Tales from the 2005 Toy Fair

Tic Tac Dough cookies, oddly beautiful Uglydolls, a board game created by engineers -- they're all part of this year's sort-of-serious business

By Lauren Gard

Ogling the offerings at thousands of booths at the Day-Glo toy extravaganza in Manhattan's enormous Jacob Javits Convention Center Wednesday afternoon was overwhelming to the point of being nauseating -- or was that just an aftereffect of the sour powder candy I'd poured into my mouth? I arrived at the Toy Industry Assn.'s annual American International Toy Fair during lunchtime and my stomach was rumbling, so I headed right to the Sweet Spot section of the fair, where dozens of companies offered their sugary wares.

My taste buds weren't turned on by Pucker Powder, brainchild of an Alabama company of the same name, but my 10-year-old niece would love the colorful dispensing unit, where kids can layer up to a dozen different-colored candy powders into tubes to create their own works of art. (No doubt very few of these masterpieces make it home from shops like Dylan's Candy Bar in New York City or Universal Studios in Los Angeles.)

And even cooler than the layer-maker is a mad scientist-like machine that lets kids watch it suck up their chosen powder and -- voila ! -- spit out hard candy pellets into a tube. It should hit the market in the next year or so.


  But most edible exhibitions were decidedly low tech. As I stumbled away from powderland, a bubbly exhibitor pulled me over for a demonstration of Color-a-Cookie. Here's how it works: There's an outline of a character on an iced butter cookie. Kids color it using a pen filled with edible sugary ink. They ooh and aah, and then they eat it.

"Our new product is Tic Tac Dough!" the loquacious exhibitor said, pointing to a blue package filled with -- you guessed it -- cookies upon which kids can use the pens to fill in a tic-tac-toe board.

"Doesn't this encourage kids to play with other kinds of food, too?" I asked.

"We hope so!" the woman said.


  I decided to search for something a bit edgier than edible art among the toy fair's 1,400 exhibitors. So I headed to an ordinary toy aisle, only to find my plans foiled by a delicacy of the purest, most eloquent form: rock candy. A small Manhattan company called Education Inc., which in the past has introduced the Great Dreidel Race board game, the Hilarious Hanukkah Puzzle Pad, and the Great Big Box of Bible Fun, has concocted a star-shaped-rock-candy kit that makes dangling a string over a sugar-water filled glass seem so very 1986.

The methodology was perfected after a year of sometimes dangerous trial and error by creative director Tony Vecchione, and he says it makes a fantastic Christmas tree ornament or -- using a second kit with a slightly stouter star pattern -- a wonderful Hanukkah-appropriate Star of David. ("Start it on the first night, eat it on the eighth night!" proclaims the box.)

After ripping my gaze away from the sparkling stars, I wondered past a Strawberry Shortcake display that included a license plate frame (where can 9-year-olds drive?) and a surprisingly large array of booths boasting stuffed-dog handbags. Perhaps for Paris Hilton-obsessed tweens who don't have their own live Chihuahua to use as a fashion accessory?


  Finally I hit on a fantastic toy that most tweens will yawn at -- and that's sure to become a collector's item: a talking 12-inch George W. Bush doll, perched on the edge of a table alongside a dozen of his Presidential counterparts dating back to George Washington. Press the American flag pin on the lapel of his hand-tailored suit and he spews one of 25 phrases.

Jesse Combs, CEO of Toypresidents Inc., assured a few curious attendees that the sound bites spewed by each doll are not politically biased, though choosing the right words are an arduous task. "My wife can tell when I'm working on an especially tough doll," he says, "because I'll come home from work in a really bad mood."

Most of the Presidents hit the market a year ago -- Dubya is a runaway best seller -- but debuting this year are a few First Ladies, including incredibly slender renderings of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, and a snazzy yet bulky Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pin-striped suit. Among other offerings: Jesus, Nelson Mandela, and Ben Franklin. If only the dolls could talk to one another....


  Nothing is more central to a good childhood than a beloved stuffed animal, so I set out to find the best of this year's bunch. Unfortunately, most were loveable but boring, and my very favorite -- a camel by Germany's Hansa Toy International that stood almost 5 feet tall -- was hardly a nighttime cuddle buddy.

Then I hit upon Uglydoll Inc., a 4-year-old company that makes soft stuffed creatures so hideous they're adorable. They resemble those blob-like beasts we all stitched in junior high home economics, except Uglydolls are cool. From flat-headed, one-eyed Wedgehead to winged, fang-toothed Ice Bat, the dolls are all the rage among ordinary kids and hip adults who frequent the museums and boutiques where they're sold.

"Moms are already buying them to put in their kids trunks for summer camp," says Uglydoll marketer Alita Friedman. She says people appreciate the fact that they differ from the norm. "They're so ugly they're cute," she says. "And people like that." And now consumers can also buy key chains so ugly they're cute -- Uglydolls have gone mini. And starting this summer, a special doll will be up for sale to raise funds for tsunami relief. Now that's beautiful.


  My last mission of the day was to track down a cool new board game, and I struck gold with an innovative game boasting a fantastic backstory. To tell you the truth, at first glance, a square board game named Deflexion didn't call out to me, and I would have passed it by had Del Segura not offered a demonstration.

Segura is a grad student in Tulane University's mechanical engineering program, and he developed the game with classmate Luke Hooper in a course taught by an associate professor, Michael Larson. The Egyptian-themed game combines lasers and mirrored pieces and is checker-like in execution but nearly impossible to understand without seeing firsthand.

The trio funded production of 500 copies with a $12,680 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance. They've already seen moderate success -- it nabbed third prize in Tulane's 2004 business-plan competition, beating out scores of entries submitted by eager MBAs. The threesome get my vote.


  After hours of chatting, walking, and ogling, I felt ready to collapse -- or do some therapeutic yoga. Too bad exhibitors don't typically sell their products on the spot. I could have stopped by Nakajima USA Inc. to pick up a bright turquoise yoga mat splashed with Hello Kitty's timeless mug, complete with a sporty matching bag. Next year, perhaps I'll bring my own and find a quiet corner.

Maybe I could even convince one of the life-size Uglydolls tromping through the exhibition to join me for a nap. Now that would be fun.

Gard is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York

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