Since Michelle Budny's son Grant was a baby, she has gladly repeated the process of sending in the snapshots that he looks so darn cute in, and driving from Cheektowaga to East Aurora for a try at the hard-to-contain thrill of seeing her son's face on the package of another Fisher-Price toy.
As Grant played with the little cars littering the waiting room in the photo studios at the Fisher-Price headquarters last week, Budny remembered her delight last year when she checked her e-mail while working the night shift and saw that photo of Grant with a toy train loading gadget. Once again he'd made it on one of the 850 toy box photos and catalog stills the company uses each year.
"I had no one to tell. I couldn't wait to get home in the morning," she said of her frustration at having to contain the news.
Last year, more than 2,500 children came to the company's studio for 4,500, 45-minute photo appointments. The com pany pays $25 in Fisher-Price gift certificate for each photo shoot that has kids wearing clothes in colors chosen by art directors and plucked from the wardrobe room where they hang arranged in blues, greens, reds and pinks.
"We've really got it down to a science here," said Randy Edgington, a senior manager for graphic design, as he waited in the cavernous room by the kid-sized Jeep Wrangler that Grant was headed to. It was set up as a small movie set stage with grass from the Clarence greenhouse the company pays to grow a steady supply.
In the last 10 years, the photo studio has evolved as Fisher-Price found success getting the photos it needs by abandoning traditional paid models and independent studios. Demand for kid pictures has grown as packaging is now more art than information, said Brenda Andolina, a company spokeswoman. Instead of a simple toy picture, boxes show kids with faces lit up the way a girl with curly hair beams on one side of a box as she holds a Dora the Explorer doll.
"It really becomes a billboard," Andolina said. "You're billboarding your brand essence."
To get the essence on packages for the hundreds of new toys the company makes each year, the studio brings in as many as 60 children a day who pose with dolls and bubble mowers in return for "Fun Bucks" and a lollipop.
One kid, successfully coaxed to grin, tugged his mother's arm in eagerness for the treat. In the rooms behind them, the classic rock sounds of the Talking Heads and Neil Young played. A photographer clicked at toy dinosaurs posed on a rocky landscape. Someone in a studio room beyond belted out a few lines to a song.
"You're uninhibited over here. It's fun. You've got kids screaming and baby wranglers hollering," said Don Horey, the manager who was glad to hear the yell.
His photo crew includes four photographers, two stylists, one set designer, one computer photo technician and eight part-time "baby wranglers." Some who started out as visiting moms help by charming the children into looking interested in toys that must stay still for the picture. "Big smile today. Did you bring it?" said a young woman who got a laugh by tickling a nose with the feather duster kept by each set.
"It's kind of weird because they really can't play," said Andolina, as she watched a boy frown at a train car he was supposed to hold up.
Yet the routine has become so successful that four years ago the New York City-based licensed character division of Fisher-Price stopped hiring models and started sending over its toys, such as the Sponge Bob Square Pants "bad breath" blaster gun. Toy company clients use the pictures too. Last year local kids singing with a toy microphone were on a Times Square Toys R Us billboard.
"We do it better," Horey said. "We're more cost effective."
A Cincinnati youth marketing and advertising firm president who works with the Hasbro toy company admires Fisher-Price's tailored approach to taking photos for packages.
"It's a smart thing to do," said Dave Siegel, of the Wonder Group. Model children who charge hourly rates, aren't necessarily better. "A pretty child is a pretty child."
A model-hired packaging photo shoot can cost from $2,500 to $10,000, he said, explaining that doesn't include royalties.
"Technology has become so advanced and so relatively inexpensive that companies are doing a lot more by themselves," said Siegel author of "Marketing to the New Super Consumer -- Mom and Kid."
As Grant's mother, who gave his last toys out as Christmas gifts to family and friends, took her place by the set, Grant, his hair newly spiked in a hair gel cowlick, climbed behind the wheel of the toy Jeep. Right away, he smiled broadly.
Another boy sat more seriously beside and set the baby wrangler to work. "Are you in there snoring? Where's your smile Austin?" asked Erin Kelly, a wiry blond, who let out a whoop. "Wooo oooo!"
Austin, 3, who like Grant was a veteran having earned $500 in gift certificates by his mother's count, sat for shots with arm raised, arm down, sunglasses off, sunglasses on. Finished in minutes, he climbed out, said why he liked coming -- "Cause I love toys" -- and stuck his tongue out at his pictures on the computer screen.
Fisher-Price wants the good buzz that happy children and mothers create so that they talk and lead more children to sign up. "It all clicks when mom's feeling that good about it," Horey said.
It also helps that mothers are irresistibly drawn to an extra chance to feel proud of their little ones. Shannon Malley takes monthly photos of her 7-month-old son in ever-changing outfits for her blog -- green plaid in honor of St. Patrick's Day. Soon she intends to send a picture to Fisher-Price, which starts photographing children at 6 months.
Malley fondly remembers posing 20 years ago. A child model, who won kids' beauty contests, she was paid real money when she went to an Orchard Park studio where hair ribbons match her sweaters. Nine toy boxes, one is a toy camera, featured her blond pigtails and are still stashed in a closet.
Now Malley, who works at a bank, thinks Quinn's big blue eyes may be just right for a toy box. It doesn't matter that the $25 gift certificates won't add up to a house payment as her long-ago modeling fees did. "He'll get something," she said.
The gift certificate money adds up, too, in its own way. Jillian Nieves, of Cheektowaga, used "Fun Bucks" to buy the Power Wheels birthday present that her 3-year-old son Caleb drives outside whenever the snow melts.
But he fussed when she wouldn't let him play with the bubble mower. Since his picture was on the box, Nieves bought one to save unopened for posterity. By now she has a small collection, just as Malley's parent's did. The expense of the growing cache made her worry about the $400 Jeep Caleb was about to get his picture taken in.
"I hope he doesn't get on it. Isn't that mean?" she said with conspiratorial grin. "I can't afford to do that."