Legoland champ triumphs in trial by fire--and ice

Search for new master builder ends with a fire-breathing snowman beating a dragon, a spaceship and three blind mice. Photos: Crowning the newest Lego master

CARLSBAD, Calif.--To most Lego fans, Jason Poland became one of the luckiest guys in the world Tuesday.

That's because Poland, a recent college graduate from Houston, won Legoland California's national search for a new master model builder, beating out 22 other finalists from throughout the country after two days of sometimes tense, stressful competition.

Legoland build-off

The 23 have come to Legoland for two days of skill tests and a build-off, all to determine who would be hired as the park's next master model builder.

A master model builder works in Legoland's model shop, crafting some of the thousands of models found throughout the theme park. And because Legoland had an open slot in its model shop, it conducted the national search.

Each of the finalists had been selected during regional events in seven cities around the United States. And on Monday, each had taken part in two skill tests--one in which they were given an hour to build a model of a face, and the other in which they had an hour to build an egg. They also had to do a personal interview.

But the bulk of the decision about who would get the master model builder job depended on who did best during Tuesday's build-off, when each finalist got two hours to craft a model of something they thought would be a good addition for Legoland.

Throughout the competition, one of the judges and several current master model builders walked among the finalists, watching them build and gauging their efficiency and creativity.

But before they even got to the build-off, there were many steps to go through.

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Video: The next Lego master
Check out the competition at Legoland's model builder search in Carlsbad, Calif. CNET's Daniel Terdiman was on hand to talk with the winner, Jason Poland.

To begin, the finalists were brought to Legoland's "clubhouse," a store filled with dozens upon dozens of bins of bricks, and given an hour to fill a tub with as many bricks as they wanted. The idea was that they would be able to plan for the models they would build Tuesday.

And for some the opportunity to choose so many bricks from such a wide selection seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

"I think most of these guys were pretty pumped" about getting to pick the bricks, said Sarah Hall, a 23-year-old finalist from Louisville, Ky. "I think this is their heaven."

Indeed, some felt like they had entered a realm they didn't even know existed.

"It's like Lego heaven in here, man," said Jarad Barkdoll, an art student from San Francisco. "I never even knew they made so many different colors...I can imagine if, when I was a kid, you couldn't have gotten me out of here."

Later Monday, the finalists were broken into three groups and led off to their skill tests and interviews.

For Barkdoll, Hall, Poland and five others, the first skill test was to build a face at least 6 inches tall. They were given an hour to build their faces.

Their work is impressive, and each makes quick progress. Strangely enough, as the faces evolve, it is clear that most in the group had created impressive models and that several have chosen to give their faces the same kind of hair--short black curly dreds.

"They're all in the same gang," joked Barkdoll.

Later, the group moved onto its second skill test, which tasked them with building an egg, a variation on the sphere that most master model builder candidates are asked to create.

"You want to see if they can achieve a curve shape at all, because some people don't get it, and make it too blocky," said Mariann Asanuma, a Legoland master model designer. "We want the overall shape of an egg. We're also looking at overall approach."

Unlike with the faces, the group mostly fails at the egg test. Only two of them produce anything close to what the judges are looking for. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are out of the running for the job.

"Just because they don't do well here doesn't mean they won't get hired eventually," said Eli Da Silva, a current master model builder. "My sphere sucked, and I'm here now."

On Tuesday morning, the 23 finalists reconvened at Legoland for the final test--the two-hour build-off.

Now, each is wearing a red Legoland T-shirt and is standing at a table in front of the bins of Lego bricks they chose Monday and is waiting for the signal to begin building.

A crowd of Legoland visitors and finalists' family and friends shouts out a countdown, yells "build" and the build-off begins.

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