Everything up-to-date in Legoland, just smaller

Some people say you can't really put a price on fun. But I'm guessing many of those people are billionaires and mortgage defaulters.

It seems to me that being a parent, especially at the moment, is all about putting a price on fun. And being the parent of a 4-year-old, I am learning, means facing up to an epic collision of price and fun: the amusement park. What it offers, what it costs, what weaponry and waiting it will entail.

In my household, we've just confronted this dragon for the first time, at a place that actually has a talking red dragon.

We thought we would aim for less commotion, smaller crowds. But we did like the idea of an overnight stay, and we had heard that the people at Legoland had been up to a few things lately, including the opening of a Sheraton next door. So we headed to Carlsbad, Calif.

First we caught a break: That Sheraton is roomy, with helpful staffers, a big, kid-friendly pool area, a sliver view of the Pacific (best from the third-floor rooms) and its own Legoland entrance.

Things were slow when we arrived, so the hotel let us check in early, stash our stuff, then march down the path, hand over the greenbacks and grab ahold of five full hours of interlocking rectangular plastic fun.

The first thing you see, entering from the Sheraton, is a playground of slides and ropes. So if the lines are too long or the rides are too scary, or not scary enough, you have that fallback.

Approaching the core of the place, you hit Miniland, where most of the models are. Minimal motion, minimal lights, minimal noises — this looked like a scaled-down slice of heaven to me.

We browsed past faux San Francisco, artificial Los Angeles (insert redundancy joke here), pseudo New Orleans, facsimile Manhattan and the fake Las Vegas Strip, all constructed of Lego pieces. Las Vegas was added last year, giving visitors a chance to compare a fake Manhattan skyline with a double-fake Manhattan skyline.

Legoland, which covers 128 acres, opened in 1999. The Lego mother ship in Denmark sold the park in 2005 to Merlin Entertainments Group, which spent $20 million on upgrades in 2008. Although its target audience is children 2 to 12, its gentle nature appeals most to younger kids but not too young. Kids under 36 inches tall can't go on some rides.

We headed into the Land of Adventure, which opened in March. Loosely based on Egypt, this zone features the Lost Kingdom Adventure (the park's first indoor "dark" ride); Cargo Ace (low-flying "airplanes"); Beetle Bounce (which holds kids snugly as they climb and plunge about 15 feet); and Pharaoh's Revenge (foam-ball mayhem in a sort of bouncy house).

It's a big park and we missed plenty, including "Journey to the Lost Temple," a 25-minute musical comedy that premiered in May; and the 36,000-square-foot Sea Life Aquarium, which opened next to Legoland in August.

The aquarium closed "for modifications" Nov. 11 and is scheduled to reopen Dec. 26, Its separate admission fee is about $10 if you add onto a regular Legoland ticket, $11.95 to $18.95 for the aquarium alone.

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