As a 5-year-old transfixed by Lego, Alex Andres pored over the step-by-step guides for transforming his plastic brick piles. He built trucks and buildings and boats. Then one day he started setting aside the lengthy booklets that came with new sets of the iconic toy.
He wanted to think outside the box. A massive Lego container ship became one of the most impressive of his young creations. “It was really exciting. As soon as I put all the pieces together, something in my mind just clicked.”
Years of constructing Lego sculptures this way honed skills that would land Andres, ’12 BA Theatre, his dream job.
The UNLV alumnus gets paid to play with Lego bricks.
Andres works for Merlin Studios Carlsbad building architectural and sculptural models for Legoland Resorts in five countries and Legoland Discovery Center attractions worldwide. His team is based outside of San Diego at Legoland California Resort, home to more than 30,000 models crafted from some 60 million tiny components.
As required by his employer, he’s tight-lipped about specific projects. “We’re pretty secretive,” Andres said. He could confirm he recently completed working on the giant cityscape – or MiniLand in Lego parlance – for the Legoland Dubai. The theme park is slated to open in October in the United Arab Emirates.
He’s a little more forthcoming on what a typical workday is like as one of only 100 Merlin employees worldwide who builds Lego models for a living.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “I clock in, I go to a work station, and I start playing with Lego.” [Like other devotees, Andres does not append an “s” to Lego.]
Much like the ignore-the-instructions theme of his youth, Andres took a nontraditional route on his college and career path before scoring a fantasy gig.
Born on a military base in Hawaii, Andres moved with his family to Southern California when he was 3. He was an athletic kid growing up alongside his sister and three brothers, playing football, basketball, soccer, golf, and hockey. But his interests began shifting in high school. “I realized I wasn’t as athletic as I thought I was after my sophomore year,” he said. “Stage plays and musicals, that’s where a lot of my passion was.”
After high school, Andres tried acting in Hollywood with little luck, then headed to an art school and junior college before fully pursuing theatre arts design and technology at UNLV.
“(UNLV) was such a different experience,” he said. “It was a real four-year college experience, and I immersed myself in the college lifestyle.”
Besides studying and working on university productions like The Cradle Will Rock and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Andres vied against other colleges on the ballroom floor as part of the Rebel DanceSport team.
With his degree in hand, he landed a job as an entertainment technician at The Mondavi Center for Performing Arts at University of California, Davis and then Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in San Francisco before he applied for the Lego building position in 2014.
The hiring process Andres went through sounds strikingly similar to the plot of The Lego Movie: Andres had to conquer a series of building challenges to prove himself worthy of the master model builder title. Timed challenges — on his own and as a team — tested his ability to duplicate already finished models. For his final challenge, he had to recreate a complex model of an apple by examining only its surface.
“It was glued together, so you had to figure out what was going on inside it just by spinning it around,” Andres said. “I felt pretty confident, because I played with Lego my entire life.”
While a college degree wasn’t required for his job, Andres said his theatre design training has proven valuable for imbuing plastic cityscapes with a human touch of drama. “We’re not just building large skyscrapers,” he said. “We’re building street life and bringing life into it.”
So how does he unwind after a day of continuous construction?
“When I get home, I help my daughter play with Lego,” he said. “She’s picking it up faster than I did.”
It’s a struggle for this young father not to lock back into Master Model Builder mode when 5-year-old Kaylani gets stuck. “I try not to take over her Lego sets,” Andres said with a laugh, “but it does happen.”