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Hot Talent: Master Builders construct full-time gigs from hobby

Imagine getting paid to spend your working days lording over miniature versions of America's top cities, building a rocket booster NASA would be proud to call its own, or putting the finishing touches on a huge dinosaur sculpture. Three U.S. artisans have won jobs doing exactly that at Legoland California's 128-acre theme park after a three-month-long nationwide search held late last year. Meet Legoland's Lego Master Model Builders: former graphic design student Aaron Sneary from Maryland, ex-lawyer Nathan Sawaya from New York, and flower shop worker Kristi Klein from Los Angeles.
May 1, 2004

Imagine getting paid to spend your working days lording over miniature versions of America’s top cities, building a rocket booster NASA would be proud to call its own, or putting the finishing touches on a huge dinosaur sculpture. Three U.S. artisans have won jobs doing exactly that at Legoland California’s 128-acre theme park after a three-month-long nationwide search held late last year. Meet Legoland’s Lego Master Model Builders: former graphic design student Aaron Sneary from Maryland, ex-lawyer Nathan Sawaya from New York, and flower shop worker Kristi Klein from Los Angeles.

A Master Model Builder designs, creates and maintains more than 5,000 elaborate Lego models. They use 30 million standard-sized building bricks a day to recreate major landmarks such as the Empire State Building, construct life-sized likenesses of celebrities like Shaq and Darth Vader, and decorate rides with accoutrements like the 14-foot octopus that’s currently draped over Legoland’s Aquazone Wave Racer.

Lego’s contest initially attracted thousands of applicants, who were put to the test building complex structures out of rectangle bricks, like spheres. The cream of the crop yielded a field of 27 finalists, who were invited to California in November for a two-hour build-off to create the best Legoland attraction possible with 4,000 standard Lego bricks.

‘When I became one of the finalists, I would come home from work and build for three or four hours a day,’ says Sawaya. ‘I counted out 2,000 bricks, had my girlfriend come up with a theme, and I’d try to build something in 45 minutes. I got very serious about it.’

Although Lego had planned to hire only one Master Builder for its California park, the talent of the contestants encouraged the company to bring on three masters to share the role. A day in the life of a Master Model Builder includes coming in a few hours before Legoland opens to make repairs and take notes on which structures need to be taken out for major work. ‘You feel a bit like King Kong in there trying to maneuver your giant body,’ Klein says. ‘I was repairing the Washington D.C. bridge and I had to keep my big feet from knocking over the little people.’

After inspecting all the structures, the trio retires to their Model Shop when the park opens, where families can watch Sneary, Sawaya and Klein build new attractions from scratch.

At press time, Sawaya was finishing a seven-foot T-Rex that he’d been working on for three weeks, while Klein and Sneary had just begun a mini-scale Florida, the park’s sixth Miniland attraction that will include the Kennedy Space Center and the Daytona 500.

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