As I’ve mentioned before, ever since we told F. and W. that we were going to spend a month in Southern California, they’ve been terrifically excited about only one thing: Legoland.
F. has always been something of a builder – first with wooden blocks, then with Duplos, Playmobil, and finally graduating to Legos. When he was very little I built with him – castles and forts and areas for the different characters from The Lion King, which he was totally into at the time. After he fell asleep at night I would build him something special, while J. and I watched tv, so when he woke up in the morning and came downstairs he would have a new fort or castle awaiting him. I taught him how to build structures so that they’d be strong, and we would use colors in interesting patterns. I loved doing that with him.
After he moved on to Legos I would help him as well, especially at Christmastime and at birthdays when he’d get all sorts of presents, but eventually he became old enough to build everything on his own and didn’t need my assistance anymore with directions. He could follow them precisely, and then eventually he moved on to building his own contraptions with Legos and not feeling it necessary to follow the directions. He could get lost in building for hours. In the past year he has twice gone to camp where he does things with robotics – using Legos to build robots and then fitting them out with a motor so that they could move and do other things. He’s gotten really into it and will most likely join a club. It’s been great to see him develop all this through the years – it’s really taken off, and J. and I like to imagine him as an engineer or an architect or something science-y. Much different than the two of us.
W. has been different. He was never as interested in the building. He would leave that to F. for the most part, only doing so in a dispassionate way, vaguely helping with the wooden blocks and Duplos. He was more interested in what you’d do with things once they were built. He liked figures who used the castles and forts. So he enjoyed Playmobil probably more than F. did because they actually came with figurines he could easily put together and then concoct stories about. The same was true with Legos. He wasn’t super interested, at least for a while, in putting together the big ships or buildings. He would let F. do that or ask me to. He has come to do this more often now and takes pride in his ability to complete them when he gets around to it, but generally speaking W. is interested in role-playing or creating narratives in which he can put these figures to use.
So it wasn’t hard to see that Legoland would almost certainly be a hit. It’s been a big part of our family. Plus, W.’s best friend at school went last year and came back and told him that you get to drive cars and get a driver’s license – W. could not have been more pumped! That’s just what he wanted to do, virtually ALL that he wanted to do, in Southern California (at least until he discovered skateboarding).
To Legoland it was, then. What is this place? Well, it’s an amusement park, of sorts. It’s not Disneyland – not as many rides and there isn’t as overwhelming an onslaught of fairy tale creatures wandering the grounds and creeping you out. But it’s clearly modelled after Disneyland, and in addition to the main Legoland Park they have now added an aquarium and a water park. All to get more money out of you. And getting money out of you they will. They don’t charge you money for the rides once you are inside – for the most part, though they do charge you for some special “attractions” – but man oh man do they charge you to get into the place. Whew! And you pay for food and for those driver’s licenses and for any other incidentals and of course they charge you for the Legos that you just know you’re going to have to buy when you leave.
But it is fun for the kids, to be sure. W. did indeed get to take his “driving test” and he did marvelously. Here’s a little photo from it:
He passed and did indeed get a “license,” which for hours he believed actually qualified him to drive a real car and certainly served as an official means of identification. F. went too, of course – they pretty much did everything together except for the rollercoaster, which W. refused to get on. There weren’t many creepy characters, dressed up in costume, other than this guy, who seemed to be some sort of Bionicle:
Overall, they ran hither and thither and had a grand old time, and when it came to the water park they went crazy for the rides down the tubes. We stayed there for about 2 1/2 hours, just focused on three different rides. And we stayed in Legoland itself for seven hours, which seemed a lot of time but also made me like we got our money’s worth from the admission costs!
The thing is, that Legoland is an amusement park, but it’s also more than just a temple of consumption and consumerism. Because while with Six Flags and other amusement parks you actually participate pretty passively in the park by sitting down most of the time and letting things happen to you, and in the narratives of Disney you don’t really do much more than just listen and glory in the imagination of the Disney imagineers, Legoland has a number of areas in which you can build things – cars and robots and people and whatever else your heart desires. And Legos are toys, but not ones that overly control you as the one who is doing the construction. You can follow the directions or not. You can build them as shown, or go in a different direction. You are not merely a consumer, you are a producer. F. likes to build his own designs. W. likes to create his own stories with the figures. They are not beholden to narratives where one or two of the parents and dead and the children are now in peril, clearly needing some sort of role model who will illuminate the proper means toward agreed-upon mainstream behavior (I’m looking at you, imagineers, who don’t really seem to have that much imagination when it comes to human behavior, if you ask me).
This is what makes Legos different, and worthwhile. They are not passive, they are active. They don’t try to control or constrict your imagination, they encourage it to take flight in weird and unknown directions. They Lego people are amazing with construction, don’t get me wrong. Look at some of the images from Miniland, USA, where they build some of the most recognizable buildings and neighborhoods from different US cities:
We loved looking at these miniatures from Washington, New York, and San Francisco, as well as ones from Las Vegas, New Orleans, Southern California. It was really the best part of the park, at least for J. and for me, but the boys liked it too, especially F. because the construction and use of the materials was so very clearly the point of what was in front of us. It was there for more than just our amusement; it was there to demonstrate what we could do, if we chose to do so.
But I also love that the park, and Legos in general, leave that choice up to you. Legos come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. They can show you lots of things to do with them, they can give you lots of instructions. But ultimately, what you do with these blocks is up to you. And that’s the best thing about these toys.