An Inside Look at Legoland Windsor's Model-Making Division

By Tom Pritchard on at

Everyone here knows about Lego, and knows just how much it can do. Whether you want to build a small house with a few dozen pieces, or an actual house with a few million, there's a lot you can do. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Legoland theme parks. As you'd hope, almost everything in the park is Lego-themed, and with that theme comes a whole host of models and statues built almost entirely out of actual Lego pieces.

It's all pretty amazing when you think about it that way, and I was lucky enough to be able to take a look behind the scenes and speak with the people who actually build those models from scratch.

The model makers' workshop isn't actually that far from the park's main entrance. It's inside what used to be the Legoland Creation Centre, and above the Lego Star Wars exhibition. Just head up the stairs, and you'll be able to see inside the workshop for yourself, though that only gives you a glimpse of the work that goes on. And a lot of work goes on, because the whole 61 ha park is served by a team of six model makers.

Crazy right? All the planning, designing, maintenance, and most of the building is done by that small team, which makes the work all the more impressive. They don't necessarily do all of the physical building, though. Some of the larger models (like the giant Death Star) require extra help during the final build. Some of the models are enormous, and if they had to do it all themselves it's likely that nothing else would get done.

On the topic of building, though, I am sad to report that they do use kragle superglue on all the models. While that might seem sacrilege to some, you do have to remember that the models are going out into the theme park around the general public and large groups of children. Kids love to break stuff, intentionally or not, and since a lot of the models are within reach of their tiny hands, the glue is necessary to make sure all the models stay in tact. That way they don't steal any bricks, and if they decide to climb on it (which they apparently do) the glue helps keep everything together.

The importance of structural integrity also means that some of the models are not 100 per cent Lego, and require an internal skeleton made of metal. Various pieces of metal are welded together to create each skeleton, which is itself the basis of the final model's shape. All the Lego components are them built around that skeleton, with superglue applied as the build progresses. Some of the models are very big, and that means there's enough glue to make everyone except Lord Business cringe.

The model makers are also in charge of maintaining the models throughout the entire park, which is generally done before the guests are allowed into the park each day. That job also involves inspecting the internal welding of the models at times, which means some models are not completely glued together - instead some pieces act as a lid that's removed to look inside.

Some models don't need the metal supports, though, and instead the team uses Lego to build the internal structure as part of the overall build process. The head above is pure Lego, and because it's a prototype no glue has gone anywhere near him.

The actual design process is a little bit varied. The park originally opened in 1996, and back then computer-based design wasn't really the beast that it is today. Nowadays that's not the case, but according to Paula Laughton, a model maker who's been at Legoland for over 20 years, 3D modelling software hasn't taken over. Some of it is, and she admitted that some of the model makers are incredibly good with it, but it's not always faster than sticking with the low-tech solutions like graph paper.

Each square represents one brick, and is made up of three sections that represent Lego plates.

At an event marking the launch of the new UCS Millennium Falcon, two designers from the Lego Star Wars range spoke about how the design process is affected by having kids actually play and interact with the models. By watching that, designers are able to go back and make changes based on what they see - something that's done to improve the final model that ends up on shop shelves. Things are quite different with the Legoland models, because there's a different end result.

It's not about the play, it's about the design and how the model will look and feel when it's in the park itself. Terrain is a factor, since the park models are installed in places that regular Lego toys wouldn't be seen dead in. Some sets are attached to wood, others to concrete, some models are even in the water. They're areas that aren't always even or as predictable as tables or shelves, so it's the kind of thing has to be considered by the model making team.

That's part of the reason why people on the team don't come from a Lego background. You'd think that this would be quite a big thing for a park and team with such a heavy focus on Lego as a building tool, but there is a difference between building a toy and building a structure. Most of the team's members (past and current) come from creative backgrounds, however, with art, design, architecture, and even prop and set design work mentioned as some examples. That's something to bear in mind if you ever fancy starting a career in Lego construction.

Safety first

As for how they decide what to make, I was told that the briefs the model makers receive can vary. Sometimes they're given a very clear picture of what needs to be built, with specific details on the where the models will be displayed and what they'll be doing. So whether they'll feature animatronics, whether they'll be in in direct contact with guests or not, which area of the park is it for, whether it'll inside one of the resort's hotel rooms, and so on.

But then at other times, the briefs are quite open, meaning the team can come up with multiple ideas of what to build and where to install it. Either way, the team has to look at what's already in the area they're building and act accordingly to ensure it's positioned and themed accordingly. I was told that the different model makers each have their own preferences and specialisations (be it animals, people, and so on), which meant they could play to their strengths and produce a wide range of models for the park.

Sadly the team does have to work to some strict time constraints, so they can't afford to sit around all day playing with Lego. As tempting as that may sound, they do have an important job to do.

One of the coolest things about the model making department, aside from all the incredibly detailed custom builds they have dotted around the work stations, is the fact that they have their own miniature Lego warehouse. Which is obvious when you think about it, isn't it? The main workspace has a lot of cabinets, for want of a better term, filled with trays of Lego pieces that are for the building work. But those trays have to be filled from somewhere, and that's where the warehouse storage area comes in.

There's about a million pounds worth of Lego in there, all carefully separated according to colour and type. Those blue boxes are filled with regular common Lego pieces, while the grey ones are for specialist stuff that does more than just stack together. Some colours count as special pieces too, like green, simply because they're not as readily available as the others.

The place may seem like a Lego fan's dream (and it is pretty incredible), but the stock does need to be carefully weighed and signed out. It may seem silly given how small Lego pieces can be, but anyone who's bought a set knows that the cost does add up when you bundle all those pieces together. God forbid anyone spills one of those storage boxes, though. I would not want to clean all that up.

Unfortunately the model makers don't have access to all the pieces Lego has on offer. They have most of them, but since the company adds new pieces to sets all the time there's a bit of a delay between them arriving on shop shelves and landing into Legoland's storage bins. Everything they do have, however, can be found in Lego sets across the world.

Also, the team has access to little chunks of the raw plastic Lego is made from — which you can see in the image above. They can't make all the Lego themselves (as much as I'm sure they'd like to), but they do find use for decorative purposes. The clear plastic is often used as a substitute for snow, grey for gravel, and the mish-mash colours as rubble in the back of model lorries.

Top: The current Lego colour palette. Bottom: A palette from an unspecified point in the past. A lot has changed! Note, not all pieces are available in all colours.

While I didn't get to see any of it being built while I was there, Christmas is coming up and that means sorting out the models for Legoland's festive season. The park is currently closed to prepare, though it will be reopen for certain dates in December. If you want to check that out for yourself (and see what the rest of the park has to offer), you can find out more on the Legoland Windsor website. Just be warned: tickets are limited, so you will need to book in advance.

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