Toy Fair 2007: Barbie, Elmo, Dora Make New Friends

You may still be having nightmares about assembling toys into the wee hours of Christmas morning a couple of months ago, but banish them from your mind and get ready for the next holiday season. The toy industry already has.

The annual blitzkrieg of new offerings known as Toy Fair recently blew through New York City, dazzling the eyes, overwhelming the senses and generally befuddling anyone who saw the barrage of toys that looked like Santa's workshop run amok.

Though kids aren't allowed at the convention itself, which is only for grownups connected to the toy world, some companies did let them into their showrooms for a sneak peek.

Four-year-old Carter of New York City was fascinated — and also dazed — by what he saw at the Mattel/Fisher-Price showroom this year, and offered a lot of comments and questions about the playthings he got to preview well before most of his preschool peers across the country.

"I like it," he said of one electronic drawing game, "but it looks kind of complicated."

Among this year's themes: animal-care playsets, land-to-water transformers with a higher "wow" factor than ever and dolls and plush toys that can move their faces and limbs even more impressively than before.

"I think it's a good year," said "The Toy Guy" Chris Byrne, an independent industry expert. "I'm really intrigued by a lot of the products I've seen — everyone from the big guys to these small, independent companies … Things that you couldn't have done 30 years ago are possible now."

Even Richard Simmons Likes Fisher-Price Smart Cycle

Fisher-Price had eccentric exerciser Richard Simmons on hand at its showroom to promote one of its 2007 creations: Smart Cycle, a stationary bike that works in conjunction with educational DVDs, building on the trend of getting kids to move around while they're in front of a video game or TV screen.

"Our kids are not moving today," said Simmons, 58, when explaining why he was plugging the $99 toy for 3-to-6-year-olds. "If we can get them moving, our problems with obesity and unhealthy children will be finished."

Four preschool-aged children were at the press event with Simmons to demonstrate the Smart Cycle, and all seemed to enjoy playing with it.

"I think it's fun," said 5-year-old Jalen Stewart. "I like the decisions you can make and the games you can play. I'm going to ask for one for Christmas."

Four-year-old Paige Brongan is learning to ride an actual bike, but she thinks Smart Cycle is better in some ways.

With a real bike, she said, "I'm scared that I'll fall off." With the Fisher-Price indoor one, she doesn't have to worry about taking a spill.

Toy guru Byrne also approves.

"It's not like it's going to turn every kid into Lance Armstrong. It takes a passive activity and makes it physically active. They've thought it through."

Though Smart Cycle does address the concern that the toy world's technology influx is translating into inactive children, it's one of many new gizmos involving staring at a computer or TV screen. That can be hard on the eyes, not just on the metabolism, and keeps kids indoors.

So far, though, no one in the industry seems to be scaling back out of worry for little tykes' eyesight or lack of fresh air ("Good question, but I don't know," replied one Fisher-Price spokeswoman when asked whether all the video screen toys might be hurting kids' sight.)

"We live in a very screen-based world in many cases," Byrne said. "It's up to parents to balance it out. Your kid should probably not be spending half his day in front of a screen."

Diego and Dora Still All the Rage

Aside from Simmons' favorite new gadget, other highlights in the Fisher-Price line include those from the Dora the Explorer line.

The Go Diego Go! Mobile Rescue Unit is a $39.99 transformer first-aid truck that opens up into a mobile hospital for African animals. The toy for tots 2 and up comes with a couple of plastic mammals and a prop jet that launches right off the playset.

"I like it. Can I have it?" said Carter, a self-professed Diego fan.

Some new Dora goodies are also being developed, but the prototypes need work. One is a life-size talking Dora doll with a disproportionately large head for $119.99 called My Talking Friendship Adventures Dora. The giant Dora is still being fine-tuned, according to Fisher-Price.

Another is the $79.99 Dora Let's Get Ready Vanity, a pint-size dresser complete with a styling head of Dora and various toy beauty accessories so kids 3 and up can play beauty salon with their favorite bilingual Latina. The fact that Dora is only half there, so to speak, confused Carter.

"Where are her legs?" he wondered.

Racing Cars, Land-to-Water Toys and Musical Chairs ... Oh, My!

The Hot Wheels Dragon Challenge is a dizzying, no-assembly racetrack game that shoots Matchbox-sized cars around and around at lightning speed while a dragon opens his mouth and bobs his head down to try to gobble them up.

"Will the dragon get the car?" asked Carter as he sat, mesmerized, in front of the race set.

Among the most ooh-ahh of the Fisher-Price amphibious vehicles is the remote-controlled, $80 Tyco Terrainiac, which can go back and forth on sand, gravel or dirt; in the water (including puddles); and even through snow.

"I like this because it can fall in the water," Carter explained. He was less interested in another land-to-water toy called Tri-Clops.

"It's OK," he offered of the three-eyed robot that moves around and even shoots plastic discs (a feature that Fisher-Price and Byrne both insist is safe, though it's hard to believe that there would never be an accident considering how fast the discs fly out, how small they are and how hard the "soft" plastic they're made of feels).

For the Internet-obsessed toddler — come again? — Fisher-Price has the Easy-Link Internet Launch Pad for $29.99, allowing kids 3 and up to log onto to age-appropriate Web sites using figurines of favorite characters like Barney, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Train.

And for babies age 6 to 36 months, there's the Laugh & Learn Song & Story Musical Learning Chair for $64.99 that tells stories and sings songs to children, and the Laugh & Learn Learning Kitchen, which helps little tykes recognize familiar appliances while teaching them their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.

Elmo, Barbie and Friends

Following the success of last year's 'T.M.X.' Elmo comes 'T.M.X. Friends,' including Cookie Monster and Ernie. Like their furry orange counterpart, they laugh, bend over and even fall down when their tummies are tickled. They'll sell for $29.99.

Fisher-Price has a new collectible version of Elmo called Singing Pizza Elmo, who dances and opens his eyes as he balances a pizza pie — all for $24.99.

Elmo's best friend Abby Cadabby — a fairy-in-training who's recently debuted on Sesame Street — is available to kids as Singing Abby With DVD for $14.99.

Mattel's hottest new Barbie could be Chat Diva, who moves her mouth as she gabs on the phone and even comes with an iPod that she dances and lip synchs to.

"I love it," said Byrne. "The Chat Divas are hysterical. Mattel has done a fantastic job with the Barbie line. It's sophisticated, focused and a lot of thinking and strategy has gone into it."

There are also Barbie brides and accessories, a joint MAC makeup-Barbie line and a set of Hilary Duff dolls.

By the way, Barbie doesn't just have a townhouse and a sports car these days; now she can hang in the Party Plane & Ship, a transformer playset.

Mattel has added to its popular Polly Pocket series, too — among the newbies are Matchbox-style Polly Pocket cars that come in sparkly pastels — and to its electronic Pixel Chix game, which has a new rendition reminiscent of the reality show "Big Brother."

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Computers for Kids and Flippin' Frogs

For boys, Mattel has new, higher-tech small cars that make revving noises when kids shake them and zip along the ground when they put them down.

Then are more child-size cars modeled after real, live adult vehicles, building on the popularity of those from previous years like the Hot Wheels Ford Escalade.

Matchbox has updates to its line too, including new pint-size cars and playsets like the Mega-Rig Shark Ship Vehicle, an amphibious, transformer toy complete with motor that attaches to both the ship and accompanying plastic shark.

Over at Hasbro, they're still cashing in on that surprise hit of a Christmas past, the FurReal Friends kitty. This year's new addition is an animatronic parrot named Macaw that moves and dances, eats a cracker, sits on a perch and talks with voice recognition technology that allows it to utter its own phrases in response to what its owner says. It has a pretty-bird price tag of about $69.99.

Educational toy company LeapFrog has added several kid versions of grownup gadgets, like the $79.99 FLY Fusion Pentop Computer for 'tweens and teens. The electronic pen contains a chip allowing for everything from homework help to MP3 player downloads.

For the younger, preschool-age techies, there's LeapFrog's ClickStart My First Computer, selling for $59.99.

Also worth mentioning: the $4.99 Geyser Tube from Be Amazing Toys!, which shoots out a stream of Diet Coke after a pack of Mentos are loaded in because of the chemical reaction between the two. It even comes with a whole roll of the chewy candy.

Then there's the $30 Spinmaster Havoc Air HogsHelicopter that can fly in spite of its 10g weight.

Smaller, emerging company BrightStarts — whose focus is to create versatile toys that encourage "developmentally appropriate play" for infants and toddlers — has unveiled "Baby's PlayPlace," a portable padded gym that comes with teethers, plush critters and other features.

Little ones 0 to 2 can use the play station throughout their earliest stages; it's designed to accommodate them when they've learned to crawl.

And as always, there are plenty of games — video, board and card — including Flippin' Frogs, Piranha Panic, a DVD Pictionary and a new portable Scene It?, all from Mattel/Fisher-Price.

Our 4-year-old toy analyst was pleased as punch with the frog and piranha games. It didn't hurt that he beat the adults at both.

"I have good luck," Carter said matter-of-factly.