CARLSBAD, Calif. – The Legoland Hotel, which opened April 5, got plenty of little things wrong in its first weeks. But its designers got one thing enormously right, and that will make this place a screaming success: kid-centricity.
"The dragon is made out of Legos!" my daughter, Grace, who is about to turn 9, said as we approached the hotel entrance a week after the opening.
Inside the lobby, Grace; my wife, Mary Frances; and I found a faux fountain, a play pit full of little plastic bricks and dozens of deeply absorbed children who were collaborating on a rainbow-hued monolith, constructing pretend weapons, hollering, whispering, running, jumping and dragging their parents from one discovery to the next.
"It's Legos!" Grace announced as she inspected the waterless fountain. "And they make a river! And flowers. Lego flowers, Daddy! And Daddy! Did you realize the bicycle wheels are magnifying glasses? And they zoom in on the little people on the wall!"
So they did. We got our room keys (roughly $230 a night plus tax) and headed upstairs. I'm not going to tell you what Grace discovered near the elevator, but it was clever, it won her over, and afterward, I heard one boy say to his mom: "I need an electronic whoopee cushion."
Nor will I tell you what happens in the elevator, except that one father gave a stern order as the doors closed: "Kids in the middle. So they can dance."
I will tell you that the hotel has 250 rooms; two restaurants; a long, shallow pool; and an admirably small gift shop. It's three stories. And from its rear patio – where you can find another Lego dragon, speaking demurely and passing gas in a bathtub – it's about 50 paces to the front gate of the Legoland theme park.
Rates are typically $149 (standard room, winter weekdays) to $309 (premium room, summer weekends), with an annual passholders' discount of 15 percent (or 25 percent for the next month or so). Each floor has a room theme: Kingdom on the ground floor, Pirate on the second and Adventure on the third, where we were. Think Egyptian-looking ruins and golden tombs. We let Grace open the door.
"There's bunk beds and a monkey!" she yelled, tiptoeing forward. "And a parrot in the corner. And a beetle. And there's a butterfly over there. And – oh, a Bible!"
Actually, the Bible was standard issue from the Gideons, right in the drawer where you'd expect it. But G's sense of wonder was now in overdrive. Legoland's creative people have spent so many hours thinking like kids that our visit's success was virtually assured within 20 minutes of arrival.
Every room (310 square feet and up) has an area where up to three kids can sleep: two bunk-bed berths and a trundle bed. There's also a kids' safe (with toy treasures waiting inside), a kids' TV and a bathroom separating the kids' area from the grown-ups' queen bed and TV. In the bathroom there's an optional little toilet seat for little bottoms and a stool to sit or stand on. In the front door, about 18 inches below the grown-ups' peephole, is a kids' peephole.
All hotel guests get early access to the theme park and a few hundred Lego pieces to play with (and leave behind). At least eight Lego models are incorporated into each room's design. Guests in premium rooms get extra thematic details.
Meanwhile in the Bricks Family Restaurant, there's a kids' buffet table, about 18 inches shorter than the adult version. In the Skyline Cafe, our waitress dropped to one knee so she could take Grace's order face-to-face rather than looking down.
At 7 nightly in the lobby, Legoland entertainers declare winners of the day's building contest. On the night we arrived, she-pirate Captain Calypso joined he-explorer Cobra Jones (so their name tags said) to josh with kids and review the competing Lego models.
This property is so devoted to kids that the Legoland people will face challenges other hoteliers won't. How loud should the whoopee cushion be? How much lobby yelling, running, plastic-brick-sword-brandishing and plastic-brick-machine-gun-firing is too much? (The hotel did have an ample number of representatives circulating to maintain some order.)
Now, things that went wrong: In the morning, our alarm sounded at 4:15. In the evening – a cool one – the patio heaters weren't working. The clues to the kids' safe were fouled up. About 8 p.m., my spies found that four stalls in the lobby ladies' room were out of toilet paper.
We shrugged it all off. Even when the Skyline Cafe's macaroni-and-cheese dinner arrived needing twice as much macaroni and half as much cheese (and without the promised fruit on the side), we cut the kitchen some slack and shared our food. (My steak and Mary Frances' flatbread pizza were very good.)
I'll bet most of these bugs will be banished before another month is over. I do, however, wish the hotel would drop the mandatory resort fee and just add $20 to the room rates. I know lots of hotels tack on those fees to make their rates look lower in Web searches, but it's basically dishonest.
I also wish Bricks would shave a few bucks off its buffet breakfast price of $23 for adults. That's steep, especially when you're not offering an a la carte alternative.
But this is quibbling. The Legoland Hotel is a great, big box of wonder and fun. In my first eight waking hours at the hotel, I didn't see a single kid turn to an electronic device for amusement. I saw scores of kids and parents sharing discoveries and making things together. I also saw lots of easy interaction among families. It's like a rec-center playground in a ritzy neighborhood – but you spend the night.