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Toy Fair: More than meets the eye

Hasbro's new take on Optimus Prime.
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

NEW YORK - Transformers, My Little Pony and Rubik's Cube: in the world of toys, the Eighties are back.

Many familiar names from 20 years ago were the featured stars of the 104th edition of the American International Toy Fair conducted last week at the Jacob K. Javits Convention center and at industry showrooms around the city.

According to figures released by the Toy Industry Association, Inc., the industry group that operates the annual event, over 1,200 manufacturers, exhibitors and sales agents from 31 countries showed off their goods and services to over 20,000 attendees from 94 countries. There were over 5,000 new products on display from every conceivable category of toy.

Accompanying the trend of returning toy stars of the 1980s was another movement to have toys aimed at Baby Boomers. The Toy Fair dedicated one of its many workshops to developing sales efforts for the Baby Boom market.

Western Massachusetts was represented by Hasbro the industry giant has its games division in East Longmeadow; Jan-Lynn of Chicopee; and Omni-Glow of West Springfield. LEGO System has its American headquarters just over the state line in Enfield, Conn.

If there was another trend at the show it was the relative absence of licensed toys. In past years the Toy Fair has exhibited dozens of toy lines featuring characters from television and movies. This year, it was clear to observers that manufacturers were willing to take a chance on just a few properties, including classic Disney characters, Spongebob Squarepants, Spiderman (with many products promoting the third Spiderman movie) and "Star Wars."

With 2007 being the 30th anniversary of the release of first "Star Wars" film, George Lucas cast his shadow all over the Toy Fair. Lucas actually attended the event and was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame at a $450-a-plate dinner.

It was hard not to walk down an aisle without seeing a "Star Wars" toy in many parts of the Javits Center. LEGO has new "Star Wars" construction kits and had their LEGO artists built a bust of Lucas that was on display at the LEGO booth.

Hasbro has had a long association with Lucas and the movie property and are including collectible coins into this years "Star Wars" action figure packaging.

For the ultra-serious "Star Wars" fan, Sideshow Collectibles is featuring a bust of Jedi Master Yoda for $550 and a bust of Greedo for $599. It's too late for the company's Darth Maul bust, which came with "an authentic partial replica of the costume worn by [actor] Ray Park" it's already sold out at a cost of $600.

One might assume that it is Baby Boomers who are the ones who can afford the $600 for a "Star Wars" bust, not kids, and there were many high-end collectibles at the Fair that were aimed at older markets.

There are not many kids who will be willing to buy action figures and bobble heads from the 1998 cult movie "The Big Lebowski," either, but those items made their debut at the Fair.

Buyers coming to the show had to walk the line between placing orders for sure things, while at the same time looking to catch the next hot trend. Would it be the "Flybar," a juiced-up pogo stick that achieves enough height for the rider to complete a mid-air flip? Or how about Goth dolls called "Be Goths?" They were billed as "toys that refuse to conform."

One company at the show for the first time was The Mountain of Keene, N.H., with a line of tee shirts featuring nature and animal themes. Jonathan Dancing, the director of sales for the company, noted a challenge for toy retailers was either to decide to have such a broad line of merchandise to compete with large companies such as Wal-Mart or to specialize on particular products.

He added that sales for his company at the Fair were quite good.


West Springfield's Omni-Glow was once known just for its glow stick technology, but now the company has several different directions. There is a division that designs and markets consumer glow technology novelties and another that sells party merchandise.

Alan Green, is the national sales manager for Omni Party and he said the division is "doing great." The new product the company was promoting at the Fair was a confetti gun. Take aim, pull the trigger and bam a shower of metallic glittering confetti shoots across the room.

Green said the gun comes in both one-use and refillable models.

On the Glow side of the company, National Sales Manager Michael Ahrendt said the company's glow glasses and shot glasses were receiving a lot of attention. Sales for the Glow side have been flat or on the increase depending upon the customer.

The company has reversed a trend typical for many manufacturers. Ahrendt said the company had ceased its manufacturing operations in China about 18 months ago and had relocated the factory to Mexico. The managers of the manufacturing operations live in Texas and commute daily to the plant. Ahrendt said that uncertain quality controls in at the Chinese factory prompted the move back to North America.


LEGO Publicist Karen Lynch said that this year marks a "return to basics" to the most dominant company in the construction toy business. She said that LEGO will not be producing a new "Bionicle" direct-to-DVD movie and has sold its group of theme parks.

"LEGO is sticking to what they know best: classic construction sets," she said.

There is a new emphasis on promoting the bulk sets of LEGO bricks as well as sets in which there are multiple projects.

One of the company's new efforts will be selling new mosaic sets aimed at girls that use LEGO technology to construct art. Another is a series of sets called "Aqua Raiders," the first LEGO sets with an underwater theme.

Licensing is limited at the company to properties that have track records of success. Lynch said that surveys conducted with LEGO users indicated that Spongebob Squarepants was a fan favorite and last year's Spongebob success was a real success. There's a new Spongebob set this year.

There's also a new Harry Potter set and several sets featuring Batman, as well.

"Star Wars," though, is the company's largest license and Lynch said there will be nine new sets representing all six films released this year.

The company's "Exo-Force" line will have an added inter-activeness with a web site that children can access that has story lines and design tips.


Catherine Dyjak, a key account executive with the Chicopee-based manufacturer of craft kits, said one of the company's best sellers was a line of pillow case art sets.

Children decorate the pillows, which come with a screen-printed design, with soy-based crayons. The company features several Disney designs in the line and also has the Disney version of Eeyore in a paint-your-own ceramics kit and Disney themed paint by numbers sets.

The company also has a new stuffed bear called "DJ Bear," which is designed for children with iPods and other MP3 players. The player fits in the bear's overalls pocket and plugs into a speaker system in the bear's feet.


One of the two dominant toy companies in the nation, Hasbro was leading the "back to the eighties" charge at the Fair with its 25th anniversary celebration of "My Little Pony," the return of the 1980s "G.I. Joe" characters and the "Kung Fu grip" and the 30th anniversary of "Star Wars."

The 1980s aren't the only things on the company's mind, though. Pat Riso, of the company's public relations department, explained the pace of life in the 21st century has changed the way people view games and play.

The company has introduced "express" version of some of their popular games. Riso said the games, such as "Scrabble," have been re-designed so there can be satisfying game play within 20 minutes. She added the games have been re-engineered to allow for "snacking" or 10-minute game play.

"These are specifically designed to have fulfilling robust game experience in 20 minutes," she said.

With older, established games, such as "Life" and "Monopoly," the company has acknowledged that families may not have the time for the traditional version of the game. There are versions of both games that involve debit cards instead of paper money so no time is wasted counting out cash to the players.

Aimed at the growing Baby Boomer demographic is a group of hand-held electronic games called "MY Q." With research indicating that Boomers and seniors need mind stimulation as well as exercise, these games are designed to provide mental challenges. There are versions featuring words and number as well as "MY Q" games aimed at younger people.

Although Hasbro has licensed toys "Star Wars,' "Spiderman Three, "Toy Story" and "Spongebob Squarepants are prominent the company would "rather build its core brands," Helen Van Tassel, associate manager of public relations, explained.

The way to build those brands is to take a toy or game with great name recognition and invent new versions. Besides traditional "Twister," there is now "Outdoor Twister" and "Dodgeball Twister."

There's a new version of "Operation" as well "Operation Rescue" with different levels of game play. Even "Candyland" has a new version called "Candyland Castle."

The company's biggest re-invention and tribute to the 1980s is combined in the July 4th release of the live action/computer animated movie "Transformers," based on the company's venerable toy line of morphing robots. The company has a new line of toys for the film as well as selling licenses to other manufacturers for other merchandise.

If the name "Optimus Prime" isn't something you don't know now, it probaly will be by summer.