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Image Credit: DisneyDo you remember the thrill of anticipation when you raced through the aisles of a toy store to see if that one splendid piece of plastic you’d been obsessing over for weeks was waiting for you on a shelf? I certainly do, because I still feel it just about every time I’m in a toy store, a Target, or even the local food store. For I am, and have always been a collector — of Matchbox cars, of baseball cards, of music CDs, and now, as the father of a 5-year-old boy, of die-cast cars from the the Pixar film, Cars. I’m not certain how many little $3.99 vehicles we have in our home, but I can confirm that we have at least six different versions of Lightning McQueen. There’s Original Lightning, Radiator Springs Lightning, Spin Out Lightning, Cruisin’ Lightning, Dinoco Lightning, Bling-bling Dinoco Lightning, and Tongue Out Like Michael Jordan Lightning. (We’re still missing Cactus Lightning, Impound Lightning, Night Vision Lightning, and Lightning Storm Lightning, among others.) It’s virtually impossible to have them all, though we’ve scavenged the tri-state area for the most elusive Cars characters. Every time we stumble across an out-of-the-way mom-and-pop toy store, we get a tingle: Maybe this is the one place that has been spared the grubby fingers of clumsy tots and the meticulous shuffling of adult collectors. Maybe it’s a hidden stash of hard-to-find Cars, like Mario Andretti (got it), Blu-ray Lightning (need it), and — cue angelic music — the #84 Apple Car. (Who doesn’t want an iCar?)

“We call those ‘chase characters,'” says Chris Heatherly, GM and VP of Disney Toys. “They’re really lightly assorted, hard to find. That’s part of what drives collectors. They like that treasure hunt aspect. They want to flip through the peg and find that one rare find. And so, yeah, we absolutely try to design that into the line.”

That’s just cruel, but whatever. Clearly, the upcoming sequel Cars 2, which comes out June 24, is a big deal for me my son. Not only will we finally get to see a new international adventure with Lightning, dimwitted Mater, and their loyal friends from Radiator Springs, but there will be new characters to meet (like Lightning’s new rival, Francesco Bernoulli, above) and another fleet of toys that must be added to our collection. And we’re not alone. More than 200 million die-cast Cars vehicles have been sold since the first film came out. “This brand has become like a Star Wars where people love the world and they love all these different characters,” says Heatherly. “Kids want to buy them all, in the same way they wanted to buy background characters from the cantina scene in Star Wars.”

Cars is already one of Disney’s most lucrative properties, earning $8 billion dollars in movie-related toys and merchandise since 2006, and at this week’s Toy Fair 2011 in Manhattan, Disney previewed several new Cars 2 toys: cars with lights, cars that talk, cars that climb walls. (The popular die-cast toys will arrive in stores this May.) “The first Cars movie had something like 200 characters, and we made just about everything as a die-cast, even stuff that’s in the background for half a second,” says Heatherly. “They think they’re going to have around 400 characters in the new movie.”

400. Characters. (Cue Homer Simpson drooling.)

“The first movie was really all NASCAR type cars, and while Cars has become very popular around the world, one of the big things that we heard after the first movie is, ‘Can you have a Formula 1 style car in Europe? Can you have a rally car?'” Heatherly says. “We’ve done our research and every country has different preferences for styles of cars, so now we have all of this vehicle diversity with really compelling characters.”

I’m sorry, Chris, I’m still stuck on “400 characters.” Times $3.99… equals… wow… ka-chow… equals a second job. Oh well, whatever it takes to keep my (inner) child happy.

Do your kids have toys that have caused you to become a little too emotionally invested? Do you curse the Disney elves who make umpteen different variations of the same character, but still find yourself powerless to resist? What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a toy that shouldn’t cost more than $10?