China Toy Fair


COMMENTARY: 1996: The Best Christmas Ever

1996. It was the year of the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bulls, the Dallas Cowboys. It was the year of Jerry Maguire and the Macarena. It was the year of Bill Clinton’s reelection. But most importantly, 1996 marked the best Christmas ever, with toy companies cranking out some of kids’ favorite toys of all time.

Cabbage Patch Snacktime KidWho could forget the Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids dolls, from Mattel? Those pudgy-faced, yarn-haired little cuties each had a motorized mouth, and kids could feed their doll a french fry, a pretzel stick, a banana, and other yummy snacks. This was one of the toys my mom admits to pushing other moms out of the way for at Toys “R” Us on Black Friday morning. The food, which the dolls realistically chewed when kids inserted it into their mouths, fell into a backpack on the doll’s back, so kids could feed them over and over again. Of course, this beacon of glory was shortly recalled after the holiday season, as kids were getting their hair, skin, and fingers stuck in the doll’s mouth (as you can imagine, this resulted in many unhappy parents and kids with bald spots). While I made sure my hair was secured tightly in a ponytail while playing, my Snacktime Kid remained one of my favorite toys through ’97.

FoamnColor BarbieI’m not sure why, but girls have a strange fascination with turning their hair different colors (this is still true today, just do a Google search for “hair chalk”). In 1996, a time before hair chalk, Mattel had the perfect answer. Foam ’n Color Barbie came in three different colors: blue, yellow, and (duh) pink. Each doll featured platinum blonde hair and girls could use the included bottle of colored foam to paint Barbie’s hair—and their own!—a vibrant color. Bath time was never so much fun. The color would wash out (mostly) and then you could start all over again. Mattel also sold color foam replacements, so even if you had the pink Barbie, you could color her hair blue and yellow as well (though this wouldn’t match her included dress—as if!).

Cool Shavin KenWho was the coolest dude on the block in ’96? Move over Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync members, Cool Shavin’ Ken is in town—stealing Barbie’s (and this at-the-time-6-year-old girl’s) heart. This particular Ken doll had realistic hair, and his face featured a full beard-and-moustache combo. There were so many amazing things about this Ken doll. No. 1: He came with shaving cream and a play bottle of Old Spice (Now, looking back on this, I was like, “wait, Old Spice?!?” But then I remembered 1996 was a time before Axe Body Spray). No. 2: Kids could dip the included little play razor in warm water and take it to Ken’s beard and watch as it magically disappeared. No. 3 (I saved the best for last): HE IS AFTERSHAVE-SCENTED. Need I say more? This was definitely a favorite doll for years to come (even after his aftershave scent wore off).

Congo the Gorilla Beanie BabyThough Beanie Babies, from Ty, had been around since 1993, 1996 was a top year for the plush pals, with help from miniature forms of the adorable animals distributed in McDonald’s happy meals. I had hundreds. The bears were the most coveted, as any Beanie Baby collector will tell you. I’ll never forget opening a gigantic shoebox full of them on Christmas morning and sorting them all out. It was overwhelming (looking back, though, it was a shoebox, so I’m not exactly sure how “gigantic” it actually was). Some of the best Beanie Babies released in ’96 include Bongo the monkey and Congo the gorilla, exotic cats like Freckles the leopard and Stripes the tiger, Patti the fuchsia platypus, Righty the elephant, Twigs the giraffe, and Zip the black cat.

Nintendo 64You think the new millennium marked the tech revolution? Well, you’d be wrong. In 1996, we had the best piece of tech around. We had Nintendo 64. That’s right. Cartridge games. Bulky controllers. 3-D (no matter how pixilated) scenes. We had it all. And it was glorious. The system launched with just two games, Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64 (the two best games, Mario Kart 64 and Star Wars Episode I: Racer, weren’t released until 1997)—but both were amazing. And best of all, the console supported up to four controllers at once! That’s four people playing at a time (not to mention the iconic atomic purple controller)! It was revolutionary, and even now with things like the PS4 and Xbox One in existence, big kids my age still love getting their hands on the iconic N64.

Tickle Me ElmoAnd of course, I saved the best for last. This one is a toy nearly everyone is familiar with. You know him, you love him: Tickle Me Elmo, from Tyco Preschool. While Elmo and other Sesame Street toys were nothing new, Tickle Me Elmo was in short supply and high demand. The talking and laughing plush toy interacted with kids and laughed when he was tickled. He won the hearts of kids and parents in the U.S. in no time. With a price point of only $28.99, Tickle Me Elmo is reported to have sold for as much as $1,500. A great toy for its time, kids delighted in interacting with Elmo and tickling him to the point of uncontrollable, shaking laughter. Older kids wanted him as well, which was interesting for a preschool toy. Though this was one my parents just couldn’t pull off for Christmas, my cousins were the envy of the family with their interactive, giggly red furball.

Though there have been many great toys and gifts in the years since the morning of December 25, 1996, none seem to stand out as much as these. Cheers, to the ghost of Christmas past.

More awesome holiday toys of 1996 that I couldn’t include in this post without you getting bored and not reading the entire thing:
1. Sky Dancers, from Lewis Galoob Toys
2. Lisa Frank EVERYTHING (namely, Trapper Keepers)
3. Real Talkin’ Bubba, from Tyco

For more commentary from Marissa, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!