When the announcement was made that Merlin Entertainments had purchased Florida’s fabled yet troubled Cypress Gardens to convert it into LEGOland Florida – exciting news for those of us who share a love of LEGO and an interest in preserving as much of ol’ Cypress Gardens as possible – my mind immediately went elsewhere. A trip down memory lane through the last several decades reveals a long, mostly unconsummated, flirtation between Disney and LEGO.
Like two stars orbiting each other in a gravitational embrace, the two companies have been intertwined for ages. But instead of drawing closer, it appears that at last they’ve catapulted each other into interstellar space.
Allow me to explain my tortured metaphor.
One of the most vigorous and undying Disney rumors in the early days of the internet was that the fifth gate at Walt Disney World would be a LEGO park. I’ve no idea how realistic these rumors actually were, but there were several legitimate attempts to bring LEGO into the existing Disney parks. Most prominently, these involved efforts to bring a Denmark pavilion to EPCOT Center. The Denmark pavilion has popped up here in the past; it’s one of those rare unrealized ideas, much like the Spain pavilion, that have been hinted at publicly at certain intervals since well before EPCOT’s opening in 1982 to almost the modern day. While many of those iterations probably didn’t involve LEGO, some did. Let’s take a look back, starting in 1983…
John Sullivan, the president of Lego’s American subsidiary, said in an interview here that shipments were up in 1982 but not as much as the company had expected. Overall, the toy industry was hurt by the economic downturn, and Lego fared reasonably well compared to other companies, Sullivan said. But, particularly in the United States, video games are a major new long-term factor in an industry already crowded with products. In only a few years, electronic toys have garnered 32 percent of the market, and their attraction is increasing as prices go down, he said.
Lego is an unusual international company because it is so closely held by the founding family and because it operates from this remote corner of Scandinavia. It was once written of Billund that it was a “god-forsaken railway stopping point where nothing could thrive.” The railway is gone, the surrounding flatlands still offer an uninviting vista, but Billund appears to be flourishing as the home of one of Denmark’s leading companies and largest exporters. Although no sales figures are published, one informal estimate puts total turnover at about $250 million annually.
The local airport is among the country’s busiest, although the population remains only a few thousand. Many of the travelers are among the 900,000 people who each year visit Legoland, the amusement park where almost everything is built of Lego pieces. It has become Denmark’s second most popular tourist attraction after Tivoli, the famous gardens in Copenhagen, according to company officials.
Lego is negotiating for a niche at the new Disneyworld Epcot Center in Florida, where it would feature more of the amazing giant-size Lego creations, Sullivan said.
- “Lego’s Market ‘Clutch Power'; Electronic Games Pose New Challenge”, The Washington Post, March 31st, 1983
Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Denmark pavilion begat the Scandinavia pavilion which begat today’s Norway pavilion. So, take two…
LOOKING FOR a good Danish? If you’re not too hungry to wait, try Walt Disney World, where the next country represented in Epcot’s World Showcase is likely to be Denmark. Disney is close to signing a contract with the northern European kingdom, says Walt Disney Attractions President Judson Green. Now, with Norway already in place, Epcot need collect only Sweden to have the complete Scandinavian set.
- The Orlando Sentinel, December 20, 1993
Disney chairman Michael Eisner announced that Denmark would build the 12th foreign pavilion at Florida’s Epcot Center.
- “Disney meet upbeat”, Daily Variety, February 23rd, 1994
That’s from the annual shareholders’ meeting! You can’t get much more definitive an announcement than that. And yet…
Finally, despite CEO Michael Eisner’s announcement at February’s annual meeting, Expansion Plans with Copenhagen Only Tentative.
Eisner told shareholders that the deal to add Denmark to World Showcase was all but signed, but talks continue six months later.
”Both parties are re-evaluating,” Warren said. ”It still may happen, but it also may not.”
- “EPCOT: Expect Park Changes Over Time”, The Orlando Sentinel, August 15th, 1994
Q. Whatever happened to Walt Disney World’s plans to add a Denmark pavilion to World Showcase at Epcot ’95?
A. The addition seems a lot less likely than it did a year ago, when Disney officials were saying they were close to signing a contract with Denmark on the project.
Pam Brandon, a spokeswoman for Epcot , said the idea hasn’t been dropped altogether, but there is no timetable for moving ahead with it.
“Denmark is definitely on hold,” Brandon said. “The thought at Epcot right now is that we’re doing more media in entertainment rather than building big buildings.
“Right now, especially in World Showcase, we’re looking more at entertainment that’s outside and giving it more a sense of place.”
Word of Walt Disney World’s interest in bringing Denmark to its World Showcase got out in late 1993. It would have been the 12th country to be featured at the park.
- The Orlando Sentinel, February 3rd, 1995
Swing and a miss.
So, let’s fast-forward then, to early 2001 – before that year’s recession, attendance downturn, and terrorism-induced attendance collapse:
Contrary to Internet speculation, Lego probably won’t open a new theme park at Walt Disney World.
But the Danish construction-toy maker might have a presence on World Showcase Lagoon.
Lego officials said last year the company was talking to Disney, Universal and SeaWorld officials about possible sites for a proposed 125-acre theme park. The privately owned company already operates parks in Billund, Denmark; Windsor, England; and Carlsbad, Calif.
Instead, the toy maker has talked to Disney officials about opening a new Lego-themed attraction and store in Epcot, said a source familiar with the project.
The attraction would display various landmarks, such as the Pyramids, made out of Legos.
The two companies already have strong ties. Lego operates a store in Downtown Disney in Orlando and just opened a similar store in Anaheim as part of the new California Adventure theme park. Lego also produces a line of toys for Disney.
Disney would not comment on the project. A Lego spokesman said the company has no immediate plans for an attraction at Epcot, but wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
- “EPCOT, LEGO ARE IN TALKS”, The Orlando Sentinel, February 19th, 2001
So now LEGO is coming to Cypress Gardens, after thirty years of flirting with central Florida. EPCOT, of course, hasn’t seen a new World Showcase pavilion in twenty-one years. But hey, you can’t say they didn’t try.
You might notice the sad lack of images in this story, and as with most stories on the internet This Story Is Useless Without Pictures. But there has been a surprising lack of artwork from this project released or leaked over the years. Of course, if anyone wants to drop me a line with some info…