Beyond the Star Wars and jungle displays at LEGOLAND, a back room filled with 1 million tiny Lego blocks awaits David Howard.
There, amid the colorful bins and shelves, Howard will create.
"This is my favorite piece," said Howard, the newly named master model builder, as he held up a 1-by-1-inch block with studs on all sides. "You can build in any direction."
The blocks are Howard's tools, and LEGOLAND his office. He's the envy of just about every wide-eyed kid wandering through a world of Lego creations, imagining how they, too, could build that.
He even gets paid to do it.
Howard, of Crystal Lake, was working odd jobs and studying industrial design when he saw an advertisement in the newspaper a couple of years ago about a job available at LEGOLAND.
Having played with Legos since age 4, or "as far back as he can remember," he demonstrated skills developed creating forts and cars for his G.I. Joes. He earned a base-level job.
"It was just too good to be true," the 24-year-old said. "I couldn't pass it up."
Eventually, he worked his way up, helping to launch a LEGOLAND Discovery Center in New York. Returning to the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Schaumburg a couple of weeks ago, he's now one of only six people in the United States and 11 people in the world with the master model builder title.
Wearing a Lego name-tag built into a castle, he spends his days perusing the LEGOLAND displays, picking up wayward Lego characters, hosting classes and chatting with guests. He's also organizing an off-site workshop. Once the room's set, he'll start building.
Up next is plans for a new Star Wars Episode IV Miniland, which is set to arrive in a couple of weeks, he said.
Howard also keeps the Chicago Miniland orderly and up-to-date, adding fake snow when needed. The entire Miniland took 15 to 30 people more than 5,000 hours to build about six years ago, he said.
Howard spent about 10 hours over two days building The Bean for the Miniland, a representation of the silver sculpture in Millennium Park.
"This was my contribution to the whole thing," he said as he pointed out his creation. "It's a David Howard original."
A Star Wars fan, Howard heads toward his favorite display, where he notices a Stars Wars vessel in need of alignment back on its track.
"This is definitely my favorite model," he said, pointing to a life-size Darth Vader.
His creation of Vader's head landed him in the master builder competition.
He advises those looking to follow in his footsteps to learn their math.
"It takes a lot of skill," he said. "You have to be really keen with building and you have to have a really good eye for design and a background in math."
It can get tedious when the blocks won't cooperate as he envisions, but the job still feels like play most of the time. Well, structured play.
"I have a schedule to follow and keep for myself so I don't get too lost in the whole fun of it," he said. "It's still a job, and I have to put in 40 hours a week."
Voted the "Toy of the Century" by Fortune magazine, Legos, he said, always will be popular. Boys, girls, young, old. Everyone knows and enjoys Legos, he said.
"You can just really run with your imagination and just build anything you want. There are just so many possibilities, over trillions of ways you can put your Lego bricks together," he said before heading back to work.