Paige Pfleger: 90 year old builds ‘Disneyland’ in backyard

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Detroit Arts Columnist
Published October 7, 2014

When I walked into Dmytro Szylak’s backyard, I was greeted by a towering structure comprised of wood, carousel horses, windmills, rockets, helicopters and ceiling fans. Everything has been painted with bright colors and connected together in a ramshackle way that makes it look like it could fall down at any moment, which, Szylak assured me, it will not.

It’s been standing as is for more than 20 years.

For a 90 year old, Szylak moves quite fast, bustling about his yard, pushing the tail end of an airplane, sending it spinning in a circle. His face is wrinkled, his hat covered in paint, and his chin dotted with white whiskers.

I ask if we can chat about the project, but before he’ll tell me anything, he gestures over at a box with a hand-painted sign that reads “FREEDONATION”.

I left my wallet in the car, I tell him.

“I wait here,” he says matter of factly, in a heavy Ukrainian accent. He crosses his arms across his chest, and leans against the multi-colored garage. After returning with $2 (which he made sure to say was not enough to buy a bag of chips) he agrees to show me around.

Szylak came to the United States back in 1950. He lived in Gettysburg first. “You know history of Gettysburg?” he asks, cracking a smile to reveal his one gold tooth.

He moved to Hamtramck in the late '50s and worked on the General Motors assembly line for three decades before retiring. Even though he was no longer an autoworker, he still felt the need to work. So he began erecting a massive, light-up sculpture of painted objects spanning across his entire backyard, from one garage to another.

“What you see,” Sylvak says, raising his paint-covered hands to the structure looming above him, “my job. I’m 90. Still I work everyday.”

The death of his wife motivated him further to keep adding on to Disneyland, spending most of his days inside the multicolored garage in his backyard, painting objects that he used to gather from garage sales and markets.

“I need something busy, so I not think about it. So far, I’m OK.”

He leads me to the alleyway between Klinger and Sobieski Streets, and stands in front of the green, yellow and blue fence that marks his empire.

“You make picture here,” he says. Above him, a hand painted sign reads: OK DISNEYLAND. IM DMYTRO SZYLAK.

I ask him why he would want to erect such a crazy sculpture in his backyard, other than to keep himself busy. He looks at me as though I’ve asked the most obvious question in the world, and says flatly, “For people. For United States. For country. America Disneyland. That my answer.”

He leads me back into his yard, past a slab of wood with multicolored, 6-foot rockets on it. He stands in front of them and launches into an explanation.

“Ukraine fight with Russia. I put up rockets. For Putin. He is crazy like Hitler. Or Stalin. He say he want to destroy America. Crazy.”

As an immigrant, Szylak especially enjoys when people from different countries pay him a visit. It’s free to look at Disneyland from the alleyway, but from inside the yard it costs a FREEDONATION. He said he’s had visitors from as far as Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina. He attributes most of his fame to the Internet.

At his age, Szylak is slowing down on construction of Disneyland. He still does some climbing for repairs and painting, and he has several ladders strewn about his yard. I ask him if he is ever worried to climb so high at 90 years old.

“People say I old. I say, I’m not afraid.”