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Travel Toys Are a Child's Best Friend : Toy makers scramble to satisfy the exploding travel-game industry as more families hit the road.

August 16, 1992|EILEEN OGINTZ

Parents can breathe a sigh of relief. They need never again hear "When are we going to be there?" from the back seat. At least that's what toy manufacturers want them to believe. And they're staking millions on the claim.

Whether kids are 2 or 12, 6 or 16; whether they like singing songs, building with Legos, drawing or playing games, the toy industry has a travel plaything to keep them busy en route. And the new games won't break the travel budget. Many retail for less than $10, though some of the electronic models are much pricier.

"The vacation doesn't begin when you get there," explained Mark Morris, a spokesman for Milton Bradley, which began making travel games in 1982 with Travel Battleship and has added a few new games yearly since then. "The vacation begins when you pull out of the driveway. We're saying here's a way to make the trip more fun."

Parents clearly are buying the pitch. As families take to the road and the skies in record numbers, there's no question that they're stopping at the toy store first. In the past year alone, sales jumped more than 70% in the travel game category, according to the Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service--to more than $26 million.

"It's exploding," said Ohio Art's Pat Grandy, whose Travel Etch- a-Sketch has proved a hit. There's even a bonus that manufacturers didn't count on: People try the smaller and cheaper versions of travel games and then return later for the standard size, Grandy said.

"It's a case of the toy companies coming up with products that fulfilled an unmet need and it worked," explained Paul Valentine, who tracks the toy industry for Standard & Poors. He forecasts that the "terrific growth" will continue as more new products are introduced.

"They're really going after the market," added Carolyn Shapiro, senior editor of Toy and Hobby magazine, which tracks the toy industry. "And once one company's doing it, they all look at it. You have a lot more companies saying, 'We can do this, too."'

The toy industry clearly has seen what the travel industry has learned: Parents who are taking their kids on trips--90 million are expected to vacation together this year--want them to be busy and happy along the way.

Forget coloring books and crayons that melt in hot cars. Counting license plates or singing songs doesn't cut it anymore. Any parent who has taken a trip recently knows that "kids today are used to electronic entertainment," Shapiro said. "They need more diversion."

And the toy makers are selling it. Kids can take their pick: They can draw with a travel Ghost Writer (shake the toy and the drawing disappears) or make cartoons with Ohio Art's traveling Cartoon Maker.

They can learn geography by snuggling up with Hugg America, a colorful pillow-shaped U.S. flag with 400 labeled locations. If they're traveling overseas, they could try the Hugg a Planet: a round pillow depicting the Earth (it comes equipped with a pamphlet explaining pressing environmental issues and won the well-respected Parents Choice Award).

Older kids can race the built-in timer to answer geography questions posed by the hand-held electronic GeoQuest.

If games are their thing, they can play more than a dozen of their favorites in miniature form--from Clue to Scrabble to Battleship to Junior Monopoly to Boggle to Shark Attack, Backgammon and Chinese checkers.

They can build whole towns with Lego's Tote Packs and even perform magic tricks with Pressman's Traveling Magic Show. (How about making cardboard bunnies multiply?) The American Automobile Assn. has even gotten into the act with a $4.95 Travel Activity Book, which includes games, puzzles and pictures to color.

The preschool set hasn't been neglected either: Parker Brothers has a whole line of Go-Along games that feature Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy.

Yet simply amusing our children just isn't enough these days. "The idea is to be educational while you're on the go," explained Angela Forenza, of Hugg a Planet Inc., whose $14.95 Hugg America is proving to be a big seller, according to the manufacturer. Even the preschoolers' Disney games help kids learn their ABCs, colors and shapes.

A Tutor Toys spokesman notes that even GeoQuest's $65 price tag hasn't kept parents from buying the toy. "It's doing very well for us," he said. "Parents want something that will challenge the kids."

So just as resorts, hotels and cruise ships are trying to outdo each other to win this growing family market, toy manufacturers are competing to keep the kids amused en route.

They're showcasing their offerings at the International American Toy Show and bringing out new products at a rapid clip. Toys R' Us now has an entire section devoted to them. Five years ago, they carried just a few.

Parents haven't been forgotten, either. If they need travel advice, Disney's new $19.95 "Busy Bags" (a collection of crayons, sing-along music cassette, pencils and activities book) come equipped with a parents' guide--one for the road and one for the plane, written by experts.

There's even a cassette featuring interactive word games offered by a "Fairy Game Mother."

"We call this first-aid for traveling families," joked Fairy Game Mother Deborah Valentine, a former teacher whose Valentine Productions company has sold more than 50,000 "Games for the Road" tapes. She's just introduced a sequel.

"Parents are all on overload," Valentine said. "If the kids can play something without the parents, it gives the parents a break."

But not for long. No one's yet invented a game to break up those all-too-frequent fights in the back seat.

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