Legoland California entrance

Merlin Entertainments Group has confirmed that it plans to open a new Legoland theme park on the site of the former Cypress Gardens park by the end of 2011.

Company CEO Nick Varney confirmed the news at a press conference on Thursday, although its plans had already been widely leaked following its $22.3 million purchase of the site last week. The new park will incorporate Cypress Garden's historic botanical displays, while adding over 50 rides, shows and attractions - making it the largest Legoland in the world.

Merlin hopes to convert the 145-acre site into a multi-day destination, creating over 1,000 jobs in the process. It plans to invest hundreds of millions into the project, adding hotels and attractions based on its other brands which include Madame Tussaud's Wax Museums and SeaLife aquariums. It is likely the company will also seek to convert the existing Splash Island water park to a Lego theme, supporting its plans to add Lego water parks to a number of its locations.

The location of Cypress Gardens has weighed heavily against it in the fiercely competitive Florida market. Situated close to Winter Haven, south of Orlando, the site is around an hour's drive away from Walt Disney World. Merlin is hoping that a combination of Legoland's brand - which Varney described as "one of the strongest in the world" - and promised road improvements from Polk County will help establish the new resort as a destination worth travelling to. In addition to the infrastructure improvements, Polk Country will pay Merlin $150,000 a year to support job creation and $350,000 to boost marketing.

Merlin is the second largest tourist attraction operator in the world. Its properties include major theme parks such as Alton Towers and Thorpe Park in the UK, along with three European Legoland locations. Despite this, it has a relatively small footprint in the US, which is primarily limited to its Legoland California park. It is now looking to the world's number one theme park market - Florida - to drive growth. The company also plans additional Legolands in Dubai and Malaysia.

Founded as a botanical garden in 1936 by Dick and Julie Pope, Cypress Gardens quickly grew into a major attraction. The previous owners, Land South Adventures, paid $16.8 million to take over the park following a 2007 bankruptcy sale. The company's plans included opening a new museum dedicated to its history and expanding the water park. However, the planned expansion was never completed and the park has struggled in the face of heavy competition from Florida's other attractions.

The park closed again in September last year, immediately sparking rumors of a Merlin takeover of the site. The park's botanical gardens and water park had only re-opened in March following a five-month closure, although its rides and animal exhibits did not return.


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