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Close-up: Joseph Miceli

Realtor follows tracks to dream job building train displays

Joseph Miceli put the brakes on his corporate America career about 10 years ago to follow his passion and continue his family’s trade.

Miceli, who lives in Rancho Bernardo, is a first-generation American and fourth-generation model train display builder. He is also a licensed Realtor.

He began by building and maintaining model train displays for his friends and family, but that quickly took off and Miceli Garden Trains and Fountains LLC was born.

“What happened over the years is that more and more people wanted bigger and better things,” Miceli said.

While on a train trip from San Diego to Orlando, Fla., Miceli watched the scenery go by and got inspiration for his displays -- he’s always figuring out a way to incorporate real-life attractions in his work as he recreates the scenes as small versions of themselves.

For instance, he sees a ski chalet with multiple levels and thinks, “I need to make that.”

He has used branches from a eucalyptus to create models of the tree. The animation of skiers, snowboarders, carolers and bicyclists make the displays come to life, and no display is the same. Miceli incorporates trends -- such as “Jurassic Park” when the movie came out in 1993, decked out with animated dinosaurs, landing helicopters and flashing lights and buzzers.

Realtor Joseph Miceli, who lives in Rancho Bernardo, is a first-generation American and fourth-generation model train display builder. Staff photo by Samantha Henry

About 65 percent of the displays have elements that cannot be bought, so he makes them himself.

“My slogan is: unlimited imagination and endless creativity,” Miceli said. “Those two are key to anything that we do -- whether it be in the real estate industry or with the trains.”

The model train displays offer an outlet for him and others to “free your head from all the daily stresses and everything that goes on in life, and be able to sit back and imagine what you could build -- and then thinking of everything that you have learned in your lifetime, seen in your lifetime, to be able to create from that,” Miceli said.

He donated his time – about 600 hours -- to work on a train display for Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego. A display at Bernardo Winery took Miceli about 500 hours to finish, and is complete models of different grape varieties and dirt from the vineyard.

A typical four-by-eight display could take from a few days to 200 hours to finish, depending on each client’s wishes. The displays can cost up to $100,000, depending on the amount of detail and whether it’s indoor, outdoor, or both.

“If it does nothing else but makes people happy, whether they’re 2 years old or 99 years old, that’s my gift when I do these displays, because you’ll never get the money out of the time you put into them,” Miceli said.

Miceli listens to his clients to tap into their imagination -- for both buying a home and designing a train display.

Joseph Miceli's Old Poway Park display. Courtesy photo

Miceli became a licensed Realtor about 26 years ago and has kept his license active while also working in other professions at corporations including Kyocera and Sony. He said selling someone a home is just as fun as building the train displays.

“That is the greatest feeling you can ever have is when you put someone in a home they love,” Miceli said.

The love of model trains may have begun in his family four generations ago, but the displays his great-great grandfather built are not the same as what Miceli spends most of the year working on.

“It became more high-tech,” Miceli said.

Miceli begins the display process with a hand drawing and then puts it into 3-D landscaping software, employing technical skills he learned while working in corporate America.

He uses AutoCAD 2000 to design the hills and mountains and he uses digital command control technology. He gives the trains decoders, which is like giving each train its own IP address with electronic units that communicate with the train, and can stand with a wireless remote and operate multiple trains.

He is able to give each train a three-phase decoder, so for instance, he can increase the smoke output on one train and at the same time dim the lights in the third passenger car or increase the sound.

One client wanted an elaborate indoor-outdoor display that traveled from a bar to a pool, allowing the train to deliver drinks and snacks.

In that particular case, Miceli was tasked with building pillars to support trestles that were about 5 feet tall. He researched similar structures to recreate, and he found it in the Huey Long Bridge in Louisiana. He molded the pillars himself.

He considers the aesthetics of the display as well as the capability to have a heavy G-Scale train spanning heights and traveling across creeks and under bridges.

“The G-Scale trains shouldn’t be going up any more than they do in real life -- 2 to 3 percent grades,” Miceli said.

He said there’s nothing wrong with static displays, but “that was never for me.”

“My thing was always running water on those displays -- real water -- whether it’s an indoor or outdoor display. Skiers actually skiing down the mountain, carolers walking through the village singing -- this is all animated. I wanted everything to be living,” Miceli said. “The most important thing to me is that it just explodes the senses -- whether it’s taking you back to when you were a kid or as a kid looking at this with awe and emotion. I think that emotional value is part of the display now.”

He approached City Lights Collectibles in San Diego with the idea of incorporating a train around its array of Christmas items. The owner was hesitant at first, Miceli said, but agreed after watching a video of one of Miceli’s trains.

“It quadrupled their business just from having the trains mixed with their villages,” Miceli said. It integrated with the Department 56 villages and created a point of orientation.

The model train industry has grown from old-timers playing with a display in a garage to women basically taking over the industry. Women saw the potential for the whole village, not just the train, which caused the shift in interest, Miceli said.

“They know the trains. They know the numbers. They know the buildings. They know what kind of people they want. They know what kind of decorations they want. And, most importantly, they have a theme in mind,” Miceli said.

Miceli was the customer services manager for the German model train company LGB for most of the Americas. When that company left America, people needed someone to turn to, and that’s where Miceli came in. He has his database of more than 20,000 people that he services to this day, and he works with the same suppliers as he did with LGB.

His business has grown and consumed nearly all of his time last year.

“I reflect that back to the real estate industry. It’s not about the money -- it’s not about buying someone a house. I’m not the agent who goes out there and sells 500 houses. I’m the agent who spends 100 percent of my time listening to you and understanding what you want, walking you through the process -- just like if I were doing a display,” Miceli said. “I’m there, I’m listening to what you want and no matter how long it takes, we’ll find you the right house or build you the right railroad.”

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