According to the team helping deliver the project for Merlin Entertainments, Legoland Korea Resort, currently under construction, will boast more “Lego DNA” than any Legoland to date. We take a closer look at the project, as well as giving some insight into the ambitious plans for Legoland in China.
Candy Holland is a Merlin Entertainments veteran, previously leading the creative direction of the company’s resort theme parks. She took up her present post as Senior Creative Director for Legoland Resorts in 2014.
Ray Dubois, who has been in South Korea since the start of the year, is Merlin’s Director of Projects for Asia. He crossed from the supplier to operator side of the business in 2014 after helping to broker the slides for Legoland Water Park in Malaysia on behalf of WhiteWater.
They talk to Blooloop about the project now taking shape on Chuncheon’s Hajungdo island.
New Legoland projects
Before Merlin unveils Legoland Korea in Chuncheon, capital of the Gangwon province, first it will open Legoland New York Resort. This project has been delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus crisis. However, the construction of Legoland Korea has suffered relatively little disruption, thanks to the country’s assertive handling of the pandemic.
Investment in phase one of Legoland Korea Resort (park and hotel) will be KRW 290 billion ($255 million). Merlin, which is contributing KRW 210 billion, will fully own and operate the resort. The remaining funds, including money for infrastructure such as parking, have come from the Gangwon government.
Sizeable park potential
The Legoland Korea Resort site is roughly a 90-minute drive east from Seoul. Alternatively, Chuncheon can be reached from the capital by train in around two hours. A short bus ride will take guests across the bridge to the park gates, or it’s a 10 to 15-minute walk.
The last Legoland to open, at Nagoya in Japan, was one of the most compact Legoland parks. With 28 hectares available across the whole resort, Legoland Korea is notably larger. On opening day, the main park will be 12.8 hectares. In addition, the earmarked expansion space gives it the potential to become bigger than the inner park at Legoland California Resort, and therefore one of the largest in the portfolio.
“Whichever way you look, it will be unmistakably a Legoland experience,” says Holland. “You’ve also got that excitement of going over the bridge to reach the island; a real sense of a journey to reach the resort. It’s a beautiful setting, surrounded by trees. I think as it establishes itself, it will have a similar vibe to the California park.”
“The island is in the middle of a river,” says Dubois. “So you are surrounded by water, and then you are surrounded by mountains; it’s just gorgeous.”
Legoland Korea Resort – lands revealed
At the time of writing, construction on around 50 percent of Legoland Korea Resort was complete.
“Most of the theme park proper will be finished by next summer,” says Dubois. “Most of the landscaping will be in. All of the rides will be in. The last thing to be complete will be the hotel over the main entrance. We’ll probably end up doing the VIP tours in 2021, and the grand opening in 2022.”
The construction of a Legoland Hotel right over the main gate will be a Legoland first, creating an imposing welcome portal. Hotel guests will wake to views over Miniland. The same complex will also house the second iteration of the Lego Factory Adventure Ride, following its debut at Legoland New York.
Additional areas of the park will be Bricktopia, Castle, Lego City, Pirates Kingdom and Ninjago Adventure. Cementing Legoland’s Korea’s resort status in phase two will be a Legoland Water Park, although no timeline for the construction of this has yet been decided. What is certain is how Lego-like the new park will look.
“This will be the park that has the most Lego DNA in it from the beginning,” says Dubois. “The buildings, the attractions, Miniland, will all look more like the toy product than any Legoland that’s ever been built.”
More Lego than ever before
Holland highlights how much richer the Legoland experience has become in recent years. “When Legoland first came to be in Denmark, it was a park designed to showcase all these beautiful Lego models. Then it evolved almost as a traditional theme park, but with Lego models and fun characters on top.
“People really want immersive experiences these days. There’s that expectation that if you go to Legoland, it should be a land made of Lego. We made a little shift with Dubai, but much more for Japan. We tried to make the buildings look as though they’re made from upscaled Lego bricks, so you really get the sense of being a Minifigure going on all these fun adventures.”
“From the creative side, we’ve always had an extremely close relationship with Lego,” says Holland. “Whether it’s the theme parks or Legoland Discovery Centres, the attractions are seen as a valuable extension of the Lego brand, in the same way as a video game or the Lego Movies.”
That bond between the two companies became even stronger last year when Merlin was acquired by a consortium including KIRKBI, the investment arm of the Kirk Kristiansen family, which owns Lego.
“There are more and more conversations about how can we collaborate on things together,” says Holland. “In the existing [Legoland] estate, we are working on a project that the Lego team have really bought into, and which looks like becoming an IP within the Lego portfolio.”
South Korea loves Lego
During our Zoom conversation, Dubois draws attention to the collection of Lego models on the shelf behind him as proof of his commitment to the brick. Many residents of Seoul share his love for Lego.
“The first time I visited for this project, about five years ago, there was a sign outside my hotel saying Lego. So I followed it, and there was this competition with model builders rolling out what they had, all these fancy models. There’s quite an active Lego building community here.
“Across the street from my apartment, there’s an independent Lego store. Two subway stops away, there’s a very large Lego store. In downtown Seoul, there’s a branded Lego store in the heart of the financial district, and then another 15 minutes away. The market knows Lego; the brand’s been in Korea for more than 20 years.”
One question Legoland staff often get asked is how the famous toy is made. Guests at Legoland Japan can have their curiosity satisfied by watching a machine mould plastic bricks in front of their eyes. Just as visitors can do at Lego House in Lego’s home town of Billund.
“That stuff fascinates me,” says Dubois. “But I’m a 50-year-old kinda geek.”
Lego Factory Adventure Ride
The Lego Factory Adventure Ride will introduce Legoland Korea guests to the Lego brand in a way that should entertain all ages.
“You start off as if you’re going off on a tour of the Lego factory, but it’s no ordinary factory,” says Holland. “Guests are turned into Minifigures, and along the way see giraffes and a fire-breathing dragon.”
“We’re keen to see guests’ reaction when it debuts in New York. Then, as with all our attractions, we’ll know whether to grow and develop it; what enhancements we need to make.”
Legoland Korea – rides revealed
Land by land, here’s the other rides and manufacturers that will feature in the Legoland Korea opening line-up:
- Bricktopia: Kids Power Towers (Sunkid Heege), Carousel (Bertazzon), Tea Cups (Sansei), Observation Tower (Sansei), Duplo Train.
- Castle: Dragon Coaster (Zierer), Merlin’s Challenge (Mack Caterpillar), Magic Bikes (Zamperla), Horse Ride (Metallbau Emmelm).
- Lego City: Driving School and Boating School (SB International), Rescue Academy and Legoland Express (Metallbau Emmeln), Jetski and Duplo Planes (Zierer).
- Pirates Kingdom: Splash Battle (Mack), Captain Cranky’s Challenge (Zamperla Rockin’ Tug).
- Ninjago Adventure: Ninjago The Ride (Triotech/ART Engineering).
Some rides will appear with different names by the time the park opens. In addition to the above, there will also be a selection of shows, theatres, retail, food & beverage and Lego play/construction opportunities.
Miniland at Legoland Korea
One feature that is at the heart of every Legoland park is Miniland. At Legoland New York and Korea, these model exhibits will feature greater interactivity. The latter will include primarily South Korean locations and landmarks, including Busan, Jeju island and the capital Seoul.
“One of the things I noticed at Legoland Japan with the guys on the construction team and the international visitors is that they’ll go through Miniland and discover these places they didn’t know,” says Dubois. “Then one of the locals would explain, and they’re like, ‘OK, before I leave I’m gonna visit’. It’s almost like a tourist map for the country.”
Attendance and expansion goals
Opening with 18 attractions, Legoland Korea will have the capacity for around 2 million annual guests. It will also have the potential for more as the resort expands. Given the high annual attendance of leading South Korean parks Everland and Lotte World (both around 6 million), this doesn’t seem overly ambitious.
“We have aspirations to grow,” says Dubois. “Legoland California, which is our most highly attended park, took 20 years to get to where it’s at today. In the old days, we would add a new ride, now we are adding in clusters. Ninjago World is a good example, where you add two, three or four attractions together. All of a sudden you get quite significant bumps in attendance.”
Early on in Legoland Korea’s development, construction came to a halt after prehistoric ruins were discovered on the site. But the coronavirus pandemic has barely derailed the project, and it’s now full steam ahead towards a 2022 launch.
Construction of Legoland Korea and COVID-19
“The Koreans had a real struggle with SARS, and they learned from it,” says Dubois. “What they learned is they needed a strong public health response and they needed to hit it hard early. The country has a population [51 million] about the same as the UK, but our [COVID-19] infection numbers are low. The death toll, the last time I looked, was under 500 people.”
With early testing, tracing and a three-tier social distancing programme, South Korea has avoided going into a national lockdown. There was, however, a city-wide lockdown in Daegu back in February.
Things can still change from day-to-day. The most disruption Dubois and his team have experienced at the Legoland Korea site in Chuncheon occurred after a construction worker visited his sister’s house for dinner.
“He came back to work but was notified that his sister had come down with COVID. So we shut the site down, which is an expensive thing to do when you’re sending home 400 people. He got tested, the result came back negative, but he stayed home a couple of weeks, testing all along the way. Beyond that, it’s been business as usual.”
Big plans for China
Legoland Korea promises to be the most Lego-like theme park yet. However, Merlin’s planned projects in China will be the biggest and boldest.
“What’s coming in China is really cool,” says Dubois. “We’ll not only be doing everything we’re doing in Korea, we’ll be supersizing things. In China, you don’t do anything small. It’s kind of like Texas.”
“At some of our Chinese parks, we are looking at new ways of doing Miniland,” says Holland. “There will be large indoor spaces in some of those parks for Miniland. And there are some surprises coming too. We’re very much creating a heart to the park, something that’s quite iconic.”
Legoland’s entry into China is hugely important both for Merlin and the wider Lego Group.
“Families might go to Legoland because it’s a super cool theme park. But they also get recruited into the Lego brand,” says Holland. “A Legoland attraction opens up everyone’s imagination, kids and adults, to all the amazing things you can do with Lego.”
Building the brand, protecting the IP
One area where Lego has previously had issues in China, and indeed South Korea, is with the control of intellectual property. Copy toy products are not uncommon. But the tide may be turning. Following a signing ceremony last year for Legoland Shanghai Resort, President Xi Jinping met with senior Lego executives to discuss IP protection. Days later, a court ruled against one of Lego’s local competitors.
Dubois is sanguine about any remaining threat. “You only have to buy the copy product once, and you’ll never do it again. I bought a kit for a car from an online vendor, not realising it was a knock off. When you put a Lego model together, it just fits beautifully. But when you buy one of these copies, it just falls apart in your hands.”
“There have been a lot of copies of the Lego system bricks and Minifigures,” says Holland. “But Lego Duplo is proving very popular as the genuine Lego article [in China].
“Because of the stringent health and safety checks that the product has gone through, parents feel more confident buying that for their pre-school kids. So in terms of a Legoland theme park, where you’ve got Merlin’s health and safety standards and quality control, combined with the Lego brand, it’s a high-quality product where you know your kids will be safe.”
How many Legolands could China accommodate?
Chinese consumers are increasingly brand savvy, believes Dubois. “You can go into any major city in China, and whether it’s fashion brands, car brands or Lego, they have a real presence. Lego is an expensive but high-quality product. In bringing Legoland into the market, we want to do it well and create a quality, aspirational experience. Because if the first one’s successful, the rest are easy”.
Merlin officials have already gone on record saying the Legoland portfolio could grow to as many as 20 theme parks internationally. China will be key to the brand’s expansion over the coming years.
“Nick Varney sees it like this,” says Dubois. “In America, we will soon have three Legoland theme parks, and there are 360 million people. China has 1.2 billion people. Can you imagine how many Legolands the country could accommodate?”
Already confirmed are theme park resorts for Shanghai and Sichuan Province, but there’s more to come. Construction on Legoland Shanghai is expected to start in 2021, with the opening currently scheduled for 2024.
“They might not all happen, but there could be more than a handful,” says Dubois. “China’s got the people, it’s now just a matter of the economy catching up.”
Images kind courtesy of Legoland Korea Resort. Background image: Jay Han, Legoland Korea Show Project Manager