By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
During the holiday season, some toys fly off the shelves, while others don’t meet high expectations.
A few never even get off the ground.
Tricia McCain, owner of Homewood Toy and Hobby, vividly remembers one toy she doesn’t think ever made it into stores. At least, she hopes not.
“I saw this one at a toy fair,” McCain said. “It was a paintball gun with paintballs the size of gumballs. They had a target set up, and when I heard the sound it made when the balls hit, I thought, that’ll break a bone or put out an eye.”
Another ill-conceived toy, according to Steve Sudduth of Smith’s Variety in Mountain Brook Village, wasn’t dangerous—just dangerously annoying.
“My most hated toy was the Dancing Flower back in the early 1990s,” Sudduth said. “It’s been gone for about three years. If I see one in a store, I’d be tempted to rip it to pieces.”
The Dancing Flower was a gateway toy to all the jiving, dancing animals that came later, he said.
Operated by solar power, the flower would begin to shimmy even when you wished it wouldn’t.
“I’d be trying to open the store up, and those things would start dancing,” Sudduth said. “It just grated on me.”
Oddly enough, another flower-type toy is on the naughty list for George Jones, who owns Snoozy’s Kids in Crestline Village.
“One of the craziest things we saw — and bought for the store — was a mechanical flower in a vase that ‘magically’ bloomed,” Jones said.
Inside the bloom was a note reading “Love You,” he said.
“I’m not sure what we were being served at that particular showroom at market for us to think it was a must for the store,” Jones said, laughing. “Looking back, it looked like something you would see at a Stuckey’s or a Cracker Barrel. Needless to say, the flowers ended up on the sale table.”
Thankfully for those with children’s names on their Christmas lists, the Over the Mountain area’s three most popular toy stores carry far more hits than misses. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, Smith’s Variety and Snoozy’s Kids, merchandise is carefully chosen. Owners and staff members are good at helping customers find age-appropriate, well-made and fun toys, too.
Locally-owned stores tend not to select toys just because they’re hot. And often, trends don’t emerge anyway until just before Christmas and in early summer, Sudduth said.
“The last big trends were Rainbows Looms,” he said, referring to the craft kits with simple looms that turn rubber bands into bracelets and other wearable items.
Julie Marix of Homewood Toy and Hobby said one radio-controlled item does seem to be especially popular right now: drones.
“They’ve caught on big time this year,” Marix said.
The store’s Proto X Nano Drone is “for big kids—or even college students or dads,” she said. “This is the smallest radio-controlled drone.”
While this tiny model is $29.99, other drones with cameras and other bells and whistles can go up to $900, she said. The store has an assortment in its hobby department.
Legos have been around for a while but are perennial favorites, Jones said. That can create a problem for, say, grandparents, who don’t want to give their grandchildren sets that the kids already have.
“Everything we have is Legos 2014,” Jones said. “We don’t have any carry-over sets. That way, if you don’t know what the child has, you know you’re getting a new set.”
There is one really cool trend this season. Disney’s “Frozen” movie has produced a line of products dear to little girls’ hearts.
You can find “Frozen” tents, diaries, charm bracelets, character figures and games at all three stores. But you’d better get them soon.
“Our reps have told us that once many of these items are gone, they won’t be available again until maybe February,” Jones said.
Magic Elves, available at Homewood Toy and Hobby and at Snoozy’s, have a new angle.
“They’re now displayed in an adoption center,” Marix said. “You don’t buy them. You adopt them.”
Ready to grab your list and head for the toy stores? Here are some ideas for making your own little magic elves very merry this Christmas.
Boy Oh Boy
Disclaimer: We’ve suggested some toys for boys—and some for girls. But the guy toys may have girl appeal, and vice versa. We’re just saying.
The Amazing Changer transforms from blaster to light saber at the flick of a wrist. It makes very satisfying noises, too. At Smith’s, $19.99, 4 and up.
The Blast Pad is a stomp rocket that zooms 100 feet into the air—and then can be packed away in its own case. At Smith’s, $29.99, 4 and up.
It’s a relief to see a toy with a name that tells you exactly what it is. The Giant Crane is radio controlled. It can turn 360 degrees and, as one might expect, lifts items up and puts them down. At Snoozy’s, $69.99, 5 and up.
You don’t have to inflate Nightball footballs and soccer balls, which glow as they fly through the air. At Snoozy’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $19.99.
If you’re at Smith’s and feel a whoosh of air hit you, it’s probably not a friendly ghost. It’s more likely Steve Sudduth having fun with one of his favorite toys. The Airzooka has been a top seller for the past five years, he said. The handheld device blows out a harmless ball of air. $19.99, 6 and up.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Homewood Toy and Hobby has 18-inch Madam Alexander dolls, which are the same size as the popular – and pricier – American Girl dolls. To keep these dolls stylish, Madame Alexander Dress Decorating Sets come with a dress and shoes plus markers for decorating. Wash the clothes and out comes the color, in case your design isn’t “Project Runway”-worthy. The dolls are $59.99, and the decorating sets are $24.99, both for ages 3 and up.
Sweet Lollies are soft-bodied dolls that may remind you of Groovy Girls—but these are more sweet than edgy, Steve Sudduth said. They come in conventional styles and some fantasy models, like mermaids and pirates. At Smith’s, $14.99, 3 and up.
Petite mermaid dolls called Nixies are jointed so that they not only dive but do swirls and turns in the tub. Some come in their own aquariums. At Snoozy’s, $14.99-$34.99.
Lil’ Totz are rag dolls with soft fabric hair in colors like pink and green, embroidered eyes and plush skin. Each has a name and a story. At Smith’s, $14.99-$25.
Not every little girl wants a doll for Christmas. “Goldie Blox sets came out about a year and a half ago,” Julie Marix said. “They’re engineering kits for girls. Goldie is the character in stories that incorporate an item you can build.” One of Homewood Toy and Hobby’s best kits, she said, is Goldie Blox and the Dunk Tank. It’s also at Smith’s. $19.99, 4-9.
For older girls, Bumpbags are little bags that combine style and function. They have zip-out compartments and are padded and easy to clean. At Snoozy’s, $13.99-$30.
WAFF Journals appeal to girls in the 8 to tween range. They have soft rubber covers and come with rubber tiles that you can snap on to personalize or prettify them. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $24.99.
Back to the Future
Retro toys still have appeal for today’s kids—and for their moms and dads, too.
Hand Boilers are looped and twisted glass sculptures containing a liquid that will “boil” as heat is transferred from your bare hand. You hold the bulb end in your palm and watch as your body heat makes the liquid rise. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $5.99 and $7.99, 8 and up.
The Geoflux is a sort of modern-day Slinky that looks fragile but isn’t. Put your hand through the coils, and Geoflux spirals up and down your arm in a weirdly wonderful way. It transforms into a 3-D sculpture, too. At all three stores, $19.99, 6 and up.
Remember the old Radio Shack circuit boards? The new Electronic Snap Circuits are a lot easier to use. Pieces snap into place to make radios, flying saucers and other creations. No tools are required. At Homewood Toy and Hobby and Smith’s, $19.99-$99, 8 and up.
Older kids will like tuning in with Retro Touch Speakers. Put a smartphone in the holder of these bedside speakers, and it plays clearly. At Snoozy’s, $45.99.
Jerry Seinfeld says he’s never had a really good pickle. Steve Sudduth says he’s never found a really good robot—until this one. The Atom 7 robot walks, talks, lights up and shoots foam pellets. At Smith’s, $17.99, 4-8.
The Great Outdoors
Some of these toys are safe for indoor use. But if you want to send the kids outside, you don’t have to tell them that.
The Swurfer is a swing that’s “so versatile,” George Jones said. “You can stand on it and swing back and forth or from side to side. You can attach it to a swing set or tree, and the ropes adjust for the child’s size. It’s made in the U.S. This is our third order.” At Snoozy’s, Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $129.99, 5 and up.
All you need to make the Aquapod work are a bike pump and 2-liter plastic bottle. This water rocket makes the bottle fly up and spray water everywhere. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $36.99, 8 and up
The Cross Dart target game shoots up to 50 feet and comes with a bright orange launcher, target board and six rubber-tipped darts. At Smith’s, $14.99, 10 and up.
M-cro Scooters can be quickly put together but are extremely sturdy, Jones said. The micro version is for ages 4-7, and the maxi size can hold adults. At Snoozy’s, $79.99-$129. Helmets to go with them are $49.99.
Slackers Slacklines and Zip Lines are great gifts for older kids. String the slackline between two trees a few inches off the ground, or a little higher for more daring exploits. Zip lines let kids zoom around the backyard. At Homewood Toy and Hobby and Snoozy’s, $79.99-$169. Homewood Toy and Hobby also has the Slackers Flying Saucer Swing Seat. The lighted seat blinks in cool colors, and it can be added to a zip line or swing set or suspended from a tree. $39.99, 3-8.
It’s a snow day. Your kids are clamoring for a sled. But hey, it’s Alabama, and the roads are closed so you can’t get to the store. Julie Marix advises thinking ahead with the Winter Lightning Sled. “Two kids will fit on this plastic sled, or one person can lie down on it,” Marix said. “Plus, it looks impressive under the tree.” At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $16.99.
The company that makes the Revolver Compound Bow also makes real bows and arrows. This child-safe set has suction-cup darts. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $44.99, 8 and up. The store has refill arrows, too.
The Skytrix is a stunt glider on a long cord—and it can do amazing tricks. You can sling it to someone or set it to boomerang back to you. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $16.99, 8 and up.
Game for Anything
Board games and card games can be refreshing changes for kids who think apps and video games are the only way to entertain themselves. Games make nice gifts for an entire family or for siblings, too.
The Bean Bag Toss is a full competition wooden playing set that’s like the popular corn hole game. It comes in its own carrying case so you can tote it back and forth from backyards to tailgate parties. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $99, all ages.
With Doodle Quest, players draw on separate transparent sheets and have to trust their eyes to meet targets and avoid obstacles. This drawing game includes 36 illustrations and two levels to master. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $24.99, 6 and up.
Kids – and adults, too – can spin stories with the Tell Tale card game. It’s a creative storytelling game that lets players use cards with a variety of characters, settings, objects and emotions to put a tale together. The game comes in Toy Story, “Frozen” and Disney princess versions. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $12.99 and $14.99, 5 and up.
Quick: Name a food that’s crunchy and starts with the letter P or an animal that starts with C. That’s the idea of a countdown category game called Freeze Up! Try to be accurate, because other players can challenge your answers. Last man standing is the Freeze Up champ. At Snoozy’s, $24.99, 8 to adult.
From Thinkfun, the new-this-year Gravity Maze is a single-player game that comes with instruction cards that show you ways to set it up. Then you try to get a marble to work its way through the cubes. You don’t want to block the marble’s path, so setup is crucial. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $29.99, 8 and up.
Julie Marix says 5 Second Rule is her favorite game. Ever. Players draw cards, which may say to name three dog breeds, NFL teams or brands of shoes—you get the idea—before the five-second timer goes off. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $24.99, 10 and up.
I’m Your Vehicle, Baby
The Fly ’n’ Drive set has a helicopter and a Corvette that run off the same controls. It’s infrared and not radio-controlled. At Smith’s, $39.99, 8 and up.
To make the Shake Rattle and Roll car turn on, just shake it. You’ll hear a driver’s voice shout “Away we go.” Then the car starts, stops, turns and pretty much goes crazy. At Smith’s, $14.99, 4 and up.
Krazy Kars Max Traxxx are award-winning starter race car sets. Tracks light up, and the cars leave traces of light as they speed along. The tracks can attach to doorknobs for easy setup. At Smith’s, $14.99-$49.99, 6 and up.
Another remote-controlled toy, Morphibians work on land or sea (or pool, lake, whatever). Its controls are easy to little hands to maneuver. At Snoozy’s, $45.99, 3 and up.
The TOOP top spins until the battery goes out and lights up, too. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $9.99. There’s an arena set for $14.99.
Use Candy Spoons to stir warm milk, and you’ll infuse it with peppermint, chocolate and marshmallows. At Snoozy’s, $2.49.
“Santa Is Coming” to Birmingham and Alabama in these books with lots of local flavor. In the Birmingham edition, for example, St. Nicks soars over Vestavia Hills and stops in Mountain Brook. At Snoozy’s, Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $9.99.
Mini Squishems are scented mini-pillows can be clipped on backpacks or used as key chains. At Snoozy’s, $5.99
Light-up watches are fun stocking stuffers for boys and girls. Press the watch to see the time light up. At Snoozy’s, $6.99.
The BeanBoozled Jelly Belly Game lets players eat a bean and guess the flavor. Will you get something tasty or something gross like vomit or mold? At Snoozy’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $9.99.
Tattoos Alive brings characters to life on your skin in 3D. You apply water-transfer tattoos, scan them with a free app and watch as they sing, dance and move on your skin. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $2.99-$5.99.
The Twist and Turn Activity House has lots of activities for little hands—and it’s larger than most toys of this type. Turn the handle to see the cogs spin, and open and close doors to hide and retrieve the shapes. At Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $39.99, up to 24 months.
The Spiro Bouncer teeter-totter is for one child or two and can be used indoors or outdoors. It spins as well as goes up and down. At Smith’s, $120, 2-5.
Another fun teeter totter is the Teeter Popper. Put it on a hard surface, and it makes neat popping sounds as you ride it up and down. George Jones says some of his creative little customers have also used it as a doll bed. At Snoozy’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $36.99, 3 and up.
Spin Around Kids is an updated version of the old favorite Sit and Spin. At Homewood Toy and Hobby and Snoozy’s, $28.99, 8 months-5 years.
Shake the Shake ’n Dance Puppy’s bone-shaped rattle to make this little beagle walk forward, turn around and bark. No feeding required. At Snoozy’s, $32.99, 6 months and up.
From Melissa and Doug, the Take-along Shape Sorter is a two-sided activity bag. Put the plastic shapes into the right places and then unzip the bag, using a little plush dog, to pull them out again. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $19.99, 9 months and up.
A top seller from Melissa and Doug, the wooden Catch and Count Fishing Game has two magnetic poles and two sets of numbered and colored fish. Kids can learn to match colors and numbers. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $24.99, 2 and up.
George Jones said his store is on its third order of Magneti’Stick sets. These magnetic wall clings come in pirate ship, castle, world map and girls’ wardrobe themes. They’re easy to decorate — and to remove from the walls. At Snoozy’s, $39.99 and up, 3-6.
Pirate Den and Princess Playhouses are easy to set up. Insert the plastic rods and pop these mini-playhouses into place. They fold up for easy storage when kids are done playing – and they sure beat the old sheet-over-a-card-table thing. At Snoozy’s, Smith’s and Homewood Toy and Hobby, $29.99, 3 and up
The Spirograph Cyclex set is designed for younger kids. It has stencils, markers, papers and a tray to store everything. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $15.99, 5 and up.
For boys and girls, Straws and Connectors building kits include star-shaped pieces and straws that you can pop together to build forts, castles and other fun structures. Julie Marix said Homewood Toy and Hobby’s most popular size is $34.99 and has 400 pieces. 4 and up.
Award-winning Squigz building kits come in deluxe sizes and for a variety of ages. Pip Squigz are for ages 6 months and up. They have three jumbo-sized pieces with rattles and, since they’re plastic, are safe to chew if the urge to do so strikes. They’re billed as “fun little suckers” because that’s how they stick together. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $19.99-$49.99.
Two-sided Pet Talk Pillows — one side has a cat face, the other a dog — come with cute decals to decorate them. They’re craft kits, and you can also record cat or dog voices. They’re by Creativity for Kids. At Homewood Toy and Hobby and Snoozy’s, $21.99, 6 and up.
Crystal Nightlights let you grow your own really neat crystal and then turn it into a nightlight. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $19.99, 8 and up.
Another fun science kit is the Grow and Glow Terrarium. Paint, decorate and grow your own terrarium, which glows in the dark, too. At Homewood Toy and Hobby, $14.99, 6 and up.