The masters of the plastic universe are baffled. From their imaginations, their computers, from their calloused fingers, magnificent kingdoms...
WASHINGTON — The masters of the plastic universe are baffled. From their imaginations, their computers, from their calloused fingers, magnificent kingdoms have sprung. They can re-create the Seven Wonders of the World in a literal snap. But now they huddle in their model shop of Legoland California and contemplate the seemingly impossible:
How in the rectangular heck do you give a Lego bride a Lego bosom?
Tim Petsche considers miniature chef hats borrowed from a Lego kitchen set. Too big. What about a couple of Lego daisies? someone else suggests. Too weird.
Such are the dilemmas of grown-ups in a child’s fantasy job.
Petsche and his five teammates are the salaried elite in a vast subculture of adult Lego hobbyists whose collections of little plastic bricks overtake entire rooms at home — professors and lawyers and accountants and engineers who find a creative outlet in the sturdy Danish blocks. People who reclaim and reassemble lost childhoods piece by tiny piece.
“You go into what we refer to as the Dark Ages, when you stop playing with them as a kid, but come back to them as an adult. Some people stop at 12, then break out their Lego sets again at 30,” explains model builder Eric Hunter, 36, who landed his dream job a year ago at America’s only Legoland, in the Southern California coastal town of Carlsbad.
Hunter and the other master model builders work in a Carlsbad shop filled with some 2,000 floor-to-ceiling bins full of virtually every piece Lego has created, in every color (that would include the seven shades of pink). Outside in the theme park, their obsession with detail is why a small black Lego rat can be found in the New York subway display, and why Secret Service men on duty in mini-D.C. all look alike and sport tiny earbuds.
“I’ll be driving down the freeway and I’ll see a building and think, ‘Can I build that out of Lego?’ ” says Hunter.
His work is focused on a planned Las Vegas exhibit, due to open next spring in the park’s Miniland U.S.A. Designers expect to use more than 2 million bricks to build miniatures of famous Vegas hotels and casinos, complete with a tacky wedding chapel and Lego showgirls.
Hunter is painstakingly putting together a miniature Excalibur Hotel, which, he notes cheerfully, has 2,200 windows and 28 turret styles, details gleaned by a Lego reconnaissance team dispatched to Vegas to study and photograph the real thing.
Patience is a given for AFOLs, as Adult Friends of Lego are known. Hunter spent a decade building his dream car out of more than 10,000 pieces: a ’91 Acura NSX that he fell in love with while working in a carwash. His Lego version was two feet long and a foot high.
When he learned Legoland was holding a national competition to hire a new model builder, Hunter made it to the semifinals with the scorpion he assembled when given a bucket of 2,000 Lego pieces and 45 minutes to build any animal. He’d taught himself to make a sphere out of squares, the required skill test for any model shop hire.
Hunter lost the contest, but networked in the Lego community and visited the park often enough that the model-shop manager remembered him when another opening came up later. The pay is modest — top scale is about $45,000 a year — but there’s a 10 percent employee discount on Legos, a perk that adds up with a hobby that AFOLs say can easily devour thousands of dollars a year.
The model builders take turns running inspection before the theme park opens each morning. In Miniland, they make sure the presidential motorcade zipping along Pennsylvania Avenue hasn’t been crushed by a renegade possum overnight, and that no seagulls have strategically bombed the White House.
They make sure enthusiastic AFOLs haven’t pinched any of the discontinued bricks — transparent ones are particularly coveted — for their private collections.
And they smile at their own inside jokes, such as the home brewery that the model builders constructed and hid atop the model of the Kennedy Space Center, and the Elvis impersonator amid the crowd of mini-commuters at Grand Central Terminal.
Then there’s the Lego body of Jimmy Hoffa, buried where no tourist will ever see him, deep within a column of the new Freedom Tower in fake Manhattan.