Parents can heave a sigh of relief. They need never again hear "When are we going to be there?" from the back seat. At least that's what toy manufacturers want them to believe. And they're staking millions on the claim.
Whether children are 2 or 12, 6 or 16, whether they like singing songs, building with LEGO bricks, drawing or playing games -- electronic or otherwise -- the toy industry has a travel toy to keep them busy and happy en route to anywhere -- without breaking the bank. Many retail for less than $10, though some of the electronic ones are much pricier.
"The vacation doesn't begin when you get there," explains Mark Morris, a spokesman for Milton Bradley, which has begun successfully introducing new travel games yearly. "The vacation begins when you pull out of the driveway. We're saying here's a way to make the trip more fun."
Parents clearly are buying the pitch. As families take to the road and the skies in record numbers, there's no question that they're stopping at the toy store first. Just in the past year, sales jumped more than 70 percent in the travel game category, according to the Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service -- to more than $26 million.
"It's exploding," says Ohio Art's Pat Grandy, whose Travel Etch-a-Sketch has proved a big hit. There's even a bonus the manufacturers didn't count on: People try the smaller and cheaper travel versions of the games and then return later for the regular size.
"It's a case of the toy companies coming up with products that fulfilled an unmet need and it worked," explains Paul Valentine, who tracks the toy industry for Standard & Poors. He forecasts that the "terrific growth" will continue as more new products are introduced.
"They're really going after the market," adds Carolyn Shapiro of Toy and Hobby magazine. "And once one company's doing it, they all look at it. You have a lot more companies saying we can do this, too."
The toy industry clearly has seen what the travel industry has learned: All these parents who are taking their children on trips -- 90 million are expected to vacation together this year -- want them kept busy and happy all along the way.
Counting license plates or singing songs doesn't cut it anymore. Forget coloring books and crayons that melt in hot cars. Any parent who has taken a trip recently knows that. "Kids today are used to electronic entertainment, video-driven," says Ms. Shapiro. "They need more diversion."
And the toy makers are selling it. Children can take their pick. They can draw with a travel Ghost Writer (shake the toy and the drawing disappears) or make cartoons with Ohio Art's traveling Cartoon Maker.
They can learn geography, snuggling up with Hugg-America, a colorful pillow-shaped U.S. flag with 400 places labeled (the words to the Star Spangled Banner are printed on the box). If they're traveling overseas, they could try the Hugg a Planet, a round pillow depicting the Earth (it comes equipped with a pamphlet explaining pressing environmental issues and won the coveted Parents Choice Award).
Older children can race the built-in timer to answer geography questions posed by the hand-held electronic GeoQuest.
If games are their thing, they can play more than a dozen of their favorites in miniature form -- from Clue to Scrabble to Battleship to Junior Monopoly to Boggle to Shark Attack, Backgammon and Chinese Checkers.
They can build whole towns with LEGO's Tote Packs and even perform magic tricks with Pressman's Traveling Magic Show (how about making cardboard bunnies multiply?). The American Automobile Association has gotten into the act with a $4.95 Travel Activity Book.
The preschooler set hasn't been neglected either: Parker Brothers has a whole line of Go-Along games sure to please since they feature Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy.
Of course, amusing children isn't enough these days. "The idea is to be educational while you're on the go," explains Angela Forenza, whose company's $14.95 Hugg-America is proving to be a big hit. Even the preschoolers' Disney games help children learn their ABCs, colors and shapes.
A Tutor Toys spokesman notes that even GeoQuest's $65 price tag hasn't kept parents from buying the toy. "It's doing very well for us," he said. "Parents want something that will challenge the kids."
So now, just as resorts, hotels and cruise ships are trying to outdo each other to win this growing family market, toy manufacturers are competing to keep the children amused en route.
They're showcasing their offerings at the International American Toy Show and bringing out new ones at a rapid clip. Toys R' Us now has an entire section devoted to them. Five years ago, they carried just a few.
Parents haven't been forgotten, either. If parents need travel advice, Disney's new $19.95 "Busy Bags" come equipped with a parents' guide -- one for the road and one for the plane, written by experts.
There's even a Fairy Game Mother to help. She's got her own tape, of course.
"We call this first-aid for traveling families," jokes the Fairy Game Mother, Deborah Valentine, a former teacher whose Valentine Productions company has sold more than 50,000 of her amusing "Games for the Road" tapes. She's just introduced a sequel.
"Parents are all on overload," says Ms. Valentine. "If the kids can play something without the parents, it gives the parents a break."
But not for long. No one's invented a game to break up the all-too-frequent fights in the back seat.