Preview: Master builders get to hit the bricks at Lego KidsFest


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In case your child hasn't told you, Lego KidsFest is back in Pittsburgh this weekend for three days of interlocking plastic brick madness.

Although a staggering 27,000 parents and their kids came out to the first Lego KidsFest here in June 2011, the return of the brick bonanza -- Lego likes to call the plastic blocks "bricks" -- was unlikely. It was only the passion of local fans that brought it back.

Lego KidsFest

Where: David L. Lawrence Convention Center, 1000 Fort Duquesne Blvd., Downtown.

When: Friday 4-8:30 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (Session I) and 3-7:30 p.m. (Session II); Sunday 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (Session I) and 3-7:30 p.m. (Session II).

Tickets: $20 adults; $18 seniors and children 3-17; free for children 2 and younger. Lego recommends buying tickets in advance at www.LEGOKidsFest.com. Walk-up tickets will be sold if a session is not sold out.

"It's incredibly unusual for us to go back to the same city two years in a row," said Lego KidsFest spokesman Aaron Wartner.

In the three years since Lego began holding KidsFests, it has been held 13 times in 12 different cities. The only city where it has been held twice besides Pittsburgh is Hartford, Conn., where Lego's North American division is headquartered.

"The main reason we're returning is that it was a great year for us there last year based on the number of people who visited compared to the space we used. And this year is already a near sellout and looks great, too. It's just a great town for us," Mr. Wartner said.

Another basic reason why Lego is coming back: Within a 4-hour drive of Pittsburgh, there are 50,000 Lego Club members.

Basically, Mr. Wartner said: "We know there's a lot of Lego-ness in Pittsburgh. But there's no Legoland Discovery Center, and no Lego Store. But there is a lot of Lego experience."

That was clear last year, when it attracted 27,000 kids and their parents to the 125,000 square feet it used in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- a turnout that "exceeded our expectations," Mr. Wartner said.

This year, KidsFest will use 22 percent more space -- 160,000 square feet -- that will allow perhaps another 3,000 visitors to hit the Brick Pile (with more than 1 million Lego bricks), or build their own Lego racers or attend a session in the Lego Club & Master Builder Academy.

Master Builders

In all, there are 26 Lego activity areas at KidsFest, including many of the same attention-getters that brought people out last year, including Lego Model Museum, where displays of Lego models and life-size Lego models can be found.

One of those life-size models is a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-wide version of the star of the movie "Cars," Lightning McQueen, which is made up of 360,000 Lego bricks and weighs 2,000 pounds. It was partially built by Chris Steininger, who will be at KidsFest with his father, Dan, who is also a master builder.

In addition to several "Stars Wars" characters, such as Darth Maul, there will be Lego versions of Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins, the central characters from the upcoming movie "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and a life-size 8-foot-tall Lego version of the famed green Marvel superhero, Hulk, which took 80,000 pieces to build and weighs a mere 400 pounds.

The Lego Club & Master Builder Academy features sessions taught by one of two master builders who will be at KidsFest. Dan and Chris Steininger will demonstrate how to do basic skills as well as advance building skills such as sideways building and interlocking larger sections of a structure.

While master builders are responsible for designing and creating the life-size sculptures that are on display at KidsFest and other locations, they'll also be found walking around the convention space talking to people, "teaching kids to become better builders," Chris Steininger said.

"Kids, of course, think they're superstars because every Lego kid wants to be a master builder," Mr. Wartner said.

Chris Steininger, 29, has been a master builder for three years, worked with Lego for five years, and has "the best job in the world," he said.

He and his father will also be found at the Lego Activity Area, where kids can compete to build bridges and see which ones can take the most weight. (The winners get Lego prizes.)

There are also 10 attractions new to this year's KidsFest, including: entire sections devoted to Lego's Ninjago, Monster Fighters and Lego Friends lines; Lego Challenge Zone, where families compete against other families to build structures; the Lego Art Gallery, where people "paint" using Lego bricks as their medium, making pictures in 2-D as opposed to the 3-D structures most kids design when they play with the bricks; and Life of George, where kids using their smartphones can engage in a variety of video games that work off projects using Lego bricks, and compete against each other to score points.

Oh, and on top of that, a Lego Retail Store will be open on site, and "it will be slightly larger because it is the holiday season," Mr. Wartner said.

The fact that KidsFest is coming to Pittsburgh at all is an example of the methods Lego has employed over the Past eight years to turn itself around.

SAVED BY NINJAS

Those colorful plastic play-things are made by a privately held company based in Billund, Denmark, officially known as the Lego Group.

The company was founded in 1932 by carpenter Kirk Kristiansen as a wooden toy company. It began making plastic toys in 1947 and expanded into the world renowned interlocking plastic bricks in 1949, selling them throughout Europe, though it didn't begin selling them in the United States until the mid-1960s.

Kristiansen died in 1958, but the company is still controlled by his family.

While the company now has sold bricks to multiple generations of little builders and would seem to be a model for business craftiness for that accomplishment alone, it hasn't always been a raging success.

In 2004, it lost $300 million, the largest loss in the company's history. That prompted a major change in its leadership -- Kristiansen's grandson, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, stepped down as president -- and a whole reevaluation of the company's priorities.

"What really happened leading up to that is that we really got ahead of ourselves, stretching the brand," said Lego spokesman Michael McNally. "We were doing a lot of things that didn't stress construction."

One of the smartest changes it made for two of those brand-stretching areas was to outsource the jobs to experts in the field, hiring Merlin Entertainments to run its amusement parks and Discovery Centers, and TD Games and Warner Interactive to design its video games.

"That allowed us to focus back on the construction toy business," Mr. McNally said. "As a result, there has also been this natural acceleration of the brand into storytelling."

Among many other successes in recent years, nothing explains that refocus more than the stunning success of Lego's Ninjago series, a ninja-based story with kids as the central characters that it sells as not only as traditional construction sets, but as a competitive game, a video game and a television series.

Although Lego does not detail product specific sales figures to any of its products, it did say in its annual report in March that the 2011 debut "exceeded expectations and was the single biggest product launch in company history."

Not only has Lego sold a lot of Ninjago construction sets, the video game has done well and the CG-animated television series on Cartoon Network "is the No. 1 show with boys on our network," said Cartoon Network spokesman James Anderson.

The show, written by Hollywood writers Kevin and Dan Hageman, debuted its second season this past spring to 2.8 million viewers.

More importantly than all of that for Lego is that Ninjago is a self-created storyline and series of characters, not an acquired brand like its popular "Star Wars" or "Hobbit" sets are.

Lego's researchers in Denmark, known as the Play Theme Front End Team, began thinking about the Ninjago concept in 2008, when they noticed an increase in ninja-theme media content, Mr. McNally said.

Versions of ninjas had been in several Lego products before, with good success. But this time, the company wanted to create a complete story line around them.

The research team took a trip to Tokyo in 2008 to visit sites and museums and "immerse themselves in the ninja culture," Mr. McNally said.

The result was a story about, at its essence, the battle between good and evil. On one side is the force for good, "spinjitsu" master, Sensi Wu, who has to recruit four young ninja, to help him battle his evil brother, Lord Garmadon, who rules the Underworld with his Skeleton army.

In the story, spinjitsu is a mystical martial arts skill that allows a ninja to spin like a tornado, knocking away anything in their path.

Creating characters with such a skill led the researchers to create not only the Ninjago-themed construction sets that young builders are familiar with, but smaller "spinner" sets that had just a couple of dozen pieces that created one character who would then spin like a top. Those spinners could then be spun against each other in a mock battle.

"The reason we introduced spinners was to engage kids who maybe weren't as interested in sitting down for three hours and building something," Mr. McNally said. "We hoped it would sort of serve as a gateway for the kids who had never tried to build a set before."

It seems to have worked.

Last year Lego -- which increased sales even during the global recession of 2008-09 -- reported record revenue of $3.495 billion, a 17 percent increase over 2010, and it made $771 million in profit and hired about 1,000 new employees to push its global employment over 9,000. It is now the third largest toy maker in the world.

And though Lego products didn't make their way to the United States until the mid-1960s, the U.S. is easily the company's most important market: 38 percent of its revenue, or $1.33 billion, last year was made in the U.S.

"It's definitely one of the prioritized markets globally," Mr. McNally said.

lifestyle

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579 First Published November 29, 2012 5:00 AM


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