Asia in miniature

The region's first Legoland park appeals to Gen X and Gen Xbox, writes Steve McKenna.

Cloaked in plastic yellow ponchos, the two tiny Malaysian boys shuffle from sight to sight, with umbrella-carrying mum and dad in tow.

As the young family move from the Forbidden City of Beijing to Bali's Pura Tanah Lot (the temple on the lake), then on to the fanciful Moorish-style railway station of Kuala Lumpur, it's hard to tell who's having more fun: the children - all pointing fingers and animated faces - or the adults - grinning and taking photos, mostly without the kids in shot.

Model villages, showcasing icons great and good, have sprouted across planet Earth. Many are tacky and poorly done. But this one - in Nusajaya, Johor state, close to Malaysia's border with Singapore - is a cut above.

Everything's made of Lego.

Also sprinkled with plastic, brick-built miniature replicas of Bangkok's Wat Arun, the Taj Mahal and the glittering Karaweik royal barge in Yangon, Miniland is the centrepiece of Legoland Malaysia; the first of its type in Asia (the maiden Legoland opened in Denmark, the birthplace of Lego, in 1968, before establishing branches in Britain, the US and Germany).

Taking more than three years to piece together, the Asian landmarks have been recreated on a scale of 1:20, using more than 30 million Lego bricks. Half a million were cobbled together to construct a copy of KL's majestic Petronas Towers.

As well as the signature sights, Miniland has a few obscure choices, such as KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), which has Lego aeroplanes parked outside its hangars, and the crane-packed docks of Johor Bahru. Stand beside them and you're regaled with sounds of the port (such as splashing waves and squawking seagulls) from a hidden audio system.

Parents may be content appreciating the genius of these models - while comparing them with their own childhood Lego-building efforts, perhaps - but the kids will eventually drag you away.

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The park has a roster of other attractions, including roller-coasters that look as if they're built from Lego but are, thankfully, made of sterner stuff.

Most rides cater for children aged between two and 12, though height restrictions mean some - including Project X, the park's fastest ride - are open only to the bigger kids.

Away from the twists and turns, and themes such as Merlin, dragons, pharaohs and dinosaurs, Legoland has an educational side. Children can attend Junior Driving School (driving in Lego-like cars). They can also fiddle with Lego bricks, build their own towers and cars and apply gears, levers and pulleys, before testing the solidity of their creations on an earthquake table.

Along with the park's airconditioned cafes and souvenir shops, these indoor sections are particularly handy when it rains. Johor's climate is equatorial and sudden downpours aren't uncommon (I get drenched twice). So it's best to bring an umbrella - plus a hat (the sun is strong when it comes out to play).

Throughout the next year, a Lego-theme waterpark and Legoland hotel will open on the site, which is part of the so-called Iskandar Project, a new business, residential, shopping and entertainment hub that aims to become a kind of south-east Asian Orlando.

Five minutes from Legoland, the Puteri Harbour Family Theme Park is another potential crowd-puller; home to the first Sanrio Hello Kitty Town outside Japan, and other play zones featuring characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder. More is planned, including the Austin Heights Water Theme Park (set to open at the end of 2013).

Time will tell if Iskandar can compete with the region's existing mecca of fun: Sentosa island, across the Singaporean border.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Malaysia.


Trip notes

Getting there Legoland is a 30-minute taxi ride from Johor Bahru's Senai airport; 20 minutes from the centre. Legoland-bound buses operate from both JB Sentral and Larkin bus stations.

From Singapore, Legoland buses leave from the Singapore Flyer several times in the morning. Journeys usually take less than an hour — potentially longer if there are queues at immigration.

Legoland admission costs 140 ringgit ($44) adults, 110 ringgit, children (3-11); legoland.my.

More information tourismmalaysia.com.au, playtime.com.my.

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