The Toy Fair is no place for children. So say the organizers of the massive amusements convention, which celebrated its 114th anniversary over Presidents Day weekend at the Javits Center and is open only to toy industry professionals over the age of 18. A youth pass would surely be the hottest ticket in town among the elementary school set.
Still, it’s a wonderland for the easily distracted adult. As conventioneers wander the 1,100 booths that make up the show, they are benevolently besieged from every side by all manner of whirring and whizzing contraption. Remote controlled cars race underfoot, drones soar overhead and soft projectiles of indeterminate provenance arc gently to the floor. As passersby turn to look, sales reps rope them in with an irresistible proposition: “Want to give it a try?” The invitation, more often than not, is met with childlike enthusiasm.
At exhibitor Jake Raymond’s booth, potential buyers lined up for a chance to send sugary confections flying through the air at high velocity using his company’s line of marshmallow shooters and “bows and mallows.” Raymond, 23, stood by grinning, holding plastic double-barreled shotgun fully loaded with fluffy white ammunition. “I would say we’re having the most fun here out of all these booths,” he said as he shot a marshmallow skyward, sending it bouncing into the rafters 30 feet above.
While marshmallow shooters offer decidedly low-tech fun, cutting edge gadgets made up a significant portion of the show. Laurie Chartorynsky, a trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association, which organizes the North American International Toy Fair, said that one of the year’s big trends is toys that make use of emerging technologies like virtual and augmented reality, 3-D pens and printers, and robotics. “A lot of things that were just starting to take off a few years ago are really starting to come into fruition this year,” she said.
The Silicon Valley-based company Wonder Workshop seeks to teach children ages six to 10 the basics of computer coding while they play with Dash and Dot, a pair of grapefruit-sized robots that can be programmed to perform tasks like playing a xylophone or shooting hoops on a small basketball net. Kids use a Bluetooth-linked tablet to instruct the robots to complete task sequences, making adjustments and learning as they go. Elementary schools across the country are already using the robots in classrooms with curriculum developed by the company. “It’s teaching coding but it’s also teaching critical thinking,” Wonder Workshop representative David Wenning said as programmed Dash to do a dance after scoring a basket.
Nearby, a small crowd formed around a large mesh enclosure for some less educational tech fun. Inside the net, conventioneers vied to knock a small drone out of the sky with rubber balls fired from an air-powered gun, drawing cheers for each direct hit that sent the drone tumbling to the ground.
Alongside unfamiliar novelties were old standbys. Barbie was there, of course — now available in four body types and seven skin tones. Piles of huggable animals in every shade of plush occupied what could only be described as a Beanie Babies pavilion.
Marketing tie-ins were inescapable, as toys branded with “Star Wars,” “Pokémon,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and other famous names dominated floor space. Licensed products now account for about 30 percent of all toy sales, according to the Toy Industry Association. Lego took this trend to surreal lengths with its block sets dedicated to the recently released “Lego Batman Movie” — toys based on a film about toys based on a comic book superhero.
But not all licensing deals involve exciting, big-money movie properties. The British company Casdon showcased its replicas of Dyson’s high-end vacuum cleaners, scaled to kid size. The mini-Dysons look like the real thing, sell for about one-tenth the cost, and actually work, making them a must for domestic-minded toddlers and adults looking for a bit of unpaid cleaning help.
Games, puzzles and dolls were among last year’s fastest growing toy categories, according to the market research firm NPD Group. In the games section of the convention floor, salespeople, hoping to draw in buyers, loudly demonstrated the latest card and board games, some more kid-friendly than others. (“It’s like horse race betting meets ‘Monopoly,”’ began the sales pitch for one game.)
“Traditional play is alive and well right now,” said Chartorynsky, noting that board games are great at bringing children and adults together to play. “It takes the kids’ minds off their screens a little bit too,” she added.
Good news for the kids: in November the Javits Center will host the second annual Play Fair, a sister convention to the Toy Fair that is open to all ages.