In 1/25 scale, a Lego cop chases a Lego robber across a Lego roof in Lego Nob Hill, a Lego neighborhood in Lego San Francisco. Guys with Lego Afros break-dance in the shadow of the Lego Empire State Building and the Lego Freedom Tower (which only exists here). Over in Lego Washington, D.C., you can see a Lego Capitol where one can easily imagine a Lego Sen. Patrick Leahy grilling a Lego Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez. The website labels “Miniland” the heart of Legoland USA, and with models of San Francisco, New York City, New England Harbor and New Orleans all 100-percent composed of genuine Lego parts, it's not hard to see why.
But all of this will become a mere sideshow with the March 29 unveiling of the latest, and most extensive, Lego model city. Ladies and gentlemen, the kids-oriented theme park in Carlsbad will soon bring you the city of Lego sin itself, the place whose motto centers on secret, unspeakable debauchery: Lego Las Vegas Strip. With scale models of the Tropicana, Treasure Island, New York-New York and seven other hotels surrounded by sounds recorded on the real Strip, visitors to the park get about as near to really being in Vegas as Lego sculpture can get them. A drive-through wedding chapel will include four different couples parading through in the tradition of drunken elopers, but, sadly, there will be no Miniland strippers discarding angular clothing, no Miniland slot machines with the Miniland elderly slowly losing their Social Security money. At one stage, model designers planned to have an interior scene of the Tropicana but it got axed for-ahem-moral reasons.
And, they will tell you, the whole thing is made out of standard-issue Legos.
“Everything here is in a standard Lego set-no specialized bricks,” said model designer Eric Hunter. “We want our guests, and especially the kids, to know that what they see in Miniland, if they had enough pieces-which would be crazy, but if they had enough pieces-they could go home and build the stuff. We want them to feel comfortable knowing that we're not going outside the boundaries of the ability of the product.”
Hunter stands in the Model Shop at Legoland, his work place-a paradise for an AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego), the acronym used to describe a grown-up aficionado of the toys. The place is on view to the public, so primary colors abound, and there are Legos everywhere-on shelves and covering the tables; Lego versions of famous paintings hang on the walls; mockups of the Excalibur and the half-built New York-New York cover the four workbenches. Along one wall, gray iron shelves rise to the ceiling, filled with yellow, blue and red bins, each with a specific Lego part in a specific color, thousands and thousands of pieces available for the designers. Those who built Legos in their youth will quickly recognize the standard bricks, plates (one-third-thickness Legos) and tiles (plates with no dots on top), as well as old favorites like radar dishes and antennas.
Hunter and colleague Jason Poland have been laboring on these two hotels for months now. The New York-New York required extremely careful design, because the hotel uses many different facades to create the illusion of a cityscape, not to mention the faux-New York skyline on the hotel's roof. Hunter also had to push aside his own memories of the real New York in guiding his design, because the hotel takes some liberties in the details. He realized a while back that, in fact, he's building an abstraction of an abstraction, with an end result that resembles New York like a visual game of telephone.
Legoland kicked off the project three years ago, and designers got a free trip to Las Vegas in August. Not that they had any time to gamble (or so they tell reporters). They spent three days in record-breaking, 120-degree heat, snapping pictures of every hotel from as many angles as they could find. Ultimately, they rejected some of the architecturally boring hotels, like Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio (a relief to Celine Dion haters). Back in Carlsbad, they taped the photos together to create a complete image of the façade.
The models are not, as perhaps could be expected in these high-tech days, designed on a computer. Well, mostly not. The company has a modified version of the architectural software RINO that renders models into virtual Legos. But from there the process is pure artistry-Lego model designers in California put in 10- to 12-hour days building the scale models of four hotels from scratch (Tropicana, New York-New York, Excalibur and Venetian) and working with Lego shops in Denmark and Germany to design the rest of the buildings. These buildings would be sent in pieces to California for assembly.
Hunter and Poland toil in the public eye in the Model Shop. Not far away, Legoland pitched a tent covering an area roughly the size of a baseball diamond known as The Stack Shack. The extra space was needed to store the models and to have work room for extra staff. In one corner of the shack sit two “model citizens,” as Legoland employees are known, gluing together stacks of Legos. They are not designers; they are gluers (glue is used to add stability to the models), whose job is limited to attaching small chunks of repetitive patterns so they can be fit together by the designers. On the other side sit the massive walls of the Venetian, mostly done, and on the right are two tables covered by the Tropicana, with a pair of designers laboring over them. In another corner are stacks of Minilanders, waiting for a designer to breath life into them by placing them in small scenes throughout The Strip (of particular note are the rows of Elvis impersonators). The Stack Shack is silent aside from the clicking of bricks and some music-no banter, no joking, none of the laughter one might expect from people whose job is, literally, child's play.
After they're finished, each model is painted with a UV-protective coating-even Lego models need sun block in San Diego-and then installed on a cement pad out in Miniland. The Minilanders don't get placed until the last two days before opening, “when we're all feeling a lot funnier,” Hunter said.
Hunter, a bearded, bespectacled man of 37, and Poland, a lanky 23-year-old, came to Legoland through Lego Master Builder contests. They each participated in a series of events that required them to build models from scratch under a time limit, as part of the job-interview process. Hunter didn't win the contest, but he earned a job anyway, allowing him to escape the life of a graphic designer. Poland actually won, and he came to Legoland from Texas in July, not long after graduating college.
“They make it sound like you've landed a dream job,” Poland told CityBeat. “But it's not.”
In an after-hours interview, Poland and Jon Palmer, a model designer recently fired by Legoland, described a scene reminiscent of TV's The Office, replete with management favoritism and bullying. Call it the soft Lego underbelly. Several designers, including Palmer, have been fired, another has quit and another recently gave notice. Under the strain of 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, to meet the opening date next week, tempers have flared leading to shouting matches over what Poland and Palmer considered minor details.
Legoland spokesperson Julie Estrada would not comment on employment issues.
For Palmer and Poland, the experience has been akin to a loss of innocence.
“I see it's fallen far short of the potential of what this place could be,” Poland said of both the job and the project.
Consider a few tales of woe ladled by these two disillusioned gents (those of you who want to see no evil where Lego-building is concerned might want to cover your eyes):
* The top layer of the Venetian, sent over from Denmark, was left outside unprotected, still encased in Saran wrap. Legoland denies that any models have sun damage, but Poland says he saw it and “it looked like melted chocolate.” He says he saw another Lego builder gluing plates to the outside so it could still be used.
* The designer who built the Statue of Liberty for New York-New York (not Hunter), had the body and head so badly out of proportion that the team ended up building a statue from the official Statue of Liberty kit. Julie Estrada said this was the initial plan, but Poland says that it was only used because of the problems and time pressure.
* Shortcuts are commonplace among the model builders. A model doesn't fit on the cement pad? Take out your hacksaw and make it fit. Taking too long to get that corner with perfectly interlocking parts? Just glue the butts of one wall to the butts of the others.
“You hear certain phrases from management a lot,” Poland said. “‘It is what it is' and ‘wiggle room.'” To Poland, both were evidence of the culture of mediocrity in Legoland.
Salary is the root of most disgruntlement at Legoland. Any company that can hold a contest to fill its positions knows there's demand for that job, so it pays accordingly. Model designers start at $13 an hour. Palmer said he made more slinging coffee in his hometown of Tulsa.
Miniland isn't the only part of Legoland with Lego models. All throughout the park, visitors stumble across Lego statues, like the two-foot Lego tourist statues, the Lego fireman rescuing a Lego cat and the water-spraying Lego elephant. For this reason, Poland finds the model designers' low salary and shabby treatment mystifying.
“The model builders are the heart of Legoland,” Poland said. “Without the models, Legoland is just a bunch of children's rides.”
Workplace troubles aside, Poland, Hunter and the rest of the team are busily stacking and gluing in a race to be ready for opening day. The Tropicana and the Excalibur are not yet ready, but several hotels are in place. The MGM lion guards the entrance to the MGM, the pirate ships float in front of Treasure Island, and Lego dolphins do tricks in a lagoon near the Venetian. The back façade of New York-New York is coated and awaits the completion of the front before installation. All in all, the builders are excited to see their creation become part of the Miniland geography.
And what will they do when it's all over?
“You know,” Hunter said. “I might just go to Vegas.”