Our boss Randy likes for those of us who put together the Big Empire to keep our fingers on the pulse of popular culture. With this in mind, I requested he arrange for me to attend Toy Fair '99, the annual toy industry convention here in New York. As a representative of the world's only website, the procurement of a press pass should have been easy as pie in Amish country. As Randy discovered, however, one needs to plan ahead for an event such as the Toy Fair, and not just call the week before it starts and ask for "somebody real important."

Half of the Toy Fair passed, and I still had no way in. But by that time Randy had gotten pretty worked up about getting a report from the show. Recalling his younger days, before he became a successful website owner, he sent me a list of tips and tricks for sneaking into arenas and fairgrounds unnoticed, and instructed me to put them to good use. I protested, saying I thought I would have a hard time getting past the security. He told me that if a physically striking man such as himself could slip into a demolition derby in Montgomery, Alabama without a hitch, certainly a nobody like me could slide past the guards at a big convention.

Still wary, I explained the situation to my friend Dave, the only person I know who has invented a board game, which is sort of a toy. I figured he might have been to the convention and seen a weakness in the security system that I could exploit. He had noticed no such thing, but graciously offered to let me borrow his pass, since he no longer had any use for it. He stipulated that I could do anything I wanted except make an ass of myself in front of the company he's pitching his new game to. I told him I couldn't make any promises, because once I start making an ass of myself it's hard to tell who's paying attention. I assured him I would do my best to keep it cool.

The next day, I got the pass from Dave and headed for the Jacob Javits center. I have no idea who Jacob Javits was, but I assume he liked big ugly glass buildings, because that is what they made in his honor.

I walked into the exhibition space and stood staring in awe. Row upon row of booths packed with every toy imaginable stretched out over acres of gray-carpeted floor space. A giant fluorescent yellow duck walked in front of me, and the occasional foam airplane shot up in the air, catching my eye. The room was abuzz with the sounds of clicking and winding and stuffed dogs barking. I realized that the three hours I had given myself would never be enough to take it all in.

What follows are some highlights from the parts of the show I got to.

Playmobil: As a kid, I always thought Playmobil figures were pretty ridiculous. Who wants pre-built plastic buildings and people when you can make your own customized world with Legos? But their exhibit impressed me. Imagine a booth the size of half a basketball court, lined with little plastic men doing everything from loading moving trains with coal to braining each other with medieval maces. And I finally got the definitive answer to a question that has plagued me since I was ten: it's pronounced play-moe-BEEL, not play-MO-bill.

Bean Bag Animals: If I had to invest all my money in one toy company, I would not hesitate to throw it all at Ty. Beanie Babies have not lost any of their novelty, if the humongous crowds around their booth are any indication. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the inventors at Ty must be blushing something fierce right about now. The number of beanie baby knock-offs boggles the mind. A couple that stand out are the alien beanie babies and "String Beans," whose gimmick is bean bag animals with strings for limbs. While these rip-offs do nothing to increase your Ty dividends, they do show how bean bag animals are still knockin' em dead on the toy circuit.

Petra: Yo-yos are hot again. Or perhaps still. It seems every few years, some very slight variation on the traditional yo-yo comes along. This company's high tech offering had something to do with a ball bearing system that allowed the yo'er to sleep his yo-yo for extended periods of time. To demonstrate the amazing capabilities of the new system, Petra had enlisted a teenaged expert to show off his tricks while dancing awkwardly to generically upbeat music. One woman proclaimed, after watching him perform amazing feats for about five minutes, "This guy's pretty good with a yo-yo." The only trick he couldn't pull off was making it look like he was actually enjoying his own antics. I guess dancing around performing "Around the Worlds" and "Rock the Cradles" gets a little old after doing it eight hours a day for four days in a row.

Chow Hound: This contraption consists of a little plastic bulldog surrounded by six plastic bones on a plastic stand. Two people take turns pushing the bones, one at a time, and whoever picks the Chow Hound's favorite loses the game and possibly a finger, as the pooch springs to protect his treat. This plastic novelty fits in the "fun in the store but gets old after about one minute at home" department.

Velvet Designs: These black velvet coloring boards come with bright paints, and are perfect for kids whose parents want them to get started on a career of selling tacky pictures of Elvis and Jesus at flea markets.

Jumping Jax: The promotional video for these Japanese boots with high-tech springs on the bottom demonstrated the product's superiority over rollerblades, which were clearly its inspiration. It began with a scene showing a flabbergasted rollerblader standing on an uncrossable lawn, being passed up by a long line of ecstatic Jumping Jaxers, who spring on by, uninhibited by the rough terrain. The rest of the video consisted of a group of Japanese women doing aerobics in a variety of settings. I never quite understood the benefits of doing aerobics with the Jumping Jax on, but the hypnotic music and dance routine mesmerized me. I thanked my lucky stars that the samples were not for sale, or I would be keeping my downstairs neighbors awake with my very own Jumping Jax right now.

Excalibur: This company touted its "Gifts for Executives," which consisted mainly of traditional games, such as Chess and Backgammon, redesigned to reduce movement to a bare minimum. Rather than having to lift those heavy pawns or Checkers by yourself, why not let an electronic magnet system move them around for you? For executives who want a little fresh air but are loathe to move their limbs too much, Excalibur also offers a motorized bicycle. If this stuff catches on, I suggest investing in fancy oversized leather desk chairs, because there will be some great big executives asses to accommodate.

Word Spin: A word game consisting of six or so octagonal magnets with a letter printed on each side. One player sticks the magnets together, and the other rotates them to combine the letters into words. This game is just another variation of Yahtzee or Boggle, but the magnets feel really cool when you rotate them. Also, the woman at the booth was nice enough to act impressed when I finally grasped how the game worked and spelled "hat."

Super Stomp Rocket: Unlike regular everyday stomp rockets, the Super Stomp Rocket blasts about 50 feet in the air. I watched the demonstration a few times and made some quick calculations. I concluded that with a Super Stomp Rocket, it would be possible to put out a kid's eye on the third floor balcony from the ground below. Clearly this toy has myriad uses for apartment complex dwellers.

Parent Banc: Every game by this company had something to do with money. For some reason I could not picture kids getting excited by a game about mutual funds or accounting, but then again, what I don't know about kids could fill a warehouse.

Stak-It: A Canadian company invented Stak-It cards which are designed to take the challenge out of building a house of cards. The plastic cards are punched with indentations on both sides so that they stack up easier. The guy demonstrating the cards showed me how they work and then launched into a diatribe about how television is destroying the minds of Canada's youth. I assume he meant to imply that Stak-It cards somehow would stem the tide of stupidity that television was washing over the children. Unfortunately, he came off a little bit crazy in the head himself, so I never understood how "we made it easier to build a house of cards" served as a solution to the problem of dumb kids. I feel certain he would have continued to try to explain it to me, but as soon as another person approached the booth and diverted the guy's attention for a moment, I bolted.

Of course, the above items are but a tiny fraction of what I saw, which was a tiny fraction of the items on display at the show. While a lot of the merchandise is gimmicky or cheapo or educational, I knew walking out of the show that the world's youth will find more than plenty to keep itself entertained for years to come.

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