By JESSICA PERALTA and TOM SCHMITZ
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
[Photo] PAUL BERSEBACH, THE REGISTER
[Caption] PLASTIC MASTERPIECE: Jonathan Eric Hunter of San Clemente builds his model Friday during the Lego Master Builder contest.
Contestants vie for a position as a Legoland builder, and it's anything but child's play.
CARLSBAD - There was a building boom Friday and an Orange County man was at the center of it.
The place: Legoland California.
The man: Jonathan Eric Hunter, 34, of San Clemente.
The goal: To become the seventh member of the Master Model Builder Team that designs, constructs and maintains the Lego models in the park. The job pays from 27,000 to $31,000 a year, which is less than Hunter makes as a graphic designer and marketing manager at an Irvine company
Why? "I was playing with these things before I can even honestly remember," he says. "It's like I was bred for this position."
LEGOS: Strategy is required
The quest: Outbuild 26 other finalists. Use 4,000 standard Lego bricks to build anything representative of Legoland - rides, attractions, restaurants, sculptures. The time limit is two hours.
The twist: Three winners will be selected, not just one.
The strategy: Contestants are told the construction theme the night before. Hunter takes two huge bins of his own blocks to his hotel room but decides not to touch them. He resolves to re-create in miniature the park's Miniland. He sleeps till 1 a.m. and keeps waking up after that.
Another twist: Just before the competition begins the contestants are told they can pick a 4%-pound bag of additional blocks. With more options, Hunter says, "I feel very confident now, but my whole plan is changed."
The competitors: Like Hunter, other designers have reached the final round. The competitors have wide-ranging backgrounds: attorney, Air Force captain, student. Most are men. Their ages range from 19 to 35.
The Game's afoot: The contestants set up at individual tables in Fun Town. Each person has a Lego base on which to build. The media are allowed inside the competition zone, but family, friends and park-goers must watch from outside the boundary.
Hunter spreads out his Legos - "It's more like... 7,000 bricks now" - and divides them into two groups: brightly colored blocks in one pile and gray, black and white ones in another.
Hunter begins building an outline using white bricks.
His girlfriend, Patricia Spear, watches from 10 feet away. She smiles, waves, takes photographs, admits to being nervous - but probably "not as nervous as he is."
Hunter starts taking blocks off, putting other blocks in.
Spear thinks he's making Miniland. Other contestants appear to be doing rides. That might separate Hunter from the crowd, she thinks.
Hunter starts forming the word "Legoland" on top of his creation. He adds little buildings, some palm trees. He has decided to stick with the Miniland plan he'd thought up the night before. "I wanted to represent Legoland itself," he says later.
One woman is working on a Legoland sign, maybe not following the crowd either.
Halfway through, it's hard to discern exactly what people are building, although Aaron West of Alta Loma has created what looks like a horse. Animals were a theme during many of the nine regional qualifying rounds.
The sun's out, it's getting warm, the theme-park noise is all around.
The Golden Gate Bridge, the Washington Monument - the buildings are rising on Hunter's mini-Miniland. The smaller scale makes it difficult to provide details. "I'll do reworks numerous times if the dimension isn't right or it just doesn't feel right," he says later.
Deadline draws near. Hunter likes how the Mardi Gras building has turned out.
Music plays in the background. Hunter's competitive neighbor, George Corn of Carlsbad, does a little dance as he puts finishing touches on his roller coaster.
Hunter ponders his Miniland, looks at it, turns it around. He stands up, sits back down, gives it another look. He lets out a breath. He photographs his work. He sits down and props his feet on the table.
Game's over: Applause from onlookers.
The tension builds as contestants wait for an hour as the judging takes place.
Hunter says he didn't stress out, but his heart was beating fastest when he finished because he then could check out the competition.
"From all I've seen, I think they're really good," he says. "The competition is really stiff here."
He thinks he might have used the fewest blocks - about 400 to 500, he estimates.
As the announcement nears, he says, "I think I'm more nervous than excited. Nervousness is taking over.
"If I win, I guess they want us to stay around until Monday. If I lose, I'm going home, probably sleep."
His leg was jittering in anticipation.
The winners are: Kristi Klein of Los Angeles (an octopus garden with goldfish), Nathan Sawaya of New York (mini-figures sawing a log) and Aaron Sneary of Laurel, Md. (a group of kids working with a master builder).
The disappointment? "It was fun," Hunter says. "I don't have to make a decision (about his current job).... At least they know I exist now (for freelance work).... I wish I would've won, but it's OK." He hopes he can keep the Legos.
They tell him no.
You can, sort of, by participating in the Carlsbad theme park's Tall Towers Building Event on Feb.12-16. It marks the Feb. 13 opening of the
Block of Fame attraction. Guests will be able to help build the world's largest Lego brick tower for entry in the Guiness Book of World
Records. The existing record of 89.3 feet, with 500,000 Lego bricks, was established last June at Legoland Billlund in Denmark.