It’s a busy day in downtown Detroit: A policeman patrols a parking lot near the Renaissance Center, a construction worker fixes a cable on the Ambassador Bridge, and in front of the Joe Louis Fist, a tourist and a friend stop to snap a picture.
It’s a typical Detroit day, all right, except in this version of Motown, the RenCen is about 6 feet tall, the Ambassador Bridge is 11 inches wide, and the people milling about Belle Isle, Comerica Park, Ford Field, and other Detroit sites are yellow, stationary, and 4 centimeters tall. This is Detroit in Lego form, known as Miniland: Detroit, home to approximately 40 landmarks and features made entirely of Lego bricks, and it’s just one of several built attractions at the Legoland Discovery Center Michigan.
Billed as the ultimate indoor Lego Playground, Legoland Discovery Center Michigan is a paradise for Lego fans to create, learn, and play with the iconic toy building brick. Opened in March 2016 in the space formerly occupied by Jeepers! at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills, the 32,000-square-foot center is home to 10 Lego-based attractions. Activities include a video tour of a Lego factory, an interactive ride with laser blasters, the Miniland version of Detroit, and a 4D cinema where movies featuring animated Lego characters dazzle with lights, mist, and puffs of air.
All together, the center is a small, interactive Lego city in itself designed to appeal to both kids and adults.
“We want this to be a place where families can play together,” says Debbie Gibb, senior marketing manager with Merlin Entertainments, the group that owns and operates the attraction.
“There’s nothing here that parents can’t do with their kids. They can do every ride, they can watch the movies, they can make Lego creations with them. It’s really about that family time and interacting together.”
Family fun is familiar territory for Merlin Entertainments. The British-based group owns eight other Legoland Discovery Centers throughout the country, as well as other family attractions like Legoland California, the Madame Tussauds wax museums, and, in England, the London Eye. The company also owns a string of Sea Life Aquariums, an iteration of which is also located at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets.
According to Gibb, bringing a Legoland Discovery Center to Michigan was the next logical step after launching Sea Life Michigan in January 2015.
“We had really great success when we opened Sea Life, so it made it an even easier decision because we had some experience in the market,” Gibb says. “Detroit just seemed like the right market for another attraction.”
Geared primarily toward kids ages 3-10, other Legoland Center highlights include a build and test race track where kids create and race Lego cars; earthquake tables where future engineers test the durability of Lego towers; and creative workshops where visitors learn to build a new Lego model every month. The workshops are led by the Discovery Center’s resident master model builder, Clint Parry, and his team.
A lifelong Lego fan, Parry won the job after competing against over 100 other contestants in three rounds of a “pretty intense” building competition. Parry says he didn’t expect to win, but he did enter the contest with plenty of experience.
“I started building with Lego when I was about 4 years old, and I just kind of never really stopped,” says Parry, 29. “Sometimes kids kind of lose interest when they get to be about 12, 13 years old, but I never did. I just kept building as a high-schooler and then I went off to college, I took a little bin of bricks with me to always kind of tinker around and fidget.”
Now, of course, Parry holds a Lego fan’s dream job, building and creating Lego models full time. From his brick-filled office in the attraction, he’s constructed everything from a spinning globe and twin mermaids to a Lego sword for the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Using Lego Digital Designer, a free program downloadable from Lego, he’s also helped to maintain and add on to Miniland: Detroit. The display, which completes a night and day cycle every few minutes, consists of over a million Lego bricks and took a team of over 20 builders over six months to construct.
For fellow enthusiasts, whether you’re building a single model or an entire city, Parry says the key to success with Lego is, simply, practice.
“Always keep building,” Parry says. “Practice with different kinds of sets … In my mind, I’ve always kind of got a running catalogue of all the Lego pieces, and so that kind of familiarity really only comes with lots of experience and play.”
With rooms for birthday parties, STEM-oriented lessons for field trips, and an indoor playground with slides and climbing walls, play at the Discovery Center is generally reserved for kids (adults must be accompanied by a child to enter).
But for older Lego fans, the attraction also hosts monthly themed adult nights like Star Wars night, tailgate night, and Hollywood night. In the past, the events have included build contests, costume contests, beer and wine tastings, and more.
Drew Steury and his wife, Teresa, of Rochester Hills are annual Discovery Center pass holders, and although they originally purchased the passes for their kids’ birthdays, they’ve come to enjoy adult nights, too.
“They do trivia, and they always have some good food and drinks, and it’s always fun getting to compete with other people on the [Kingdom Quest] laser game,” Drew Steury says.
But, Steury says, playing alongside their three kids, who are between ages 3 and 7, is what keeps them coming back on a weekly basis.
“We get to chase [the kids] around and watch them have a blast,” Steury says. “Lego is, for us anyway, one of those toys that’s both creative and fun. It grabs our kids’ attention in a good way, building their motor skills and cognitive skills, and it’s just a great family atmosphere.”
As the place looks ahead to 2017, visitors can expect to see more themed activities, especially as they tie in to the release of two new movies from Lego and Warner Brothers: The Lego Batman Movie, which hits theaters in February, and The Lego Ninjago Movie, scheduled for a September release.
In addition, visitors can always find add-ons and seasonal updates to Miniland: Detroit, and this year, according to Gibb, visitors can also expect to see new features within the center itself.
“We have another area of the attraction that’s there for us to add onto, so there will be some new surprises coming,” Gibb says.
In a place dedicated to building and growing, perhaps that’s no surprise at all.