Cheryl Latimer can remember childhood visits to Peter Pan Mini Golf, where colorful sculptures created a fantasy world. It had been years since she'd been back to play a round of miniature golf, so she decided recently to invite her neighbor's kids to play in the magical spot in South Austin she never forgot. Everything was still there — the enormous orange Tyrannosaurus rex, the larger-than-life happy rabbit and Austin's best-dressed pig, who sports a top hat even during heat waves. But when Latimer, a stone and cement sculptor, approached the open-mouthed whale sculpture on the third hole, she noticed it was broken and damaged from decades of wear-and-tear and too many fraternity pranks.
Latimer, 45, left a handwritten note with Peter Pan's front desk staff, offering to bring back the whale's original luster. A few months later she got a phone call — the owners wanted to hire her. Not only would she bring the whale back to life, but eventually she would give all the sculptures a makeover.
In its more than 50 years on Barton Springs Road, Peter Pan Mini Golf has become a South Austin landmark. Though plans to renovate are part of an overall master plan to update the small family-run business, Peter Pan intends to stay true to its original character and keep its fun, laid-back vibe that includes a popular bring your own beverage policy.
Aside from Peter Pan's sculptures getting repaired or redone, renovation plans include improving the landscaping, installing a new lighting system and replacing the course's carpet.
"We have resisted over the years doing other things to the property or to the business, said Mike Dismukes, one of the owners. We want to keep it sort of simple and family-friendly. We're not going to turn it into condos. That's been our deal, to not let it get too far from where it started."
Mike's uncle, Clifford Dismukes, opened the course around 1948 under the name Varsity Links. After Clifford died, Mike's father Glenn, and an uncle, Jack Dismukes, renamed the business and started to make it feel like the Peter Pan of today. Mike began managing the mini golf course three years before his father's death in 1998, and now owns it along with other family members.
Each sculpture is a Dismukes family memory. Glenn Dismukes created the 13 cement sculptures that pepper the course. Mike remembers helping his father with some of the sculptures, and how worrisome it was when his father, then in his 70s, balanced on scaffolding 22 feet in the air to create the giant T. rex that still hovers over the course.
For Latimer — noted for her Amy's Ice Creams cow sculptures — it was important to respect Glenn's work and legacy while adding an Austin twist. Latimer, who has also worked in corporate advertising as a graphic designer, took on the Peter Pan renovation as her first full-time sculpting project. She's repaired seven sculptures and created six replacement sculptures from scratch. Latimer, a McCallum High School alumna, was careful that any replacements meshed with Glenn's original artistic vision. For example, Latimer replaced a dilapidated totem pole with a Texas-style totem topped with an armadillo. A mini bridge is now a tiny replica of Austin's 360 bridge.
For that Neverland feel, an old, worn pirate inside the course became Captain Hook. A former pilgrim sculpture that sat at the mini golf's entrance transformed into a dreadlock-wearing pirate. Peter Pan himself has a softer look now and even an Adam's apple, courtesy of Latimer.
Patrons say the renovations are already having an impact.
"Some of the statues were worn, and it needed an update," said Jordan Hayth, 22, who enjoyed a play date with the three kids she baby-sits. "So I'm excited about the changes. I love it."
Despite the changes, Jamie Holloway, 26, said the course retains its charm.
"This is quintessential Austin — weird and fun," he said. "It's an old staple."
New creations will also be added to the course, and Peter Pan Mini Golf will finally get a much-needed Tinker Bell.
"I don't think we've done anything out of character," Mike said. "We've stayed true to the original intent, and I think Dad would have been more than good with the revitalization of all the figures. It would have been good by him."
Revitalizing the sculptures has taken nine months so far, and the project will continue depending on how many extra creations the mini golf course decides to add.
Rehabbing a sculpture can take about a week or so. Some renovations have been subtle, like adding buckteeth to a yellow rabbit, while others are more dramatic. An old shoe sculpture, resembling the one in the nursery rhyme "There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe" received a complete makeover. It's now a Converse-style sneaker, inspired by Austin's laid-back footwear.
Latimer achieved the look by ripping out the old roof and chimney of the shoe, and welding and bending rebar frame for the shoe's damaged tip. Like all the sculptures she created or rehabbed, she wrapped the rebar skeleton with a metal mesh-like material called lath, which looks like skin stretched over rebar bones. When it begins taking the shape of the figure, she stuffs newspaper into the metal structure and applies cement. For the Converse sneaker, she mixed Fiberglas fibers and cement adhesive with the cement and added plywood to create the top of the shoe.
One of the trickiest parts, Latimer says, is working on the details of a sculpture and carving shapes, like eyes, during a limited window —about 15 to 20 minutes.
"The cement has to be just right, not too wet, not quite dry," she said. "You have to work quickly, but it's fun."
Blue, green, orange and red are just some of the colors in the bright palette that brings the fantasy world to life.
"I get to create cartoons all day," Latimer said.
But the project did have its challenges.
One day this summer, as Latimer painted the pilgrim-turned-pirate sculpture, she noticed paint peeling as soon as she applied it. That's when she realized in order to continue working in record-breaking heat she would have to work overnight. During her first overnight shift, the sprinkler system activated and washed away three hours worth of painting.
"There's also literally a little of my blood on everything I've worked on here," she said, adding that injuries are common when working with sharp lath edges and other tools.
Despite the setbacks, Latimer says since renovating the Peter Pan sculptures she's the happiest she's been in her life. Perhaps that's what happens when you practically live in Peter Pan's world for nearly a year. Everyone's a little cheerier, laughter is constant, and there's always something to celebrate. On some mornings, Latimer brings a breakfast taco, sits on one of the Dalmatian puppies she's sculpted and reflects. "I take a look around and realize how the face of Peter Pan is changing, and how cool it is that I get to do this in my hometown."