Here's a list of toy recommendations that should put a holiday-inspired sheen on the faces of the youngsters who are an integral part of your gift list.
Best toys for children
* This year, the classic holiday train set has been designed with the younger set in mind. The newest addition to Fisher-Price's GeoTrax train sets is the remote-controlled Christmas in ToyTown ($130, age 3 and older). Christmas in ToyTown features light-up cars that easily line up on the track to take off through the town and forest, past the light-up skating pond and over the bridge, where it triggers one of four merry holiday songs.
The set includes 16 snap-lock pieces. The train's coal furnace lights up, as do more than 20 twinkling street lamps, skating-pond lights and the station, heralding the train's arrival. There are snap-on ribbons and bows to decorate the bridge railings, and even a cheerful, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa and his elf. The pair drive the locomotive as the train cars illuminate to show the shadows of the passengers as they travel through ToyTown past the toy soldiers and gingerbread men.
The train can be pushed manually along the track, or the small-hands-friendly remote can move it forward and back. GeoTrax train sets can be expanded with GeoTrax flat and elevation expansion packs ($18 each).
* When tucked into a corner of the room, it's a mighty 4-foot-tall rocket ship, ready to burst forth to infinity and beyond. When it's time to play, the Kids Play! Toy Story Rocket Ship Table and Chair Set ($79.99, age 3 and older) rocket-ship body becomes four toddler-size barrel chairs, and the base, rocket nose and fins create a sturdy play table for four. The table features an outer-space design, and "Toy Story" decals decorate this clever, space-saving set.
* Get those toddlers running and learning their letters and colors while working on their listening skills with Wild Planet's Smart Step Games Flipper Frenzy ($24, age 3 and older). Players take turns grasping Sharky's tail as he gives clues to find one of four friends: a clown fish, turtle, octopus or sea horse. Sharky might yell out "Octopus" or "Who is yellow?" or "Who has eight legs?" or "T is for turtle." The player then scoops up the right piece and shakes it a bit to find out if he or she chose the right one.
Flipper Frenzy enforces listening, turn-taking and hand-eye coordination while creating lots of fun.
* The famous mouse is in the house and ready to dance the Mouska Mambo with Fisher-Price's Disney Dance Star Mickey ($99.99, age 2 and older). This Mickey will have the kids on their feet and dancing along as he busts a move to songs including "Get Up Offa That Thing," and "Shake Your Tail Now," while giving techno and disco dance instructions to six songs. Dance Star Mickey also can moonwalk, proclaiming he's "backing this tail up, uh huh!"
* Hide & Seek Junior ($34.99, age 2 and older) from R and R Games is a great game for the whole family, and toddlers will fall in love with this cuddly friend. Mom or dad, sister or brother hides the plush toy (available as an elephant, lion or monkey) and gives the magic seeker wand to the child. Push the button, and the monkey (or lion or elephant) eeks, roars or trumpets out. By following the animal's call, the player finds the hidden friend. Even more fun, let your little one hide it on you and see if you can find the pet.
* Three-D is all the rage, and the Patch 3-D Floor Puzzle ($14.99, age 3 and older) is full of surprises that are revealed when the enclosed 3-D glasses are worn. Forty-six large, colorful pieces are snapped together to create a 2-by-3-foot puzzle in one of three themes: Singin' Sea Creatures, Lightning Bugs or Midnight Safari.
After the puzzle is complete, little ones put on the 3-D glasses, and the image springs to life as they hunt out hidden letters and numbers.
* Up to four players build and create a new play experience every time in the Lego Harry Potter Hogwarts Game ($43.99, 322 pieces, age 8 and older).
Players enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to search the castle in this traditional board game. And, just as in the real Harry Potter world, the staircases move, there are secret passageways to navigate and sliding rooms to cross through as players collect homework from classmates and make their way back to the common room to win.
An added bonus to this game are the five special collectible microfigures, including Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore and four Hogwarts student microfigures (one from each house).
* Wild Planet's Spy Gear has been a perennial favorite gift and does not disappoint this year with the Spy Gear Security Scanner ($24.99, age 6 and older), a hand-held metal detector with an LED alarm system, and the Spy Gear Lie Detector Kit ($24.99, age 6 and older). The kit, which works using finger impulses, provides all the tools a junior investigator needs to uncover the truth.
The Lie Detector Kit also comes with a special secret-agent pen that doubles as a flashlight, and the Security Scanner is packaged with spy-vision glasses.
* Radica's Loopz ($29.99, age 7 and older) challenges memory and reflexes and even lets up to four players create their own high-tech music in this amazingly fun, new take on an old memory game. The vertical Loopz sends light patterns to the four open-ended loops that are set side by side, with two light loops on the bottom and two on top. Players wave a hand through the light frequencies, top right, bottom left, bottom right and top left through seven modes of play.
Pass a hand through the lights to play back an ever-lengthening pattern of lights in Repeat the Beat, or see if you qualify as a Reflex Master by tagging as many flashing lights as you can before time runs out.
In the Loopz music studio, players can use the Loopz like a musical instrument, creating their own beat as well as remixing up to 10 fresh music tracks in Freestyle DJ mode.
* Playskool's Alphie ($44.99, age 3 and older) has lots to say and lots of games to play while helping children learn colors, shapes, numbers, animals, music sounds and instruments within 350 challenging games. Alphie is your child's first robot and features a light-up face display that serves as Alphie's eyes and also delivers cues and responses.
Play and learning modules change by simply inserting one of the three double-sided cards into Alphie. Through the cards, youngsters will be exposed to literacy skills, including letter-sound recognition, phonemics, print and letter shapes.
* Just insert tab A into slot B, and what starts as pieces of corrugated cardboard becomes Box Creations' Country Cottage, Tank, Princess Carriage, Medieval Castle or Space Shuttle ($39.99, age 4 and older). Your child adds some imagination and a decorative flair with four enclosed washable markers, transforming a rainy day indoors or a sunny afternoon in the backyard into an adventure.
Made in the United States, the corrugated cardboard assembles in a few minutes with an adult's help, creating a sturdy structure that's large enough to play in. (The Country Cottage is 46 inches long, 36 inches wide and 53 inches high.)
Tops for boys
* Hasbro's Star Wars: All-Terrain Armored Transport ($99, age 4 and older) or AT-AT for those in the know, is the holy-grail toy for the space epic's fans. This massive vehicle — 2 feet tall and 2 feet long — includes a 3-inch AT-AT driver figure and exclusive Speeder Bike.
Investing in this newest release for your little (or big) "Star Wars" fan means being part of the epic saga played out in "The Empire Strikes Back."
The AT-AT holds 20 figures (available separately) and features light-up reciprocating chin guns, a command section, battle and vehicles sounds, and those ultracool side-mounted blasters to battle for supremacy of your living room.
* Take the excitement of building action vehicles to new heights with the Lego Creator Sonic Boom Building Set ($59.99, ages 8 to 12). This 539-piece set provides a three-in-one building experience as a supersonic jet can be rebuilt into a dual-propeller plane or high-speed boat. Each of the vehicles features its own tricks; the jet plane features an opening cockpit and moving wing flaps, tail fins and landing gear.
The mighty neat "light bricks" add that special glow of realism to your craft as Lego Power Functions light up the plane's afterburners.
* Tonka's Ricochet R/C ($69.99, age 4 and older) combines the toughness of Tonka with the excitement of a high-performance stunt vehicle. This remote is more than one vehicle as it bounces, flips over and keeps on going. Monster life suspension lets the driver change it from a low rider that can fit under obstacles to a monster truck that can crush them beneath heavy-tread tires. The Tonka Ricochet comes with all necessary batteries and is charged to start playing as quickly as possible.
* Mega Bloks' Dragon Universe Ultimate Dragon Destroyer Alliance Warbyrd ($49.99, ages 6 to 8) opens a new universe of imaginative and active play. The 215-piece buildable set creates two attack dragons with laser blaster cannons on their backs and the Alliance Warbyrd ship outfitted with blast cannons. Included are three figures, General Maximus Agustus, who pilots the ship, and troopers Aquila and Pontius, who man the multiple-firing missile launchers as the Alliance Warbyrd battles the deadly Bloodclaw and Deadeye dragons.
The Alliance Warbyrd is the largest attack vessel in the fleet and is fitted with multiple power cores. Adding flashing lights and electronic battle sounds, the Dragon Blaster slips onto the back of the ship, offering authentic battle sounds and dragon screeches. Features of the ship include light-up power cores, figures with orange energy shields and weapons and multiple special-effect lights and sounds.
* It's Matchbox's newest Big Rig Buddy, Stinky the Garbage Truck ($59.99, age 3 and older) an interactive, working garbage truck with personality. Like the other Big Rig Buddies, this truck is articulated, allowing the "head" and front half of the truck to move. Stinky has more than 90 phrases and sounds to keep your youngster laughing and playing along.
Play modes for Stinky have him singing, exercising or encouraging his playmates to "high-five tire" him. Push and pull Stinky, and he turns his head from side to side and blinks his headlight. Drop items into his grill/mouth when he is hungry, and just like a real garbage truck, he drops it out the rear door.
Included with Stinky is a two-episode DVD featuring Stinky, a young boy named Felix and their adventures, which include lessons in friendship, teamwork and finding the hero within you.
* Enter a universe of dragons and knightly bravery with Playmobil's Dragon's Land Set/Dragon's Dungeon play set ($74.99, age 5 and older), the Great Dragon Castle ($154.99) and the Giant Dragon with LED Fire ($29.99). The 19-inch Dragon's Dungeon stands by itself as an imaginative universe where knights fight fire-breathing dragons and kings reward bravery. Catapults at the top of the tower shoot missiles while the dragon light illuminates the structure's interior.
A working drawbridge, three knight figures with sword and shield accessories and a mystical ruin for the dragon keeper mean this set only needs your child's imagination.
* This year's surprise hot building toy is Jakks Pacific's Real Construction Deluxe Workshop ($22.95, $44.99 for the Super Deluxe Workshop Mega Set, age 6 and older). Little hands can safely create what they imagine using special "kid wood," a foamlike material that has been created to look, saw and nail just like real wood. The construction kit comes with a variety of kid-wood shapes and sizes as well as kid-safe tools, including a hammer, handsaw and detail saw, along with hinges, screws and nails, to create anything they can imagine. Additional wood is available in expansion packs available separately ($4.99 to $12.99).
* Totally cool for spying around the corner or on the other side of the house is Wild Planet's Spy Gear Spy Video TRAKR programmable R/C vehicle ($129.99, age 8 and older). A remote-controlled vehicle, the TRAKR has color video capabilities that enable you to move the vehicle — on its whisper-quiet stealth wheels — around the corner not only to see, but also hear and record exactly what is going on in the other room.
The TRAKR connects to your computer through a USB port, enabling you to manipulate videos with downloadable and custom applications, such as night and cyborg vision, or the path mapper, which enables you to create an online mission layout map for your TRAKR to follow. Spies also can join the spytrakr.com community to share tales of their latest missions.
Tops for girls
*Spin Masters' LivWorld's Katie ($13 to $35, depending on doll and accessories, age 4 and older) is a fashion doll for the active girl who likes to be outdoors swimming, skateboarding and biking. Katie is one of five BFFs from LivWorld, and she and her friends Sophie, Hayden, Alexis and Daniela love to play, dance and talk fashion.
Katie comes with a fashion outfit, action skateboard with knee and elbow pads, hairbrush and earrings. Additional interchangeable fashion outfits are available separately. Katie also can come packaged with her adorable collie, SK8, so when filling a wish list, make sure you know which Katie, Sophie, Hayden, Alexis or Daniela you need to find.
* Let your little ones' imaginations fly away with Jakks Pacific's Disney Fairies Tinker Bell Tink's Transforming Balloon Playset ($24.99, age 4 and older) which features the flying craft that Terence and Tink fly away in to find the lost treasure. Once treasure-hunting is finished, the balloon transforms from a vehicle into a tea-party setting with two seats and cups, a telescope, a pixie-dust pouch, and a spool of rope as seen in the movie "Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure." Four-inch-tall Terence has glittering wings. Close the tea-party setting back into a balloon, and it doubles as a storage vessel for the accessories. Additional fairy dolls are sold separately.
* Girls of every age collect Barbie by Mattel, and the 2010 Holiday Barbie ($39.99, age 6 and older) will be on their wish lists. This season's Barbie is dressed in a lovely tricolored gown with a white, red and gold embroidered bodice with a romantic, full tulle overlay skirt accented with a to-the-floor curled red ribbon. Barbie wears a sparkly red-and-gold headband, drop earrings and red shoulder wrap to cover the backless gown while dashing through the snow to the ball.
* Ariel is getting a brand-new Grotto at Disney World, and she has her own My First Disney Princess Ariel Toddler Doll ($32.49, age 3 and older). The My First Princess Dolls by Jakks Pacific feature the Disney Princesses as they might have looked as children. The 14-inch doll's arms, legs and body are larger than on a typical fashion doll, so it's easier to grasp and play with the doll. Ariel comes dressed in her signature blue-and-aquamarine dress, blue-and-silver crown and blue slip-on shoes. Also available separately are Aurora, Belle, Cindy and Cinderella dolls
* It's hard to believe, but Dora the Explorer is celebrating her 10th anniversary, and Fisher-Price's We Did It Dora ($39.99, age 3 and older) pays homage to the original We Did It Dora doll, released in 2002. While that doll swayed back and forth to the music, the 2010 version sings her song while swaying and swinging her long black hair, engaging children with four modes of play: the "We Did It" dance teach-me mode, "We Did It" song and dance, a freeze dance game, and "Say it Two Ways" bilingual dance game. Dora is dressed in her signature orange-and-pink outfit with white tennis shoes.
* Forget the tea party, invite your friends for a chill party with Girl Gourmet's Chill Treats Dessert Maker ($42.99, age 6 and older). The Chill Treats Dessert Maker comes with the fixings to make eight to 12 servings, including vanilla and chocolate mousse-mix packets and toppings, including sprinkles, rainbow sours, dot sprinkles, candy dots and more.
The package comes complete with a mixing bowl, scooper, spatula, topping-bar tray, topping containers, serving cups, spoons and recipe cards. The Chill Treats Dessert Maker also works with your own treats, including ice cream, sorbet, yogurt and pudding. Additional mousse-mix packets and toppings are available separately.
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