Waking up to find yourself confronted by a 4ft grinning witch brandishing a wand might normally be cause for concern. But don’t worry, this is Legoland, and here the emphasis is on fun.
Together with my wife and our two daughters, aged 11 and 8, we’re staying in Legoland Windsor’s Castle Hotel, the the theme park’s second hotel where the spirit of the middle ages is brought to life in playful – and thankfully plague-free – form. But that’s not to say that the atmosphere isn’t utterly infectious.
The hotel and rooms
From the outside, the Castle Hotel looks like a Lego set magicked to full scale, or else we’ve been shrunk down to the height of mini-figures. From the mock masonry to the pretend portcullis, it’s the most inviting and non-creepy castle you could set foot in, and testament to the real-life master builders who assembled it.
The medieval theme continues inside, where a huge Lego wizard welcomes you into a high-vaulted reception area and kids can take turns messing around with a cheeky, interactive throne.
With just 61 guest rooms, the hotel isn’t huge, but you should still spare your feet and be sure to ride the lift: it talks, plays music and there’s a light show as you arrive at your floor. With mini-mazes adorning the 3D-styled carpeted corridors and Lego LED flaming torches guiding you on your way, the journey to your room is an epic adventure in its own right.
The accommodation is split into two areas: one for the kids, decked out with double bunks (plus an extra pull-out bed), a Lego play wall and a TV with X-box; and a master bedroom for adults, equipped with another TV, the usual tea-making facilities, chiller fridge and a Nespresso coffee machine.
You’re close to the kids, but the bathroom in between provides a bit of breathing space, and allows you to stay up beyond their bedtime without fear of disturbing them.
Our two girls wasted no time in tackling the room’s most fun feature: the safe. By solving a set of clues, you can crack the code and find the goodies locked inside (some Lego merchandise, naturally). Children might need a bit of adult assistance in figuring it out, but who doesn’t love a treasure hunt? It also encourages you to take a proper look around the surroundings, filled as they are with potion flasks, ye olde-themed carpets and wallpaper.
With so many imaginative touches, it all makes for a very sophisticated and immersive offering. The lighting was a tad subdued, but perhaps the designers were just being authentic to the period – one suspects that everything here has been thought through.
A trumpet fanfare announced our arrival as we entered the Tournament Tavern, the Castle Hotel’s feasting area, which is open for breakfast and dinner.
Going for a more upmarket eating experience than the Bricks Restaurant in the neighbouring Legoland Resort Hotel, the Tavern is a meat-lover’s dream. My wife opted for the fillet steak, while I kept it simple and plumped for the Royal Windsor burger.
However, judging from the comments from other diners, the way to go was with the Black Rock Grill, where a steaming hot volcanic rock is brought to your table that sizzles the food to your satisfaction. (Someone who ordered the Chateaubriand said it was “mind-blowing”.) There are plenty of options on the kids menu, but it’s rather hampered by the fact that a starter and main course appear to be compulsory. As every parent knows, it’s always just a race to the pudding – and here that comes as an optional extra.
For the full fairy-tale effect, try and grab a table by the fireplace, where a green dragon snoozes beneath chandeliers and illuminated stained-glass windows – all rendered in that familiar colourful plastic. It has to be said that service was friendly but rather chaotic on the night that we dined. At least there were plenty of distractions between courses, including a play area, Lego character meet-and-greets and jesters performing magic tricks.
As there is no dedicated bar in the Castle Hotel, those in search of a “knight-cap” (my bad pun, and one the resort really should adopt) have to make the short stroll to the Skyline Bar over at the Resort Hotel. Not wishing to spoil the theme of the evening, I opted for a Knight of the Garter ale from the local Windsor & Eton brewery. Always nice to see locally sourced products on the menu.
As you’d expect, being treated like royalty from a bygone age comes at a princely sum, with prices beginning at £572 for one night’s accommodation with breakfast, including two days’ access to the theme park (of which more in a moment). But for those with the cash to splash, the Castle Hotel provides a unique visitor experience, with some nice theatrical touches and the kind of charming detail that Lego does so well.
The theme park
The last time my family and I visited Legoland, the kids were five and under, so height restrictions prevented us from all going on certain rides. This time there was nothing holding us back, and we sought out the bigger thrills among the 55 rides, including the Jolly Rocker and Treasure Chest log flume at Pirate Shores.
The Dragon is still the park’s premium rollercoaster, but the innocuous-sounding Mia’s Riding Adventure provided the loudest shrieks on the day. Anyone who subjects themselves to this swirling and plunging gallop through the skies will certainly think again before saying that Lego Friends stuff is just for little girls.
The newest attraction in the park is the Lego Ninjago Ride, which opened in Spring 2017. Be prepared for a serious upper body workout, as you have to dispatch baddies by throwing fireballs, ice and lighting at 3D video screens using the magic of hand gesture-recognition technology.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world of Master Wu and his band of Spinjitzu warriors, you won’t be for long – these Eastern heroes are set to storm cinemas in The Ninjago Movie in October, following in the wake of the hugely popular Lego Movie and Lego Batman Movie. Owing to the hype surrounding the release, plus the ride’s novelty, the queues for this one get pretty big.
Speaking of queues, they’re unavoidable at theme parks, but Legoland does offer some solutions and alternatives. First up, you can pay out for a Q-Bot allowing you to jump the queues with priority access – if you want to blitz the park in a day, this is pretty much essential.
Alternatively, watch one of the free open-air shows that take place in Heartlake City throughout the day: we caught Lego Friends To the Rescue and the pirate-packed Return to Skeleton Bay. Bring along a picnic if you’re super-organised. If not, there are 15 restaurants and cafes on site where you can grab a bite.
And then there’s Mini-Land, which is perhaps the very essence of Legoland. Here you’ll find the world’s most recognisable sites re-created in mini bricks in their millions. Paris, complete with the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, is a relatively recent addition, but I loved the pocket-sized Glastonbury Festival, complete with teeny Ed Sheeran on stage.
In the same spirit, and housed in its own indoor space, is a dedicated Star Wars Lego exhibition. Featuring faithfully rendered scenes from the various films, it culminates in a room dedicated to the assault on the Death Star from A New Hope. You can’t miss Darth Vader’s planet-destroying super weapon, as it stands 3m tall and is made up of over 500,000 blocks. Impressive.
Legoland is essentially pitched at families with younger kids aged 2-12, but its appeal is universal. My soon-to-be-12-year-old had a great time, despite her initial misgivings that it would be “too kiddie”, while her younger sister had an absolute ball.
That’s in part down to the nostalgia that Lego inspires in anyone who’s ever whiled away the hours in brick-constructing nirvana. There’s a spirit of creatively and collaboration that runs through the place – some of the sculptures encourage you to add bricks of your own, while the knight on horseback that stands in front of the Castle Hotel was designed by an 11-year-old competition winner.
Despite being granted access to the theme park 30 minutes before it officially opened for the day (a perk of staying in the hotels), we still didn’t manage to pack in everything before it closed at 6pm (not that they actively turf you out; it’s all quite respectfully done) – and that was even bypassing the pre-school-friendly Duplo Valley.
As we collected our bags from reception, there was a discernible collective pang that we should perhaps stay another night. But sorry, kids, if we’re to build on the fun we’ve had, it’ll be with Lego bricks at home.
Radio Times Travel rating: 8/10
Lego-tastic rating: 10/10
Hotel: From £572 for one night’s B&B, including two days’ access to the theme park
Theme park: From £30pp