Six months from now, though, Eckersley wonders what that highway will look like.
“I hope that it doesn’t become a parking lot,” he said.
Heavy traffic congestion along U.S. 27 may sound like a nightmare for motorists and area residents, but it could actually signify something else entirely: an increasingly vibrant tourism economy along the highway that runs through Polk County, moving north into Lake County, or allowing motorists to cut onto U.S. 192 and head off to Walt Disney World.
By October, Merlin Entertainments is expected to open its new Legoland Florida theme park at the site of the former Cypress Gardens park in Winter Haven. It’s located right off U.S. 27, and Eckersley, who operates a vacation home business, thinks anyone who believes Legoland will be a big hit is right on target.
“I don’t think they’re overestimating it at all,” he said. “I think it’s going to be huge.”
Eckersley runs Sunsplash Vacation Homes, which provides homes that can be rented on a short term basis to tourists and business travelers. Interest is already building among his guests for the new theme park, which will be modeled after Merlin Entertainments’ existing theme parks in England, Denmark, Germany and California. The Winter Haven park will be only the second Legoland in the United States.
“I’m just putting out a newsletter that I’ll be sending to 2,500 past guests to tell them about it,” Eckersley said. “That will be going out in the next seven days.”
Legoland Florida, he said, may transform Polk County’s economy, bringing in tourists who come to Disney but seldom venture this far south of that tourism giant.
“I don’t think you comprehend how big it will be,” Eckersley said. “I don’t think half the locals understand that, either.”
Some do, though, including Tom Davidson, who runs the Davidson of Dundee gift shop, known for its honeybells and other citrus products. Davidson’s has been operating since the 1960s, and can remember the days when Cypress Gardens brought in tons of tourist traffic.
By the 1990s, though, that theme park had fallen on hard times, and it closed several years ago. Davidson thinks Legoland is going to bring a lot of growth to communities along U.S. 27, including the small town of Dundee. Traditionally, he noted, the town’s political leaders have been hostile to growth.
“I think that goes back to the old attitude of the council where they weren’t really interested in growth, but now they see the right growth is important to the town,” Davidson said. “It’s a win-win thing for the town. In addition to being more pro-growth, they need to look at good, proper growth. With Legoland, we’re going to obviously have some growth, and then if the council gets behind that it will be a fantastic thing.”
For one thing, Davidson said, a growing number of British business owners are relocating well south of the Disney area, including small communities like Lake Hamilton that are on the way to Legoland.
“I’ve wondered about that,” Davidson said. “They have a beautiful Legoland in England.
I know we do have a number of Brits that rent homes here for months at a time, and it’s fantastic.”
Eckersley said Brits come to this region to start businesses because they know there’s a healthy tourism industry – and not just among fellow British residents.
“The majority of our business is not Brits at all, it never has been,” he said. “It just seems that it is. We don’t even market in the U.K. anymore. We only market in the U.S. We do get a fair number of Brits because we have a lot of British homeowners here. But 80 percent of our business now is Americans.”
Tom Kohler, a principal with the Orlando firm of Real Estate Research Consultants, recently completed an economic development study for Polk County commissioners, providing a kind of road map for how the county could generate more growth along U.S. 27 in the future. He said Legoland Florida will provide a strong economic engine for communities along this highway.
“From what I’ve read around the world, they really are effective,” Kohler said of the other Legoland theme parks.
He added that Winter Haven already has the perfect setting for a theme park, since it hosted a successful one for decades in Cypress Gardens.
“It’s an unbelievable setting,” Kohler said. “The potential there in Winter Haven is for more investment in the entire county.”
Eckerlsey said the vast majority of his visitors rent cars at Orlando International Airport, but he thinks when Legoland Florida opens, there may soon be even more options.
“There are people already thinking of starting shuttles to Legoland that run daily,” he said. “There are entrepreneurs out there that will surely start a shuttle service or bus service for a fee.”
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