By Donna Cornelius
Tickle Me Elmo. Furby. The pink ride-in Barbie car.
The very mention of these Hot Toys of Christmases Past can cause parents to break into cold sweats as they remember fevered searches for these once-popular playthings.
Remember the Beanie Baby craze of just a few years ago? Many a mom thought she could one day finance her kid’s college education by wisely snapping up these little stuffed animals.
And many a mom was wrong.
Like most fads, Cabbage Patch dolls and the like are played with today, forgotten tomorrow. True, they might send children into raptures on Christmas morning. But in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25, they catapult parents into full-blown panic attacks.
The good news this year, according to Over the Mountain toy gurus, is that there’s no headliner on the hard-to-find toy list. Thus, parents have more freedom in choosing gifts that won’t end up as eBay bargains.
“When there’s not a ‘hot toy,’ you don’t have to worry about finding that certain one,” said Tricia Busenlehner of Homewood Toy and Hobby Shop. “Don’t always go for the trendy things. Kids can get tired of those in two days.”
Steve Sudduth of Smith’s Variety in Mountain Brook agreed.
“You see a toy on TV – and it’s never as good as you think it’s going to be,” he said.
Adults — especially grandparents, aunts and uncles — might opt for the toy-of-the-season because they want their gifts to be well received and age appropriate. That’s where smaller specialty stores can help.
“We have things you won’t find at Walmart,” said George Jones of Snoozy’s Kids in Crestline Village. “We dig and search to find great toys.
“If your four-year-old niece likes art or if your 10-year-old grandson is into science, we can help with suggestions.”
The economy still plays a role in gift choices, said Jason Cooper of Schoolhouse Educational Supplies in Vestavia.
“My customers are looking for value in more than one area,” he said. “They want play value and toys that promote learning or teach a skill.”
And of course, just because there isn’t a 2010 version of the Nintendo Wii doesn’t mean Santa has hung a “closed” sign on his workshop. There are still plenty of popular toys out there. Our toy experts had no shortage of suggestions for boys and girls of all ages.
Fun and Games
If some of your happiest childhood memories are of gathering around the kitchen table with your family to play a game, there’s good news. Games are still a great choice, and there are many new ones to choose from.
One of the best is Bubble Talk ($19.99), our experts agreed. Players draw a card with a comical picture and then try to match the funniest or best caption to it. It’s similar to the wildly popular Apples to Apples in that one player acts as the judge for each round.
Another variation – this time on Pictionary — is Stix and Stones ($24.99), said Cooper.
“You use synthetic rocks and sticks to build a 3D creation,” he said. “The other players try to guess what it is.”
Perplexus ($24.99) is a ball-shaped maze game. The trick is to maneuver a marble through the colorful innards of a transparent sphere. You can play on your own, use a timer or compete against a buddy by trying for the highest point values.
“I’ve seen grown men playing it,” said Busenlehner. “My little boy is four years old, and he’s tried to do it.
“It’s a great gift to take to someone in the hospital or in a nursing home or to take in the car, because everything’s contained inside the ball.”
A card game called Spot It ($11.99) has four different varieties. There’s only one matching symbol between any two of the round-shaped cards; to win, players have to be the best at spotting the matches.
“The employees here love it,” said Sudduth.
The folks at Smith’s are also wild about Brass Balls & Nerves of Steel ($29.99), a mini-bowling game using marbles. The trick is to aim your marbles into the appropriate holes on the other fellow’s side of the board in a tic-tac-toe pattern, maybe, or to put one marble in each corner.
“We played it for two hours the other day,” said Sudduth.
For the younger set, there’s Hide and Seek Safari Junior ($34.99).
“One child hides a soft plush elephant behind, say, the sofa,” said Jones. “The other player uses a baton to find it. The closer you get, the more the baton lights up.”
He also recommends Lego games ($14.99), which are brand new. The build-and-play games come in several different themes, including Lava Dragon, Ramses Pyramid and Minotaurus,
Believe it or not, said Jones, lava lamps are cool again. Or groovy. Or neat.
“They’re back,” he said. Snoozy’s has the full-sized models ($14.99) for kids’ rooms as well as plug-in nightlight versions ($8.99).
Star Wars, he said, is “still huge.”
Two new books for fans are “The Sounds of Star Wars” ($60), which includes sound bites from movie scenes, and “Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy” ($34.99). You can also find Star Wars Lego watches ($24.99) and alarm clocks ($29.99)
At Smith’s, magic kits ($29.99 to $69.99) can still enchant children. Some kits come with instructive DVDs, and all have equipment for turning teachers into frogs – well, not really, but you can still do lots of fun tricks.
Parents will be thrilled to find beloved Fisher Price toys – the smiling telephone, musical TV set and Snoop n’ Sniff pull-toy dog – packaged in retro boxes. Prices range from $4.99 to $29.99
“We also have a great assortment of wooden trains from Melissa & Doug,” said Sudduth. Train tables are $129.99 and train sets are $99.99, with discounts if they’re purchased together.
With all the electronic and computerized gear available, it’s reassuring to know that some gifts still encourage children to use their heads and their hands.
Arts and crafts, said Melissa McCollum of Learning Express in Cahaba Heights, are in demand. One of the store’s best-selling lines, she said, is Sticky Mosaics, mosaic-by-numbers art sets, including cards and jewelry.
Kits that let kids make a craft are perfect for rainy day activities, said Busenlehner.
“Also, kids love to make gifts for their friends, parents or teachers,” she said. “They can work on their crafts while mom is baking Christmas cookies.”
Among the selections are Stick ’n Style Rainbow Bangles ($14.99) for ages five and older. This kit includes two large and two small bracelets with more than 300 bright “jewels” to stick on by number. A pre-built birdhouse ($9.99) that you can paint and decorate yourself might be just the right present for grandmother. And yes, those make-it-yourself potholder kits are still going strong.
At Schoolhouse Educational Supply, there’s Bertie’s Tractor ($39.99) by Le Toy Van, a French company specializing in handmade, painted wooden toys. Puzzles are traditional favorites; Cooper’s store carries 36-piece storybook-inspired puzzles ($15.99) by Djeco.
Up to the Minute Ideas
Not in the market for a Christmas puppy or kitten? Much less expensive and time-consuming are the Wild Creations live frogs ($24.99) at Smith’s. The tiny little creatures come in a pair in their own habitat and with a generous supply of food, which may be enough to keep them going until they go to that big commode in the sky.
Those not wishing to go into the frog farm business will be relieved to know that all the frogs are males.
For those who don’t want a live pet, Learning Express has Calico Critters, a line of miniature animal families with optional accessories like houses and automobiles.
Sure to be a hit with dinosaur lovers is the award-winning Robotime T-Rex ($42.99). The robotic creature, said Busenlehner, is easy to assemble using pre-cut wooden parts. This T-Rex is fully articulated and has sensor technology. You can make him walk, turn left or right and even roar through remote control.
Kids can work off excess energy with Sonic Slam ($54.99), a virtual sport, said Jones.
“You play against each other, not the TV as you do with the Wii,” he said. “You get two racquets, and electronic lights and sounds tell you when to swing. There’s no ball involved.”
Sometimes the best toys are ones that let children’s imaginations soar, like the shell-shaped plastic Bilibo ($29.99). It looks like an oversized football helmet and comes in green, blue and pink.
“Kids can sit in it to rock or spin or fill it with baby dolls or army men,” said Jones.
Plastic blocks and other playthings from B. toys (pronounce it “be dot” if you want to impress the salesperson with your toy savvy) start at $19.99. They’ll encourage creativity and, said Sudduth, come in colors other than the usual primary shades – fuchsia, turquoise and lime green.
Tricia Busenlehner admits that she’d love to go to Africa, but until then she has to content herself with the Playmobil African Wild Life Care Station ($69.99). The play set comes with baby animals, cages and pens, bandaging materials and removable casts. A little giraffe even has a “wound” that, when rubbed, disappears.
So, no smokin’ hot toys this Christmas? Maybe not, but there are still plenty of intriguing – and fun – items to fill Santa’s bag. Shopping for these treasures at local shops is part of the fun. You’ll find owners and workers eager to help and toys that aren’t on the shelves at the big-box stores.
And there are three little words, near and dear to the hearts of busy parents, that you won’t hear at Target or Walmart:
Free gift wrap.
Molly Folse, editorial intern, contributed to this report.