At the 104th annual American International Toy Fair that ends today in New York, children's toys are a decidedly adult affair.
More than 20,000 buyers, manufacturers, importers and other toy industry professionals descended on the enormous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and additional sites throughout the city, but there was nary a child in sight -- just those proverbial "kids at heart."
Kathy O'Keefe, owner of Noah's Ark Children's Specialty Store in Lockport, N.Y., emphasized that point when she said that the best way to determine whether a toy would be success with kids was to imagine yourself as a kid.
Would you want to play with it?
That must explain why this reporter suddenly found himself slam-dancing, and then head-butting an 8-foot-tall foam uglydoll named "Ice Bat." He had it coming.
Toys, Toys, Toys
The toy fair has it all: games, toys, activities, costumes and even arts and crafts It draws the big names in the toy industry like Hasbro and Mattel as well as smaller companies like AquaStruct, which sells a shower-spray kit that turns bath time into surf time.
And they've brought out all their wares.
There are glow-in-the-dark globes, infrared remote-controlled mechanical rhinoceros beetles, Easy-Bake Ovens and even "Librarian Action Figures." There are dolls that drink water and then a few seconds later, well, let's just say that what happens next is really realistic. Or there are dolls that swim the freestyle, the backstroke, and even do a flip turn.
Little tykes can even say goodbye to the age-old Slip 'N Slide and hello to a new backyard water park-in-a-box. For $600, parents inflate the park, add water, and can watch their kids hit the slide, hide in a cave or jump on the little trampoline.
Making Music Together
One continuing trend involves kids making music through toys or using toys that interact with an MP3 player like an iPod.
Playskool introduced an MP3 for infants that lets moms program two hours of music and insert the player into three different toys for toddlers.
Sababa plans to roll out a product called iKnow that will lead users, playing an interactive game of Name That Tune using their iPods -- for just $40.
MGA will release a boom box that plays DVDs, complete with a small TV screen, music CDs and even karaoke.
Fisher-Price's I Can Play Guitar ($100) teaches strumming, and finger techniques to find notes and chords, all while learning some classic-rock songs like "Smoke on the Water."
Games Go Hi-Tech
MGA will offer an electronic version of the game show "Jeopardy" for your television that uses three hand-held buzzers for contestants to ring in. Alex Trebek read more than 1,200 questions for the game.
Not to be outdone, Mattel has a similar interactive game with the recently launched TV game show "1 vs. 100," hosted by Bob Saget. This game uses the DVD remote control to answer questions, and Saget recorded more than 1,000 questions.
Mattel offers sports enthusiasts a chance to become a baseball star like Derek Jeter at bat. Through a DVD player, "batters" see actual baseball video -- the windup and the pitch. All players have to do is swing, batter, swing. Make contact, and the video shows where you hit the ball.
Traditional board games also embrace electronics. Hasbro offers a DVD Simpson's Trivial Pursuit that includes game pieces, but no more board.
Monopoly now has an electronic banker, and each player has an ATM card that withdraws or credits money into virtual bank accounts. No more cheating by the banker -- you know who you are.
And the "Game of Life" will get its first makeover in more than 50 years. There's still a board, but the game is no longer just about the money. Now it's about earning "life points" through loving, learning and living life to the fullest. All that in a board game.
Hooray for Hollywood
Our national obsession with celebrities shows no signs of ending, and toys are capitalizing on this.
For toy collectors, Barbie has gone Hollywood. There's the Hilary Duff Barbie, named for the young Hollywood actress, that comes complete with a red carpet and velvet rope. And there's also a Marilyn Monroe-like Barbie named Ingénue (only $50) that wears a white, lacy baby-doll dress with blue ribbons.
But Barbie's not the only "doll" in Hollywood. Archrival Bratz has gone celebrity as well. Tied into the expected release of the live-action "Bratz" movie in August, the dolls get glittery, sequined dresses and even a 35 mm camera so little girls can play paparazzi at home. Red carpet not included.
Bratz will also sell actual clothes that match the dolls' dresses.
And it's not just girls cashing in on Hollywood. For boys, the favorite car/robot might become even more fun with the many incarnations of Transformer products.
Along with a live-action "Transformers" movie, 200 different licensees including toys, clothes and even stationery will be released this year. "Transformers" stationery? I guess one robot car is a poet in his spare time.
Pimp My Wagon
Even the good ole standby -- the little red wagon -- has gone glitzy.
Taking a page from the auto shows, Radio Flyer presented a concept wagon called the Cloud 9. And with all due respect to Cadillac, it's the Escalade of wagons. With a fiberglass finish, this two-seater features a five-point seat belt for kids and even has two cup holders and a tray table. And there's a "wagonometer" -- a fancy name for a pedometer -- in the handle.
"It sells for anyone who wants the ultimate in wagoning," said chief "wagon" officer Robert Pasin.
This Toy Is Made With What?
Beyond electronics, advances in other technologies have resulted in new toys.
Be Amazing has found a play use for a superabsorbent polymer created by the medical industry for blood absorption. Add water, and this polymer churns out piles of white powder material that falls like snow. Sadly, there are no unique snowflakes here -- every snow particle is the exact same.
Oregon-based PlayFoam offers up nontoxic, nonallergenic, phthalate-free polymers and foam beads. In English, that translates to a toy with a Rice Krispy-like texture that does not dry out and can be molded into any shape. Sticky to the touch, it leaves no residue on your hands.
Not to be beat, Jakks Pacific is selling Gorilla Blocks: large-scale building blocks made of expanded polypropylene. You know, the same material in car bumpers.
To encourage kids to brush their teeth, Hasbro put music into electric toothbrushes, using the science of transmandibular sound transduction. When a child puts the brush to his or her teeth, the toothbrush plays songs by musicians such as Queen, Hilary Duff or Destiny's Child.
Where Is 'It?'
Somewhere, among the miles and miles and piles and piles of toys, lurks the hot item for 2007.
As most of the toys on display at the show will not be on shelves until this summer or fall -- just in time for back to school and the holidays -- everyone will have to wait and see whether any toy will be this year's T.M.X. Elmo.
To find that out, there's only one ingredient left to add: kids.