Scandinavian – compared to modern spectacles like Disney resorts. Arriving by car to the sleepy village of Billund (well, town), the same giant LEGO blocks (think man-sized DUPLO) on the side of the road – next to a farmhouse and a field – welcome you, just as they did almost 30 years ago. Entering the amusement park, not much has changed either: the same driving school with kids waving the flags of their native countries is still there (I drove my first “license” there as a child), as is the legendary Miniland and the western town of LEGOREDO. Some of the stuff has been there since the 1968 launch. Although oddly, I remember there being less trees last time…

Note: You can click the images for larger versions.

The LEGOTOP observation tower looks just like it did when it opened way back when, although a lot more rusty and worn out. It actually evoked images of some decaying communist-era amusement park in my head, probably a bit unfairly. Yes, Legoland was exactly like I remembered it. In LEGOREDO the same goldmine still lets kids pan gold and get their own LEGO gold medals pressed. The medal design had been slightly altered, but overall it was the same. You could still buy a Wanted Dead or Alive poster of yourself, although it was out of order during our visit. And the very same Chief Longears sold yellow, red, blue, white and black feather headbands in the indian camp – just like he did in the 1980s. Literally, it was the same man, a member of the staff confirmed to me. And when he sold me the headband, he said “Hau” and talked of dollars when giving the change, just like he did in the 1980s. (Danish currency is the krone, just like it was in the 1980s.)

And there was still the largest LEGO store in the world next to the main entrance, but that is a story for another time.

Indeed, that was the extent of Legoland when I last visited, much of the park had been the same since 1970s. And still is. But when I entered my dark ages in 1990, the park started expanding with the opening of Pirate Land. Later came Knight’s Kingdom, Imagination Zone and Adventure Land. You can sense the time-warp at the park too. While the Miniland, the Traffic School and LEGOREDO are cocooned within a literal forest of trees and an air of history, the rest of the park is different. Adventuring to the recently renovated Pirate Land and beyond is like stepping back into the modern world – and also stepping out of the LEGO world. The rides become larger and more professional, more amusement park like, the forest is replaced by a plain field of attractions. While there are token nods to LEGO all over the park (there is even a naked human behind made of LEGO in Pirate Land), the newer sections are more like any amusement park.

Not that it’s a bad thing. In fact, the improvements have certainly made Legoland a more versatile experience. First you get to experience the classic Legoland and once you’ve taken all that in, you can venture into a more regular amusement park for the rest of the day, with the mandatory roller coasters (and your picture taken) and water attractions – there is also a Sea Life aquarium. My personal favorite was the X-treme Racers roller coaster, which takes you to a height of 16 meters and then hurdles down at a speed of 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph), then up and gradually down again – in a contraption that looks like it was made from large Technic bars. This is not your father’s Legoland, but it was great fun nonetheless.

And it just keeps growing. New for 2012 was Polar Land, whose main attraction is the Polar X-plorer roller coaster. Unlike X-treme Racers, which keeps you in a straight, upright position, the Polar X-plorer twists and turns quite liberally (up to 4.2 G) to the sides, as becomes very clear once you sit into the deeply bucketed seat and swoosh by a polar bear made of LEGO at 65 km/h. Spoiler alert: Finally, near the end, the ride comes to a complete halt, starts to show a relaxing film about penguins – and then, without warning, freefalls from a height of five meters. I did not see that one coming.

Speaking of penguins. There are actually 15 of them, apparently the Gentoo penguin kind, at Legoland’s Polar Land in a 150 square meter habitat next to the Polar X-plorer. You can see the penguins from both the roller coaster and from an adjacent viewing area, where you also have an underwater view. The next generation of Legoland fans watched mesmerized as the antarctic animals dived gracefully and walked less so. The chances are, they too will come back in 30 years time – 80% of Legoland visitors have been there before.

P.S. The Legoland press kit contains a comprehensive overview and history of the park.