Wednesday, 5 June 2013

LEGO Inside Tour 2013

Short of being offered the LEGO equivalent of a supermarket sweep and the opportunity to grab armfuls of free LEGO sets during a rush through a LEGO brand store, can there possibly be a more enticing prospect for a fan than a trip to the LEGO mothership in Billund, Denmark where the magic is made ? I can't speak for the rest of you, but ever since I was a kid I've dreamed of visiting LEGO Mecca.

Well, unlike some dreams, this one is potentially within reach. LEGO runs three Inside Tours a year during May and June during which lucky attendees get to visit LEGO HQ in Billund, meet the set designers, and immerse themselves in LEGO culture for a few days. The catch ? Well, there are a couple. Firstly, the tours are limited to just 25 people each, or 75 in total per year. This means that you need to sign up the moment that registration opens. And secondly, they cost a king's ransom, so you'd better start saving....

And so it was that one miserable rainy morning at the end of May, almost 8 months after signing up for one of the tours, I found myself at London City Airport waiting for a flight to Billund. Having witnessed my beloved Watford Football Club's painful Championship play-off defeat at Wembley Stadium the previous day, the prospect of a 3-day full-on LEGO-fest was probably the best possible antidote, although it didn't particularly feel that way as I trudged wearily through airport security. My mood lifted significantly when fellow Inside Tour attendee, AFOL and all-round decent guy Tim (caperberry) arrived at the airport, and we set about trying to guess what LEGO would have in store for us.

"You came in that thing ? You're braver than I thought..."
The one hour and 40 minute flight to Billund in a small prop-driven Dornier (above) was uneventful; despite Billund having Denmark's second biggest airport, all I could see on final approach was green fields and countryside. We were off the plane and into a cab within 10 minutes, and being greeted by Ollie (below) in the foyer of the LEGOLAND Hotel less than 10 minutes after that. We were provided with our Inside Tour registration packs on arrival; in addition to a mouth-watering agenda, the packs contained our Inside Tour passes which granted us VIP access to LEGOLAND Billund for the duration of our stay. Since the tour wasn't due to start until the next day, and our rooms weren't yet ready for us to check in to, we took the opportunity to spend the afternoon wandering around LEGOLAND which was less than a minute's walk from the hotel.

I've visited LEGOLAND Windsor (LLW) quite a few times but I've never previously been to LEGOLAND Billund so it was interesting to compare and contrast. For starters, the Billund site has a more spacious, laid back, feel to it - the place just feels less "in your face" than LLW. Another observation was that the Billund Miniland, which features LEGO-built renditions of various towns, cities and architectural landmarks against a landscaped backdrop, seemed substantially larger than Miniland at LLW. While a few of the Miniland models looked a bit tired and and faded by the elements, overall Billund Miniland seemed better maintained than the LLW version, with more evidence of the models being renewed and refreshed, not to mention some beautiful landscaping and lots of cool dwarf shrubs in scale with the models.

The main shop at LEGOLAND Billund is absolutely huge, with a mind-boggling selection of sets, keychains (below), magnets, clothing and general tat. There's also a large Pick a Brick wall there. The downside is the eye-watering prices which are on average 25-30% higher than UK RRP. As an aside, I was told that four Mr. Gold minifigures had already been found by visitors to the LEGOLAND Billund site, with one of my fellow Inside Tour attendees finding a fifth there a couple of days later - so much for random distribution....

After a few hours meandering around LEGOLAND Billund our rooms were thankfully ready for us so I was able to chill out in my room for an hour or so prior to dinner. The room was full of LEGOLAND-branded items - a first aid kit, shoe shine kit and sewing kit for starters - not to mention a glass-topped coffee table containing a bunch of LEGO bricks and plates, and two tubs of LEGO for me to play with in case I got withdrawal symptoms. I also found a few little presents from the Inside Tour team including the treats below - check out the chocolate brick !

After chilling out for an hour or so in my room I met up with Tim plus fellow Inside Tour attendees Huw from Brickset and his wife Maria for dinner in downtown Billund. Apparently the restaurant we chose is a favourite haunt of some of the LEGO designers, and true to form I could see at least one person I recognised from a LEGO designer video eating at a nearby table. After the long day I'd had I didn't last long after dinner, taking to my bed unusually early.

With the Tour not due to start until lunchtime on the Wednesday I enjoyed a rare lie-in, which was only curtailed by the need to grab some breakfast; on opening my curtains I was greeted by the sight below (click to enlarge); as a massive Star Wars fan it beggars belief that it took until Wednesday morning for my ringside view of Star Wars Miniland to register....

The view from my hotel room....
At 12.30 the twenty five Inside Tour attendees duly congregated in the reception of the LEGOLAND Hotel where we were met by our lovely hostesses Sanne and Lene who would look after us for the duration of the Tour. The attendees were a decidedly varied bunch - AFOLs like Tim, Huw and myself, LEGO-obsessed kids as young as 7 or 8 with one or more long-suffering parents in tow, and even retirees who hadn't touched a LEGO brick for decades or indeed ever. As we took our seats for the welcome speech the excitement was palpable.

Before I go on, some ground rules. I want to provide a flavour of the Inside Tour experience so that those people who are unlikely to ever attend in person can get an idea of what it's like. I don't however want to spoil the experience for anybody who is booked to go on the other two Inside Tours this year, or indeed anybody who plans to try and attend in future. I will therefore leave out certain details which, although I'd love to share them because they're totally awesome, I really think should stay secret until discovered by attendees - what goes on Tour stays on Tour.... In fact, even though I'll be missing out some key stuff, I'd still advise anyone attending the other two 2013 Inside Tours to stop reading now unless they want a sneak peek of what to expect when they get to Billund.....last chance to look away....OK, so now I'll continue....

First off we were welcomed by the head of the LEGO Idea House who provided us with a potted history of the LEGO group including a matinee showing of "The LEGO Story" to set the scene. Introduction over we were whisked over to the LEGO Idea House by coach. The Idea House is basically a private museum where LEGO employees and official visitors can learn about LEGO's history and products. It's also the house where LEGO's founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen, once lived and indeed the inspiration for both the 2009 LEGO Inside Tour exclusive set and the 2012 employee gift set. We were offered refreshments on arrival, and while we were taking on board some caffeine and biscuits, LEGO owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the grandson of Ole Kirk Christiansen, walked in to the room. He greeted each of us in turn, posed for photos and chatted with us all for about half an hour.

After coffee and Kjeld, we were let loose in the Idea House and had a chance to check out the various exhibits there. As I wandered through the building it felt like I was going back in time, past a small side room showcasing the LEGO Star Wars theme (panoramic photo above - click to enlarge), then past displays of ever older sets in pristine condition, and then to a series of progressively older LEGO Town layouts. I was literally engulfed by waves of nostalgia seeing the sets from my youth built and laid out in front of me (below - click to enlarge).

Then it was onwards past the original 1960's Town Plan set, and into a room with walls covered in what looked like blueprints for Ole Kirk's house and containing a LEGO model of the house (below) for good measure.

Finally there was an area full of glass-fronted cabinets containing the wooden toys that marked the transition between Ole Kirk's former life as a carpenter and the toymaker that he became, including the wooden duck (below) that started it all.

And when you think you're done there's a further fantastic treat in store. An unmarked door opens on to some narrow stairs, and you descend into a subterranean paradise - the fabled Vault, repository of a mint, sealed copy of pretty much every single set that LEGO have ever made. A number of us congregated in the 1970's aisle seeking out our personal childhood favourites.......the first Classic Space sets, the yellow Castle and many others were carefully lifted off the shelves, the old-style hinged lids opened so we could see the sealed contents within, and then reverently replaced. I had to be literally dragged out of that place by the ever-patient Lene, and I wasn't the only one.....

Tim having a religious experience....
From the Idea House we were (somewhat reluctantly) transported back to a conference room at the LEGOLAND Hotel to be met by twelve of LEGO's finest - the set designers. I'd met a couple of them before at LEGO fan events, including Space, Ninjago and Chima designer extraordinaire Mark Stafford, and some of the others I recognised from LEGO designer videos. After a round of intros (both the designers and attendees) we dived into an icebreaker which involved splitting into 4 teams each of which had to build a free-standing bridge out of DUPLO bricks and then run a battery-powered train over it without the bridge collapsing. Go Blue Team - master bridge builders, and I have a medal to prove it.... Then we broke for dinner with the designers, but not before we'd been given our brief for the rest of the evening - design a small LEGO set with the WOW factor -  cool, robust and with plenty of play features. After dinner, the 25 budding amateur set designers were let loose on a row of cabinets full of LEGO and told to get building. It was a real treat to have access to drawers full of elements sorted by colour and type, and although it undoubtedly sped up the building process, many of us were nevertheless still there long into the night working on our designs. I think I finally got done around 1.30 a.m., and you can see the fruits of my labours below. A few intrepid attendees were still feverishly working on their designs when I eventually headed off to bed.

In my next posting I'll finish off my round-up of the Inside Tour, including our visit to the LEGO factory, so stay tuned ! And while you're waiting, you might want to get another perspective on the 2013 Inside Tour by reading Huw's trip report here.

                                                                                      Inside Tour report part 2 -->


  1. Anonymous5/6/13

    Aargh !!! You making me jealous !!! Glad you all had a great time !!! Regards Rodney ...Zim...

    1. Hey, Rodney - we missed you ! Hope all's well.

    2. We did indeed Rodney - I actually mentioned your building sessions to Kjeld! Can't remember how it came up now.

  2. Anonymous5/6/13

    Wow, this is fantastic. Thanks for posting. I love the shots of Star Wars land outside of your hotel window and the Star Wars panorama shot. The later is actually inspiration for the LEGO room I'm building in my basement.

    I was hoping to see a shot of the Yellow Castle in the vault. That was one of my first sets, and one I recently got from my parents house and rebuilt.


    1. I seem to recall seeing a picture of me literally hugging the Yellow Castle box in the vault....probably for the best if that picture never surfaces !

    2. What's it worth to you, Dave...? ;0)

    3. Anonymous11/6/13

      I really think the picture should be revealed for us all to see !!!! :} Rodney

  3. Scott7/6/13

    Great review so far! The vault looks magnificent, I'd have loved to have seen all of the 12V train kits all together - everyone must have had their own section where nostalgia hit like a brick!

  4. Anonymous12/6/13

    How much does the tour cost? :-)

    1. Patience - all will be revealed in Part 2 !

  5. Anonymous16/6/13

    Did anyone ask the Lego people if they plan to rerelease some of the old sets, like the lego Legends series?

    1. I'm not aware that LEGO has any plans to re-release older sets; I'm told that last time they did this (the Legends series) sales were very poor, so I think it's unlikely. Maybe you could just Bricklink the sets you're after, or even trying to buy them on eBay ?

  6. I like this toys
    and thank's for yout information !

  7. Hi Dave, love the review!
    You mentioned visiting a local Billund restaurant... do u remember the name & would you recommend it? Thanks!

    1. Hi Karen, I think the eatery was called "Restaurant Billund". It was the only restaurant I saw while I was over there apart from the restaurant in the hotel so you might not have much choice....

  8. Really LEGO mothership in Billund, Denmark? That place where the magic is made ? Also I can't speak for the rest of you, but ever since I was a kid I've dreamed of visiting LEGO Mecca. I take Denmark travel
    and visit this place soon.