No Southern California family vacation is complete without a visit to Legoland, mecca for the ankle-biter set, and its new addition, Sea Life Aquarium. The parks are located in Carlsbad, Calif.—30 miles north of downtown San Diego and 20 miles north of the resort town La Jolla—and are monuments to their namesake tiny building blocks.

The Lay of Legoland

Pass through the giant Lego entrance gates at Legoland to a beautifully manicured and manageably scaled theme park decorated with oversized Lego creations, such as the full-sized giraffe poking his head through a roof and life-sized Star Wars characters dotting the landscape.

The park is divided into several themed zones, including Dino Island, Fun Town, Explore Village, Pirate Shores, Castle Hill and the newest Egyptian-themed Land of Adventure, each with attractions and rides to match. And don’t miss the chance to putt your way through Wild Woods Golf, a Lego-themed miniature golf course (a round is an additional $6).

The 50-plus rides and attractions—many powered by kids via pedal pushing, water squirting and rope pulling—are fun to look at and exhilarating to experience, without being too frightening. My daughter’s favorite part of the park has always been Miniland USA, featuring scale models of a handful of famous U.S. cities. More than 20 million Legos were used to design Miniland, and no detail is left out to convey the flavor of the cities. Look for the Lego seals off the faux Fisherman’s Wharf in the tiny version of San Francisco and the stacked Lego women calling, “Throw me some beads, Mister!” in miniature New Orleans.

  • Legoland California was the third Legoland to be opened and the only one located in the United States.
  • Neeta Lind

1 Legoland Dr., Carlsbad. Tel. 760-...; Admission: $62 for adults 13 to 59; $52 for kids 12 and under and seniors over 60. Open Thurs. to Mon. from September to May, and daily from June to August and during traditional school holidays; opens 10 a.m.; closing hours vary seasonally.

Sea Life Aquarium

In late 2008, Legoland welcomed a new sister attraction next door. Sea Life Aquarium features a colorful collection of mostly local marine life displayed in imaginative aquariums adorned with sea-themed Lego creations.

The highlight of the aquarium is the Lost City of Atlantis, an underwater world dominated by an 11-foot-long Lego submarine and a Lego statue of Poseidon. Guests can walk through a 35-foot-long acrylic tunnel to view the lost city from every angle, a fun experience for kids who will feel as if they are walking at the bottom of the sea (all without getting wet). You’ll also find interactive science displays here, including quiz trails and conservation talks. Separate admission tickets are required for each park—but significant discounts apply if you purchase them together.

  • Kids gather around the Ray Tank at the Sea Life Aquarium.
  • Courtesy of Legoland California

1 Legoland Dr., Carlsbad. Tel. 760-...; Admission: $18.95 for adults 13 to 59, $15.95 for seniors over 60, $11.95 for kids 12 and under. One-day ParkHopper pass: $72 for adults; $62 for kids and seniors. Open daily at 10 a.m. (except certain school holiday seasons, when the park opens at 9 a.m.); closing hours vary seasonally.

Tips for Getting the Most From Your Legoland Visit

1. Visit both parks with age-appropriate companions. These are enchanting places for young children, but kids past 10 will probably not be excited by the tame rides and sometimes corny attractions, unless they are huge Lego fans.

2. Beware of height restrictions in Legoland, which range from 34 to 48 inches for even the tamest rides. Waiting in a hot line only to be told your little one is too little is an experience better skipped.

3. Bring bathing suits for your children to change into on warm days. There are a number of water-play zones throughout Legoland, including an extensive water playground in the Pirate Shores area that features a hanging 600-gallon bucket that periodically dumps water on anyone below.

4. When the attraction lines get long and your child’s patience gets short, head to The Hideaways, a multilevel playground at the back of Legoland. This enormous wooden structure is housed in a fully enclosed area that allows kids to climb rope ladders, slide, and explore the forts and playhouses up top. (Don’t worry about losing kids here. There is one way in and one way out. When my daughter was younger, I let her loose and parked myself on a shady bench next to the only exit.)

  • A group enjoys one of Legoland’s 4-D shows.
  • eyeliam

5. Check show times when you arrive at Legoland, and make sure to see at least one live performance. “Journey to the Lost Temple” is a half-hour musical performance with ample audience participation, and it is designed to hold the attention of youngsters. The silly “Big Test” in Fun Town is another kid pleasing live-action romp, featuring a real fire truck and the accompanying water works (don’t sit in the first few rows unless you are willing to get soaked!).

6. If the rides put your youngster on sensory overload, head to the Imagination Zone in Legoland, where there are numerous Lego-building opportunities, including a station that allows older kids to build their own Lego robots and vehicles, and race and battle against others’ creations. Toddlers can climb in a vat of Duplo blocks (bigger building bricks meant for tiny kids) and go to town.

7. Take a break midday to refuel. Grab a pretty picnic table overlooking ponds and waterfalls at the Garden Restaurant in Miniland. This café serves surprisingly healthy fare, including delicious oversized salads, sandwiches served on whole wheat bread, and kid meals featuring peanut butter and jelly and fruit. (Or, throw the diet out the window and try my all-time favorite snack at Granny’s Apple Fries in Castle Hill: a pile of fried apple slices served with fresh whipped cream and dusted with sugar and cinnamon.)

8. It’s difficult to visit either of these parks without purchasing Legos to take home. There are numerous shops throughout the parks that offer Lego building kits you won’t find in local stores. One of the best bargains is the chance to buy Legos in bulk: For $7.99 per quarter-pound, you can pick out the colors and shapes you need to create your own masterpiece.