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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Legoland's Master Builders Aren't Toying Around

David Moye Contributor

A career is nothing to toy around with -- unless, of course, it involves building Legos for a living.

Believe it or not, a few lucky Lego lovers are able to make a living snapping together bricks in various shapes and sizes at one of the four Legoland amusement parks around the world. Artists like Gary McIntire and Ryan Ziegelbauer, for instance, are paid to click bricks at Legoland California in Carlsbad, Calif.

Model builders Gary McIntire and Ryan Ziegelbauer are lifelong Lego lovers who have built a viable career building things like this replica of the Millenium Falcon.
Legoland California
Model builders Gary McIntire and Ryan Ziegelbauer are lifelong Lego lovers who have built a career building things like this replica of the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars."

Their official titles are master model builders, and McIntire has held the hallowed position since being hired in 2007, while Ziegelbauer has been getting a Lego up on the competition for the past seven months.

Both of them are lifelong Lego fans, but the path to Legoland wasn't direct for either of them.

McIntire worked as a construction manager of custom-built homes before being hired to spend his days building miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower or Lego portraits of Marilyn Monroe.

"I am a big Lego fan," he told AOL News. "I used to go to Lego conventions around the country."

Ziegelbauer was an urban planner and admits he found reasons to play with his favorite toy on the job.

"When you're doing planning, Legos can actually be a design instrument," Ziegelbauer told AOL News. "Say you are working on a neighborhood cluster. You can use Legos to give people an idea of how different structures might look."

Both of them were successful in their other jobs but didn't hesitate when they had a chance to work with Legos 24/7.

"For a person who loves Legos, this is the motherland," McIntire said.
Ryan Ziegelbauer, a master model builder at Legoland California, spends much his days building Lego models such as this Star Wars-themed piece for an upcoming exhibit.
LEGOLAND California
Ziegelbauer, a master model builder at Legoland California, spends much of his days building Lego models such as this "Star Wars"-themed piece for an upcoming exhibit.

Working with Legos is not a typical job, but a typical day for McIntire and Ziegelbauer means riding around the theme park on a bike in the morning before the park opens, to fix any problem spots.

Sometimes that means replacing a missing brick, and sometimes that means doing a bit of animal control.

"The crows have discovered Miniland -- the part of the park that includes 1/20 scale reproductions of New York, San Diego and other world spots -- and they sometimes knock figures over," McIntire said. "The rabbits have discovered the place as well."

Once the fix-ups are over, the two master builders work on other projects. Ziegelbauer, because of his architectural background, is more inclined to enjoy doing structures, such as his recent fix-up of the New York City skyline, while McIntire enjoys doing sculptures of people.

"I recently designed a Boba Fett character for an upcoming "Star Wars" exhibit we're doing," he said. "Most of the structures are being built in Germany since the park there originated the exhibit idea, but I enjoyed doing him -- he's my favorite character."

McIntire says the thing that separates a master model builder from the rest of us is the sphere.

"The sphere incorporates everything about sculpture," he said. "Once you learn how to build one, you can figure out how to build anything."

To get the job, McIntire had to go through some stringent tests meant to weed out the contenders from the pretenders.

"They gave me a building challenge that was centered around pirates because, at the time, they were working on a Lego pirate exhibit," he said. "We had an hour to build something, so I made a parrot."

He was hired and he hasn't looked back, but while he has his dream job, McIntire says it isn't always playtime.

"Sometimes we have to lift large models, and the bricks can be very sharp," he said.

For Ziegelbauer, the least enjoyable part of the job is working on projects requiring lots of glue and many different colors.

"Projects that incorporate mosaics require lots of small bricks, and that can be tedious," he said, quickly adding that they are still fun.

In fact, Ziegelbauer says the hardest part of being a professional Lego artist may simply be explaining what you do for a living.

"People tend to disbelieve you at first, but after you explain it a few times, they finally get it," he said,laughing.

But while McIntire and Ziegelbauer have reached a career pinnacle that few Lego lovers ever attain, they realize they can't be complacent and need to find new goals to keep their creative juices flowing.

For instance, Ziegelbauer says he'd love to create a Lego zeppelin, while McIntire has an even bigger dream.

"It's funny you use the word 'dream,'" he said. "Because I'd really love to do a Lego portrait of Martin Luther King Jr."