This year's most-wanted playthings include turtles, Barbies and doll babies

ADVENTURES IN TOYLAND

November 29, 1990|By Holly Selby

What's news is old in the toy world for Christmas 1990 as this year's three biggest sellers are those familiar standbys: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nintendo games and the 31-year-old Barbie doll.

"Barbie is forever and anything turtles is in. And Nintendo, Nintendo is biiig again this year," says Larry Carlat, of Toy and Hobby World magazine.

What is different, however, is the renewed popularity of toys to kiss and cuddle. "Everywhere you see doll babies, doll babies. Every little girl who comes in here wants a doll baby," says Mary Brown, manager of Kay-Bee Toys at Mondawmin Mall.

After several years of turtle fever and Nintendo mania, "manufacturers went all out this year to do a much better job for girls," says Frank Reysen Jr., editor of Playthings, a trade magazine. Of course, one reason for the surge of new dolls may be that the turtles and Nintendo have such a lock on the boys' toy market that manufacturers decided to aim at girls, he suggests.

But don't for a moment allow visions of rag dolls to dance in your head: In the past year, a new generation of what manufacturers call "realistic" dolls was born.

These dolls dance. They sport bandages that disappear when rubbed with water. They eat, drink and, well . . . let's just say one is called Baby Uh-Oh by Hasbro Toys and she even suffers from occasional diaper rash.

Perhaps the most unusual innovation is the Magic Nursery Doll, which Mattel hopes will be this year's Cabbage-Patch success story.

You don't know whether the Magic Nursery Doll is a boy or a girl, until you take it home and perform a "special ceremony." The doll -- either a $20 newborn or a $25 toddler -- comes dressed in a paper robe. Dunk the robe into water and out pops a card saying "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" One card in 36 announces "It's twins!" and may be redeemed for a free twin sibling. (Even with the robe off, however, you can't tell from looking at the dolls what sex they are.)

Who knows? The dissolving-clothes gimmick may catch on like heroes-on-a-half-shell did: After all, the idea's no more bizarre than that of cool-talking, weapon-wielding, turtle dudes.

And those green critters are definitely still on the Kids' Most Wanted List.

"In boy toys, you are really talking about a two-horse race: turtles and Nintendo," says Mr. Carlat. "The turtle industry is sort of a monstrous one. Sales are over a half a billion for just the action figures alone and over a billion for all the related licenses."

Turtle lovers can choose among more than 300 turtle products, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Subterranean Sewer Hockey table game ($69.95) to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie" ($19). There's even a Turtle Claus -- a toy Turtle dressed as Santa ($16.99). Buyers better hurry, however: Only 200,000 will be produced.

Hot Nintendo products are Game Boy, ($90), a portable video unit -- which sold 5 million units last year -- and any of the Super Mario cartridges, says Ed Simms, assistant manager of Kiddie City in Laurel. "Nothing can compete with Nintendo."

But for little girls (of course, boys, too) the word is huggable: from 12-inch New Kids On the Block figures from Hasbro ($18) to My Pretty Ballerina ($40) from Tyco. Another cuddly favorite is Hasbro's Go-Go My Walking Pup, ($45), a mechanized fuzzy dog that moves forward and backward on its leash.

Despite the traditional Christmas advertising hype, industry analysts aren't finding much on the market to shout about. "There are just no new blockbusters out there. We just really haven't had break-away blockbusters like the Cabbage Patch doll since well, since the Cabbage Patch Dolls," says Jodi Levin, of Toy Manufacturers of America.

The closest thing to Cabbage-Patch desperation has been caused by one of the most expensive items on the market: the Fisher-Price 3-in-1 Tournament Table that sells for about $180. Fisher-Price was so taken by surprise by the product's popularity -- a scaled-down game table that comes with hockey, pool and table tennis -- that the company may not be able to fill all its retail orders, says Jack Martin, company spokesman. "It took off a lot more than we imagined. It was probably late summer when they realized we'd need more. We're happy, but it's a hit-or-miss thing."

Meanwhile at local stores, retailers and parents are scrambling to obtain the elusive game tables. "We can't keep them in stock. We get them in and we can sell 18 in two hours," says Mr. Simms of Kiddie City in Laurel. "People are buying them in threes and fours."

Will the excitement generated by toys like these override recession-induced financial worries? Says Mr. Reysen, editor of Playthings, "Well, I don't know. There is a nice spread of companies involved this time -- not just one Cabbage Patch; all our eggs aren't in one basket, that's a hopeful sign."

Some analysts predict toy sales this year will rise slightly: to about $14 billion, up from $13.4 billion in 1989, says Ms. Levin, of Toy Manufacturers of America.

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