It is no great exaggeration to suggest that, in these underwhelmingly warm days of early spring, the Legoland resort in Windsor is a strangely accurate picture of the wider Britain.
The ‘Miniland’ area of this space to Denmark’s most child-friendly export has always been notable for its attention to detail – offering plastic-block re-creations of structures as varied as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal and Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral that, even at first glance, sing sweetly of the hours of careful labour that must have been required to build them. But here in April 2021, it has surpassed itself. Wandering through this world in miniature, I notice that two of the landmarks in its impressive London section – Buckingham Palace, and the small-scale rendition of Windsor Castle that mimics the real thing less than three miles away – are both flying their Lego flags at decorous half-mast.
This, of course, is deliberate, and easily understood: a tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh. But the model-makers could certainly have been forgiven had they neglected to make this almost invisible change. Because inevitably, the rest of the resort is also a reflection of the planet outside its boundaries – and of what has been happening for the past 13 months.
The pandemic has been an unsurprisingly tough period for theme parks. But things are looking more hopeful this year. Along with its colleagues and competitors across the UK, Legoland Windsor was able to reopen and even then, only with considerable caveats. Two weeks into this semi-re-emergence, it is taking no chances.
The signs of caution are there before I leave the car park to enter: an ‘Important Notice’ in livid green and yellow, advising that tickets must now be pre-booked online, all payments are now cashless, and guests aged six and above have to wear face masks on most rides.
Adhering to covid rules
There are further indications of our current viral era: the staff member who waves a temperature gauge at my and my son’s foreheads; the Hill Train down into the core of the resort, where every second row of seats is out of use, and covered in stickers reasserting the importance of social distancing. But if these are the ‘necessary evils’ of a day out in our present predicament, they do not seem to affect the general level of enjoyment in the park.
My son, six, adds his own giddy whoops of excitement to the babble of children’s voices. And if any attendant parents are irritated by the request to keep mouths covered, it is disguised not only by these now ubiquitous straps of cloth, but by the stoicism that the past year has fostered. Legoland seems to be similarly resilient in its approach to the situation.
This is a big year for it – the 25th anniversary of its inauguration as the globe’s second Lego-branded theme park (the first being the mother ship, at Billund in Denmark). It is celebrating this milestone with the launch of Mythica – a new zone that adds up to the park’s biggest investment since its 1996 launch.
As the name suggests, this will revolve around myths and legends, with attractions including the water-squirting fun of ‘Hydra’s Challenge’ and the ‘tower-drop’ thrills of ‘Fire And Ice Freefall’ – as well as the central ‘Flight Of The Sky Lion’: a gondola ride where the experience is amplified by big-screen images. And, of course, there is plenty of Lego: 13 freshly constructed models comprise 1.7 million bricks, including Maximus, the ‘sky lion’, who accounts for 685,530 of them.
He has been partially crafted by Paula Laughton, Legoland Windsor’s chief model maker, who has been part of its creative team for 24 of its 25 years. "He’s beautiful. He’s my favourite at the moment," she smiles – explaining that, while the recent closure has been far from ideal, it has helped the resort to get more done. "The shutdown has allowed us to crack on with jobs that we wouldn’t be able to tackle if we were open," she says. "So we’ve been working continuously throughout. At the moment, we are trying to refurbish Miniland. It’s a pretty big task – and we wouldn’t normally have a period of down time in which to do it."
But it has also, she says, been a strange time to be in the resort. "It was so exciting to see guests returning on April 12," she adds. "A park without people is pointless. It’s lifeless."
The pandemic will continue its rude interruption for a while yet. The ongoing restrictions on indoor hospitality dictate that rides that are not wholly outside will have to remain barricaded for almost another month. (This is one of the reasons why Mythica was not due to open until May 29.) As effectively a cinema with moving parts, ‘Flight Of The Sky Lion’ currently falls foul of the roadmap.
Still, in the areas beyond the building site, guests are carrying on regardless – a little removed from each other as they stand in line, and tacitly accepting of the fact that, with social distancing in force on the likes of the ‘Land of the Vikings’ rapids ride and the ‘Jolly Roger’ pirate ship, their wait will be longer. But they shuffle forward without any fuss all the same.
If there is one thing Covid cannot kill, it is the British talent for queuing.