A trove of playthings at Dublin Toy Fair – but where’s the one toy to rule them all?
The event’s organisers hope to sell a lot of Furbys and One Direction figures – and to welcome Barbie for a ‘personal appearance’
Sitting pretty: Barbie. Photograph: Timur Emek/Getty
‘Just a moment, boys and girls,” says the jolly railway porter, announcing short delays on the indoor Polar Express. “There must be leaves on the track, I think.” A minute or so later the smattering of passengers waiting in the Wendy House station are finally summoned to board. The children’s eyes light up. Next stop, Wonderland!
With December 25th still almost a month away, the first Dublin Toy Fair drew thin crowds to the RDS, in Dublin 4, on Wednesday morning. But organisers expect 20,000 stressed-out parents, screaming toddlers and happy children to have made their way around Teddy Bear Mountain, erected to greet arrivals in Ballsbridge, by tomorrow evening.
As we alight from the tiny train at Santa’s Grotto, an elf ushers us into a mini post office, where crayons and writing paper are laid out on plastic tables. “The post office is the most important place in Wonderland,” the elf informs the children. “Does anyone know why that is?” The children, all members of the iPad generation, shake their heads. A more apt question might be, “Does any of you know what a post office is?”
In the 3,500sq m exhibition area, shelves are stacked with toys by manufacturers such as Mattel, Hasbro, Fisher-Price, Tomy and Lego. “That’s what’s unique about the Dublin Toy Fair,” its organiser Patrick O’Sullivan explains. “Unlike previous events of this sort, we’ve got the top branded toys on board.” (Yes, none of yer handcrafted rubbish.)
Could the arrival of this event be a signal, however slight, that the economy is improving and that people are spending money again? O’Sullivan isn’t willing to go quite that far. “People spend whatever money they have at Christmas time, regardless of the economy.”
On various walkways, giant-sized versions of Connect 4, Snakes & Ladders and Jenga are laid out for visitors to play with. Farther along are face painters, balloon artists and a sort of Play-Doh restaurant bar that is so popular with my niece Lola that eventually I want to shut it down.
As the film and music industries have long known, when you hit on a winning formula it pays to go back and milk the thing for all it’s worth. So far this year, though, one standout, must-have, gouge-the-other-shopper’s-eye-out-for-it hit toy has yet to announce itself.
But two early frontrunners for that title should ring a bell with anyone who grew up in the 1990s. Furby is a talking gremlin/chimpanzee that caused near riots among parents in US toy stores in 1998, shifting 40 million units in just three years of frenzied popularity. This Christmas he makes his second (or third?) comeback, this time replete with a “furbling virtual friend” app that can be accessed via smartphones.
Teksta, a life-like robotic puppy that “responds to your voice, physical gestures, lights and sounds”, is another old favourite tipped to do well this Christmas.
“Furby and Teksta were both toys of the year, I think, 15 and 16 years ago respectively,” says O’Sullivan. “They’ve both been relaunched this year and are in very, very short supply. But as of this moment we have a couple of hundred of each of them.”
Also, for the second successive year, O’Sullivan informs me, One Direction figures are flying off the shelves,“to girls of all ages – and their mothers” .
Doll diva on multitasking and life with Ken
Barbie has been among the world’s biggest-selling toys for more than six decades. The ‘London Review of Books’ once characterised her as the “essence of bimbo-ness”.
But since 1959 Barbie has held down some high-pressure jobs, including surgeon, news anchor, air-force pilot, cat burglar and McDonald’s cashier.
Barbie will appear “in person” at Dublin Toy Fair today. It should be fascinating, not least because sceptics have long speculated about whether, given the peculiarities of her anatomy, a real-life Barbie would even be able to stand up.
To mark the occasion her manufacturer, Hasbro, invited ‘The Irish Times’ to email questions to the children’s toy (or perhaps a marketing exec at a laptop).
Hi Barbie, welcome to Ireland. Is this your first visit? “No, I’ve actually visited a number of times now. So it’s lovely to be back. I just love it here!”
Over the years you’ve been a fashion model, an Olympic athlete, astronaut and palaeontologist. Which has been the most enjoyable of all your roles? “I have loved them all. It’s been so much fun to try on different jobs and see what each is like. Not sure I could really pick one, but this year I’ve been a pop star, which I have loved. And next year I’m going to be an ice skater. So I’m really looking forward to that too.”
Do you have any message for your Irish fans, particularly girls who might look to you as a role model? “I like to think that anything is possible and I really encourage everyone to discover and learn about the world around them.”
You split up with your long-term boyfriend Ken back in 2004. Do you think your workload may have caused friction in that relationship? “Haven’t you heard? Ken and I got back together on Valentine’s Day in 2011. It was very romantic and all my fans helped me decide if I we should give it another go. We are really happy and looking forward to spending Christmas together with all my friends and family.”
Burn! Well, this reporter may never be trusted to work the Toytown beat again.
Barbie is at Dublin Toy Fair, at the RDS, from 11am to 4pm today