Putting holiday toys to the test

Our toy test team played with some of this season's top-ranked items to give you an inside look at what may turn up on this year's wish lists.

By Katherine Snow Smith, Special to the Times
Published November 22, 2007

The toy commercials are blaring. The catalogs are coming full force, as many as 10 a day. The ads and fliers are in the newspapers and the mailbox as well. And, if that didn't tip you off that the toy shopping season is upon us, certainly your kids have dropped a few hints or downright pleas for what they'd like to receive this holiday season.

A soft economy and recent scares of lead paint in imported toys have toy sellers offering discounts earlier in the season to get shoppers in the buying mode. This is a crucial time for them as about half of all toy sales are made during the last three months of the year.

Overall spending from holiday shoppers will reach $474.5-billion, up 4 percent from a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation. That increase, however, is less than the 4.6 percent growth one year earlier.

Toy stores, Internet sites and magazines are touting the "must haves" and top-ranked toys for kids this year. They need parents and kids in a frenzy soon to keep the toys selling strong through Dec. 24.

Even though his magazine lives off toy sellers and hopeful children, Jim Silver, editor and co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, says parents need to keep their kids' expectations in check.

"Never should a child expect to get everything on their list," he said in a phone interview. "Whatever number of things they are going to end up (getting), have them make a list of double that."

He sees a few toys as standouts among the rest that will be sure to please the kids. Guitar Hero III (ages 11 and up, $99) is the latest version of the game that lets kids and adults play a guitar along with a video and strive for rock star status. You must have a gaming system to play it.

"Hannah Montana anything is huge - the Hannah Montana dolls, the Hannah Montana DVD board game," Silver said. "And anything that has HSM (as in High School Musical) on it is pretty hot." Transformers are still big for boys, he added.

For younger kids, Silver is very high on the Smart Cycle by Fisher Price (ages 3 and up, $99.99). This stationary bike plugs into a TV and kids play learning games on the screen, but they must keep pedaling to keep playing.

As evidenced by the latest recall of Aquadots, which was on the Toy Wishes Hot Dozen list, parents need to make sure they are buying toys that are age-appropriate for their kids. Just because 5-year-old Junior hasn't put any foreign objects in his mouth for two years doesn't mean he won't be tempted by a shiny, slick game piece or squishy, sticky craft item.

To help parents narrow down their kids' lists or get an idea of what's out there, the St. Petersburg Times invited seven students ranging in age from 7 to 15 to try out some of the toys that are expected to be big sellers this holiday season. Check out what our toy testers really liked or could live without, on Pages 1E and 3E.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.

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What the Times' toy testers learned: 

Spotz Creator Machine: Once the testers figured out the order of steps for using the Spotz Creator Machine (ages 6 and up, $29.99, Zizzle), the toy worked well and was easy to use. The machine encases cut images or pictures cut from magazines in plastic buttons. But one big question remained: Now what do you do with all these quarter-sized buttons? The answer is, buy other Spotz products that allow you to make key chains, decorate purses and more. (Or just throw in some magnetic tape or glue and let your crafter make magnets and decorate boxes and bags.) Toy tester: Arlia Delphonse, 12.

Power Rangers Mega Mission Helmet and Transformers Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet: Two action helmets are dueling for kids' attention this year. The Power Rangers Mega Mission Helmet, pictured far right (ages 4 and up, $49.99, Bandai), comes with a USB cable to download additional missions in which the child is the star. But Santa's helpers be warned: You might want to download those before Christmas morning. The Transformers Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet (ages 5 and up, $29.99, Hasbro) was fun for some of the testers who enjoyed sounding like the leader of the Transformers. The helmet has three modes (voice changer, battle phrases and conversion sounds). "It was really hot (inside the mask) and it was hard to keep on," said William Harvey, "but it was cool the way it could change your voice." Toy testers: Chase Shiflet, 14, andWilliam Harvey, 11.

Power Tour Electric Guitar (ages 10 to 15, $69.99, Hasbro and Gibson) is a toy electric guitar that teaches basic guitar lessons and classic rock songs as users repeat patterns that light up. But let's face it, it doesn't compare to Guitar Hero. "I guess it would be okay for a beginner who doesn't want to buy a real guitar," said Sarah Collins, 15, of Palm Harbor. "But I don't think someone who knows how to play the guitar would like it."

The Air Hogs R/C Havoc Heli Laser Battle (ages 8 and up, $79.99, Spin Master) was a hit with William Harvey, 11, of Tampa, who thought typical remote control cars of yesteryear pale in comparison. "This is more challenging to keep it up, which makes it more fun," he said. "And it flies." The set comes with two helicopters and two controllers that allow players to shoot each other down. Some advice for parents: Get these plugged in and juiced up before you give them. 

The Hannah Montana Singing Doll and In Concert Pop Stage (ages 6 and up, $19.99 for doll, $59.99 for stage, Play Along/Disney) kept Michela Hendry mesmerized for a while. The doll belted out refrains of two songs, including the show’s theme song, as Michela pulled a lever that moved Hannah from backstage to center stage. The doll fell down about half the time, but her young fan didn’t seem to mind.  It’s probably more fun to disconnect her from the stage and play with her as an actual doll. Toy tester: Kaitlyn Sferrazza, 13. 

Star Wars Transformers Deluxe Darth Vader/Death Star (ages 4 and up, $49.99, Hasbro) is really cool but also really complicated. A detailed action figure of Darth Vader can be converted into the Death Star in 25 steps, according to the manufacturer. “It’s probably going to be a little difficult for younger kids,” said Chase Shiflet, 14, who found it challenging but fun. This might be a good one for the older Star Wars fan. Toy tester: Brett Phillips, 14. 

FurReal Friends Squawkers McCaw (ages 4 and up, $69.99, Hasbro) is a remote control bird that can sing, sleep, talk, pass gas and more. Most of the kids found it amusing, though at times it seemed to have a mind of its own and didn’t respond to the remote. Toy tester: Michela Hendry, 7. 

Nerf N-Strike Disk Shot (ages 8 to 12, $49.99, Hasbro) was one of the best-liked toys of the bunch. A small device sits on the ground and spits foam discs into the sky  and players shoot darts from a “blaster” at the moving targets. “It’s pretty cool. I’d play it a lot,’’ said Brett Phillips, 14, of Tarpon Springs. “It’s almost impossible to (hit the target) but it’s still fun,’’ said 12-year-old Arlia Delphonse, also of Tarpon Springs. “I think this is the one that is going to take the world by surprise,” said Toy Wishes magazine’s Jim Silver. Just remember: Don’t stand directly over the disc launcher. Toy tester: Chase Shiflet, 14. 

The Whac-A-Mole Tower (ages 4 to 8, $39.99, Milton Bradley/Hasbro) is a basic toy that lets little kids, well, whack an artificial mole down into his hole with a mallet. The harder they whack, the higher their score climbs. As simple as it is, it elicited a smile or cheer of triumph with each hit. But probably not the best gift for members of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Toy tester: Michela Hendry, 7.

EyeClops Bionic Eye (ages 6 to 12, $49.99, Jakks Pacific) was a big hit with William Harvey, who found things like flowers, the face of a watch and even dental floss with saliva on it were enthralling when magnified 200 times on a television screen. Though this much-touted device that plugs into a TV does elicit a lot of “ahhhs” and “ohhhhs,” kids questioned how long they would actually play with it. “If you set up the right activities to play with it, they’ll keep going back to it,” said Jim Silver of Toy Wishes. Toy tester: William Harvey, 11.

The High School Musical Dance Mat (ages 5 and up, $34.99, Zizzle) lights up to prompt dancers to land on a different square as they move to different HSM songs. It looks a little more like jumping than dancing, but 7-year-old Michela Hendry, grooving here, was hooked. “I would play this a lot,’’ said the HSM fan who has seen the two movies at least six times.

Toy testers of all ages had a lot of fun playing with Hyper Dash (ages 6 and up, $24.99, Wild Planet). Laughing and exercise make for a good combination. The five colored and numbered targets are placed on the ground randomly. The tagger then says which marker players must hit. Arlia Delphonse said it would be really fun at a party or with friends to compete to beat each other’s scores. “I liked that one the best,’’ William Harvey said. “It really got me up moving.’’ Toy Wishes magazine lists it as one of its toy all-stars. Toy tester: Chase Shiflet, 14. 

- Prices shown are list prices, though many items are discounted by 25 percent or more online and in stores. 

A look at the Times' toy testers: Sarah Collins, 15, ninth grade, Palm Harbor University High School; Arlia Delphonse, 12, eighth grade, Tarpon Springs Middle School; William Harvey, 11, sixth grade, Liberty Middle School, Tampa; Michela Hendry, 7, first grade, LCC Day School, St. Petersburg; Brett Phillips, 14, ninth grade, Palm Harbor University High IB program; Kaitlyn Sferrazza, 13, eighth grade, St. Jude Cathedral School, St. Petersburg; Chase Shiflet, 14, ninth grade, Blake High School, Tampa. 

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Top toys

In addition to Toy Wishes magazine, several companies put together lists of toys that they think will be the big thing for the holiday season. Here's how some of the lists varied this year.

eToys hot holiday toys:

This company puts together several lists depending on age. Here is the list for elementary school-age kids

- FurReal Friends Pony: S'Mores

- Action City Parking Garage

- Transformers Ultimate Bumblebee

- Bratz DVD Player

- Hannah Montana Dolls, Closet and Stage

- Be-Bratz: Brunette

- FurReal Friends: Squawkers McCaw

- Shining Stars: Yellow Lab

- High School Musical 2 Fashion Doll

- Star Wars/Transformers Deluxe Darth Vader/Death Star


Amazon holiday toy list:

- EyeClops

- Brian the Brain

e_SBltHannah Montana: Music Jam (Nintendo DS)

- Barbie Girls

- Razor Pocket Mod Miniature Euro Electric Scooter

- Smart Cycle

- Mongoose Fuzz 20-inch Freestyle Bike

- Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii)

- Air Hogs R/C Havoc Heli Laser Battle

- FurReal Friends Squawkers McCaw

- Transformers Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet

- ClickStart My First Computer

- Kidizoom Digital Camera by Vtech