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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | New York is home to lots of fun events at our convention centers, but the annual North American International Toy Fair is off-limits to the general public. Only industry pros and press are allowed to experience its whimsical wonders. We were lucky to have access to this secret toyland during its Feb. 17–20 run at the Javits Center, and played with some of the new toys that will be delighting kids and grown-ups in the months ahead.
Among the flashy Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets, we were pleased to learn that the simple teddy bear is still a mainstay of the industry. The Toy Fair had booths showing the latest designs from classics like Beanie Babies and Gund, along with a relatively new addition to the plush market: Rilakkuma, a Japanese bear character who is popular with teens and adults. Pillow Pets fell out of fashion for a few years — but they’re back, and they even have a certain nostalgia for millennials who have grown into adults. A new line of baby-sized Pillow Pets are out now, so that parents and kids can have matching pets without the grown-ups having to share.
Nostalgia, on the whole, has always been a part of the toy industry. Middle-aged people might be surprised to learn that the ’80s are now a source of nostalgia, especially thanks to the TV show “Stranger Things” and the upcoming movie “Ready Player One.” At the Toy Fair, the company World’s Smallest had mini recreations of classic ’80s toys: everything from a miniscule Stretch Armstrong (who really stretches!) to arcade cabinets with postage stamp-sized screens that played working versions of Pac-Man and other ’80s games. Nearby, another company, My Arcade, was promoting a slightly larger set of retro arcade cabinets — which had bigger screens and controls, but were less portable.
A form of nostalgia that should hit New Yorkers particularly hard is FAO Schwarz, whose iconic flagship store closed down in 2015. A new flagship store is coming back to New York later this year. In the meantime, FAO Schwarz has re-emerged as a brand, with some of their products for sale at other retailers and online. The giant piano from the movie “Big” was available to play at the Toy Fair, and a full-sized Zoltar the Fortune Teller was there, but was not granting wishes. Their website currently sells a smaller version of the piano that is more suitable for playing at home. A tiny home version of Zoltar is on the way.
Another strong theme at this year’s Toy Fair was how to get kids away from their electronic screens. One way is through board games. Iello was showing an extensive lineup of board games that were suitable for various age groups. Of note for New Yorkers is the giant monster game “King of New York.” In it, players take on the roles of giant monsters and compete against each other to do the best job of destroying the city.
Kids who want to rampage for real will want to grab some “Battle Bunkerz.” These are aren’t toys — they’re inflatable set pieces for creating life-sized battlefields for laser tag and Nerf fights. They look like slabs of concrete, old tires, rusty barrels: the exact kind of debris that kids would see in a video game or action movie. They deflate for easy storage, and have a relatively low price point. The larger packs come with instructions for how to create organized games with rules and objectives.
Edible toys are a trend that comes and goes. What kid hasn’t blown soap bubbles with a bubble wand, then tried to eat one of them? In the primitive years past, this resulted in nothing but a mouth full of soap. Candylicious has solved this age-old problem by making edible, candy flavored bubbles. These come in small pouches for single play sessions, or parents can invest in electric bubble blowers that shoot a constant stream of edible bubbles.
Also at the fair was a more practical edible product: Magic Straws. These straws have flavored filters built into them, so that any glass of milk becomes chocolate flavored (or strawberry, and others). They also have a line of straws for water that add flavoring and carbonation. It’s a clever solution to getting kids to drink more milk, and stay hydrated.
Barbie, of course, remains a constant presence in the toy industry. This year, Mattel adds “beekeeper” to Barbie’s absurdly long resume. But she’ll have some more fashionable outfits, too. We found other dolls, including My Ballerina Dolls, a company founded by two retired ballet dancers. Co-creator Tiffany Koepke was in full fairy costume at her booth and told us that her dolls are unique. “They have 22 points of articulations,” she noted, “so they easily go to all of the classical ballet positions.” Koepke adjusted a dancer doll into a proper arabesque as she elaborated, “They are great learning tools for children. A lot of the ballet schools purchase them to teach children hands-on in the classroom.”
Among the other dolls were the Tonner line of high-end collectible dolls. Suitable for children but targeted at adults, Tonner products are larger and more elaborate than most fashion dolls made specifically for kids. Several are based on pop culture icons, but a new addition to their line is a doll based on Jazz Jennings, the teen reality TV star who has been openly transgender since her early childhood.
The Founder of the company, Robert Tonner, explained that he reached out to Ms. Jennings because, “As a gay man, I didn’t really think about transgender issues. I thought of it as another degree of being gay. With her, I realized that’s not true… Sales or not, I knew that this was the right time to bring something out like this. Why shouldn’t a transgender kid be recognized in the toy store?” A sign of changing attitudes mixed in with the nostalgia of this year’s Toy Fair.