””

Timeless toy town

Fight baddies alongside ninjas at Ninjago World and make a pilgrimage to Lego's tranquil hometown of Billund in Denmark

Sitting in an automated cart in the dark, I wave my arms like a madwoman.

Whoosh, whoosh - I make like I am flinging dishes; or a DJ scratching records at invisible twin turntables. Two people next to me are doing the same inane actions.

On a screen in front of us, our gestures translate into 3D animation. One moment, we are "shooting" fireballs and sending out lightning; the next, we are "throwing" shurikens, Japanese ninja weapons shaped like stars. Cartoon Lego ninjas somersault along, calling out encouragement as we do battle with bad guys.

Skeletons, snakes and glowing green ghosts come at us head-on as we spin through space. These villains crack apart with a sound like bowling pins falling. We break vases randomly with our long-range weapons, slide through tundra and battle a giant serpent. Smoke, bright strobe lights and fine mist take turns to envelope us.

Three minutes later, we whirl to a standstill and whip off our 3D glasses.

Ninjago, the ride, is over. And, so, too, our role-play as ninjas in training.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies five times a week to Copenhagen. The direct flight takes 12 hours.

    From Copenhagen, it is a 50-minute journey by Scandinavian Airlines (www.flysas.com/en/sg) to Billund, which is about 260km west of the Danish capital.

    We stay at Hotel Legoland (www.legoland.dk/en), which is connected by a pedestrian bridge to the Legoland Billund theme park and is a five-minute walk from its new Ninjago World.

    Every year, the Lego Group welcomes select groups of visitors to the company.

    For more information on when to sign up for the next Lego Inside Tour, which includes stops at Lego founder Ole Kirk Christiansen's house and the Lego factory, go to http://lego.build/2eTkSF1.

    Note, however, that the closing date for 2017 sign-ups is over.

As the Ninjago Ride cars trundle back to their starting points, my companions and I - a perfectly coiffed Malaysian broadcast journalist-cum-news anchor and her cool, stoic cameraman colleague, all here to report on the new ninja-themed section coming to a theme park near us soon - stop waving our hands over the sensors on the hand bars and check our scores to see how well we have eviscerated our computer-generated nemeses.

Forget zumba and yoga: The flabby undersides of my arms feel more taut already. This is a workout programme masquerading as a familyfriendly theme park ride.

"One more time?" asks the blond youth manning the ride in a red karate gi-like uniform.

We nod. Again. We're ready.

ETERNAL CHILDHOOD

For a few glorious days at the end of the Danish summer in late August, I am in Billund - the birthplace of Lego, the humble buildable brick toy that turned into a global brand. I am checking out Ninjago World in the first Legoland theme park in the world, built in 1968, and getting a preview of what is in store for the Malaysian outpost.

This Friday, a similar Ninjago World officially opens at Legoland Malaysia (www.legoland.com.my), with the more than RM40-million (S$13.4-million) 4D indoor ride at its heart.

Ninjago - if you have not had a conversation with a child in a while - is Lego's successful line of toy sets, as well as an animated series, introduced in 2010.

The line features six main ninjas associated with elements of nature: Kai, the fire ninja; Cole, the earth ninja; Jay, the lightning ninja; Zane, the ice ninja; Lloyd, the green/ golden ninja; and Nya, the water ninja. Think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' karate/kungfu orientalist overtones with irreverent trash talk. Add tornado-acrobatic fight sequences.

Lego declines to talk about the revenue generated by individual product lines, but Ninjago has proved popular enough for the company to devote an entire world to its ninjas in Legoland Billund and Legoland California earlier this year.

In the 175,000 sq m Billund park (www.legoland.dk/en), Ninjago World cost 85 million krone (S$17.3 million), requiring 727,000 Lego bricks and 7,000 man-hours to assemble. More than half a million people have gone on the ride, which can take 1,000 riders an hour - making it the theme park's most popular attraction.

Tickets to the park are priced from 279 krone for a child and 295 krone for an adult, if you buy them at least a week before your visit, and include entry into Ninjago World and the Ninjago Ride.

Walking into Ninjago World in Denmark, I am seized with irrational happiness. My two sons - now aged seven and 10 - were huge fans of the series when it made its debut, and we spent many happy hours together building the ninjas' elemental dragon sidekicks and fire temple battlegrounds from Lego sets.

Even the cheesy Chinese flute/ synthesiser-zither theme music piped though hidden speakers, as one passes under the red entrance arch, makes me feel like crying. It is a strange nostalgia - for the recent past, when my sons were smaller, before they started primary school and became stressed-out tweens glued to mobile phones overnight.

They have since moved on to other obsessions, but here I am, transported to a utopia of eternal childhood innocence, gussied up with kitschy Japanese architecture.

As I watch happy families, cherubic blue-eyed toddlers perched on Scandinavian fathers' shoulders, join the line for the ninja stealthtraining laser maze and the 4D ride, I feel acutely displaced: I should be here with my children. But they are back in Singapore, where the school term goes on.

Just before leaving for Denmark, trying to placate the boys for leaving them on yet another work trip, I had suggested that they choose a ninja minifigure for me to pack in my luggage to serve as their proxy. The 10-year-old ignored me. But the seven-year-old ran and fetched a minifigure of Lloyd, the golden ninja.

Once in Ninjago World, I tote Lloyd around, photographing him in his "natural habitat", next to large Lego sculptures of himself and the other ninjas. When a Kai mascot appears for a meet-andgreet session, I elbow a poor curlyhaired kid hesitating at the front of the line out of my way. "Me first! Me!" I shriek as I park myself next to life-sized Lego Kai, beaming for the camera I had thrust into a fellow Asian journalist's hands.

Back in my room at Hotel Legoland (www.legoland.dk/en), I watch back-to-back Danish- dubbed episodes of Ninjago on the in-house channel. Missing my children is making me a little unhinged. All I want to do is stay in the timeless, comforting familiarity of Ninjago World and the dark cocoon of the 4D ride, with the boy-men ninjas who will never grow up or old.

TRANQUIL COMMUNITY

Our Asian contingent spend a couple of days exploring Legoland Billund.

I discover Polar Land and go on the Polar X-plorer, a steel roller coaster that has a freefall drop and passes through a real penguin enclosure.

There is also an Ice Pilots robotic flight simulator, where you can pre-select the combination of turns, spins and mid-air dangles you want to subject yourself to. I even take the monorail in Duplo Land, for children aged two to six, leaning out of my one-woman carriage to catcall my friends filming featurettes in Ninjago World as I clank by.

At night, we drive to the nearby town of Vejle, about 30 minutes away, for dinner at Remouladen (restaurantremouladen.dk), a restaurant overlooking a marina. After main courses of cod and mediumrare steak, we stroll along the piers, with its view of a busy traffic bridge in one direction and an undulating sonic wave of a building in another.

On the tour bus, I look at the flatness of the Jutland Peninsula, square bales of hay neatly stacked on top of each other in the goldenbeige fields, as the sun goes down. The cute pitched-roof houses. The modern windmills with their elegant stems and three slim blades. I fancy that this is the landscape which inspired Lego founder Ole Kirk Christiansen and shaped the brand's aesthetic.

Lego designers may hail from 27 countries around the world, but they are all still based in the Danish family-owned company's headquarters in Billund, clustered around carpenter-turned-toymaker Christiansen's preserved home in the town centre.

Even on a short visit, one can see that this landscape, with its honeyed light and wide-open spaces, works its way into one's system and stays in the mind. Sold as a "children's capital of the world", Billund is the kind of place where kids have space to roam in fresh air.

I stumble upon a lovely sculpture park behind Hotel Legoland, complete with a newly installed, whimsical statue created by Denmark's Prince Henrik. It is the sort of tranquil place I would take my children to every day, if I could.

At Christiansen's old house, now converted into a museum, attached to a newer wing and renamed the Lego Idea House, we are taken on a tour by the company's heritage manager, Mr Kristian Reimer Hauge.

A historian by training, the 34-year-old, has spent the last six years mediating the company's history and its values, in ways such as overseeing a website on Lego's history, archiving its products, collecting old footage and material related to the brand, and running tours for employees, partners and media.

"Billund and the Lego Group are very linked to each other. And this is where it all started," he says, pointing at the simple wooden floorboards. Christiansen started making wooden toys in 1932 and adopted the company name Lego in 1934, but began working with plastic only in 1947. Along the way, he weathered storms, such as a factory fire in 1942.

"When the company was in trouble, the people here helped (Christiansen). He also helped the community. They grew together," says Mr Hauge.

Indeed, if Lego has its way, Billund is poised to grow in tourism, at least when it comes to attracting die-hard Lego fans. Next year, a new Lego House museum will open in the sleepy town. Designed by Danish wunderkind architect Bjarke Ingels, it will serve as an experience centre - a place of pilgrimage for adult Lego aficionados - as well as a gathering point for the local community.

Lego says it expects the 12,000 sq m centre to draw 250,000 visitors a year. From Christiansen's house, the smooth, white brick-like shapes of the new Lego House can be seen rising from behind a hoarding sporting Lego minifigures. I buy a limited-edition Lego set of the Lego House for about 150 krone from the pharmacy across the road.

Later, we are taken to a Lego factory, where we get to walk around the production floor with Mr Kalle Poulsen, 69, an employee at the plant for the past 44 years.

As we walk, he throws facts and figures at us: the factory uses 90 tonnes of raw materials a day; the moulding machines here pump out plastic bricks 24/7, all year round, at the rate of 1,370 bricks a second; there are more than 55 colours of Lego bricks now.

In one room we are taken to, rows of hot-moulding machines press unique Lego shapes into plastic. Three cart-shaped robots then collect the manufactured pieces in baskets and send them further along the production line to be packed. Watching the Lego pieces being extruded from the machines feels both exciting and therapeutic.

At the end of the tour, I fish out my son's Lloyd minifigure from my pocket. I had smuggled him in, back to one of the birthplaces he could have come from. I ask kind Mr Poulsen to give Lloyd a quality control check-up. Mr Poulsen, bless him, obliges - pulling and pushing at Lloyd's moveable limbs, while I look anxiously on.

"He's fine," he says after a few minutes.

We smile at this pronouncement of Lloyd being in the pink of health.

Medical check-up concluded, we slip out into a flaxen sunset - stealthy Oriental martial arts champions, in our fevered imaginations, in a Viking land.

•Clara Chow is an author, and co-editor of art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com.

•Ninjago World opens at Legoland Malaysia on Friday. The writer's trip was sponsored by Legoland Malaysia and Singapore Airlines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Timeless toy town'. Print Edition | Subscribe