|Philip Nussel is managing editor of autonews.com.|
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- As U.S. automakers yearn to return to the days of 16 million-plus annual vehicle sales, one of the annoying realities they face is convincing the next generation to drive in the first place.
A recent report by industry consulting firm AlixPartners labeled this young generation of drivers Generation N, as in "neutral about driving." So how can the industry combat this generational ambivalence to driving?
Ford Motor Co. last fall teamed up with its southern U.S. dealers to sponsor a Driving School exhibit at the new 150-acre Legoland Florida theme park. It's a three-year partnership, but it's a safe bet that it will be renewed for many more years.
Ford Driving School Facts
Size: 1.5 acres
Tracks: The Junior Driving School is for children 3 to 5 years old. The bigger Driving School is for children 6 to 13 years old.
Cars/Speeds: The Junior Driving School has 12 cars that travel at 3.65 feet per second. The Driving School has 45 cars that go 5.5 feet per second.
Power: The cars are all electric.
Safety features: All cars have a remote that is operated by employees to start and stop the cars if needed.
Regulation: Once they complete Driving School, all children receive a Legoland-Ford driver's license.
The exhibit features mock city roads with small Lego cars for kids to drive. It also plays auto-themed music, offers a retail store with Ford merchandise, and displays a life-sized Ford Explorer made from 380,000 Lego bricks. People waiting in line can watch a video about how the Lego Explorer was built.
This is the fifth Legoland park in the world and the second in the United States. Volvo, when it was still owned by Ford in 2003, sponsored the Driving School at Legoland California in Carlsbad.
Toyota Motor Corp., Hyundai Motor Co., and Fiat S.p.A. sponsor the same exhibit at three Legolands in Europe.
For the uninitiated, these parks are heaven for kids 2-12, and the Driving School is a popular part of the experience. What kid doesn't like Lego?
During a recent trip to the new Florida park, on a not-so-busy day, there was still a long line at the Driving School. The Lego Explorer was a big hit, too, and Ford also used it last year for a launch promotion -- even rolling it off the assembly line at Ford's Chicago assembly plant.
My 8-year-old son didn't want to wait in line, but by the time he was done with his first drive in a Lego Ford, he was thrilled that he earned his Ford driving license. Dozens of other kids and families occupied the gift shop, swapping up Blue Oval merchandise.
Neither Ford nor Legoland release attendance figures for the park. Various accounts show other Legolands get 1.3 million to 1.8 million visitors a year.
That's a whole lot of kids getting their little hands on those sponsored Lego vehicles -- and Ford knows it. So do the dealers.
"The partnership is still very new, but we've seen success with using park admission tickets as a way to drive traffic to dealerships, incent vehicle test drives, and as a value-add for giveaways on the Southern Ford Dealers' new Facebook page," Stephanie Webb, a spokeswoman for Team Detroit/Retail First, the ad agency for the Southern Ford Dealers, said in an e-mail.
She said more ideas are coming, including a traveling kit, sponsored by Legoland and the dealers, for kids to build and race cars made from Lego bricks. The kits can be brought to various events, such as monster-truck shows and county fairs, she said.
To be sure, if and when U.S. auto sales return to 16 million annually, Lego won't be the only reason behind the sales rebound. But in eight to 10 years, these kids might actually want their real driver's licenses as soon as they're eligible -- something that isn't necessarily the case with the current Gen N.
And for Ford and its dealers, maybe these new drivers who once drove a Lego Ford will end up buying a real one.