Legoland Windsor, one of the most successful family theme parks in the UK, has been entertaining guests since 1996 and is located on the former site of Windsor Safari Park. It was the second Lego branded park to be built after the original in Billund, Denmark.
Situated on the current site of Legoland from 1969 to 1992 was Windsor Safari Park, a large and popular safari attraction located on the former grounds of a mansion on St Leonards Hill. The park was established by the Smart family of ‘Billy Smart’s Circus’ fame, who purchased the grounds and the 110 room country house, which can still be found at the top of the park today.
Windsor Safari Park owed its success in part to the natural roaming habitats that had been created for lions, tigers, cheetahs and baboons. A Serengeti zone was added, featuring camels, llamas, giraffes, zebras and buffalo, an elephant enclosure, a hippo lake, and a monkey jungle. A key attraction was Seaworld, a dolphinarium complex housing dolphins, a killer whale, penguins and sea lions, who would all perform various displays for guests.
At its peak, the park attracted up to 2.5 million visitors per year. It grew significantly throughout the 1970s and 1980s and was eventually sold to Themes International in 1988. The new owners planned to develop an African-themed park, introducing themed eateries, games and new attractions such as the African Queen Riverboat Ride.
Themes International continued to invest heavily in the business, but after nine years as owners, ran into financial difficulties. The safari park started to experience dwindling visitor numbers, and the situation was exacerbated by the early 1990s recession and the cost of building an expensive new Egyptian-themed entrance courtyard and similarly themed market streets. Themes International and Windsor Safari Park entered receivership in January 1992, with debts of £40m and closed shortly afterwards. A frustrating time for the company considering how much recent investment had been made in to the attraction.
The Lego Group began research for the development of a second Legoland park after Legoland Billund in 1987, with over 1000 sites considered. In January 1992, with Windsor Safari Park going into receivership, the ideal site was chosen. Throughout 1992 and 1993, planning, design, site preparation and the creation and construction of models began, whilst new homes were secured for all of the safari animals. 1994 saw the installation of services, foundations and infrastructure, and in 1995, one year prior to opening, Big Ben and the rest of the recognisable landmarks were installed in Miniland. By this time, buildings and attractions were becoming established, and in September, advance bookings were made available for entry tickets. Final installations were completed by the beginning of 1996 and at this point, park staff were recruited. Legoland Windsor opened on 17th March 1996 and during its first season attracted over 1.4 million guests.
On opening, Legoland Windsor was completely unrecognisable in comparison to its predecessor. The car parks were moved to the top of the site, accessed via a long winding entrance road which feature large letters made from Lego, spelling out ‘welcome’. With the park entrance area now being located at the highest point of the park, incredible views of the park and beyond were offered to guests, and in particular, a beautiful view of Windsor Castle in the distance.
The only attraction retained was the funicular railway which was upgraded and renamed Hill Train. Taking guests in to the middle of the action, three brightly coloured carriages travel between the entrance area and centre of the park. The only other recognisable landmark to feature in the new park was the grand mansion at the top of the hill, now repurposed as the central management offices and a corporate events venue.
Due to increasing losses across the Lego Group, the Legoland parks were put up for sale in 2005. They were acquired by the Blackstone Group and control of the parks passed to Merlin Entertainments, with Lego keeping a smaller share. A few years later, Merlin would purchase the Tussauds Group, which brought Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park in to a new cluster of theme parks, positioning Merlin as the leading operator of theme parks in the UK, with a clear monopoly of attractions.
The original line-up of attractions at Legoland Windsor was modest, offering guests a mix of family rides and creative experiences. The park would steadily expand over the years, installing original attractions such as Raft Racers, Laser Raiders and Atlantis Submarine Voyage, and rides found in the original Billund park such as The Dragon, Wave Surfers and now removed Jungle Coaster.
With Merlin’s focus on guests spending multiple days at their attractions, hotels have been built on the property that feature exclusive entrances in to the theme park for those who are staying. On completion of the first hotel in 2012, the park was rebranded as Legoland Windsor Resort, which emphasised that the park was now a short break destination.
As the Lego brand has continued to evolve, and new ranges of toys have been launched, many of the original attractions have been updated to incorporate new branding which has been a continuous success story for the park. Legoland Windsor now welcomes over 2 million visitors per year, overtaking Alton Towers as the UK’s most popular theme park.