Magic Kingdom

Old school neon creates new school shades in Orlando.

In and around Orlando’s Walt Disney World resort, the appearance and theming of signs, as well as material selections, colors, engineering and installation methods, are all governed – strictly – by the Mouse, via The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).

The RCID is the immediate governing jurisdiction for the land Disney occupies in Florida plus a few other occupants of its 39 sq. miles, including gas stations, restaurants and hotels. With more than 145,000 hotel rooms, Orlando has the second-highest number of rooms in the nation – right behind Vegas. And the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace is where our story begins.

A major hotel renovation was underway, including a 12 x 18-ft. sign for the new Shades Pool Bar and Restaurant to be mounted on a rooftop parapet high above the crowd.

When we learned the owners requested neon, we jumped at the chance to work on this project. Requests for neon have dwindled in recent years, but no matter how good other lighting sources are, there’s nothing quite like exposed neon tubing to get you excited! So we called in fellow Orlandoan Randy Whitt at South Atlantic Neon, one of the last remaining neon shops in central Florida.

This sign was to read “SHADES” in 40-in.tall, 8-in. deep, reverse aluminum channel letters. The letters were deeply dimensional but were non-lit, as double-stroke 15mm turquoise glass would be installed on the teal letter faces, outlining the letter shapes.

Sitting behind the letters was a giant 6 x 16-ft. pair of Wayfarer shades. These sunglasses were fabricated as a 5-in.-deep welded aluminum cabinet, featuring single stroke, 15mm horizon blue neon tracing the outer shape. The lenses themselves were cut out and backed with translucent white Lexan with teal vinyl accents. The interior of the cabinet was lit with bright white Hanley LEDs. The glasses were tilted at an angle and would soon be mounted proud of the parapet roofline, requiring a 2-in. aluminum, square tube framework to support the weight and the increased wind load of these massive spectacles.

With artwork approved and engineering complete, we hit our first snag. Apparently RCID has a fire regulation that Lexan panels cannot exceed 20 sq. ft. in size. Problem was, each lens was 27 sq. ft. So new drawings, new engineering and a disappointing conversation with the client reduced the overall sign to 11 x 17 ft. Not a huge difference, but it delayed us a couple weeks.

Eventually, our permit was approved and fabricators Steve Pass and Tony Johnson jumped to the task. A cool feature of the sign was that the “S, H, and A” had to maintain the same depth as the rest of the “SHADES” letters, but they were sitting atop the 5-in.-deep sunglass cabinet! Steve created custom dimensional letters that keyed in flawlessly with the glasses Tony was building. All was progressing smoothly until we picked up the neon and quickly realized someone (who shall remain nameless), sent the original large sign pattern to the neon shop instead of the approved smaller one; $1,600 was down the toilet! That’s one thing about neon … once it’s pumped, there’s no changing it.

Meanwhile, the letters and shades were complete and in the paint department. Rene Mendez and Greg Berry smoothed and prepped all seams and minor imperfections and began with spraying Non-Chromate Etch Primer on all surfaces, then laid down two full-color coats of Matthews Urethane finished with Matthews Super Satin Clearcoat.

The smaller neon was now ready, and we carefully mounted it to the sign. Then we unmounted it all to avoid damage during transport to the hotel.

Installation day came along with a Snorkel TB80 boom lift to place the sign on the bar rooftop. With limited space, the lift could get the sign on the roof but not into installation position. With lead installer Ben Sawinski and fabricators Steve and Tony on ladders, we hoisted the giant sunglasses and installed them using brute force and some well-placed, pre-drilled all-thread mounting holes. Conveniently, the sign mounted to a rooftop electrical room and the back was easily accessible to complete the install with washers and bolts. Once the sign was in place, the neon was reinstalled and both neon transformers and LED power supplies were installed on the electrical room interior wall, and the install was complete in one day!

The client was blown away by their beautiful new sign and all was well.

That is, until RCID failed us on our final inspection, but that’s a story for another time.