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Droids and Jedis and Stormtroopers, oh my

At the Star Wars fan fest in Los Angeles, it's a never-ending cacophony of fun and memories. Photos: 'Star Wars' fan frenzy Photos: R2-D2 still rolling on

LOS ANGELES--To come to the Star Wars fan fest here this morning, I flew commercial from the Bay Area. But now, as I stare at the full-size X-wing fighter on the floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center, I'm thinking maybe I should cash in my return ticket and try out a different method of transportation home tonight.

I suppose it would be hard to make off with the X-wing, but only because a bunch of other Star Wars fans would beat me to it. After all, there are thousands here for Celebration IV, the Star Wars love fest being held here this week, timed to the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of the original monster hit film.

And given how crowded it is in the exhibition halls--it's truly wall-to-wall people in the main areas where there is a historical amount of Star Wars swag for sale--I'm a little scared of how much more crowded it will be Friday when the doors open to the general public.

On Thursday, only members of the official Star Wars fan club and press are allowed in. And while it's been fun to be here, I know that I'm missing out on a whole bunch of great things that will be going on starting Friday--appearances by cast members, Star Wars laser tag, all kinds of fan films, and other material just about guaranteed to tickle the funny bone of anyone for whom the words, "Obi-Wan, you're my only hope" have special meaning.

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But then again, I'm staring at a full-size X-wing. And a little later, I'm sitting in the hallway, processing photographs when someone in a Darth Vader-as-a-chef outfit walks by with Jar-Jar Binks' head on a platter. Does it get much better than this?

Actually, it does. I happened to notice at one point that a couple of R2-D2s were rolling around in the entrance to the convention center. Clearly they were being controlled by someone, but I couldn't see who it was.

Then I noticed a row of men standing near the stairs, each with a controller, chatting animatedly about their droids and sending them spinning and beeping around a big open space in which an excited group of people were standing, watching, photographing and generally freaking out about what they were seeing.

I remembered that I'd heard that there was a room here in the convention center where there were a whole bunch of R2-D2s and I set out to find it.

It wasn't hard. I took the escalator up to the second level and followed the oh-so-familiar beeping and booping sounds that I have heard thousands of times during the dozens of times I've seen Star Wars and its sequels and prequels.

I rounded the corner and then, well, I'll just say, my jaw hit the floor. There were at least 20 droids in this room. Full-size R2-D2s and all kinds of cousins. Red ones. Yellow ones. Black ones. And fully fleshed out and clearly done with love and care.

This was the province of the 5,000 member-strong R2-D2 builders club.

And many of these creations could easily fool even the most astute Star Wars fan into thinking they were looking at real props from the films.

But there's more, oh so much more.

For instance, Chris Lee, a 41-year-old software developer from Nashville, Tenn., told me about his R2-G4, an R2-D2 powered by an Apple PowerBook G4 computer. And why?

Well, the droid produced the Princess Leia hologram and it was playing over and over. And Lee said the computer powers all the sounds the droid makes. And on top of that, the computer has a mobile broadband card allowing Lee to turn his droid into a Wi-Fi hotspot in case the club members need to get on the Internet.

Nearby, Victor Franco, a 41-year-old systems engineer from Irvine, Calif., told me that members of the builders' club can get access to a set of blueprints that they can follow when setting out to build their droids.

And that explained how these creations all looked so good.

"We don't tell you what goes on the inside," he added. Ah, just as well. Probably not everyone has a spare PowerBook lying around.

But computer or no computer, the droids are not cheap to build. Franco's, for instance, cost him about $5,000 top to bottom, though he said about $1,000 of that went into the controller and another $400 into the droid's dome.

Back outside the droids room, it's hard to avoid things like Stormtroopers wandering by. Or Jedis with plates of sushi. This is indeed the center of the Star Wars universe this week, and it's a level of this particular form of geekery I have never seen before.

And I'm no stranger to this milieu. I've been to and seen the collection of Star Wars memorabilia they have there. But that's just pocket change, as it were, compared with what's on display here.

In the exhibition hall, there are simply countless booths brimming with toys and posters and figurines, oh my.

I thought that Lucas would have been discriminating with licenses for Star Wars merchandise, but by the look of it, just about anyone who wanted to make such products can.

Not to say that the stuff here isn't good. Rather, it is great. All very realistic and wonderful and that's not even counting the many, many fans who have dressed themselves up in apparently perfect Star Wars outfits.

And in line, before the doors opened at noon, the thousands of fans who flocked here were waiting patiently, but showing a little bit of excitement as they prepared to enter their holy land.

At the very front of the line were Helena Martins and Jacob Leisz, both of San Jose, Calif. They'd been waiting since around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and said they'd learned the hard way at the last big Star Wars fan fest that being late to enter meant not enough time to get in to buy things.

I was taken by the fact that these two, ages 21 and 22, respectively, weren't even born until eight and nine years after Star Wars came out. But Leisz said his parents got him hooked on the films and now he's taken his fandom "to the next level."

That means, he said, a collection of more than 600 Star Wars figurines in a showroom at home, not to mention traveling to events like this.

These were the people I'd traveled to meet.

My one great disappointment about the fan fest, however?

I went to visit the Jedi Training Academy over by where the X-wing is, hopeful that I could learn the tricks that made Yoda and Obi-Wan what they are today.

Alas, I was at least a foot or two too tall. Some requirement about being a kid.

I guess being a kid at heart isn't enough.