Our Team Speed race car is skidding along the track with a flying pirate ship, a royal bed and three other Lego models, all of them slipping and crashing in cartoon chaos. In front of us, a volcano erupts, a landslide threatens and part of the road rises up and crumbles. I duck to avoid a flying Lego brick.
We’re on the Great Lego Race roller coaster at Legoland. We can’t see the coaster’s dives and hairpin turns because we’re wearing virtual reality headsets, but the racing adventure in our goggles is synchronized with the coaster’s track.
The 9-year-old boy sitting next to me has kept up a running commentary. “Uh-oh, watch the ice. WATCH THE ICE! They’re going to crash. No. No! It’s too slippery! Oh no, it’s too late. Hey, I won. I WON!”
Florida’s theme parks are building a spate of rides for younger children. SeaWorld is designing a new Sesame Street themed land. Universal Orlando is planning new Nintendo attractions. Disney will open its new Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios at the end of June, and next year, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway at the same park.
Legoland, which caters exclusively to children, is beefing up its offerings, too. In addition to the Great Lego Race virtual reality coaster, the Winter Haven park is building or redoing three rides that will be themed to “The Lego Movie.”
Some of the rides will appeal to teens and adults too. But across Central Florida, the result is going to be a bonanza for kids age 10 and under.
A walk down Sesame Street
Next spring, Sesame Street land will open at SeaWorld in the space occupied by Shamu’s Happy Harbor, which also was designed for the park’s youngest visitors. The new area will feature an actual Sesame Street instead of placing Sesame Street characters in environments dreamed up by park designers.
Guests will be able to “walk through Abby Cadabby’s garden, visit Mr. Hooper’s store, stop by Big Bird’s nest, sit on the famous 123 stoop and meet their favorite friends from Sesame Street including Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird,” SeaWorld said in a release.
Many of the attractions in Happy Harbor have closed for construction, including Shamu Express, its junior roller coaster. SeaWorld has not said what rides and attractions the new land will have or whether any of the Happy Harbor rides will carry over to it, but news reports based on the public filing of site plans say several will.
Fans can get a taste of how Sesame Street translates into theme park attractions at SeaWorld’s sister park, Busch Gardens in Tampa. Attractions in the 2.5-acre Sesame Street Safari of Fun, which opened in 2010, include Elmo’s Treehouse with a splash zone at its base and several kiddie rides. The star is Air Grover, a steel roller coaster for children as young as 3 or 4, a smooth out-and-back ride with looping, lightly banked turns.
For a lot of kids, Air Grover was their first roller coaster, says Jeff Hornick, senior director of theme park development for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. “It’s a perfect first ride for kids … so we really wanted to make it family friendly. It’s designed to look like Grover himself flying a bush plane over the desert. … It’s only 24 feet tall, 26 miles an hour, just enough to get the kids with a smile on their faces. Going up that first lift, they’re a little nervous but by the end, they have got a big smile on their face.”
'Family-friendly’ launch coaster
At Disney World, Imagineers — the company’s creative team — also envision the about-to-open Slinky Dog Dash as a child’s first roller coaster.
New rides at Toy Story Land were designed for the whole family, but with an eye on younger kids. Children as young as 2 will be able to ride Alien Swirling Saucers with an adult, while Slinky Dog Dash will accommodate kids as young as 3 or 4.
Slinky Dog is a launch coaster — near the midpoint, it accelerates suddenly and rapidly. “It’s a family-friendly launch, it’s not the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster,” said Phil Holmes, vice president of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, referring to the park’s other coaster, which goes from zero to 57 mph in 2.8 seconds. “It’s the kind of thrill where you’re laughing, not worried. It’s not a kiddie coaster, it’s like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train,” a Magic Kingdom coaster that tops out at 34 mph.
“This could be the first coaster for your child, a milestone moment.”
Typically theme park experts talk about Magic Kingdom — and specifically, Fantasyland — as the Disney park best suited to young children. That’s where you’ll find such classics as the Mad Tea Party, Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Peter Pan’s Flight, as well as Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Barnstormer, a 30-foot-tall coaster hosted by Goofy with a top speed of 25 mph. Minimum height to ride the Barnstormer is 35 inches, a height most kids reach when they’re 2 or 3 years old.
Hollywood Studios “lacks rides for kids, and I think in adding these new rides, Disney was concerned about families with small kids looking at Legoland as a potential substitute,” said Len Testa, co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” and president of touringplans.com. “Next year's opening of Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway at [Hollywood Studios] will also help with that.”
A park for kids
When Legoland’s parent company bought Cypress Gardens in 2010 and turned it into a theme park for kids age 12 and under, a lot of moving and renovating of rides had to be done.
One coaster for an older age group was sold to an amusement park in Orlando. Another was dismantled and given away. A raft ride went to a sister park in England. Other rides stayed in place but got some combination of Lego theming, longer tracks, new trains or were re-braked to slow them down for kids.
The Great Lego Race, which has tight, flat turns and is known by aficionados as a wild mouse coaster, used to be at Legoland Windsor in England. It was taken down and sent to the manufacturer in Germany, where it was refurbished. The parts were then shipped to Florida and reassembled for Legoland’s grand opening in 2011.
That coaster, Project X, ran until Legoland transformed it into the Great Lego Race this spring, the first virtual reality ride in the world designed specifically for kids, says Ian Sarjeant, senior project director for Merlin Entertainments, Legoland’s parent company.
With the animated race story playing in the virtual reality goggles, it’s a fun ride even though its top speed is only 35 miles an hour and its biggest drop is 50 feet. Riders can also choose to experience it the old-fashioned way — without the headset. Depending on their height, children ages 6 to 8 can ride it alone, and as young as 4 or 5 can ride with an adult. It’s one of four coasters at Legoland.
The park is also adding a new realm, Lego Movie World, based on the successful 2014 movie and in anticipation of a sequel scheduled to open in February. The new land, opening in spring 2019, will represent the Florida park’s largest investment in its seven-year history.
Lego Movie World will have three rides. Two will be new and details haven’t been revealed; the third will be the former The Quest for Chi boat ride, which took guests through a kingdom of anthropomorphic animals and featured water cannons, both on the boats and on shore. That ride opened in 2013, tied to the animated TV series “Legends of Chima,” which was discontinued after two seasons. The ride’s Chima theming will be replaced with Lego Movie theming, but it will remain a boat ride.
Eighteen months ago, Universal Parks and Resorts announced that realms based on Nintendo games would be built at three of its parks, including the Orlando resort. Since then, the company has revealed little, including where and when the new realm would open, but theme park followers predict at least some of the attractions will be aimed at younger children.
That prediction is based in part on news reports that Universal had applied for building permits that specified an 8.8-acre Nintendo realm featuring Donkey Kong and Super Mario attractions at Universal Studios in the KidZone section where Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster, the park’s junior roller coaster, is located.
Universal did not respond to questions about its plans for Nintendo attractions.
Designing for kids
If you think building rides for younger kids is just a matter of painting on some cute theming and making them shorter, slower and straighter, you are underestimating the complexity of age-based engineering standards for theme park rides.
Restraints — lap bars, safety belts and the like — must be designed to accommodate a wide range of body sizes, from a small child to the large parent who rides alongside. A young body can’t tolerate G-forces — created by speed, turns, ups and downs — as well as a teenager or an adult can, so sharp, fast turns can’t go on kiddie rides. If rides are too scary, little kids won’t ride them, so coasters that turn riders upside down or surprise them with unexpected dives are not often designed for the younger set.
“There are standards that say a 4-year-old is able to withstand X amount of G forces,” said Legoland’s Sarjeant. “G-forces are about whatever the coaster is doing — the steepness of the drop, the radius of the turns. It’s the body’s ability to react to the forces imposed on it by the ride, what the vehicle is making you do.”
When designing rides for 3- and 4-years-olds, “we want to make sure that a coaster is fun but that it’s not too intense, especially if it’s their first ride,” said Jeff Hornick, senior director of theme park development for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, which owns SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and other parks.
On a first ride, he said, it’s important that a child can ride it with his parents, and that means creating a complicated system of restraints that will fit all body sizes. “From a design perspective, that’s a challenge,” he said. “A design development for that type of ride is years in the making.”
Florida parks must meet a 61-page set of criteria for amusement rides created by a nonprofit organization, the American Society for Testing Materials. The guidelines cover a range of requirements, from construction materials to testing to restraints. They are also the basis for the height minimums that parks post by their rides. A child’s physical and emotional maturity are factors in whether he is ready for a particular ride, but for safety reasons, they’re not as important as size. That’s why, especially on kids’ rides, you’ll see a wide range of height minimums, generally from 32 inches to 54 inches.
Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert