Calling George Jetson and Luke Skywalker: We have your toys

When I found out that Think Fun’s new Laser Maze comes with a real laser, I felt as if we were now truly in a new century of toys. There are many “laser-like” toys on the market.

Laser Maze from Think Fun

Laser Maze from Think Fun

Spin Master’s new super-cool looking Laser Defense System, for example, features a high intensity LED light, not a laser.  Laser Maze is similar to other classic brain teasers from Think Fun where the challenges become increasingly more complex (the game comes with 60). The game play is to move the pieces so that the laser bends off the mirrors and splitters on the game pieces to hit the target. We look forward to testing it.

My other futuristic favorite toy so far is the grapefruit-sized AtmoSPHERE from Spin Master. The orb-like flying toy promises to respond to motion. So once you activate it, you will be able to control where it goes by moving your hands around it. While not quite Luke Skywalker’s first lesson with his lightsaber, it is pretty amazing. We look forward to trying this one too.

Atmosphere from Spin Master

Atmosphere from Spin Master

Optimal Building Conditions? The LEGO solution

The NYT’s article Has Lego Sold Out?seems to start from a hazy memory of the authors’ own Lego building experiences. Yes, there have and continue to be LEGO buckets for open-ended building, but the company’s mainstay for the last two decades has been themed, instruction-based sets. What has changed are the themes.

LEGO made a decision that their own castles and space sets were not enough to keep media-savvy children coming to the construction aisle. They took their engineering talents to the world of Harry Potter, Star Wars and most recently, The Lord of the Rings. As someone who has reviewed and covered Lego Systems since the early 90s, I remember feeling sad when the announcement was made that LEGO would enter the world of licensed properties. In the end, it was a move that probably saved the company from the fate of way too many toy companies — but it did not change the building experience.  The key to a good licensed product, is to look beneath the license. Our testers continue to love building these sets and the instructions that come with each set are without equal in the industry.

While we also are avid proponents of open-ended play, we know that school-aged children learn a great deal from following step-by-step directions – not the least of which is the ability to stay with a task. In a culture where everything is instantaneous, this alone is worth the price of the toy. To discount this experience because of a license or a set of directions, ignores the significant benefit of engaging kids in fun activities that do not involve electronics. (Of our school-aged testers, LEGO sets remain the number one request by our families that review products for us.)

It’s also not true that building a model from instructions means the toy is void of imaginative play potential. Our LEGO testers not only use their models for pretend play (some even have epic battles between their Star Wars and LOTR characters) — but they use their LEGO pieces for builds of their own.  LEGO’s own City and Creators lines are popular with our testers.

As most toy companies continue to scramble to find a way to remain relevant in the age of APPs – LEGO has uniquely found a way to retain their appeal to children.  Have they sold out?  If they did, it happened decades ago. But from our point of view, they have adapted to their audience without giving up their core building experience that is both fun and educational.

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 www.toyportfolio.com.

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

 

LEGO, Kid Galaxy, Playmobil…it was a good day!

Today at Javits we started at LEGO.  Always fun.

Our LEGO STAR WARS fans will be thrilled with the impressive number of new builds for this year!

LEGO STAR WARS NEW MILLENIUM FALCON

The line also includes new GAMES  (they rocked the game market last year -taking a 12% share of the market in their first year).

LEGO GAMES new PIRATE PLANK

Kid Galaxy–has a promising new line of vehicles that demonstrated more innovation than just about anywhere we visited this year–especially in the vehicle realm for preschoolers.

New Preschool Vehicle from Kid Galaxy

Playmobil - Pretty sure the new Zoo kits, the Spy Line and the Castles will be frontrunners with our testers this year.

PLAYMOBIL'S New ZOO Setting

At the Today Show

Right before we went on--I'm not sure what we were looking at!

Yesterday we did our last holiday piece of the season.  The assignment was to feature toys for every budget. With so many toys on our award list, making the selection for this one was really hard. We had just four minutes to highlight toys that we really love. If left to our toy-geek selves, my mother and I could talk about each of these toys for at least that! Since this was more of a gift segment than a piece focusing on the developmental advantages of each toys, we did more toys than usual.

Two best friends getting ready for the segment!

Can you say cutie-pie?

When we got there at 7:30 the green room was already very full. We always want the kids to be there early but it is a really long, long time to wait.  There are donuts — kids eat donuts–kids get a little hyper. It’s all part of the pre-segment experience!  (I on the other hand wait to eat my chocolate donut until after the segment is over). Dustin Hoffman was also there.  Unlike many stars that come through the green room…Dustin smiles at every one.  He’s beloved at the Today Show for being such a nice guy–and you can see it. He looks great–and I guess the word is…happy.  While the Meet the Fockers series just makes me uncomfortable (I guess it’s supposed to) I realize that he is one of those touchstone people that I have grown up with.  Remember Little Big Man?  I remember probably because my folks took us all to see it at the underground theater at Columbus Circle.  As a kid, I thought that was amazingly cool.

Before the segment actual airs there are often teases – which promote what will be coming up on the show in the next half hour.  So the girls did one tease with the dolls from Manhattan Toy and the Nursery Carriage from Corolle.  I then did one with Jay–we played with the 3-D Flash Art from Hasbro.

Jay and I are using the 3-D Flash Art

You can see what the camera is getting from the 3-D Flash Art

After the tease! We did it!

I love this toy–we didn’t do it justice since we couldn’t turn down the lights…but it’s the best spin art toy you’ll ever find.  The blue light changes the images as they spin on the black paper…and in the dark, it’s really special. I also like that you can wipe off the black papers and start over. The process of making the spin art is the thing here–not really the finished product.

The segment went well. The kids had a good time. Al and I were so worried about not getting through to the end that we rushed…and ended up with time to spare. I hate when that happens–but it’s worse not to finish.

The boys playing with the Citiblocs and Planimals

When the segment was over the set gets taken down super quickly to make room for the next segment that involves product. It’s a whirlwind…but definitely fun! (A special thanks to Donna for taking all the pics! Next time I’ll have a zoom!)

After the segment with Al and the boys!

Pick of the Day: General Greivous Spinning Electronic Lightsaber

My high school didn’t have a marching band and I was a debate geek anyway…but I still always marveled at those baton throwers when I would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  All this combined with my love of Star Wars probably explains my fascination with this new spinning light saber.

Watch my mother’s demo while we were waiting for an interview at ABC RADIO. She’s pretty good!

Read our complete review of this product at toyportfolio.com.

Pick of the Day: Hasbro’s Star Wars Imperial AT-AT

May the Force Be with You!

While we do have a general policy against toys that have aggressive themes and those that have projectile parts–each year we do bend the rules a bit for Star Wars. Why? Because I love Star Wars, it’s fantasy play, and at the end of the day good overcomes evil in the universe.  Part of the fun of going to Toy Fair each year is to see the new toys in this category. The best news is that because of the Clone Wars cartoon–there’s a whole new generation of kids that love Star Wars. So much of pop culture is generational – so it’s pretty special when a series is able to span several generations of followers. It also means there will be new Star Wars toys for years to come!

This new AT-AT from Hasbro is over two feet tall.

Star Wars Imperial AT-AT (from Hasbro)

It will provide young Star Wars fans with a pretend setting. It comes with a small vehicle and one storm trooper.  There are sound effects right from the movie–also very pleasing. There are projectiles that you should remove if you have young children at home so that no one aims at a little brother or sister (by accident, of course). For a complete review and shopping info, see our review. To watch our video, click here.

New Star Wars LEGO Sets – let the building begin

Star Wars LEGO sets are hugely popular with our toy testers in the 7-10 age range. As you know, we first build everything here to make sure that the directions are clear, that all the pieces are in the box…that it’s an enjoyable build. First up, Droid Tri-Fighter – with 268 pieces this is a good set for beginner to intermediate LEGO builders. The directions were very clear and the shape of the vehicle is very unusual.  Comes with little droid fighters. For reviews of all Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award winning construction sets, visit our website at www.toyportfolio.com

What were you doing when you were 13?

Stephanie Oppenheim, Natalie Morales, Deidra Shores, Al Roker

Can you imagine winning a contest as the reporter for the Today Show? Flying to NYC to cover Toy Fair? Interviewing the head of Fisher-Price and Hasbro–and then appearing on the Today Show with Al and Natalie?  That’s exactly what happened to Deidra Shore- a lovely 13 year old from Tennessee.

We meet in the green room this morning…talked about which toys she would demo. Which toys she really loved from toy fair–her favorite, the updated 50th anniversary edition of the Mega Play-Doh Fun Factory.

Stephanie Oppenheim and Deidra Shores before the segment

She did a great job with the remote control Millenium Falcon — which was a huge relief since my track record with flying things in the studio isn’t great.   She handled not only the taped piece–but reading the teleprompter and the live interview like a pro!  Congrats Deidra!!

During the segment