It is 10:30 in the morning at FAO Schwarz in the Towson Town Center and the Barbie section looks like someone stuck a sign in the window that says: "Buy a Barbie, your next mortgage payment's on us!"
Stepping nimbly through the crowd, Jeri Thornton, assistant merchandising manager, passes Bicyclin' Barbie, Camp Barbie, Earring Magic Barbie, Silver Screen Barbie, Troll Barbie, Shopping Spree Barbie, Happy Holidays Barbie and Dance N' Twirl Barbie ("The first doll ever to dance by radio control!") and pulls another Barbie off the shelf.
"This is selling very well," she says.
This is 35th Anniversary Barbie ($29.99, Mattel). And like so much of life today, she's definitely retro. Ponytail, heavy eye makeup, zebra-striped bathing suit . . . all Barbie's missing is a Tarryton clasped gracefully between two fingers and an "I Like Ike" button.
Retro or not, Barbie, in all her various mutations, is one of the hottest toys for the holidays, according to the Toy Manufacturers Association of America Inc. and a check of local toy stores.
Other popular toys include:
* Power Rangers ($8, Bandai) -- The hottest of the hot toys. Yes, they're still around. No, they won't go away -- parents have tried everything short of waving silver crucifixes at the goofily clad superheroes.
Power Ranger toys have been on the market a full year now. Yet their manufacturer, Bandai, recently opened its 16th factory to keep up with the demand.
"They're still so hot because the demand hasn't been satisfied," says Jodi Levin, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers.
Ms. Levin has another theory to explain this phenomenal staying power: "The Power Rangers, as opposed to the Ninja Turtles, Batman and other action figures, have a high percentage of girls [two of the six TV superheroes are female].
"I read . . . that 40 percent of the product is winding up in the hands of girls, although that seems high to me."
Whatever the reasons for their popularity, Power Ranger merchandise is still flying off the shelves no matter the price; witness the big run now on the Power Dome Morphin Playset ($99).
On a recent morning at FAO Schwarz, four Power Domes were snapped up in 30 minutes. Yet not one purchaser, all of them parents, could explain this blurb on the box: "Voice morpher transfers your voice in Zordon's!"
Tor the Shuttle Zord ($49.99) and the Thunderzord Assault Team ($39.99) are also selling briskly. Depending on his or her mood, your child will explain what these toys do.
Alarming footnote: Perhaps signaling the final descent of humankind, the Hammacher Schlemmer Christmas catalog lists Power Rangers Sound Effects Gloves ($24.95), which make karate chop sounds as well as the trademark "Go-Go Power Rangers!" chant.
* Dr. Dreadful Food Lab ($24.99, Tyco) -- The bottom line: Kids make gross, gooey things and eat them.
Someone please explain this. Why is it that when you place string beans on a child's plate, he'll look at them like they're the severed entrails of a warthog.
But he'll chow down on Doc Dreadful's lab stuff ("Putrid potions! Monster warts! Eyes and worms!") like it's a Happy Meal from McDonald's.
Alarming footnote No. 2: Refills of the good doctor's concoctions are also hot -- shop early if your kid is low on edible skin disfigurations, amphibians, etc.
* Creepy Crawlers Workshop ($29.99, Toymax) -- With various molds and some sort of oven, kids make slithery scorpions, newts, spiders, etc.
Only instead of eating them a la Doc Dreadful's operation, they stick them to walls, curtains, hoping to induce a massive coronary in the nearest adult. Great fun.
* Nickelodeon Floam ($6, Mattel) -- Floam. It's sort of like Gack. Which was sort of like Slime. You shape it and bounce it and . . . then go see what's on TV.
* Nerf Ballzooka ($24.99, Kenner) -- Billed as "The Ultimate in Ball-Blastin' Action!" this baby resembles a cross between a bazooka and Gatling gun and fires an unnerving dozen or so Nerf balls simultaneously at alarming speeds.
Probably not the thing to bring over to Grandma's house.
* Musical princess dolls ($9.99, Mattel) -- The Snow White doll plays "Someday My Prince Will Come." The Jasmine doll plays "A Whole New World."
Mercifully, there is no doll that plays "The Hokey-Pokey" or "Bingo Was His Name-O."
* Biker Mice from Mars ($4.99, galoob) -- This is something cartoonist Gary Larson might come up with after a day in the tool shed inhaling paint thinner.
Imagine the Hell's Angels as, um, rodents with the requisite shades, black vests, tattoos, etc. Now imagine they're about 5 inches tall -- your garden-variety action figures -- with charming names such as Throttle, Greasepit, Limburger and Vinnie.
After a day of looting and pillaging, the boys unwind in the Biker Mice From Mars Transporter and Secret Lab ($19.99).
* Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cyber Samurai Squad ($5.99, Playmates) -- More action figures from the nether world. This is something director Oliver Stone might come up with after a night in a Shanghai opium den.
While the original Turtles were mellow, pizza-eating souls, the Cyber Samurai Squad looks like a bunch of guys who got up on the wrong side of the bed -- then set it on fire.
Cyber Samurai Mike, for instance, won't be heading up the neighborhood's Welcoming Committee with this attitude -- "Aim Mike's Spring-Launchin' Fusion Fists at the Nearest Cyber Foot Fool, Then Fire Away!"
* X-Men ($8, Toy Biz) -- One more set of action figures and we'll stop, honest. It's just that if the Toy Manufacturers of America estimates that $325 is spent per child, per year, on toys, a whole lot of that must go toward action figures.
Nostalgia fans will note that the X-Men are advertised as "The Original Mutant Superheroes," which means they go back to a time even before, say, 1990. Now that's old.
Rogue, Wolverine, Cable . . . the eyes mist over at the noble deeds of this brave trio.
* The Lion King Talking Simba ($35, Mattel) -- FAO Schwarz's Thornton reports steady but not spectacular sales for Lion King merchandise, but the Toy Manufacturers' Levin says sales of the Talking Simba have been strong.
Hug him, pull his tail, squeeze his paw and instead of leaping on you and gnawing your skull like any other wild animal, Simba talks.
Stocking stuffers might include: the Lion King Toothbrush and Stand ($14.99), Lion King Jump Rope ($4.99), Lion King Stickers ($4.99), Lion King Sip n' Sound Straw ($4.99), Lion King pencils ($1.49) and Lion King collectibles ($1.99).
If your kid isn't sick of Lion King products after this Christmas, there is something wrong with the child. He (she) should probably see a therapist.
* Talkboy cassette player ($29.99, Tiger Electronics) -- Annoying child star Macauley Culkin used one of these in "Home Alone 2" and it's been a strong seller ever since. It also has a speed regulator which allows you to slow down your own voice, although God knows why anyone would want to.
* Donkey Kong Country ($59.99, Super Nintendo) -- Did you really think you'd get through a "Hottest Toys" story without a single mention of video games?
Well, forget it. In Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong and pal Diddy Kong fight enemies through dense jungles, across dazzling white beaches and over tall mountains.
Why they do this is unclear.
With some things, it's better not to ask.