Unleash your inner brick builder at Atlanta's new Legoland

If a typical Lego brick is no bigger than a thumb, then a glance around Legoland Discovery Center gives new meaning to the term “all thumbs.”

At some point, most of us have built the obligatory Lego castle or car. But those are strictly amateur hour compared to what you’ll see created at the new Lego mecca debuting inside Phipps Plaza on March 17 – only the sixth location worldwide.

It’s hard to miss the vibrant purple, red and lemon-colored walls beckoning you to unleash your inner brick-builder on the third level of the mall, directly across from the AMC movie theater and a new Johnny Rockets, which is expected to be open for the attraction’s official arrival.

After entering a banana-yellow lobby -- and through an outline of Lego mascot Bertie -- guests will hang out in a pre-show area dotted with life-size Lego people (feel free to take photos) and watch an excitement-stoking video about being a “model citizen.”

From there, it’s playtime – 35,000 square feet of playtime – starting with the Factory Tour, where visitors will learn how Lego bricks are made and possibly, with the push of the right button, expel their own personal Lego piece.

At a preview event last week, Tricia Harwell brought her three children, Drew, 7, Katie, 5, and Sydney, 2, for the family’s first Legoland experience.

“Legos are the one thing they’ll all play together. It’s one of the few cooperative toys,” Harwell said, watching as Katie played with a nearby bin of colored interlocking blocks while Drew headed off to climb through the padded Coastguard Tower.

The Cumming mom said she appreciated the site’s accessible location.

“With three little kids, I’m looking for ease of driving and parking. But a 30-minute drive down [Ga.] 400 isn’t bad for a huge kid’s destination,” Harwell said.

Extensive research helped pinpoint Phipps as the ideal spot for the indoor attraction.

“We look for places with a lot of families with children in the 3-to-10-year-old range and know that in general, people will drive an hour or two to get there,” said Claire Jenkins, marketing director for Legoland Discovery Centers, calling from the company’s home base of England. “We tend to be in shopping malls because we find that it works well for customers. They can combine a trip to Legoland with shopping. Mom can drop Dad off with the kids and get in some retail therapy.”

One of the highlights in all of the Legoland Discovery Centers is Miniland, a breathtaking display of Lego bricks, lights and creativity that stamps each center with its own identity.

The Atlanta version, filled with nearly 1 million Lego pieces, includes 450 models. Thirty of them are local landmarks such as CNN, complete with a news-feed on a petite video screen; Turner Field, populated with Lego fans and players that can be whisked across the field, pinball-style; Atlanta Botanical Garden, decorated with teeny Lego flowers; and, of course, the Varsity (though no Lego burgers were spotted).

Darren Ward, the on-site project manager, spent about 8,000 hours – or 345 days – with a team to do field research, take photos, sometimes track down building floor plans and, finally, painstakingly construct the replicas with Lilliputian-size plastic bricks.

“You have to have a little patience,” the Londoner said with a smile.

Yes, not only patience as a builder, but as a child and an adult chaperon, too, as the airy Legoland can be overwhelming the first time through.

All of Legoland is worth a cursory visit, but some of the don’t-miss areas – aside from Miniland, a certain draw for older guests -- are:

Kingdom Quest: Magic chariots zip through several rooms of a medieval castle, with laser guns for each rider. As the chariots wind their way through the labyrinthine pathway and past the steam-breathing head henchman, targets such as spiders and bats hang down. Points are tracked on individual counters, so the winner after this 10-minute ride will have full claim to bragging rights.

Lego Studios – 4D Cinema: A couple of movies are planned in the 120-capacity theater – the toddler-friendly “Spellbreaker” and, for older kids, “Adventure of Clutch Powers.” Since it is a 4D experience, expect to feel a little wind, snow and perhaps rain.

Lego City (Fire Academy, Coastguard Tower, Construction Site): Need the kids to expend some energy? Send them here, where they can scale padded levels and netting about 25-feet high to visit the Fire Academy and then bop over to the Coastguard Tower. Don’t feel like climbing back down? That’s cool. Just swoosh down the winding tunnel slide instead. Adjacent to the academy and tower is the Construction Site, where dump trucks, cranes and a plastic wrecking ball allow for quite the controlled mess.

Duplo Village: This is the spot for the littlest Lego fans. Stacks of soft Lego bricks are available to build walls – or, well, anything – to complement the Lego farm animals that inhabit the area. Pet a giraffe or a puppy. For the more adventurous, take a slide through a tube.

Lego Friends: For the girls who feel that Lego is more of a testosterone thing, this is for you. Decorated with Lego’s new product – Lego Friends – designed for young ladies, the space exudes girliness with its pink walls, karaoke stage and baking area to make Lego cakes.

Merlin’s Apprentice: They call it an “airborne carousel,” a set of magic bikes topped with wizard hats that fly higher the faster you pedal. You might just call it awesome.

Lego Master Builder’s Academy: Workshops are held throughout the day for Lego enthusiasts who want to build things such as a whale or specialized car, items that aren’t available in kits. To learn how is free, but if you want to take what you made, it’s a minimal cost (usually $2-$4). Starting in June, the adjoining Celebration Room will be available for birthday party rentals.

If you go

Opens: 10 a.m. March 17.

Location: Phipps Plaza (third level), 3500 Peachtree Road, Atlanta.

Center hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Last entrance is two hours prior to closing.

Lego shop hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $19 (adults); $15 (children 3-12); free (children 2 and under). Annual passes for unlimited visits are $60 per person or $200 for a family of four. Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.legolanddiscoverycenter.com. All tickets have a specific entry time. Entrance to the gift shop only is free.

Contact: 404-848-9252, www.legolanddiscoverycenter.com.

Also wondering?

I’m an adult without a kid. Can I visit Legoland?

Nope, only adults with a child will be admitted into the center. However, beginning in May, an “adult night” will be held the second Thursday of each month.

Can I bring food into the center?

Also no. But if you’re looking for a nosh while Billy is off racing his Lego car in the Build & Test Zone, the Lego Café offers the usual assortment of attraction food: pizza, nachos, deli sandwiches and drinks.

I have kids, but I’m not sure they’re age-compatible with Legoland. Is there a target demographic?

Why yes, as a matter of fact, Legoland is targeted to children in the 3-to-10 range, but research finds that those as old as 12 still find plenty to enjoy at the center.

There are two rides in Legoland. Can I sit on them with my kid(s)?

Yes, adults can participate with children on all rides.

Do I need tickets for the rides?

No, everything inside Legoland is included in your admission aside from food purchased at the Café or any toys your child builds in the Master Builder Academy and wants to take home (usually in the $2-$4 range).

How long will it take to visit all of Legoland?

Guests are welcome to stay as long as they want, but the average visitor will spend two-to-three hours inside the attraction.

Legoland Discovery Center by the numbers

Square footage of Legoland Discovery Center: 35,000

Total Lego bricks: 2 million

Number of Lego bricks in Miniland: 994,046

Number of hours to create Miniland: 8,300 (or about 345 days)

Employees: 140

Number of Legoland Discovery Centers worldwide: 6 (with Kansas City and Tokyo also opening this year)

Some Lego-form Atlanta landmarks in Miniland

CNN building


Georgia Aquarium

King and Queen towers

Chastain Park

Martin Luther King Memorial

Fox Theatre

Stone Mountain Park

Turner Field

World of Coca-Cola

Georgia Dome

The Varsity

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