Legoland Florida Spurs Winter Haven, Polk County

Winter Haven is abuzz about Legoland Florida's planned grand opening in October, but it isn't the new amusement park that has people talking so much as it is what's next for the rest of eastern Polk County.

The park, under construction on the land that formerly housed Cypress Gardens, requires preparation not only on the part of Merlin Entertainment -- the parent company of all Legoland theme parks -- but also by the City of Winter Haven, its commissioners, business owners and residents.

All anticipate that changes on the horizon will be big.

Winter Haven commissioners and business leaders from the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce are working together to make Winter Haven, now a sleepy town at the heart of mostly rural Polk County, more accessible to visitors attracted by Legoland, and to improve the quality of life in town for residents.

The city aims to strengthen public and private partnerships, primarily in reference to The Landings, $100 million, 70-acre shopping, dining and lodging complex that will be directly connected by transport, including water taxis and Legoland shuttle busses to the park.

The Landings will create about 800 jobs in addition to Legoland's 1,000. This, in addition to other large companies such as CSX Intermodal transportation looking to move into the area, could create thousands of jobs -- a huge ray of hope for Winter Haven residents who have suffered from a largely stagnant economy over the past few years.

One of the most important developments is the creation of an entirely walkable and bikeable downtown area that will be connected to The Landings. Also, plans are in place to link Winter Haven to major airports in Tampa and Orlando via commuter flights to create a vacation experience unique to Winter Haven in which the rental or use of a vehicle is not needed and the city, not just Legoland, can be explored.

Commissioner Jamie Beckett expresses optimism that a partnership with Legoland will encourage further growth in the city, stating that city planners are making an effort to show Winter Haven as a "real city where real people live" and not a "fiberglass" construction to accompany a theme park.

Winter Haven officials aim to develop additional tourist services and encourage a stronger political voice in the Central Florida region. The idea is to help establish an educated and career-minded workforce in the area, giving Winter Haven a stronger economy and professional outlook.

According to the Winter Haven City Commission, the goal of creating a more affluent workforce is supported by Legoland, which offered a grant of $413,099 to Polk State College to train 432 new full-time employees in conjunction with Polk Works, the county's workforce development agency.

Polk County Businesses Anticipate Economic Boon

Polk County leaders anticipate that family-friendly businesses will help keep Legoland visitors in Winter Haven longer than their trip to the park, and will create an opportunity for local business owners to capitalize on Winter Haven's new face as a family-oriented destination.

Legoland officials such as Mark Jackson, who is a tourist development expert, have offered their support to local Winter Haven and Polk County businesses, and to help educate residents on how to maximize the benefits from the theme park's presence.

"Legoland has such good research and such good marketing," says Beckett, "and what's valuable about it is that they're willing to share that information openly."

Many locally owned businesses have taken this advice to heart, including the Heuvel family – owners of Iamsterdam Panini Café, which is situated directly in front of the Legoland property. Family-owned and oriented enterprises like Iamsterdam Café value cleanliness, pricing and strong customer service – factors that Legoland officials have assured will bring in customers.

"Legoland brings a lot of promises," says Val Heuvel. "We'll definitely see more crowds."

Dave Heuvel opened a second location -- IamPasta Café -- along Cypress Gardens Boulevard in anticipation of Legoland's visitors, stating that the family had long ago talked of opening a pasta café, but it was the park's plans that motivated them to open in 2011 and become established before the Fall grand opening.

"Tourism is the cherry on top of the cake," says Dave Heuvel during his morning food preparations, but notes that it is a strong base of local patrons that will keep the business strong.

Commissioner David Dickey agrees: "Our main goal is to get ready for the opening in October," he says, citing that immediate preparation in the town is crucial.

"I think we've turned the corner. Things are getting better."

Beckett supports this idea of capitalizing on Legoland's allure, as well as other developments in the city: "We really are on the verge of the most successful economic developments in Polk County ever."

Far-Reaching Effects

The optimism surrounding Legoland does not stop at the Winter Haven city line. It reaches out to the surrounding municipalities such as Haines City, Lake Wales and Bartow, all of which have been versed in drawing in visitors and creating a family-friendly experience, according to Mark Jackson, Polk County director of tourism and sports marketing.

"What we've done is create an initiative called 'Preparing the Way to Prosperity -- The Road to Legoland'," says Jackson. This initiative, which includes an hour-long presentation, is being shared across the county, urging businesses to make themselves family friendly and prepare for Legoland guests.

"There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way our tourism industry and the hospitality industry in general looks at the new customer coming in."

This "new customer,'' Jackson explains, is far different than the target market for Cypress Gardens, which was individuals over 45. Instead, they now look to what would appeal to children ages 2 to 12, and to their mothers. Factors Jackson stresses are cleanliness and common-sense among employees to bring guests and make them feel at home.

The close proximity to Orlando and its theme parks is both a helpful and competitive factor for the Polk County tourism industry. Legoland's Bed and Brick program, which allows local hotels to partner with Legoland itself for visitors to plan their vacations, will help both Winter Haven hotels and those in the surrounding city. "There currently aren't enough hotel rooms to accommodate everyone that will come to Legoland in Winter Haven," explains Beckett, "so this will be a regional impact."

With an anticipated 2 million visitors annually, the impact could be phenomenal.

In addition to this effort, county officials are working hand-in-hand with Legoland to change infrastructure and create better way-finding road signs and advertise the region as a multiday experience, and advertise other attractions, such as Fantasy of Flight, Bok Tower and Camp Mack to keep visitors in the area longer.

"We need to make sure that when people come to Polk County to a theme park like this, they have a really good experience," says Beckett.

Allison Beeman, director of nearby Haines City Economic Development Council, echoes this sentiment. "I think we'll see a lot of movement as far as hotel development, restaurants and tours," she says in reference to the U.S. 27 corridor that will carry Legoland guests from Orlando into the heart of Polk County.

"We've made personal efforts with our organizations to attract those businesses."

In Haines City, an effort is being made to attract those visitors with signs that offer information about the area and draw them off of U.S. 27 and into Haines City's downtown to explore and see what the area has to offer.

"There are still skeptics out there," Beeman says, "but we're not one of them."

The Great Expectations For Legoland

If the City of Winter Haven and Polk County are undergoing such drastic development and optimistic planning, then Merlin Entertainment and the Legoland Engineers must have something extraordinary to offer. From the outside of the wooden fence surrounding former Cypress Gardens, whose famed Botanical Gardens have been preserved, observers can see several old buildings being destroyed or renovated to suit the park's needs.

The shapes of new structures can be seen through the worn wooden slats. Among these are the Imagination Zone, where children can race cars against each other, and Castle Hill, a medieval themed section featuring a rollercoaster that will take "guests on a ride in and out of a castle where a dragon defends his treasure," according to Legoland officials. Plans for the park were announced in July 2010 at a three-hour open house in Winter Haven's treasured Orange Dome, where residents were treated to concept art and interaction with Legoland's "Model Citizen" employees.

Somewhere deep inside the 150-acre park and out of sight for members of the public is a "secret location," where Legoland model builders are busy constructing about 15,000 models, figures and objects made entirely of Legos. Hint: With more than 3,000 styles of bricks to choose among, imagine creative combinations of colors and shapes never seen before.

According to Pat Demaria, a Lego model project manager, six Lego model builders are being built in the Florida model shop, where workers have already created around 150 oversized Lego oranges, using only a small fraction of the 50 million Lego bricks that will be used in the park.

Legoland anticipates bringing in around 2 million visitors annually, and having an estimated $459 million impact on the local economy.

Visit Merlin Entertainment's Legoland Florida website for more information on park attractions and visitor information.

Theresa Woods is a graduate of the University of South Florida, freelance writer and literature nerd living in Tampa. In her spare time, she writes, contemplates her place in the universe and enjoys being an all-purpose geek with her friends. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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