NEW YORK – Eyes still glazed over from those assault-on-the-senses trips to the toy store during the holidays? Better splash some cold water on your face, because the industry is already back with its offerings for next time, which it showed off this week at the annual Toy Fair.
Aside from the new, facially altered Ken doll, among the most buzz-worthy was the only toy that wasn’t actually seen at all. It’s the “top secret,” 10th anniversary Elmo — aptly named T.M.X. for “Tickle Me 10” or “Tickle Me Extreme” — which Fisher-Price is keeping in the closet until Sept. 20, when the $39.99 product will be unveiled in all its fire-engine-red, furry, squeaky-voiced glory.
The fact that Elmo will be hidden away for the next seven months didn’t stop the toy giant from taunting the press and industry enthusiasts with a tongue-in-cheek, smoke-and-mirrors demonstration.
Spectators were cordoned off in a dark, curtained room, teased with a fake Elmo that popped up through a trap door and shown a video of the select few who have caught a glimpse of T.M.X. reacting to it. (All of them laughed with an almost maniacal glee and used hyperboles like “amazing” and “never seen anything like it.” All of them were also forced to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to breathe a word about the product until its big debut).
“Elmo really broke the mold for pre-school products, and 10 years later, it’s taken that concept and ratcheted it up a few notches,” said independent toy consultant Chris "The Toy Guy" Byrne, one of the privileged ones who have seen T.M.X. (he was in the video). “The hype is worth it. It’s really visual. It’s very much in the spirit of Elmo, and I think people will be charmed by it.”
Ken, as in Barbie’s former and possibly on-again other half, also has a whole new him. Mattel enlisted the help of designer Phillip Bloch to give Ken a makeover, and the result is a Euro-trash man doll sporting brown tinted hair, a leather Motocross jacket, an artsy medallion around his neck and a pair of trendy, ripped jeans. Frankly, he reeks of Johnny Depp. He's jokingly called "'Brokeback' Ken" by Byrne and other insiders.
There is a catch, of course: the plastic surgery and style overhaul were performed on only a single Ken doll. Initially, Mattel planned to auction it off on BarbieCollector.com on Feb. 14 for $500, with proceeds going to charity. But the company had a last-minute change of heart, deciding to keep Euro Ken as part of its own collection but still donating the money it was going to ask for as the suggested price to charity.
The real new Ken, much like the one that emerged after the much-publicized 2004 breakup with Barbie, has a beachy, surfer look — thus his name, Beach Fun Ken — but with an added component: a facelift. It’s the first time Ken has ever had his face resculpted, according to Mattel. He goes on sale March 1, for $4.99.
But why were the two Kens standing there nonchalantly with Barbie in the Mattel showroom, as if nothing ever happened to split the couple apart a mere two years ago?
“Ken was always in love with Barbie,” said Mattel spokeswoman Lauren Dougherty. “He decided the only way to get her back was to get a complete makeover.” Barbie, she added, has always been tight-lipped about her “private life,” but word had it that the doll exes went out on a date on Valentine’s Day.
A new Barbie will also debut this year, called Let's Dance! Barbie as Princess Genevieve (from the Barbie movie "The 12 Dancing Princesses"). The $54.99 doll is interactive and can teach dance movies from the film, as well as learning moves the child demonstrates.
And another new Barbie, sold for $19.99 in the "Elmo and Barbie Doll Giftset," will play on the T.M.X. hype. The doll is dressed in an Elmo T-shirt and belt and carries an Elmo purse.
Bilingual toys are also growing in popularity. The Italian company Chicco (pronounced Keeko), which made waves in recent years with its Spanish-English talking cube and talking farm, this year has a $39.99 bilingual talking video phone for tots 18 months and up.
When the child speaks into the plastic cordless phone, images appear on the screen and a voice explains what the baby is seeing. Different buttons allow the tyke to hear stories about the pictures on the screen, count from 0 to 9 and sing along to a song.
Fisher-Price has continued its own bilingual toy trend with its Dora the Explorer line, modeled after the Nickelodeon show about a Hispanic girl named Dora, including a talking kitchen and Dora dolls that utter both English and Spanish words.
Care Bears is introducing a bilingual teddy friend this year too, called Amigo Bear, which comes with a miniature cell phone and speaks in both Spanish and English depending on what hand it's holding the mobile in (toys that come with cell phones are still a huge trend).
Among other 2006 experiments: dolls with moveable facial expressions. Mattel's $19.99 My Scene Fab Face Dolls have a lever on their backs to get them to smile, smirk or frown. And Fisher's Price's $39.99 Fairy Wishes Dora closes her eyes and moves her lips when "granting" a wish and can also show surprise by widening her eyes and opening her mouth.
But there's still a long way to go with the moveable features works-in-progress. Byrne described the Fab Face dolls as resembling "Bette Davis after a bad night."
"It certainly is an amazing technology, but it remains to be seen whether the play value outweighs the added cost," he said. "The question is, do the mechanics overwhelm the play? Did you engineer something because you can do it or because it really creates a valid play experience for the child?"
Toy cars and bikes continue to top themselves year after year. Chicco's remote control Ducati 999 Superbike (modeled after the actual Italian Ducati motorcycle), which retails for $29.99, is simple enough for toddlers as young as 2 to use but intricate enough to be fun. Fisher-Price's $399.99 Power Wheels Jeep Hurricane, a battery-powered SUV that kids 3 and up can hop in and drive, is such a dead-ringer for the real thing that you could almost envision it plowing over rocky terrain in a TV ad. Hot Wheels Micro Madnetics cars are tiny, magnet-driven vehicles that can fly at high speeds and do stunts. Some sets cost as little as $4.99; other, more complex ones can go for as much as $31.99.
And sports sets are big in 2006. ESPN teamed up with Fisher-Price to create ESPN Fast Action Football, which sells for $219.99 and looks like a Foosball table. Players and their moves are represented by digital spots on the board that light up, and kiddie players have to move around to play using the footpad (which they run on) and joystick.
Techie toys other than those on this voluminous list continue to impress with their advances — and shock with their increasingly young target ages. There are small-child versions of iPods (like Fisher-Price's Digital Song & Story Player and Tek Nek's Cool P3) and digital cameras (including F-P's Kid-Tough Digital Camera), all marketed to toddlers rather than 'tweens.
"Kids want to feel like they're a part of the adult world," Byrne said. "That's one way to do it."