Donnie DeWees - Mar / Apr 20
Not everyone can say they’ve gone from building sandcastles to designing more than two dozen projects for Disney theme parks in Anaheim and Shanghai. But Donnie DeWees sure can.
The owner of an architectural design firm in Orange that bears his name, DeWees first became interested in building sandcastles as a college student at California State University, Fullerton after landing a paid internship in 2011 at an architectural firm. One of the architects, Greg LeBon, showed him a photo of two sandcastles he had helped build on the beach in Corona del Mar the summer before. One sandcastle was 8 feet tall and the other 6 feet tall, with a sand bridge connecting the two.
“It was one of those visceral, watershed moments in life where everything suddenly changes,” says DeWees, who started spending weekends at the beach with LeBon and others learning the craft.
After entering—and winning—a sandcastle contest in San Diego, DeWees and his team met a group of master builders working on professional projects.
“We were blown away that people were making a living doing this,” says DeWees, who since then has also made a nice living during his career working for Walt Disney Imagineering.
In 1994, he started doing a variety of projects for the company, including an update of the Jungle Cruise. Then in 2011, he was tapped to be the second-in-command at a Glendale architectural firm working on Fantasyland for Shanghai Disneyland.
They spent about two years developing the construction drawings and everything needed to be translated into Mandarin for the workers in China. DeWees also moved to the country for several months to help in that process.
“They’re used to building simple apartments and warehouses,” he says. “Then they get all this crazy, story-based architecture from Disney. At first, they didn’t know what to do with it.”
While theme park attractions can take years to go from drawings to reality, DeWees says he especially enjoys the immediacy of building sand sculptures.
“You borrow sand from the ocean for a short time, make something wonderful from it, and then you return the sand to Mother Earth,” he says. “It’s the most earth-friendly art form there is.”
The team DeWees often builds with includes LeBon and other partners in Archisand, a side business founded in 1989 that sculpts award-winning sandcastles around the globe and even has some listed as Guinness World Records.
“For sand sculptures, you need to be an artist working not in two dimensions but in three,” LeBon says. “The architecture background and training lends itself well to understanding the art in a 3-D way.”
Some of DeWees’ sand-based creations actually last longer than others. While sculptures at the beach may be lost to that day’s high tides, projects he has worked on at shopping malls have remained on display for weeks.
As it turns out, there’s even an expiration date on some of the Disney attractions DeWees helped design two decades ago for the Anaheim theme park, because, as Walt Disney famously said, Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world. Should another opportunity arise, he’s interested in returning.
“Pixie dust washes off easier than sand, but you can’t get it out of your system,” DeWees says. “I always enjoy working for Walt Disney Imagineering because there’s something to be said about collaborating with some of the best talent on the planet in themed architecture.”
The veteran designer also enjoys working on projects with real impact on everyday lives. He has designed fire stations in several cities, including Fullerton, Moorpark and Station No. 4 here in Orange on Esplanade Street. DeWees is also part of a design team tasked with transforming medical wards at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa into temporary housing for the homeless.
“Those projects have a lot of social relevance and are incredibly near to my heart,” he says, adding that choosing a favorite between his two passions would be impossible.
“Architecture and sand sculptures are exactly the same and also very different. There’s a permanence with architecture, while sand sculptures are almost like junk food, but for me they augment each other. I need both.”
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