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Toy Fair opens today Fisher-Price will unveil 50 new products

Consumers will get their first look at the latest flashy goods toy companies have to offer today as Toy Fair rolls into the Javits Center in New York City.

East Aurora-headquartered toy giant Fisher-Price made the trip, as did Buffalo Games, with its locally manufactured line of games and jigsaw puzzles. They're two of more than 1,200 exhibitors hoping to dazzle the media with their hottest toy offerings and garner lots of orders from the more than 20,000 consumers and retail buyers expected to attend.

Fisher-Price is unveiling prototype and finished versions of more than 50 new products touting its "Play, Laugh, Grow" mission. Featured toys, driven by a fusion of education, physical activity and technology, build on the success of last year's big splashmaker, the Smart Cycle.

The Fisher-Price Smart Cycle Physical Arcade Learning System won two top honors at last year's Toy of the Year Awards, given by the Toy Industry Association, which also sponsors Toy Fair. The combination stationary bike and video game system plugs into a television set and is compatible with a line of educational games.

"The focus is on growing and learning through play," said Kevin Curran, Fisher-Price general manager. "It's about supporting physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills through things like creative expression."

A sort of Wii for preschoolers called the 3-in-1 Smart Sports is another plug-and-play interactive game being featured this year. It includes a plug-in TV controller with attachable golf club, tennis racket and baseball bat that register movement on a television screen. It will retail for $64.99.

The Splatster, for 3 to 8-year-olds, is another interactive plug-and-play system. It consists of a wireless paintbrush that registers brush stroke movement on the screen and can be plugged into a computer's USB port in order to print copies of the artwork created on TV. It will retail for $54.99.

The Smart Fit Park plug-and-play learning mat registers players' foot action, which corresponds with a customized on-screen character. For 3- to 6-year-olds, it retails at $39.99.

A souped-up version of the Smart Cycle called the Smart Cycle Extreme will have vibrating "rumble action" and retail for $99.99.

The toys will hit shelves in August.

The Smart Cycle caught some negative attention last week when the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood nominated it for a TOADY award, which stands for Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young Children. The CCFC complained the stationary bike is just a cover for "brain-rotting screen time" in front of the TV. It feared the pricey toy ($109.99) encouraged materialism, discouraged outdoor physical activity and offered video games masquerading as educational fare.

Still, while many of the technology-driven items unveiled at Toy Fair tend to bear substantial price tags, Fisher Price is quick to remind recession-weary consumers it has plenty to offer in the $5-to-$20 price range.

Also being highlighted are 50th anniversary editions of the Fisher-Price Little People Play 'n Go Farm and Play 'n Go School. They feature chunkier retro versions of the original play sets, each retailing for $17.49.

"At Toy Fair, everybody rolls out their big holiday toys, the really innovative eye candy," said Fisher-Price spokeswoman Brenda Andolina. "But we've always had a very broad portfolio of inexpensive toys."

More than 50 percent of the company's 2009 line retails for less than $25.

Consumers have clamped down on spending amid the recession, as evidenced by a steep drop in December retail sales -- the worst holiday shopping season in decades.

Fourth-quarter sales for Fisher-Price's "core" operations in East Aurora were down 9 percent from last year. Still, the company managed a 1 percent sales increase overall in 2008.

But the economic downturn could lend an unexpected helping hand for companies such as the 80-employee Buffalo Games.

Unofficial "game nights" have sprung up around the country as consumers turn to board and party games in search of inexpensive entertainment alternatives.

Buffalo Games is unveiling a fine-tuned version of its newest light strategy game called Ruin, as well as a new line of jigsaw puzzles series featuring Coca-Cola, cat, horse and "mystic fantasy" artwork.
"People are returning to home and hearth. How else can you entertain eight family and friends for less than $30?" said Laurie Mahoney, Buffalo Games spokeswoman. "You get a great value because the game changes with every new group of people you play with."

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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