The Southern Belle of Legoland
Somebody smuggled a trope of the slaveholding South into a global tourist attraction
It’s easy to forget you are in Florida while visiting the Legoland amusement park in Winter Haven. While geographically close to the orange orchards and cattle ranches of the Sunshine State’s rural interior, the place has been transformed by the giddy pixelated aesthetic of a global toy brand.
This is a recent development. Prior to Legoland’s arrival 10 years ago, Winter Haven was home to a distinctively Southern tourist attraction, for better and for worse. The attraction was Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden and water skiing destination that the entrepreneur Richard Downing Pope Sr. opened in 1936. It has been called Florida’s first tourist attraction, and it paved the way for greater Orlando’s multibillion-dollar theme park industry.
UK-based Merlin Entertainments bought Cypress Gardens after the park fell on hard times and reopened it as Legoland Florida in 2011. In the process they re-skinned some of the rides — the Okeechobee Rampage rollercoaster became The Dragon; the Swamp Thing became Driving School — but left most of the old botanical gardens and the water skiing shows intact.
I knew the rough outline of this history when my wife and I took our children to Legoland on our first big post-vaccination vacation last week. I was curious to see how quaint old Cypress Gardens fit into the landscape of gleaming plastic Legoland, so I dragged the kids off the main thoroughfare into the old section of the park one afternoon.
It was there that I came face to face with the strangest sight of the week: a life-size Southern belle, decked out in an archetypal yellow hoop skirt and built entirely of Lego bricks, beaming at guests by the entrance to the garden. This, I learned later, was an homage to park hostesses at the old Cypress Gardens who would cheerily greet guests and pose for photos in Southern belle getups.
It was a jarring vision after a day spent playing virtual-reality Lego Ninjago games and frolicking beneath the gaze of a pastel Unikitty head to the tune of spastic electronica. For whatever reason, the proprietors of the park had decided to erect this one visual link between the cosmopolitan sheen of the Lego brand and the washed-out Gone with the Wind romance of the Old South.
What makes a woman a Southern belle? Here’s how the University of Richmond History Engine puts it:
A southern belle was a girl who was expected to grow up into a lady. She was supposed to be fragile and flirtatious while also sexually innocent. She was beautiful but risky to touch, like porcelain. Every southern belle was expected to be up-to-date on the latest fashions, which often proved tricky and expensive because fashion was constantly changing throughout the nineteenth century. A true lady embodied the ideals of the South, and was thus hospitable and graceful.
Sam Biddle phrased it a little more bluntly in his 2014 Gawker piece “The ‘Southern Belle’ Is a Racist Fiction”:
The notion of the Southern Belle dates back to the 19th century, when it was a cheery name given to a specific sort of white person who flourished in the American South before the end of the Civil War. Belles were a few very specific things: white, bourgeois, and almost certainly beneficiaries of the slave trade, married to the plantation owners whose wealth was secured through black chattel.
The romance of the plantation is one of the oldest and most pernicious tropes in white Southern culture. Images of dandies sipping mint juleps and submissive young ladies lounging in cotillion gowns beneath Spanish moss always elided the brutality at the core of the plantation economy: the kidnapping, enslavement, torture, and lynching of Black people.
As my friend Mika Gadsden put it, “They are not plantations. They are slave labor camps.”
Even the most progressive Southern towns are just beginning to scrape the romantic gloss off of their antebellum history. Pressure campaigns have mounted for celebrities to stop hosting their weddings at historic slave plantations, and some suburbanites are fighting their HOAs to take the name “Plantation” off of their neighborhood signs.
While no longer as popular in Hollywood these days, the Southern belle persists as an ideal of white virginal innocence in need of constant defense — the same ideal that motivated white terrorists from the Redshirts to the Ku Klux Klan.
Here in Charleston, white ladies cosplayed as Southern belles at a “Secession Ball” on the 150-year anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the United States.
In Alabama to this day, the city of Mobile selects 50 high school seniors every year to serve as “Azalea Trail Maids,” cultural ambassadors in antebellum-style pastel dresses. The maids participated in a parade for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration — to the consternation of Alabama NAACP President Edward Vaughn, who said the group was a laughingstock and a reminder of the slavery era.
As recently as 2013, fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia donned Confederate gray caps as they escorted their Southern belle sorority sisters to a party celebrating the “land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields.” (Full Confederate uniforms were banned in 2005; hoop skirts were banned in 2015.)
These traditions are painfully stupid and retrograde, but they linger on in places as unlikely as Legoland.
We had a great time at Legoland, overthinking aside. It’s been a hard year, and it was a pure joy to see our kids smiling all day.
I made one field trip while we were there to visit the downtown Orlando Public Library, which was designed by the modernist master John M. Johansen and built in 1966. It’s one of the most iconic brutalist buildings in Florida, and I plan to include it in my upcoming book about brutalist architecture in the American South. I shared a few pictures in the short Twitter thread below.
I’ve got more exciting stuff planned soon. Over on the podcast, I’ll be posting an interview with the creator of the South Carolina black metal project Prosperity Gospel, whose new album “Violently Pulled from Bliss” I’ve been listening to constantly. If you like shoegaze metal (Deafheaven, Panopticon, etc.) and the warm sound of cicada drones, this is gonna be right up your alley.