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Meet the chefs who build the 7-foot gingerbread replica of Disney Grand Californian Hotel

A holiday highlight at Disneyland Resort is the 7-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide gingerbread replica of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. It’s prominently displayed in the lobby, steps away from a glittering Christmas tree, and emanates comforting scents of clove, ginger and cinnamon.

“The smell will get more intense,” says Disney executive pastry chef Jose Sotelo, of the gingerbread replica which will be on display until Jan. 8. “As soon as you walk in the hallway, you know, it’s Christmas time.” Guests pose for pictures and children approach the jade green-colored velvet ropes that barricade the showpiece with awe.

This year’s creation required 2,000 pounds of gingerbread, says Disney pastry chef Nubia Renteria. It’s constructed with 600 pounds of powdered sugar and 250 pounds of fondant. Plus, there are 25 hidden Mickeys.

Disneyland Resort guests are familiar with this towering gingerbread creation but rarely do they get to meet the pastry chefs who constructed it. On Saturday, Nov. 19, from 9 a.m. to noon, Disney executive pastry chef Jorge Sotelo along with Disney pastry chefs Mario Ramirez and Nubia Renteria will meet guests at Acorns Gifts & Goods at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. The chefs’ appearance coincides with the launch of new collectible pins inspired by Disney gingerbread houses.

Sotelo and Renteria also oversee the desserts for the resort’s most exclusive dining experiences such as Napa Rose, 21 Royal, Club 33, Carthay Circle, and Storyteller’s Cafe. Their team of 25 cast members prepares desserts for the hotel’s numerous banquets and the resort’s wedding cakes. At last count, Renteria says that 14 different locations at the Disneyland resort serve their desserts. “It’s all coming out of our little bakery,” she says with a chuckle.

The little bakery produces a lot. During the holidays, they bake up to 900 gingerbread Mickey cookies a day. Those cookies are just for the hotel’s dessert cart. (The gingerbread Mickey cookies available inside the parks are baked at another kitchen.)

READ MORE: How Disneyland decorates the resort for the holidays each year

While guests enjoy the photogenic Mickey confections, few people realize the work that goes on behind the scenes. On the morning of Nov. 11, Sotelo, Renteria and their team began assembling the craftsman-style gingerbread replica. They fused the pieces together with royal icing at midnight. Once the exterior walls were assembled, the decorating process took just five days. Though the chefs had been planning this build for a while.

“Some people think it’s just decorating the gingerbread house. But, it takes time — there’s planning,” Sotelo SAYS. “For us, me and Nubia, we work together: Talking to Imagineering, carpenters, engineering. There’s a lot of different departments involved to come up with this beautiful gingerbread house. The lighting is very important. The cleanliness of the area in the back. It’s a team effort. The dishwashers are involved. They help us clean our tools. So, some people just see us decorating, but it’s not just us.”

READ MORE: Disneyland announces dates when hand-pulled candy canes will go on sale

Once guests learn about Sotelo’s humble roots, it’s understandable why he mentions the dishwashers. That’s the kitchen position where he started decades ago. Sotelo immigrated from Ocotlan, Jalisco, Mexico in 1985, and began working at the Hyatt Regency Irvine — as a dishwasher.

One day, he stepped up and filled in to assist the hotel’s pastry chef. Sotelo left an impression. He was a quick learner and eagerly worked to better his craft. After a decade, Sotelo found himself in the kitchen at Paradise Pier hotel. When Disney bought the property, Sotelo stayed with the company and he continued to learn. Disney sent him to a seminar with the founders of the French Culinary Institute in Chicago, and for 26 years, Sotelo has created some of the resort’s most enchanting desserts.

Renteria has worked at the resort for more than two decades. She was raised in East L.A. and grew up working in her parent’s doughnut shop. She knew her career would involve pastry. She attended Cerritos College, and on a whim, she went to a Disney hiring fair. That’s when she first met Sotello.

“I am the one who hired her,” he says proudly. “It’s full circle. Now, she’s a chef.”

READ MORE: Disneyland announces details for Disney Festival of Holidays

This marks the seventh year that Renteria and Sotelo are constructing the resort’s gingerbread replica. This year, the display features a Christmas tree sculpted with rice cereal treats and a giant gingerbread Mickey standing out front. It’s a larger version of the cookie sold at the holiday cart – and there’s a hidden Mickey camouflage on its foot.

Sotelo and Renteria spoke with us the day the gingerbread walls went up. We learned about what’s new at the holiday cart. How many gingerbread Mickeys do they bake each day? And, what are the chefs’ favorite holiday sweets at Disneyland resort?

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What’s the secret to building a 7-foot-tall gingerbread replica? 

Renteria: “We have a carpenter that helps us build the base for it. So he works closely with our team. Then engineering works with us. We have metal structure underneath it. Then, one on top. So there’s a lot of different players. We have 25 cast members involved. Some are in the back. Then we have a couple of people who are the main decorators. There’s a lot of people in the back. Every year is a different challenge.”

Sotelo: “Sometimes we think, OK next year we’re going to be ready. But, no, there’s always challenges. The process: We will change things here and there to make it more beautiful and attractive for the guests. During the process we make changes, and it takes a little longer but it’s very exciting.”

Q: What materials won’t work?

Renteria: We have to consider what materials to decorate with and any blown sugar wouldn’t work. Sugar will melt. So we’re going to install real glass windows. The humidity, because of the doors opening and closing, causes things to get messy.

Sotelo: In fact, the first time we made it out of blown sugar, it didn’t work. It was the moisture and the humidity.

READ MORE: Here’s what Southern California theme parks are doing for the holidays

Q: Any secrets when it comes to preparing gingerbread?

Renteria: The gingerbread has to sit. We bake it longer and slower to make it a cracker-like material. It works better with the humidity.

Q: How much is done behind-the-scenes?

Renteria: We have to do as much as we can before today[Nov. 11]. Because once we’re on stage, it’s just nonstop. The guests just want to ask questions. “What is it?” “How do you make it?” “How do you make that decoration?” “What are you doing?” It’s a lot of fun. The guests really love interacting with it and we get a kick out of it as well because we don’t normally get to interact with the guests.

Q: What other seasonal treats do you bake?

Sotelo: We also create the cookies that we sell in the holiday cart [at the hotel lobby]. We make 800-900 gingerbread cookies a day. That’s just for the hotel! Also we decorate 200 Poinsettia [sugar] cookies, it’s the Mickey Christmas cookie.

Renteria: Everything that’s made here [at the cart], that comes from our kitchen. It’s been so popular with our guests, so we gradually started adding more. First, it was Christmas, then we added Halloween and then we started doing Easter. There’s different celebrations. There was Mickey’s 90th and May Fourth for Star Wars. For that, we made a huge Millennium Falcon showpiece. It’s been so popular that we get to come up with different ideas and themes and it’s so much fun.

READ MORE: Disneyland announces opening date for revamped Toontown

Q: Anything new at the holiday cart this year?

Renteria: This is the first year we’re celebrating Kwanzaa so we made a sweet potato pecan loaf. It’s delicious.

Sotelo: We also created a Hanukkah cookie. That, we’ll have in December.

Renteria: It’s Mickey’s head with dreidels. It’s really fun to bring in the diversity. It’s not just Santa. We get to bring in the other cultures.

Q: What do you look forward to most at the resort during the holidays?

Renteria:  At Napa Rose, we make our signature hot chocolate every year. We wait for that all year long. It’s a really thick hot chocolate and this year we’re serving it with warm chocolate madeleines. It’s delicious. One of my favorite things. Everyone looks forward to the hot chocolate.

Sotelo: I think my favorite season is the Christmas holiday. It’s exciting because it reminds me of my childhood. We were in Mexico. There were no presents but we were happy to see the piñatas. … and we’d sing. It really brings memories back.

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