Rick Mungeam puts the finishing touches on a sandcastle he created on a north Florida beach.
Photo by Capri Mungeam
Rick Mungeam repurposed his skills designing upscale resort homes and became a beachfront architect, creating works of art that come and go with the tide
As an architect based in Winter Park, Colorado, Rick Mungeam put on a golf shirt, khakis and loafers, went to an office and designed glamorous custom resort homes meant to last.
Today, he puts on shorts, a comfortable shirt and a hat, heads to the beach barefoot and finds satisfaction in the creative process rather than the longevity of his work.
Rick knows that what he builds today will last a week or less. If people do not destroy his handiwork, time will take its toll and Mother Nature eventually will wash it out to sea.
That is, after all, the natural progression for a castle built on the sand.
What is not so natural is the evolution from architect to sand sculptor.
Rick and his wife, Capri, live and share what they call the “sandcastle effect”—the delight that comes from having fun while creating memories in the sand—and they have spread that joy to thousands of delighted customers.
Based on Florida’s Emerald Coast, Beach Sand Sculptures offers 800 to 1,000 lessons a year, making it the world’s largest sandcastle lesson company, Capri says.
Rick also uses his skills drawing up plans and then executing one-of-a-kind sand sculptures for families and businesses.
“I treat our business as a business, not a hobby,” says Rick. “There are sand sculptors who offer lessons, but none do the quantity we do. We are an industry leader.”
The Mungeams not only make a living shaping sand on the beach, but offer an economic boost to the community by training and paying coaches to follow their model of teaching others how to have fun building with sand.
“It’s amazing to me that we can make a living at this, and hire a manager and coaches,” Capri says. “It’s scary exciting.”
Scary might be an apt description of what led Rick and Capri to Florida and a livelihood encouraging family fun.
For more than 20 years, Rick had a successful business. Capri was a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled their two boys. Their life was comfortable.
But when the economy took a nosedive in 2008, so did Rick’s business.
“It wasn’t a good time,” he says, noting his services no longer were in demand.
Capri waited tables. Rick couldn’t get a job. He applied at The Home Depot and elsewhere, but was overqualified.
“We drained our retirement fund,” Capri says, noting that in the winter of 2010—one month before their home was to be foreclosed—they sold it.
They used the proceeds to buy a motor home and drove south, looking for warmer weather and a new direction.
“We knew we weren’t retiring, that we had to go back to work,” says Capri. “We were on a short-term hiatus, figuring out what to do.”
“We were journeying,” adds Rick. “We didn’t know where we were going. We had no goals. We were just having fun.”
A stop at South Padre Island, Texas, proved pivotal. It was there Rick met Andy Hancock, who taught him sand-sculpting basics—and he was hooked.
“He came back and said he had to get some tools to play with in the sand,” Capri says. “Ironically, he had been collecting sand long before that.”
The couple continued traveling along the Gulf of Mexico, taking all the beach roads, which gave Rick the materials he needed to practice his newfound interest.
“We crossed the Okaloosa Island bridge into Destin and saw the beautiful blue-green water,” Rick says.
“We were in love,” Capri declares.
The couple spent two weeks at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, where they learned about a state parks program in which volunteers work in exchange for a space. They submitted an application and headed to Atlanta to look after friends’ kids while they were away on a trip—and a volunteer opportunity opened up.
“We spent three months at Topsail,” Rick says. “When I wasn’t working, I went to the beach and was playing in the sand like when I was a kid. I was being creative, but in a different medium. I was getting better, and building bigger. I was honing my skills, and really enjoying it.”
A fellow volunteer saw Rick’s work and asked him to do a program for kids. As part of his volunteer hours, Rick would head to the beach, put up a sign, and have 30 to 40 people in a class.
“I had a hard time talking to people, but that didn’t last long,” he says. “I had a paradigm shift. I wasn’t talking, but sharing.”
When the Topsail commitment was up, the Mungeams volunteered at other parks: Eden Gardens, Grayton Beach, Bahia Honda, Lovers Key and Koreshan.
They scheduled sandcastle lessons around their volunteer commitments.
“It just kept growing,” Rick says. “We were turning people away. I built a sandcastle with a big heart on it on Grayton Beach. A wedding party asked if they could use it. A bunch of other photographers were using it.”
At that moment, Rick says he realized, “Maybe we can turn this into a business.”
Beach Sand Sculptures soared from No. 97 on TripAdvisor to No. 2—and the phone kept ringing.
“In the summer of 2013, we were turning away 25 families a week,” Capri says. “We could only do 10 to 12 lessons a week. It was really heartbreaking.”
Capri knew they had to train others, but Rick was reluctant.
“We had to replicate in a way that kept things going the same way,” Capri says.
In 2014, Beach Sand Sculptures hired a human resources company, added online booking and had seven people trained and doing lessons.
By July, the business ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor for outdoor activity in the Destin area. It has never surrendered the top spot, earning mostly 5-star ratings.
“We’re trying to build something that will last,” Rick says. “We have already grown substantially. Our goals are to continue to expand and develop business systems. It is not ‘franchise-able,’ but we can take this model and drop it someplace else. When we go north and south when we travel, we look at it from a business aspect. We look at the sand.”
Demand for lessons ebb and flow based on the tourist season. Northwest Florida is flat in January and February, bumps up a bit in March for spring break, dips a little in April and May, then takes off on Memorial Day through August. South Florida’s tourist season is just the opposite.
As Rick or his coaches unload a cart filled with buckets and implements, people on the beach watch with interest. He orients his students so they are facing the water and tells them, “See those people behind me with hands on their hips? That’s sandcastle envy. You guys are going to be the rock stars of the beach.”
Moving sand and water is hard work.
“You might be sore and tired, but once on the beach with people, being creative, you forget about that,” Rick says. “When I’m carving, I can visualize what I want a sculpture to look like. I have an eye for design. It just flows. That’s the fun part.”
That is due to his skills and experience as an architect—an interest built from Rick’s days as a kid playing in the sand at Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Cod.
In the early days of the business, Capri says Rick bemoaned that now he is “just a sandcastle builder and sculptor, but I told him that being an architect helped him become a great sandcastle builder.”
When Rick finishes a work, he says he takes a picture and walks away, knowing it will not last—and is at peace with that.
“This is so much more than a sandcastle lesson,” says Capri. “It is a family experience. We pull in the adults, who have as much fun—or more—than the kids.”
Playing with sand and water “touches people,” Capri says. “It makes them happy. It truly is magical.”