My parents once took me to visit Legoland while we were on a camping holiday in Denmark. It was 1981 and I was nine, the age that the elder of my two sons is now.
It was a gentler time. Legoland Billund was the only one of its kind, its key attraction being scale-model replicas of the wonders of the world – plus a Norwegian fishing village – rendered in Lego. As far as I can recall there were no queues, few "rides", and no hard sell of Lego products. There was, however, the chance to drive a Lego car on a Lego street, past Lego road signs, to obtain my Lego driving licence (which I still possess).
Black-and-white pictures exist of me, resplendent in a towelling tracksuit, clutching the hand of a large plastic pig in "Fabuland". Behind my over-large plastic-framed spectacles my eyes are alight with joy.
Now, 30-odd years later, I occasionally find myself charting a course to Junction 6 of the M4 and Legoland Windsor, which opened in 1996. Seen through adult eyes, it's a very different sort of place. The queues are dispiritingly long, both to enter the park and to join the rides. The roller coasters and their squirty, splashy, whirling alternatives shout too loudly over the replica Canary Wharf in "Miniland", which seems dusty and neglected.
Lunch is a high-volume, three-step affair. (Fancy a fajita? 1. Choose your base; 2. Choose your filling; 3. Choose your topping.) There's still a Lego driving school, but now you have to pay for your driving licence. For my children, the light of love seems to shine only in the shop, where ever-grander Lego kits draw them like moths to a burning wallet.
So, I wasn't too hopeful about Legoland Windsor's latest innovation, the Legoland Resort Hotel, which opened last weekend. It won me over, though, brick by brick.
The first thing you see as you arrive at Legoland is the hotel's brightly coloured clock tower, with a smoke-belching green Lego dragon lurking above and a quartet of massive Lego "Minifig" characters – if that isn't a contradiction in terms – below. Rigid Lego flags rotate on the roof, careless of the direction of the wind. If you took these trimmings away, the building would belong to the Travelodge school of architecture. With them, children's expectations soar stratospherically high.
Inside, a Lego mobile spins at the centre of what is a rather dark lobby, with a low ceiling. In fact, there's Lego everywhere. Behind the reception desks 6,000 Minifigs are pressed against a Lego wall, Lego creations from junior guests stand on the shelves opposite, and a huge bath of Lego provides an unusual distraction near the lifts.
Crucially, the hotel has its own car park, which means the first difficulty of a trip to Legoland – queuing for a parking space in a desolate zone far from the main gates – is surmounted.
Access to park is via an entrance at the back of the hotel, and guests are given half an hour's "early bird" access to some rides before it officially opens in the morning.
The template for the 150 rooms is that of a mini-suite in one of three themes: Kingdom (knights and princesses), Adventure (Indiana Jones, but not actually Indiana Jones, presumably for licensing reasons) and Pirate. At this point, for brevity, I must introduce a pair of useful terms: Made of Lego (MOL) and Not Made of Lego (NMOL). Our Pirate room contained a mirror in the shape of a ship's wheel (NMOL), skull-and-crossbones motifs (MOL) and a carpet designed like the deck of a ship (NMOL). There was also a treasure chest (NMOL) that the children could open once they'd uncovered a secret code. Inside were prizes (MOL).
Our double bed (NMOL) had a sail-like canopy and a swashbuckling red-velvet headboard; the boys had bunk beds. For company, we had a monkey, a parrot, a butterfly and a large rat (MOL, thankfully). The children were entranced, because Lego is always at the forefront: a big box of bricks is supplied for immediate in-room construction purposes.
Downstairs, the Pirate's Splash Pool is small and looks likely to be overwhelmed during peak times, but the airy restaurant – which serves NMOL potatoes in the shape of Lego bricks, but also offers salads and main courses that are far from plastic – is briskly efficient, with helpful staff. The all-you-can-eat evening buffet costs £19.95 for adults (£9.95 for children) and during ours a huge Star Wars Lego Stormtrooper popped over to make friends, which was charming of him. Round the corner, the Skyline Bar serves drinks (emphatically NMOL) with a view of the small stage, where we witnessed a giant pink Lego brick singing "Reach for the Stars".
Everywhere you go, there are Lego models: picture frames, flowers, bottles of wine. There's even a huge ice cream made from tasty-looking Lego in the restaurant. Inevitably, there's also an in-house Lego shop, but for once the children found everything else considerably more interesting.
I'm all grown up now, and Lego has grown up too. But for a cost-effective mini-break with your own little Minifigs, a stay at the Legoland Hotel fits together rather well.
Legoland Windsor Resort Hotel, Windsor SL4 4AY (0844 844 8099; legoland.co.uk/hotel)
Family rooms (two adults and two children) from £247, including breakfast and park tickets for two days. (Pre-booked park tickets normally cost from £139.32 for a family of four per day.)
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