JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia - Asia's first Legoland theme park is on track to open next year in southern Malaysia, its builder said, as the region goes all out to lure tourists with a series of big ticket attractions.
Earthmovers have flattened a vast expanse of oil palm-covered hills to make way for the 31-hectare Legoland Malaysia, one of the main attractions of a new city and economic zone called Iskandar Malaysia.
The park, which will offer 40 rides, shows and displays of the famous Lego toy bricks of Denmark, is just across a waterway from Singapore, which opened Southeast Asia's first Universal Studios entertainment complex in 2010.
Zainal Ashikin Muhammad, chief executive of IDR Resorts, the builder of Legoland Malaysia, said the new park will complement Universal Studios Singapore rather than compete with it for custom.
"Is there a saturation of theme parks? In this region, no. There's still a lot of growth for theme park development," he said during a recent media tour organised by Iskandar Malaysia.
European visitor attractions operator Merlin Entertainments, whose stable includes Madame Tussauds, the London Eye and SEA LIFE, has been roped in to operate Legoland Malaysia.
When completed, Legoland Malaysia will be the sixth of its kind in the world after those in Denmark, Britain, California, Florida and Germany.
Zainal said the Malaysian version will be one of three internationally branded theme parks that will operate by 2025 in the Iskandar region, in an ambitious project covering an area three times the size of Singapore.
With these theme parks, a 50-kilometre radius spanning Singapore and Iskandar will become like Orlando, Florida, which hosts Disneyland, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, Zainal said.
"That is what we aspire to be," Zainal told reporters.
"We have the natural resources, we have the land... This is a catalytic project."
He said the regional market is big enough for more theme parks, despite the presence of Universal Studios in Singapore, Disneyland in Hong Kong and smaller attractions by local players.
Singapore welcomed a record 11.6 million foreign visitors last year, up 20 percent from 2009, thanks largely to the lure of its two new integrated resorts one of which has Universal Studios in its complex.
Zainal said the Legoland Malaysia project has been progressing well since they broke ground in December 2009, building over an area of bushes and plant life.
Primary infrastructure, including roads, power substations and drainage systems, is about 50-60 percent complete, he said.
Construction of the main theme park will start in March, he said, adding that of the 720 million ringgit (US$235 million) cost, 200 million ringgit in contracts have already been awarded.
The fabrication of the rides has begun overseas while the construction of the 15,000 Legoland model structures to be displayed at the park has started in Malaysia and abroad.
About 30 million Lego bricks will be used to build the model structures.
"Everything is in place," Zainal said. "Some rides are already here but majority will start to be shipped in July or August this year."
Siegfried Borst from Legoland Germany, who was recruited to help run the Malaysian version, told reporters it will offer the same rides and attractions available in Europe, but with an Asian touch.
The "miniland" displays will consist of Lego replicas of iconic buildings and structures in Asia, including Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers, formerly the tallest building in the world, he said.
Because of the tropical weather, queueing areas in Legoland Malaysia will be covered, and the developer has ordered thousands of trees to be planted within the park grounds.
Borst said they are targeting at least a million visitors in the first year of operation.
"I'm pretty confident that we can live up to the standards that we have in the other Legoland parks as well," said the 20-year veteran in the theme park business.