When Merlin Entertainments waves its magic wand, good things happen, and LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven is a shining example of how one company can make a huge impact in Central Florida.

Merlin Entertainments is the operator of LEGOLAND Florida Resort who brought the major attraction to Florida in 2011.

“What LEGOLAND has done is changed our story as a community,” said Katie Worthington Decker, president and CEO of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. “It’s allowed for a reinvention of our historical foundation as the birthplace of Florida theme-park tourism with Dick Pope’s Cypress Gardens. It exposes millions of people each year to our community. It brought a new demographic of tourists (families) to Central Florida and Polk County that Cypress Gardens did not attract” in its latter years.

With 50 rides, attractions and shows, a water park and a botanical garden — a remnant from Cypress Gardens — nestled on 150 acres, LEGOLAND Florida is geared toward children ages 2 to 12.

Since it opened in 2011, it’s added more rides, built a hotel and resort, and employed 1,400-plus people. The 152-room, five-story LEGOLAND Hotel contains more than 2,000 LEGO models made from more than 2 million LEGO bricks. The LEGOLAND Beach Retreat features 83 colorful bungalows — two rooms per bungalow — on beautiful Lake Dexter. Each 13-bungalow cluster houses its own outdoor play area, geared toward different LEGO minifigures. Parents can watch their children play on fun and challenging equipment while kicking back on shaded patios.

That growth has spurred additional development along the Cypress Gardens Boulevard corridor, especially restaurants.

“Merlin Entertainments’ investment in Polk County has been a game changer for our region,” Worthington Decker said. “Beyond the 1,400-plus jobs that they have brought to the region, the economic impact on other areas of the community has been a positive ripple effect. Existing hospitality businesses have been bolstered by their investment, which is proven in improved (revenue per available room) at our area hotels, and we are experiencing an acceleration of investment by new hotel developers.”

More people staying in hotel rooms means an increase in the amount the local “bed tax” brings in. The Tourist Development Council uses that money for capital investments, “and that reaches across the entire county to include not just Winter Haven’s fieldhouse and conference center, but the renovations at the RP Funding Center, the Fort Meade Equestrian Center and the expansions at Lake Myrtle,” Worthington Decker said.

Three years ago, an independent study of LEGOLAND’s economic impact on the are revealed the total reached $1 billion from 2010 to 2015, said Brittany Williams, senior public relations manager.

Expect more growth next spring

“LEGOLAND Florida Resort is taking guests from the theater to the theme park in early spring 2019 with the launch of THE LEGO MOVIE WORLD,” Williams said. “Created in partnership with Warner Bros., this impressive expansion features three attractions, inspired by the characters and themes of the worldwide blockbuster, ‘THE LEGO MOVIE’, and the upcoming ‘THE LEGO MOVIE 2: The Second Part.’

“We expect this addition to draw in guests from all over the world to meet beloved (movie) characters and experience this fully immersive world. We will also offer a new way to stay and play just steps away at LEGOLAND Hotel in a new ‘THE LEGO MOVIE WORLD’-themed room.”

With its growth, LEGOLAND Florida Resort is a multi-day attraction, Williams said. “The addition of two on-site accommodations means more of our visitors are staying in Winter Haven and spending money at our local establishments.”

That excites Worthington Decker, who says LEGOLAND’s leaders — General Manager Rex Jackson and Adrian Jones before him — have used their voices to influence how Winter Haven and Polk County are developed.

“They have helped to advocate for quality-of-life and transportation projects that are important to the long-term economic sustainability of the region,” such as the Central Polk Parkway, Worthington Decker said.

“The success of LEGOLAND, combined with a strong economy and a pro-growth, pro-business city and county government has created opportunity for Winter Havenites,” she said. “Growth is a great thing, as long as our government (city and county) get ahead of the game to manage the growth. The current leadership at the city is aggressively addressing infrastructure needs, but they are making up for years of a lack of planning (or funding to execute on projects).”

Sean Malott, president and CEO of the Central Florida Development Council agrees, “Infrastructure must be at the forefront of our agenda to support the growth and other opportunities that are destined for Polk County. LEGOLAND Florida Resort has been a major economic boost for the entire region, not just Winter Haven and Polk County.”

Community Involvement

LEGOLAND also prides itself in being a good community partner — in many ways.

Merlin Entertainments and LEGOLAND Florida Resort support Merlin’s Magic Wand, a non-profit foundation that assists seriously ill, disabled and disadvantaged children by giving them and their families admission to any of Merlin’s attractions. LEGOLAND Florida Resort also supports the Sunshine Foundation Dream Village.

Worthington Decker said LEGOLAND has also been a good community partner from an “engagement perspective.”

“Probably the best example is their partnership with Polk State College interns,” she said. “They are determined to build a workforce from within Polk County, and through partnerships with Polk State and Winter Haven High School they are recruiting and training a local workforce. For those who are trained as model citizens, they are a part of a global company with opportunities around the world.”

Williams says LEGOLAND stays involved because many of its employees live and work here.

“Several of our staff are involved with the chamber and Main Street Winter Haven. It is important for us to stay involved so that we see this area develop as it should,” she said. “We want to see Cypress Gardens Boulevard as a nice gateway into LEGOLAND and this side of Winter Haven. We support the development of downtown as a cultural center to encourage people to stay in the area longer to experience all we have to offer.”

But there’s more to Merlin and LEGOLAND than economic development, internships and involvement. There’s also fun.

“Merlin Entertainments is a company built on fun – a reason why our 60 million guests choose to spend their time at our unique attractions,” Williams said. “We seek to create magical days out for our visitors and the kind of memories which last forever.”

The company employs more than 27,000 people in 124 global attractions on four continents, Williams said.

“Team Merlin lives and breathes The Merlin Way: This is our culture and it pulls together our vision and values. It is at the heart of what we do. It captures what a Merlin person is about and helps shape how we will continue to achieve business growth and our objectives for the future. The Merlin Way represents our company’s DNA.”