Everybody has a toy story. Most of us have plenty of old toys to go with those memories, too.
"They're our most cherished possessions," said Sacramento toy master Troy Carlson. "We have a combination of fun times and memories attached to them. That's why I have all my 'Star Wars' toys.
"We keep them because we want to hand them down to our own children someday," Carlson added.
During the California State Fair's run, children of all ages are taking time out to play in Toytopia 2.0, Carlson's latest toy-centric exhibit. His Sacramento company, Stage Nine Design, also created the fair's original Toytopia in 2007.
Everything about this toy show is big, starting with a 6-foot-tall box of Crayons. A petting zoo is stocked with life-size stuffed animals. A tower made of Keva planks nearly reaches the ceiling. A two-story dollhouse is big enough for grown-ups to explore without hitting their heads.
An instant draw at this State Fair, the world's largest Etch-A-Sketch attracts would-be artists who grapple with the oversized knobs to manipulate the lines on the 8-by-6-foot screen.
"You can't shake it (and start over)," Carlson said. "It's locked into place (for safety)."
Like its predecessor, Toytopia 2.0 will tour the country after its Sacramento debut. Its tour already is booked into 2014.
Several top American toy makers participated, offering rare originals as well as toys that might be hot tomorrow.
"What we wanted to do with this exhibit is go back to the days of fairs when they were exhibitions of ideas," Carlson said. "They were inspirational. That's what these toys are."
Vignettes feature vintage toys and the stories behind their invention. For example, Silly Putty was created by accident as a rubber substitute during World War II. Lincoln Logs were crafted by the son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The original Mr. Potato Head used a real potato. Or a squash, pepper, apple, pear, carrot or tomato.
"It just shows toys are really an American story; we'll try anything," Carlson said.
Toys also have a special place in American life. Conducted by UCLA researchers, a recent social science study of middle-class families found them overrun with toys. They held onto them, often for many years, while continuing to get more. (Such toy devotion creates storage issues, if not nostalgia.)
At the State Fair, the only holdover from the original Toytopia show is the all-Lego golden bear mascot made of 40,000 pieces. Lego artist Nathan Sawaya took 80 hours to assemble this playful Poppy the State Fair bear.
Thousands of other Lego pieces await imaginative builders to snap them onto a wall or create something. The Lego stations are among several play zones at Toytopia.
Said Carlson, "We have a hands-on philosophy please do touch."
Carlson, 41, has carved a career out of play. His father, Carl Carlson, got him started with a collection of wind-up tin toys, passed down from Carl's father. (Several are on exhibit during the show.)
"It's important to play," said Troy Carlson, who owns G. Willikers Toy Emporium in Old Sacramento. "You're learning skills, thinking about putting things together. You're having fun."
These days, kids have less time for old-school fun, he noted.
"Kids grow up so quick," said Carlson, who has two children of his own Sydney, 11, and Taylor, 9. "They get into video games and personal devices, iPhones and iPads. Kids start getting them at 6 or 7 now. It cuts the age of toys."
But the passion is no less intense.
"The interesting part for me is to see what people gravitate toward," Carlson said.
A bank of vintage video games (a bargain at 25 cents a play) is revealing, he said. "The women all play Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The guys are on the back wall they want more action."
Parents and children ooh and aah together over the original Barbies and G.I. Joes. As they loop round and round, the model trains hypnotize.
Ron Hunter of Rancho Cordova created the 8-foot-tall, double- helix train system. It took him 18 months to build.
"It's the only one we know of that's all wood," Hunter said.
Hunter, a former construction worker, had several months off each winter. Then he rediscovered model trains and returned to his first love.
"I've loved (model) trains most of my life," he said. "When I got my driver's license, the trains were gone. It wasn't until years later I started building trains again. Now, I do it full time."
Hunter's not alone. At Toytopia, adults get as big a kick out of playtime as do pint-size patrons. No matter our age, we all find joy in toys.
CALIFORNIA STATE FAIR
When: Through July 29. 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
Admission: $12; $10 seniors age 62 or older; $8 children ages 5 to 12; children 4 and under admitted free; parking, $10
Details: www.bigfun.org, (916) 263-3247
Note: Toytopia 2.0 is in the fair's Exposition Center.