Mariann Asanuma started playing with LEGO bricks when she was 6 years old. When she talked about her desire to get a job working with LEGOs, some adults didn't think that was a realistic career goal. But she held on to her dreams. From childhood into adulthood, she kept building LEGO models.
Back in 1999, Ms. Asanuma found out that the LEGO Group was opening a LEGOLAND theme park in Carlsbad, a suburb of San Diego. She drove to the park with pictures of LEGO models she had built and applied for a job as a "master LEGO model builder."
She wasn't hired for the job, so she continued to work on her skills. "I knew one of the tests would be to make a LEGO ball, one that can actually roll," she says. "So I studied the 'Ultimate LEGO Book,' which has a picture of a ball, and I made that ball."
Ms. Asanuma also built a six-foot-tall mermaid and a miniature-scale comic book shop. These models helped her prove to the LEGOLAND managers that she was exceptionally skilled. Finally, she was hired as a master model designer.
Working with LEGOs
"Most LEGOLAND visitors are surprised to learn that we build our models with the same LEGO bricks you buy at the store," says Tim Petsche, the lead designer in the LEGOLAND model shop. "We just have more of them."
In many ways, what the model designers do is similar to playing with LEGOs at home. For example, first you get an idea of something to build. Maybe you look at a picture to determine the details and features. Then you dig through your bricks, select the colors you want, and start building to match the image you have in mind.
"Being a model builder is neither an artist's job or an engineering job," says Mr. Petsche. "It's a LEGO job. It's unique. It does require a good attention span and an ability to concentrate."
In the model shop, the 18 builders are assigned their own projects, but they share tips with one another to create good models. The builders work on adjustable tabletops so they can raise or lower their models without having to move them. Sometimes, if a model gets too tall, they move it to the floor to finish it.
Life on the job
But the model builders aren't stuck in the workshop all day.
"Every day, one of the builders walks around LEGOLAND and checks every single model for [needed] repairs," says Ms. Asanuma. "We're so familiar with the models that we can look at one instantly and know if a brick is out of place."
Children are often very excited to see life-size firemen, dinosaurs, pirates, zebras – and nearly anything else you can think of – made out of LEGOs. They climb on the models and test their durability by pulling on the bricks. Although each model is built with safety precautions in mind, they eventually start to show signs of wear and tear. When they do, the master model builders temporarily remove them from the park and take them into the workshop for repair.
"Repair and service is the hardest part of the job," Ms. Asanuma says. "With a hammer and chisel, you have to make clean breaks and not damage the rest of the bricks. It's not impossible, but it is difficult."
Periodically, the model builders work on their projects outside in the open so park visitors can watch and ask questions. During these question-and-answer events, the most important lesson that children learn is that it's possible to build almost anything with LEGOs.
Many adults compete to build
"When a job opening becomes available for a master model builder, we have hundreds of applicants show up at our competitions nationwide," says Julie Estrada of LEGOLAND California. "That's because this is an 'elite' position; there are only 40 professional model builders worldwide."
Since the park's opening in California, LEGOLAND has held only two model builder searches in the United States. The job is open only to adults, and a wide range of LEGO enthusiasts have shown up: artists, attorneys, pediatricians, and even Congressional aides – all with a shared passion for LEGOs.
"There is no single stereotype for a model builder," says Ms. Estrada. "People who love LEGOs come from diverse backgrounds, and our contestants range in age from 18 to 60 years old."
In a large room, all participants are gathered together at the same time to work out in the open on tables. They are provided with a tub of LEGO bricks to build anything they want. But they are given only two hours to impress the judges.
As they work, newspaper photographers are taking pictures and television cameras are filming – they want to show the next master model builder at LEGOLAND and what he or she can do.
The pressure can be intense. The judges look for building skills, imagination, and a sense of playfulness.
Although only adults can become official model builders, that doesn't stop kids from dreaming about doing the job someday. Ten-year-old Calvin Iba of Orange, Calif., has been talking about being a master model builder since he was 3.
Every month, LEGOLAND hosts a Junior Master Model Builder competition. In 2006, Calvin was selected as the top winner. His grand prize was a private working session with a master model builder.
"This is a chance for the winner to ask the model builder any questions," explains Ms. Estrada. "It's an opportunity to learn tips and tricks from the pros."
Calvin's winning model was built around a Thanksgiving theme. Using LEGOs, he built a fat turkey hiding from a Pilgrim behind a thin tree.
Calvin isn't the only one in his family with superior LEGO skills. His younger brother, Cole, who's 8, built a red, white, and blue bald eagle for a Fourth of July theme.
"Playing with LEGOs is such a great thing to do with your children," says the boys' dad, Wayne Iba. "There are so many things that parents sit on the sidelines for, like baseball and soccer. But with LEGO, you can get down on the floor and play [together].
"LEGO is a universal toy," he adds. "It fosters imagination and creativity in children and adults alike."