Best Toys of 2012 on NBC’s TODAY Show

We had a fun segment on the Today Show talking about some of our Platinum Award winners. It’s always painful selecting the 10 toys to show (turns out we actually had 11!). As we pulled up to the show, Martin Freeman was already at the door – surrounded by photographers and people looking for autographs. I prayed that as my mother and I climbed out of the very high SUV we would not fall with all of those cameras so near by. We exited the car gracefully. You can watch the segment below.

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Before hand….

While I was getting hair and makeup done, I tweeted that there was a hobbit in the building. Just as I finished, Martin Freeman walked out of his dressing room behind me. I smiled. He returned my smile.  My grandmother always used to tell me “it doesn’t cost anything to smile” – he got the same lesson along the way. He was very friendly to everyone. Until I see The Hobbit next week, to me he is still Watson from the BBC Sherlock series. I’m a huge fan.

Martin Freeman visits the Today Show

We had lots of kids for this particular segment. They all were terrific while they waited for our time in the studio. In fact, we were brought upstairs and then the schedule got moved around a bit. They were amazingly well-behaved and calm as they waited even longer out in the hallway.  Here are some of their pics.  








This was the first time I was doing a segment with Willie Geist, the new host of the 9 o’clock hour. He’s great…and with two young kids, he’s in the toy zone.

Happily we got to talk about some of our favorite toys of the year from Fisher-Price, Wonderworld, Hasbro, North American Bear Co., LEGO, Playmobil, Marbles, The Brain Store, LeapFrog, Silverlit and Mattel. All of our Platinum Award winners are broken down by age with full reviews at

After the segment, Willie took a picture with Joanne (who has been part of the WG fan club from his Morning Joe days).

It was a very good day…and I am forever grateful to my mother for taking a risk and starting the toyportfolio with me. She is the most generous mentor and business partner. Our adventure through toyland together is one of the great gifts of my life.

Willie Geist and Joanne Oppenheim at the TODAY Show


Hot Toys on Today Show – Behind the Scenes

This morning we headed back up to the studio to take another shot at talking about Hot Toys of the season. The segment had been bumped on Tuesday.  This time we got into the right car. On Tuesday we had gotten into a car that was headed to the airport -which should have been a signal to us that the rest of the morning was probably not going to go smoothly.

With Joanne (the best biz partner and mother!) outside the studio

We arrive at the Today Show. All was unusually quiet in the green room.   The Duggars had been there on Tuesday–making for a very crowded room!  This time Robert Pattinson was upstairs

Robert Pattinson visits Today Show

…we never got to see him but he certainly draws a crowd outside the studio. I always wonder about the fans that wait overnight to catch a glimpse.  I thought it was fitting that we were there with Mattel’s Monster High Dolls that are really part of the Twilightization of America. Our tween testers, many of whom have not read the books or seen the movies really still love these dolls.

Mattel's Monster High Doll Collection

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about them. They’re so over the top–but I’ve come around. Their focus is on character traits of each monster and how they navigate high school.  It’s less about their body image. I also like that there are boys in the line, and that Mattel participated in an anti-bullying campaign this year with the collection.   I certainly wouldn’t characterize them as beautiful dolls–but they do have a sense of humor that appeals to the 7 & up crowd.

Getting to know Let's Rock Elmo

Many of the kids who were scheduled to be on the segment on Tuesday came back today. We were very grateful to their parents!  We were also joined by some other families who quickly got into the swing of the segment.   I’d always rather do a segment with kids there–it just adds more energy and I think it’s useful to see kids actually playing with the toys we’re talking about.

Right before the segment

For complete reviews of the toys we showed on the segment, visit You can also watch the segment on the Today Show by clicking here.

Natalie Morales, Stephanie Oppenheim and toy testers at the Today Show

One of our favorite testing families!

Elmo, The Duggars, and Lisa VanderPump- oh my!

This morning my mother and I headed uptown to do a segment on the Today Show about the season’s hot toys. Let’s Rock Elmo is one of the toys we’re going to talk about. My overriding concern going uptown was the massive zit on my face.  Don’t you think at a certain age that you should get a pass on acne?  My hitting the Halloween candy hard last week probably didn’t help the situation…but still, I do believe that there should be a time limit on the whole adult acne thing.

The good news is that the AMAZING makeup artist Christine waved her magic brushes over my face (in other words spackle was used) and the zit was gone. Seriously–it’s pretty magical. My hair is done–all is good. The kids started arriving for the segment.

The Duggars graciously agreed to let two of their daughters join us. The Duggars were on the Today Show to announce that they were expecting baby #20!  Michelle Duggar and I had a  conversation about our respective cravings during pregnancy. I wondered if they changed over time.  I take my hat off to her–I can’t imagine twenty trips down that road.  She has a very calm core– also necessary to run a household with that many kids!

Our segment was bumped so we were scheduled to post-tape. So we had the kids in the studio, turning the toys on…but then it was decided  to have us back live on Thursday instead-so off we go.

So before we left, I went to the ladies room. And then Lisa VanderPump joined me as I was waiting my turn. She was very friendly.

I’ll own up to it, I am a RHWBH watcher. I don’t want to – but then I can’t stop myself.  It’s the sheer genius of Bravo programming. That’s probably a whole other blog posting. Anyway, I marveled at the seriously high Brian Atwood leopard print pumps she was wearing.  I’ve tried them on (not in the leopard print) –and while I think I look pretty silly in them, they looked great on her.  They make my Jimmy Choo’s look like they’re from the children’s department. For the record, most of these shoes are not in keeping with my feminist roots or my desire not to be crippled, but I also do enjoy being taller. So maybe I’m more a height-ist than a feminist.  I just always wonder whether  anyone finds these shoes comfortable?  In any case, Lisa looked terrific and was on the show to discuss her new book about entertaining.

We then went to visit the wonderful Richard Davies at ABC Radio to talk toys!

So even though I didn’t get to discuss the hot toys of the season on the Today Show yet, it was still a fun day.  The nexus of Michelle Duggar and Lisa Vanderpump–now that’s pretty intense. Tune in Thursday morning in the 9 o’clock hour to see our segment!




Hot Toys for 2011: Watch our segment on TODAY

Tomorrow morning I’ll be sharing some of our award winners that are what the media calls “hot toys.” These toys are often the ones your kids see again and again on tv commercials.  Hot toys tend to be more about novelty than anything else, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some novelty, it shouldn’t be the only type of toy your child receives for the holiday.  A playroom full of novelty toys will invariably result in a chorus of  “I have nothing to play with” before the Christmas tree is removed from your house.

That said, we always look at the toys that we know will get a great deal of hype. Do they work as well as they do on the commercials?  I remember one year a doll that was supposed to flip and flip — but only really did one flip and that was with a great deal of assistance. Not exactly what the commercial promised. The toys on our “hot” list are products that our toy testers really enjoyed.

Hot toys can take on a life of their own during the holiday season. Many lists are generated by toy retailers – this tends to be more about marketing than full reviews about the toys themselves.  Hot toys provide the perfect “toy story” and is often the first question we’re asked this time of year, “so what’s the hot toy of the season?”

This type of toy frenzy doesn’t always mean the toy is right for your child. Furby, for example, got so much buzz from a Wired Magazine piece even before it hit a single toy store in this country.  And while it was the toy to get, it certainly wasn’t the ideal toy for toddlers who would have been a little frightened by the gremlin-like nature of the toy.  Grown-up collectors can also fan the fire of a toy- this can also lead to ridiculous prices on-line.

While no one toy seems to have taken on the mantel of the “it” toy of the season, there are several that are getting lots of buzz – from the latest Elmo (he now wants to be a rock star) to amazing Star Wars LEGO builds or a remote control flying Shark. If any of these toys are on your child’s wish list, our suggestion is to buy them early. As was the case last year, inventories are not particularly deep.

For full reviews of those we recommend, please visit our website at

And be sure to check out our full list of Platinum, Gold, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Award winners.


behind the scenes at the Today Show

Stephanie practicing her bird calling technique

So I was preoccupied this morning with demonstrating the bird calling whistles for Backyard Safari. One requires filling it with water–it makes the BEST noise, but it does drip and if you don’t have the right amount of water in it–it just doesn’t do its thing. Ali took video of me practicing. Click here.

If you missed the segment this morning you can watch it by clicking here. I did the segment with Ann–we got through a lot of products…but I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to about all of read the article and the reviews of the products featured  – it’s all on our website:


Is your toddler addicted to your iPad & iPhone?

Today’s toddlers and preschoolers have a new addiction. Forget the boob tube and those pesky videos – now we’re talking about little fingers that are incredibly adept at navigating  APPS  on your pricey iPad and/or  iPhone.

What’s a toy maker to do? How can they compete with such amazing graphics?

Wasn’t it bad enough that video games have rob them of the tween market?

Here’s the industry response to date…

1. The “Can’t beat them, join them” approach.  It seems like everyone has an APP  for your child. Barbie, Leapfrog, Hot Wheels, Thinkfun….everywhere we went at Toy Fair…there was an APP we needed to “let our readers know about.” (Except of course for the dizzying number of embargo dates). And yes, we will have to start taking a closer look at all of these toy related APPs.  I haven’t gotten to play with it yet, but I do have to say that the Barbie Fashionista APP–looked really appealing (this coming from someone who really didn’t play with Barbies).

Barbie's Fashionista APP

2. “This is not your father’s iPad” – really. Toy makers are rolling out there own versions of iPad inspired tablets for your child.  LeapFrog and VTech will  go head to head with their platforms.  Are they cheaper? Yes.  Will your child be satisfied? Maybe.  As with any of these toys, they just don’t have the sizzle of the real thing (which is why toy companies are hedging their bets with approach #1.)  We will have to take a look at each of these products to review the content (remember that?) and whether the interface is pleasing.  I have a sense that if your toddler or preschooler is already schooled in your gadgets, this is going to be a hard transition.  On the other hand, if you start here–you may get to play with your gadget without the constant refrain of  “my turn!”

Vying for attention (all to be released later this year):

LeapFrog Explorer Tablet

LeapPad Explorer Tablet (LeapFrog)- Promises to come with a 5″ screen and leverages the library of games and content from this educational toy company.  It will also come with a built in camera. Suggested retail will be $99.99.


InnoPad (VTech) -Also features a 5″ touch screen, promises educational games, ebooks,  USB port, a headphone jack.  Suggested retail will be $79.99.

We’ll have to take a look. Sadly, both companies have moved away from partnerships with traditional publishers –leaving the ebook experience to the domain of mostly licensed materials. On this point alone, you may want to invest in a Color Nook–if you don’t want to go the bigger bucks on an iPad.  Technology only goes so far.  The CONTENT is still what should rule the day. We want our kids enjoy reading quality picture books no matter the format.  Disney Princesses and Scooby Doo are fun–but they shouldn’t replace children’s books as part of your child’s daily experience.

3. The “Ok, you can play,  but please don’t break it” approach. Handing  off  your  expensive toys to a toddler or preschooler is a balancing act between achieving calm (at the grocery store, at the restaurant, in the car, etc.) and the possible damage that came come to such gadgets from liquids (those pesky sippy cups) or a plain old “oops” moments. For those parents, Fisher-Price hopes to be of assistance with their new Laugh & Learn I Can Play Case that puts your smart phone into a bigger case with easy-to-grab handles. We look forward to trying this case–will little fingers find the case too intrusive? Of course your 3 year old will find this way too babyish.

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn I Can Play Case

Pick of the Day: LeapFrog Tag Interactive United States Map

I was an absolute map and globe geek as a kid.  Thanks to my Dad’s love of maps, we each got our own atlas when we reached a certain age (I think I was nine).  As with his atlas, we were encouraged to keep a record of our travels in our atlas.  Yep–we got to add our “lines” as we called them directly onto our maps!  It was very exciting to see new lines on our state, USA, and world maps as I got older. I know that this new interactive map would have been brought home as something to explore together!  Read our complete review!

Pick of the Day: Leap Frog Cook & Play Potsy

Leap Frog Cook & Play Potsy

I told Al Roker yesterday that I had a little crush on this toy, to which Al expressed some concern for me – but I really do love this pretend toy! Most concept toys are so boring or they have that same sweet woman’s voice (I think she’s related to the annoyingly perky GPS woman).  The folks at Leap Frog have a male actor saying “open” “shut” or “off” “on” -every time you take the lid off the pot or put it back on. But instead of just saying it the same way…you know the guy has some theater background…the tenor of his voice changes.  It’s just funny and very welcomed.  I do wish that when you put the pieces of food in the pot that the pot recognized them–that would have been very cool, but probably would have made the toy super expensive.  Fill and spill toys are always a hit with sitting up babies and young toddlers–so this toy is right on target without the sound effects.  I’m not in love with the songs it sings…but the open/shut gets me every time. Watch our video. Read our complete review at

LeapFrog’s new line looks like fun!

We had a preview today of LeapFrog’s new toys for 2010.  I’ve seen many of them at an earlier showing (I think I may have blogged about having seen so many promising toys–but they were all embargoed).  I’m not big on keeping secrets so showing me toys I’m not allowed to write about for months really doesn’t work for me. Today I was assured that I could write about everything…

New for 2010, Leapster Explorer

Leapster Explorer

If you’re looking for a hand-held game console for younger kids, this will probably be the one to get.  We haven’t tested it yet–that said, it’s faster, the graphics are amazingly clear and bright–and the games are varied and interesting. The Leapster Explorer will retail for $69–and while your preschooler will probably still want to play with your iPhone, they will also be more than satisfied to play with the Explorer.  In the photo below you can see a demonstration of Sugar Bugs–where you are given the task of getting the sugar bugs out of the person’s teeth.  For some reason this really grossed out my mother when we saw it a few months ago–it doesn’t bother me too much–we’ll have to see how kids react. The company will continue the existing Leapster line (at a lower price point) and continue to bring out a few games a year to support it).  Some may be disappointed that the Explorer will not play your existing library of Leapster titles.

Demonstrating Sugar Bugs

What I did think was really promising was the on-line expanded experience of LeapWorld….it’s FREE (once you’ve purchased your Explorer)…and the content is not just more ABC drills…there’s lots of wonderful new concepts to explore — a weather app where you can set the temperature, the humidity, etc. and then see how your settings impact the weather on the little town.  Maybe because my older son was obsessed with the Weather Channel as a preschooler – this seems particularly fun. There are also educational games that aren’t about right or wrong–but exploring.  For example, there is a scale –and you can add more objects to each side to see which weighs more.   From what we saw today–there seems to be a happy revival of the what many refer to as the Golden Age of Children’s Software of the ’90s–where technology embraced educational games with innovation and creativity.  From a safety standpoint–this also has advantages since your child gets to LeapWorld by plugging in their Explorer to your PC–not by surfing the web. We sat so quietly during this presentation (we’re normally a noisy group) that one of our pr buddies thought we had already left the showroom.

Of course, our intention to behave and be relatively quiet was completely blown when we got to the new baby toys. There were many  interesting toys…pretend lap tops (with a blog and email feature) for two year olds, new drums, a new activity table…but then we all saw the following toy.  I don’t know why I always think I’m being punked –but today I was sure this was it.  So I decided to say nothing at first. I heard a little chuckle from my niece Ali (assistant extraordinaire) and my brother James was leaning an elbow into me in just that way that older brother can…and then I just lost it.   I looked around…was this a joke? (My mother was on deadline with another project so she wasn’t with us today – but truth be told I think she would have laughed as well–but she probably would have told us to behave ourselves!)

LeapFrog's Learn & Groove Magic Wand

Here’s the photo and you can watch the video.    

Ok, we got over it

I really liked this new interactive pot, called Potty, –that comes with favorite part?…the lid says “open” and “closed’…this will be great fun for toddlers. Watch the video!

We also  saw more extensions on the TAG and TAG Jr. reading lines (both Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award winners).  More titles are promised for both and there will be an interactive USA and World Map to go with TAG that looked like fun for both kids and parents. While there were more licensed titles–we were assured that there would still be more classic storybooks in the growing collection of the TAG libraries– we hope so.

We look forward to testing the new products with kids — and I have a sense that the folks in toyland know that as a family, we take what we do very seriously, but with an appropriate sense of humor…

TAG Interactive World Map

Pick of the Day: Leapfrog's TAG and TAG Junior

If you’re looking for a high tech learning toy this season, we high recommend Leapfrog’s TAG and TAG Junior reading systems.  Both marry technology with collections of award winning books. Do they replace reading a book with your child? Of course not–but they will encourage your kids to explore and “read” books on their own.

Full review and shopping info for both

TAG Reading System

TAG Junior Reading System

We’d skip their My Pal Scout–this is designed to be an interactive pet for toddlers.  We found him to be less than huggable and the skills he’s meant to teach are better taught with real life experiences.  All of the current interactive, downloadable dolls on the market pale in comparison to the old Actimates from Microsoft.  Their original Barney really became Barney for little children. It was truly magical to watch kids interact with this doll.  This doll doesn’t  compare.