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Published: 11/28/2004

Hot holiday toys

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

Two short words describe many of the popular holiday toys this year: "retro" and "tech."

Cabbage Patch Kids are back. So is My Little Pony and Ms. Pac-Man. And remember the chunky, wobbly citizens of Weebleville? They've returned with a bright new look.

The biggest news in Toyland, however, is the ever-increasing impact of technology, including personal DVD players like VideoNow Color and ETO, an innovative new "plug and play'' system that lets kids create their own video games.

"Toys have to have more and more technology every year,'' says Jim Silver, a toy business expert and co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine. "Look at the how kids are growing up - there's technology all around them.''

Toy sellers also are looking for good sales this year from "licensed'' toys - those connected with movies and TV shows. SpongeBob Squarepants is the license leader this year; other popular characters include Dora the Explorer and The Incredibles.

The battle for dominance of the $20 billion toy industry, meanwhile, may give parents a bit of a price break. Last year, WalMart priced its toys so low that KB Toys was forced into bankruptcy, and Toys 'R Us has been searching for a new owner.

This year, Toys 'R Us has fought back, cutting prices on its toys and offering "exclusive'' toys that are available only at its stores.

But there are plenty of great toys to go around this holiday season. Take a look at the "top dozen'' toys chosen by Toy Wishes, which sets the tone for holiday sales:

  • Balloon Lagoon is a fast-paced board game that combines skill, luck and some quick thinking. (Cranium, $20, ages 5 up).

  • Princess and the Pauper Barbies - Princess Anneliese and Erika sing songs; put them together and they'll sing a duet. (Mattel, $20 each, 3 up).

  • Bella Dancerella offers future ballerinas their own portable ballet studio, including an exercise barre and instructional video. (Spin Master, $30, 3-7).

  • Bratz Tokyo-A-Go-Go Dance N' Skate Club is a playset for the popular Bratz dolls and includes a lit dance floor and revolving DJ booth. (MGA, $90, 3 up).

  • Cabbage Patch Kids are back and ready to be officially "adopted'' by some new owners. (Play Along, $30, 3 up).

  • E-L-M-O is the newest incarnation of the popular Sesame Street character as he spells his name to the "Y-M-C-A'' tune. (Fisher-Price, $30, 18 months up)

  • InteracTV is a DVD-based learning system that allows kids to watch their favorite characters on the TV screen and "talk'' to them using an electronic tablet. (Fisher-Price, $40, 3-6)

  • Ms. Pac-Man TV Games is a game unit that plugs into the TV and lets kids play five classic video games. (JAKKS Pacific, $20, 5 up)

  • Tamagotchi Connection presents an updated version of the once-popular "virtual pets,'' including a crucial pause button that allows kids to take a break. (Bandai, $15, 8-14)

  • Nitro Battlerz are customizable radio-controlled cars designed to thrill young vehicle enthusiasts who can compete against each other in the included racing dome. (Radica, $40, 8 up)

  • VideoNow Color adds color to the popular personal DVD player introduced last year, and there's now a bigger library of the special VideoNow DVDs to choose from. (Hasbro, $75, 6 up)

  • VTech V.Smile is a plug-in unit for the TV designed to entertain and educate preschoolers. (VTech, $60, 3-7)

    While the Toy Wishes selections may be the season's bestsellers, they aren't the only playthings in Toyland this year.

    What follows is a list of some great other new toys that shouldn't be overlooked.

    These recommendations were drawn from a number of sources, especially three days of toy showroom tours at this year's International Toy Fair. Other sources include: Toy Wishes magazine, as well as the November issues of Family Fun (which tests toys with more than 1,000 kids), Parenting (which offers "mom-tested'' toys), Parents, and Parent & Child.

    One note: some of the toys are available only at independent specialty toy stores. To find a store near you, use the store locator on the Web site of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, www.astra.org. Many of the toy companies also offer a store locator for their products on their Web sites.

  • LEGO offers a couple of great new products for the youngest builders. Quattro ($20, 1-3) is a 75-piece set of blocks that are four times the size of regular LEGOs. Block-O-Dile is a crocodile-shaped toy that stores and "chomps'' DUPLOs, the LEGO blocks for toddlers. ($15, 2-5)

  • Sababa Toys has brought back two classic Fisher-Price pull toys, the Snoop 'N Sniff beagle and Dr. Duck. ($25-$25, 1-3), while Scholastic offers an appropriately large-sized Pull-Along Clifford. ($30, 1-3)

  • It's beautiful and fun. It's the Retro Rocket, a classically styled ride-on toy. (Radio Flyer, $60, 1-3)

  • Combining two favorite kid substances, the Naturally Playful Sand and Water Activity Center also comes with a cover that doubles as a racetrack and an umbrella to keep the sun away. (Step2, $70, 18 months up)

  • The Weebles are back in their updated Weebleville Town Center, which includes a playground and car, as well as three of those wobbly Weebles. (Hasbro, $35, 18 months to 3 years)

  • With the rolling Kid K'NEX Roll 'N Go Pals, kids can build things anywhere. (K'Nex, $30, 3-7)

  • With 22 animals, Noah's Ark is the latest spectacular playset from Playmobil. ($70, 4 up). Playmobil offers two other great sets for little ones: 1.2.3 Circus ($11, 18 months up) and Pirate Treasure Chest. ($20, 4 up)

  • Out of 600 toys, the 1,300 kids who work as toy testers for Family Fun magazine chose Rescue Heroes Robotz Hyper Jet HQ as their favorite toy of the year. There are all kinds of things that kids can do with this sound-filled command center, which transforms from a jet to a robot. (Fisher-Price, $60, 3 up)

  • Preschoolers can create some crazy 3-D creatures as they play the Wacky Wilderness game. (Discovery Toys, $20, 3-5)

  • With A Day at the Fair, preschoolers can build a 3-D puzzle and then use it as a playset. (Infantino, $13, 3-5)

  • The craft-loving folks at Klutz have come up with several fabulous new kits: Knitting teaches kids the basics ($25, 8 up); Picture Tags lets kids display their own designs in 24 metal-ringed tags of various shapes and colors ($15, 8 up); T-Shirt Art gives youngsters all they need to make a unique iron-on fashion statement ($19.95, 8 up); the The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes includes 40 different sheets of paper and shows kids how to make 10 different awesome airplanes. ($17, 8 up)

  • Kids can make cars from old crayons and then race them with the motor included in the Gadget Headz Car Factory. (Binney & Smith, $30, 8 up)

  • Young artists can really set their imagination to work with a quartet of wonderful kits created by a new company, Made-By-Hands. There's Make-Your-Own Cards, Make-Your-Own Frames, Make-Your-Own Puppets and Make-Your-Own Games. ($20 each, 5 up)

  • Patch has developed a couple of fun new games. Giant Spoons, which comes with a deck of cards and seven large plastic spoons, takes a classic game and makes it even more entertaining ($15, 7 up). In Hedbanz, kids try to figure out what is pictured on the card they're wearing on their head. ($18, 7 up)

  • It's a simple but terrific idea: take a basic game and let people personalize it, creating playing cards and a game board from their own family memories. That's just what kids (and adults) can do with Birthday Gamesakes and Christmas Gamesakes. (Jocapa Products, $30, 5 up)

  • The 20Q is a mind-reading ball that asks kids questions to try to guess what they are thinking. (Radica, $10, 8 up)

  • In Ticket to Ride, kids are transported back to 1900 and become part of a competition to try to win $1 million by traveling to the most U.S. cities within a week. (Days of Wonder, $40, 10 up)

  • Take some mice, a cat and a large Swiss cheese - all plastic, of course - and you've got Cat & Mouse. (Ravensburger, $20, 5-10)

  • Candyland is celebrating its 55th anniversary with a bright new look. (Hasbro, $8, 3-7)

  • Kids can craft their own video games, using the clip art and sounds of the plug-and-play ETO. (Ohio Art, $35, 5 up)

  • Wild Planet has some great new tech toys this year. To play the Spy Gear Lazer Chase, kids weave gloves that send out invisible beams to opponents and light up and sound an alarm when kids get tagged. ($20, 8 up). The remote control Spy Robot, picks things up and drops them off where you want them. ($40, 8 up). With Beat Blenders, kids can create a beat and then blend it with other beats to make their own sound. ($20, 8 up). And girls can record their own wake-up message with the purple-and-pink My Voice Alarm Clock. ($20, 8 up)

  • He's 14 inches tall and has 67 pre-programmed functions, including dancing and whistling. He's Robosapien, the remote-controlled robot. (Wowee, $100, 6 up)

  • Now that Ken's out, girls will want to add Barbie's new friend Blaine to their collection. (Mattel, $15, 5 up)

  • That loveable loser Charlie Brown makes a unique 13-inch action figure, who says 10 phrases when kids press his hand. (United Syndicate, $25, 3 up)

  • With more than 300 pieces, the 3240 Zoo offers hours of fun. (Playmobil, $100, 5 up). Another Playmobil set, 5746 Tree House has a unique multi-level design and 10 play figures. ($40, 5 up)

  • Kids can herd their horses into the beautiful wooden Large Barn with Corral. (Maxim, $90, 7 up)

  • Food-based playsets offer some edible fun. Try either the Life Savers Gummies Flavor Factory (Wham-O, $15, 8 up) or the Hershey's S'mores Make. (Spin Master, $25, 8 up)

  • Let kids learn some sleight of hand with the Deluxe Magic Set, which contains props and easy-to-follow instructions for 10 tricks. (Melissa and Doug, $10, 8 up)

  • There are a couple of new ways to play with Hot Wheels. Kids can race their cars in the Hot Wheels Slimecano Playset (Mattel, $50, 6 up) or create their own "gas'' with the Hot Wheels Formula Fuelers Racers. (Mattel, $20, 5 up)

  • In the Matchbox Hero City Rocket Park, cars careen around a roller coaster, ride a Ferris wheel and then launch out of a cannon. (Mattel, $40, 3 up)

  • The American Muscle 1967 Chevelle SS Convertible is a classic. (RC2, $44.99)

  • Tiny virtual beings called Aquapets chat and sing when they're happy, but ignore them at your peril. (Wild Planet, $10, 6 up)

  • Just roll the 10 dice to play the game of Toss Up. (Patch, $6, 8 up)

  • LEGO offers two great small Make and Create playsets this season that let kids build a robot or vehicle. ($10, 6-9) LEGO also has a set of three Deep Sea Predators children can construct. ($19.99)

  • Car-Go Fun is a small-sized playset that fits in an auto cup-holder. (Mattel, $6, 3 up)

  • Spinning a top takes on a fun new dimension with the electronic i-Top (Irwin Toys, $10, 8 up).

    To give parents a hand with the toy selection process, here's a list of resources:

  • If you're looking for toys that spark children's imaginations, the Hearthsong company is a good source. You can check out their catalog or try their Web site: www.hearthsong.com.

  • A group called Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment offers a free Toy Action Guide on its Web site (www.truceteachers.com). The guide includes tips for choosing toys as well as recommended playthings.

  • The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has just released its annual list of unsafe toys. The list is available at: www.toysafety.net.

  • Several toy experts offer guides for parents. Two good books are Toy Tips: A Smart Parent's Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices (Jossey-Bass, $10) and Oppenheim Toy Portfolio: 2005 Edition (Oppenheim Toy Porfolio, $12). Stevanne Auberbach, aka "Dr. Toy,'' dispenses all kinds of tips and advice on her Web site, www.drtoy.com.

    And the Parent Choice group offers a holiday guide on its Web site: www.parents-choice.org.



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