Bringing Fantasy to Life

Giant toys devised by Watson Construction's custom craftsmen enliven a stay-and-play retail store.

By Barbara Garet

Meeting Larry Watson of Watson Construction Services, Pompano Beach, FL, is almost like coming face to face with actor Tom Hanks in the movie "Big." Remember the scenes where Hanks, as a prematurely-grown-up Josh, sits in his executive office playing with new toys? Not long ago, Watson, too, was surrounded by toys in his conference room -- castles, dragons, a sheriff's office, doll houses. He and his staff poked and pried and tried to figure out what it would take to recreate the toys, enlarged to life size, for a new retail store.

In the film, Josh was named vice president of the toy company because of his boyish enthusiasm and unadulterated imagination. In real life, Watson won the store contract by competitive bidding -- enthusiasm and imagination notwithstanding -- but he credits successful completion of the project to his employees' ingenuity, talent and resourcefulness.

Who would want to tackle a store fixture manufacturing project without blueprints, using toys as prototypes? And how many custom woodworkers would get so caught up in the spirit of play that they would write adventure scripts and theme songs, design and build movable figures, and develop a light and sound program to add to the fun and enhance the fantasy?

It was the kind of challenge Watson thrives on. He started his business 11 years ago, installing other people's work which was mostly residential. After completion of a large country club project, he said he knew the diversity of commercial work was his calling. Because of the demand for millwork packages, he began to fabricate his own architectural woodworking and cabinetry. Watson Construction Services now employs 26 persons and has annual sales of $3 million.

Two years ago, Playmobil, Germany's largest toy manufacturer, asked for cost estimates to make full-size displays of its most popular toys for a Playmobil FunPark in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. The company did not specify materials or submit directions for assembly, but sent sketches and stipulated that the large versions should look just like the plastic originals.

Plans called for the perimeter of a 20,000-square-foot store to be lined with static displays (only for show) of favorite Playmobil toys, including: medieval knights, pirates, cowboys and Indians, doll houses, circus, farm and Alpine village. In the center of the store, play areas with plastic bases were arranged by age groups and equipped with age-appropriate toys. At the far end, kids could play with boats and other floatables in two shallow, 25-foot-long moats.

"We had never done anything like this," said Watson, whose company's award-winning architectural woodworking projects are recognized throughout Florida's Gold Coast. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Manalapan; Pete's Restaurant, Boca Raton; The Breakers of Palm Beach; and Woodfield Country Club are examples. But all those places have truckloads of splendid architectural woodwork that adults can appreciate. The FunPark called for a new approach: woodworking made to look like plastic.

The basic challenge was to determine how to make each large "toy" and what to make it from -- just by looking at its miniature version, Watson said. His crew finally decided to scale the toys at 15:1 and make shop drawings for everything. Each large, child-sized toy display -- including pony ranch, doll house, gas station and sheriff's office -- was designed to go together and to come apart exactly as the original toy did, with precise components. In addition, the client wanted fiberglass molds fabricated from Watson's oversize versions in order to mass produce them for other locations.

Since these perimeter displays would occupy too much shop space when finished, they were built in the warehouse. The gas station alone has a laminated canopy 12 feet high and 24 feet wide in three sections. Upon completion, the displays were disassembled, then reassembled at the FunPark.

The first phase of construction and installation was barely wrapped up when a "Magic Birthday Adventure" idea was proposed. The far end of the store would be redesigned with a kitchen and special rooms for birthday celebrations, where guests could interact with child-size characters from the toy line. Entering into the spirit of the discussion, Watson remembered suggesting, "And we could make figures that move and talk." Only later did he wonder, "How in Hades am I going to do that?" (paraphrased)

Watson employee Julia Bartlett wrote the first adventure, featuring characters from the Playmobil line with a big, green dragon in the starring roll. The dragon evolved into a nine-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide creature. The original model or "plug" was sculpted from polyurethane foam. Seven molds were made of its body, and then the body parts were molded in fiberglass. Three high-torque motors in a linear drive system like that used in satellite dishes operate its mouth, arms and neck independently.

An AutoCad program was used to lay out design for dragon's skeleton (framework), pinpointing areas for bearings, mechanical fittings and mounting brackets for body parts. The framework was cut and drilled with a Weeke BP-12 point-to-point machining center from Stiles Machinery Inc.

Mountains, waterfalls and cave structures for the Adventure area were fairly simple. Shop personnel, who customarily operate routers, edgebanders and sanders, built the sets. They glued together large chunks of polystyrene from which rock formations were carved. They used denser polyurethane foam, which can be sanded, for soft contours. Light-weight mesh and concrete coating made the "rocks" fire-retardant and strong enough to withstand would-be mountain climbers. Sparkling foil icicles blown by a gentle fan breeze and accompanied by a soundtrack became a waterfall.

The castle with its turrets and arches was one of the most elaborate and complicated structures to build. Watson subcontracted the fabrication of polystyrene arches and other intricate shapes. For the castle wall, the shop built one 5-foot by 12-foot panel of polyurethane foam blocks on a plywood base from which a mold was fabricated. Forty fiberglass wall panel sections were duplicated in the mold.

The result was an enchanting store in which Tom Hanks, aka Josh, would have had a ball.

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