LEGO center stacks up nicely as kiddie entertainment


November 01, 1992|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

BLOOMINGDALE, MINN — Taking the Kids is a new family travel column that will appear biweekly in the Travel section of The Sun. Its author, Eileen Ogintz, is a former Chicago Tribune national correspondent with 20 years of newspaper experience and the mother of three who has traveled extensively with her children.

Bloomington, Minn.--The kids didn't know where to look first. Parents either. There were 20-foot-tall green dinosaurs, life-size yellow tigers jumping through hoops, space ships and astronauts flying overhead, clowns juggling plates, construction workers busy on a crane, trapeze artists swinging through the air -- 7,000 square feet in all of animals and people and vehicles all made out of LEGO bricks, millions of multicolored plastic blocks that move and blink and light up. Even the beams holding the place together are giant LEGO bricks.

In between the dinosaurs and circus performers were pint-sized tables and benches where children of all sizes and shapes were busy making their own creations out of piles of LEGO bricks and Duplos, the larger blocks meant for the preschool set.

"I don't know if this will help sell anything, but the kids sure like it," said Jean Abbas, who was keeping one eye on 7-year-old Noah and the other on 4-year-old Samuel. "I can't get them to leave."

Of course, "selling something" is exactly the point here. This is the LEGO Imagination Center, the first and only permanent display of LEGO creations in the United States built in the middle of the new Mall of America, the nation's largest enclosed shopping center. Parents were delighted that the center is free and children may stay as long as they like. Mall retailers hope the Imagination Center will draw more shoppers.

"I'd love to just drop my husband and kids here and then do some real shopping," said Sue Rollefson of Duluth, laughing. "All kids love LEGOs, and it's a neat way to spend time."

Paul Valentine, who tracks the toy industry for Standard & Poor's, believes LEGO may be spurring a new trend. "This is the type of thing we'll see more of in the '90s," he believes. "Manufacturers are going to continue to get children more involved playing with their toys so they'll buy them."

LEGO Systems Inc., known for its innovative marketing, is planning to build a LEGOLAND Amusement Park either in Western Europe or the United States. The announcement is expected this winter. The original LEGOLAND is a much-visited attraction 120 miles from Copenhagen.

LEGO spokesman David Lafrennie explained the Imagination Center was opened in response to the thousands of inquiries the company gets asking for factory tours or to see LEGO displays. The lone U.S. LEGO factory, in Enfield, Conn., isn't open to the public, he explained.

At the Minnesota Imagination Center, the exhibits will always be changing, so LEGO fans will have something new to see. And in case visitors want to buy LEGO bricks to take home -- seven out of 10 American children already have some -- there is a LEGO store, complete with a whimsical interpretation of what a LEGO factory might look like, conveyor belt and all. Sales so far have been excellent, LEGO spokesmen say, declining to release any numbers.

It is all set next to Knott's 7-acre Camp Snoopy, a 50-ride indoor amusement park that has its own aerial roller coaster and water ride. Together they are the centerpiece of the 78-acre, four-story Mall of America, the much-publicized new megamall in the Minneapolis suburbs, and proof of what teen-agers already know: Malls are no longer just for shopping.

"Many retail pundits have been skeptical about this concept -- particularly in times of economic recession," acknowledged Peter Eio, president of LEGO Systems at the opening in August. "They have failed to see . . . this is a unique and innovative new approach to an existing consumer need -- to convert routine shopping expeditions to events that can be enjoyed by the entire family."

A California-based toy chain, Imaginarium, already has brought this idea into each of its mall stores: Children may try any toy they see. They are specially displayed to attract little fingers. The concept is working. Imaginarium, started in the mid-'80s, already has more than 50 stores in 13 states. The company plans to expand into the Chicago area, Texas, Minnesota and Kentucky before the end of the year. "It's retail theater. Parents can't resist. It's changing all the rules of 'Don't touch in the store,' " explained Imaginarium spokesman Kelly Krug.

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