Life in Legoland's model shop

From giant bears to replicas of cities, master builders are churning out lifelike models one brick at a time. Photos: Inside the Legoland model shop

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
CARLSBAD, Calif.--When Tim Petsche talks with pride about his grizzly bear, he's not showing an alarming penchant for dangerous pets.

Petsche, a senior model designer in the Legoland California model shop here, is referring to the giant Lego grizzly bear (with a raccoon on its head) that he built during 700 hours of work over four months. It's one of his favorite creations from his seven-year tenure in the model shop.

Legoland model shop

Petsche and the model shop's four other builders and designers will soon be joined by a new shop mate. On Tuesday, Houston artist Jason Poland was named Legoland's newest master model builder after a three-month long national search that concluded a two-day audition process for 23 finalists.

In a couple of weeks, Poland will be working alongside Petsche, spending his days with an inventory of more than 5.5 million Lego bricks of all shapes and sizes and building and maintaining many of Legoland's thousands of models.

The model shop is the ultimate candy shop for serious Lego fans. The brightly lit workshop is filled to its high rafters with hundreds upon hundreds of bins of plastic bricks. Resting on just about every bit of flat surface in the large room is some kind of Lego model--some finished, some not.

Around the room, there are all kinds of animals (dragonflies, rabbits, dogs), inanimate objects (snowmen, skyscrapers, R2D2s, guitars, boots) and human models (Elvises, pirates, security guards, basketball players) on just about every bit of flat surface--a table, the floor, or on top of one of the dozens of shelves.

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Video: Wrangling Legos for a living
Get a look inside Legoland California's model builder shop, where all the impressive models for the theme park are created.

But dominating the room are three partly finished life-size pirate models, one sitting and strumming a guitar--but with no head--another that is only finished from the waist down, and a third that is just a torso with a guitar.

Petsche estimated that the shop has around 2 million Lego bricks in its hundreds and hundreds of red, yellow and blue bins and another 3.5 million in storage nearby. All told, the shop likely has the best collection of bricks anywhere on the planet, save for the other three Legolands, in Denmark, England and Germany.

That means the model shop's builders create many of the park's new attractions, like Pirate Shores, a pirate-themed area due to open this summer, and Miniland, the park's signature collection of miniature versions of cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.

One of Miniland's most recent additions is a 27-foot-tall rendition of the Freedom Tower, the as-yet-constructed skyscraper that is expected to be built at Ground Zero in New York City.

Petsche, 35, said Legoland California's Freedom Tower is the only building in any Legoland Miniland that doesn't exist in the real world. Yet it fits right in to the "New York" landscape.

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Video: The next Lego master
CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman was on hand to talk with Jason Poland, the winner of the Legoland model builder contest.

And scattered throughout the model shop are at least two small prototype Freedom Tower models, each standing no more than a foot tall, from which the Miniland model was built.

"The typical model is most often some kind of character, a life-sized character, or a Miniland character, but something related to people," Petsche said. "We try to make the model be the gem that pops out" of a scene that could include real landscaping, or, say, a non-Lego treasure chest filled with Lego treasure.

As you might expect, the most challenging models for the shop's builders and designers are the bigger ones, especially when they involve complex shapes or designs.

That's why the 9-foot-tall grizzly is one of Petsche's proudest creations.

"Once you start getting very large, Lego gets very heavy, so it's hard to engineer," he said, adding that things like mounting such large models to the ground and determining how a steel infrastructure will hold up a model's heavy body are the trickiest elements of model building.

Building models from the ground up means that switching gears along the way can be complicated, Petsche said. So most big models are preceded by smaller versions, so they can figure out the details before they're committed to a massive project.

"If it's time to change directions, to add an arm, you have to envision that," he said. "It's hard to visualize a model while you're constructing it, so that (necessitates) prototyping."

In some cases, it's only necessary to prototype certain elements of a structure, Petsche said. If he's working on a skyscraper, he might only prototype a window or a roof corner if that element is going to be repeated in the final model.

It's hard to imagine a more playful job.

"My favorite part of the job is the realization of the impact it has on kids," Petsche said. "Normally, children are inspired by my job, so that feels good. People are inspired by me to want to play with Lego, and I believe Lego is a learning toy. You have to think it through."