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Five years after he became king of the toy box, "Tickle Me Elmo" is back, and this time he's sporting a Fisher-Price label.

The furry, red Sesame Street character will make his re-debut today as the 2001 American International Toy Fair gets under way in New York City. The uber-toy of 1996, now known as "Tickle Me Elmo Surprise," one-ups his predecessor with five random tickle spots, designed to keep kids tickling until they find the right one.

"Everybody's been looking for the next Tickle Me Elmo," said Neil Friedman, president of Fisher-Price Brands. "We felt that the only thing that could be the next Tickle Me Elmo, was Tickle Me Elmo Surprise."

Friedman, knows a thing or two about developing a red hot toy. As president of Tyco Preschool, then a Fisher-Price rival, he oversaw the development and launch of the giggling, wiggling toy that became one of the toy industry's biggest success stories. When Mattel acquired Tyco in 1997, Elmo and rest of the Sesame Street gang came along as part of the deal, a relationship that was further cemented when Friedman was named president of East Aurora-based Fisher-Price in 1999.

"The fifth anniversary seemed like the right time to bring him back and introduce him to a whole new crop of kids," Friedman said. "Will he rival himself? Only time will tell."

Reactions of the few retail executives and trade press representatives who have seen the reworked Elmo has been extremely positive, Friedman said.

"Every time we show him to someone they smile, and when toys elicit immediate smiles, you know you've got something really good," he added.

Toy industry expert Christopher Byrne (aka: The Toy Guy) said it appears Fisher-Price has found a way to improve on a classic toy.

"He does more, he says more, but he still let's the child direct the play patterns," Byrne said. "This is a case where a great toy has been made even better."

Parents should also approve of his lower price tag. A $39 toy in 1996, the updated product, which will appear on toy store shelves starting in June, will sell for around $25.

Coming off its self-proclaimed "best year ever," the local toy company-turned key Mattel subsidiary will launch some 400 new and updated products in 2001. A full 80 percent of the playthings will rely on computer chips for some of their charm, up from 60 percent last year, and just 10 percent five years ago.

Friedman said the key to employing technology appropriately for the infant and preschool crowd is understanding how to enhance the learning value of a toy.

"We know a child learns by rote, so if you give them a toy that they won't play with over and over and over, they won't learn anything from it."

"If you can create a toy that is packed with learning features, and happens to be fun and exciting, it will capture their imagination and be something they go back to."

He also noted that as the price of this technology has come down, toy makers can add more bells and whistles without boosting the costs to consumers.

Computer chips, which make a universe of sounds, lights and movement possible, give Fisher-Price new ways to rev-up classic developmental toys and invent new ones. The company's new Baby Playzone line is an example of using chip technology to freshen traditional infant products.

The new Crawl 'N Cruise Playground (approximately $40, available in July) combines crawling, pulling up and "cruising" activities into a toy that offers interior and exterior play opportunities. In addition to providing a range of motor skill development features, it rewards babies as young as six months for their efforts with flashing lights, music and sounds.

Another interesting application of technology to traditional play patterns is Pixter, a kid-sized personal digital assistant that looks a whole lot like mommy and daddy's Palm Pilot. The hand-held creativity systems work like a digital pencil and paper to encourage hours of drawing fun. ($39.99, ages 5 , available in September.)

The Rescue Heroes line of action figures gets a boost from the company's largest-ever play set, the Aquatic Rescue Command Center. The 2 1/2 -foot long, 2-foot tall play center includes a rescue crane, medical platform, fueling station, jet runway and helicopter pad, plus an array of lights and sirens, to assist the "cool guys who are good guys" get the job done. ($69.99, ages 3 , available in September.)

Introduced in 1998, the Rescue Heroes line was the best-selling toy in January, according to NPD Toy Tracking Service.

Fisher-Price is also introducing a plaything that lets small fry be part of the scooter craze. The Roll 2 Pro Scooter is billed as the first scooter outfitted with training wheels.

In addition to removeable training wheels to help beginners get their balance, the little scooter has height-adjustable handle bars and comes with wrist guards. ($44.99, ages 5 , available in March.)

The highly successful Power Wheels line will get two new models in 2001. A pint-sized Volkswagen Beetle joins the car lineup. The bright yellow bug, complete with sunroof, features a working door and lots of fun decals.

Built to accommodate little driver weighing up to 50 pounds, the teeny bug can travel at speeds up to 2.5 miles an hour. ($129.99, ages 1 1/2 , available in August.)

Fisher-Price is also out with a powered scooter called Mantis. The edgy-looking, black scooter is the fastest vehicle in the Power Wheels line, with top speeds of 6.5 miles an hour.

Designed with more mature drivers in mind, the speedy scooter can carry kids, or even small adults weighing as much as 150 pounds. ($249.99, ages 6 , available in December.)

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