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Toy Fair: Markers That Don't Blot Walls, Sand Without The Mess

Toy Fair 2013 in New York started Sunday and runs until Wednesday. NPR's Neda Ulaby had the tough assignment of sizing up the acres of fun offerings. She brings us this report:

The venerable industry convention Toy Fair celebrates its 110th anniversary this week. But it might as well be the 1970s or '80s within the great glassy expanse of New York City's Javits Center.

Vast acres of displays baldly appeal to the nostalgia of today's 30-to 40-something parents. Whole city blocks worth of booths are crammed with Mario Bros., Pacman and Star Wars figurines, Hello Kitties, Slinkies, and Big Wheels The main difference between those toys of thirty years ago and today, it seems, is the presence of USB ports.

More than 30,000 people have registered to attend Toy Fair this year.

Actual children are not allowed.

It's all buyers and sellers, makers and takers. The biggest trends besides nostalgia are building toys — the most popular toy segment on the market right now — and toys tapping into design and style, exactly what parents tend to follow on their favorite TV reality shows.

Kids have always enjoyed imitating the ways of grownups in play. And sure enough, my own unofficial survey of the 1,000-plus booths revealed trends in temporary tattoos and extravagant fake mustaches. One booth sold a combination: fake mustache tattoos. Had it also involved a nostalgic nod to ZZ Top, that booth may well have been mobbed.

Some of the biggest purveyors of play — Lego and Crayola, for example — did not have booths at Toy Fair. Instead, they had fortresses: Giant, bright dividers guarded by stern PR types separated casual lookie-loos from the trendiest, most cutting-edge, new toys.

One had to be approved in advance for an appointment. The Crayola people kindly took me around for a private tour. That's where I learned that holiday shopping season starts in late summer for the biggest toy makers. (It takes that long to create buzz.)

Among the Crayola products coming out in July are magic markers that magically only write on proprietary paper developed by the company. That way, when your three-year-old wreaks havoc with a fat red marker and scribbles all over the couch, the walls and herself, the only visible red marks will be seen on that special Crayola paper.

The company's also developed digital graphic design tools allowing young children to play with digital effects with their drawings and photos, including airbrushing — a skill I suppose can't be taught too early these days.

Innovation was hardly lacking outside the corporate compounds. I was fascinated by the "Sand Puff," perhaps best described as high-tech sand. Imagine lighter, fluffier bread dough, but sandy. It's malleable enough to twist and mold into shapes — even castles! — but also fun to stretch, finger and tear. Sand Puff comes from South Korea and it's made, said the booth attendant, from "seashell powder and natural moisturizing oil."

Stuffed animals have somehow gotten even cuter since I was a kid — more cuddly, more personable, more convincing. It's possible my favorite toys at the fair were the plush horses, as large as Newfoundlands, so soft and sensitive you could almost hear them nicker. Best of all, they're outfitted like tricycles, so you could actually ride these giant stuffed animals around.

I mean, you could if you were little.

(Neda Ulaby is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk.)

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