Barneys and Barbies. Robots and rollerbladers.
Is there a kids' Christmas list that doesn't include one or more of these? Not likely, according to area toy stores: They are the clear favorites for the 1992 holiday season.
Add to that group video games (after a disappointing showing in 1991), electronic learning games and various toys that are being bought by baby boomer parents who remember getting them as presents in their own childhoods. Erector Sets, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and the like will definitely cloak this holiday with the Ghost of Christmases Past.
And parents are willing to pay more for good toys and games. "People's attitudes have changed," said Barbara Aarons, co-owner of Barstons Child's Play in Cross Keys. "Last year, they mostly bought low-ticket items, and they saw that what they got was junk. I think this year they want quality." Big sellers in her store include the electronic learning game GeoSafari ($99), the Sony Electronic Sketch Pad ($109) and various Playmobil sets (the new pirate-ship set goes for $77).
But make no mistake: Barney, the feel-good, song-and-dance dinosaur who is host of the children's TV show "Barney and Friends,"is the unquestioned star this Christmas. Not only is it nearly impossible to buy a Barney stuffed doll, but shoppers are snapping up almost anything with his bright purple image on it, like T-shirts, pajamas or towels.
"This Barney situation is absolutely incredible," said Brud Morneau, regional inventory control manager for the Toys R Us chain. "He just came in out of the blue. We're having a hard time keeping him in stock with the plush figures. We're buying all we can right now in hopes we won't run out."
"We had been carrying Barney for three years, so he's nothing new to us," said Debbie Wurzburger, owner of the Toy Chest in Owings Mills. "But when he went on public television in April, we started having trouble keeping anything with his name in stock. That means videos, cassettes and plush animals."
Whether Barney endures as a phenomenon remains to be seen, but Barbie's amazing track record continues. Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls, announced last month it expects sales of Barbies to exceed $1 billion in 1992, and that its Totally Hair Barbie alone, selling at about $12, would bring in $100 million.
"Barbie has yet to have a bad year," Mr. Morneau said. "Even the big Barbie items are going like crazy, like her Dream House [about $170] and Magical Mansion [about $200]." Barbie collectors are also snatching up the Holiday Barbie, whose ballroom gown changes each year. This year it's silver metallic.
"It's absolutely overwhelming," wailed Jeanne Marshall of Severna Park earlier this week as she surveyed the rows and rows of Barbie dolls and accessories at the Toys R Us in Glen Burnie.
Her daughter, Karen, is 7. An avid Barbie collector, she had given Mom firm instructions about not coming back without a Totally Hair Barbie, which features a doll with ankle-length hair and styling gel. "I'll have to get it,"Ms. Marshall said in a resigned tone, then pointed up to the Dream Houses stacked at the top of one shelf. "At least she's not asking for those yet."
Diversification is also the name of the game for another well-known doll, the Cabbage Patch Kid. This year, the new Kids on the block include Baby With Magical Monitor (a toy baby monitor emits noises of a newborn baby crying for Mom), the Splash 'n Tan Cabbage Patch Kid (get it wet and it develops a tan) and the Cabbage Patch Kids Little Lullaby (squeeze the little tyke's stomach and it will start singing a lullaby).
To keep the Cabbage Patch Kids occupied, a new accessory is being offered: the Dental Care Center, which features such items as a dental chair and even a little hose to rinse out the doll's mouth after a good teeth cleaning. It's patterned after last year's hugely successful Babyland Checkup Center, which let youngsters re-create a trip to the pediatrician's office (certainly nothing their parents would ever want to duplicate). And then there's the Crimp 'n Curl Pony, which, for 30 bucks, provides a resting spot for Cabbage Patch Cowpokes.
Other dolls are strapping on the rollerblades. At least four rollerblading dolls are available at area stores, led by Tyco's California Roller Baby and Mattel's Baby Roller Blade (both retail for about $30). The Roller Baby even includes sunglasses and earrings for its owner.
The robots may not rollerblade, but do a lot of other things. Take Tiger Electronics' 2-XL talking robot, an R2-D2 look-alike who not only leads kids on 30-minute lessons and quizzes (via cassette) on sports, geography and nature, but also delivers one-liners.
"It's very, very hot," says Michelle Healy, spokeswoman for Kay-Bee toy stores. "It keeps the child entertained and also gets across the lesson. It's got a really cute voice and it cracks jokes." (A sample: "What's the difference between a piece of salami and a crocodile? You don't know? Well, I'll never send you out for lunch.") What do you expect from a $40 robot?
The My Pal 2 Talking Electronic Robot, by Toy Biz, (about $48) is less a teacher than a play toy. He can play catch and spout about 30 phrases, and, possessing a "tickle spot" in his midsection, also likes a good giggle.
That's not the case with Tyton's Exterminator Battle Robot with Laser Weapon (about $30). He's loaded to his teeth in firepower, and his limited vocabulary includes "Get out of my way" and "I'll get you."
Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities to blast someone via video game. Following a sales slump in 1991, many video items have been reduced in price, and manufacturers are marketing more aggressively.
At the same time, video systems and computers are increasingly being used for learning activities as well.
The GeoSafari computer game, for instance, teaches (through a variety of cards at $14.95 each) such topics as basic Spanish, animals of the world and geography. "It's just an excellent learning toy," said Ms. Aarons. "I've found that parents want something that their children will use all year round, and not just for a few weeks before it's thrown away. That's why they're choosing gifts like the GeoSafari."
For children not ready or willing to join the video generation, there's always the good old stuff to set up and knock down -- Tinker Toys, Legos, Playmobils and the like. "They're well made, they can be used for any number of activities, and they get children involved in playing -- they're not passive," said Ms. Wurzburger.
At Grreat Bears Toys Ltd. in Fells Point, Playmobil sets get the nod, according to assistant manager Lisa Hawk. "It's a good imagination toy," she said. "Playmobil parts are bigger than Legos' and easier for smaller children to manipulate. Playmobils also have more historical range, with their sets with Indians and cowboys and stagecoaches and pirates."
Nostalgic parents have their own agenda when they plunk down money for the Lincoln Logs they're ostensibly giving to Junior. "A while ago, somebody wanted a Tinker Toy set -- not the new kind, which are plastic, but the old wooden ones," Ms. Aarons of Child's Play said. "Fortunately, we were able to track one down. I'm sure it was intended for a child, but a lot of parents find the old toys very reassuring."
Barney. Anything and everything -- this is the year America Does Dinosaurs.
2-XL robots. "They're just flying out of the stores," says a spokesman for Toys R Us.
Totally Hair Barbie. Maybe we should just change the doll's name to Totally Profitable Barbie.
Nerf toys. Nerf Missile Blasters and Nerf Master Blasters lead the way in fun with foam.