More than 25,000 people are expected to visit the 10th annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair (ChiTAG) at Navy Pier today and tomorrow to check out the newest and best toys and games for the holiday season.
The best thing about the Chicago event, the largest of its kind in the nation, is that kids and adults are welcome, even encouraged, to try out the goods and participate in a myriad of games and activities.
Mary Couzin, founder and CEO of the Chicago Toy & Game Group, which hosts the fair, calls it a “giant interactive and bottomless toy box.”
Among those 250 vendors will be many of the bestselling brands that families have come to know and love. But there will also be some of the newest critically acclaimed, award-winning games from independent retailers.
Former Morris resident and 1976 graduate of Morris High School Nancy Zwiers will be in Chicago manning her booth and teaching young girls about her two-time-award-winning toy invention, the Pony Royale line of princess pony dolls.
If some young girls haven’t yet heard of the 12 pony princess dolls, one for each month of the year, it won’t be long until they start adding them to their Christmas lists.
Zwiers, who has 20 years experience in the toy industry, began working on the concept over three years ago. She approached it like a creative system, she said, similar to the idea of Legos blocks – the more pony princesses they collect, the more they can build on it and the more fun they have.
What makes the pony dolls so different from other products on the market is that each one has interchangeable silky manes and tails. They also have jewelry-like accessories and an entire fantasy back story behind them.
If a girl has two pony dolls, she can create 60 different looks. With three dolls, there are 500 possible combinations, Zwiers said. The dolls are made for small hands, allowing young girls to play with them independently.
“All the things girls love, we gave to them,” Zwiers said. “There’s a lot of open-ended creativity. It never gets boring.”
Zwiers’ invention was licensed by Razor USA LLC in 2011, more than three years after she came up with the concept.
“It was a very challenging process; there’s a lot of rejection,” she said. “A lot of (toy inventions) never make it. I felt we had an incredible understanding of the consumer.”
Executives from Razor USA LLC were impressed enough with Zwiers and her invention that they brought her on board to take charge of Pony Royale from concept stage to finished product.
“It’s rare for (toy companies who license) to bring in the inventor to see the execution of the toy,” Zwiers said.
Before starting her own her own brand-building consulting and invention firm, Funosophy, in 2000, Zwiers worked her way up the corporate ladder at Mattel. She headed up worldwide marketing for the $2 billion Barbie brand and reintroduced some of the company’s older, successful brands, including Polly Pocket and Cabbage Patch.
Zwiers has two other inventions of her own that have been licensed by toy manufacturers. Fashion Marks activity kits, for girls who have outgrown coloring books, was a creation between herself and younger sister Sally Zwiers, a commercial artist. It’s licensed by Cra-Z-Art.
Her Poppin’ Play piano is licensed by LeapFrog.
“All three have won awards; I am very proud of that,” Zwiers said.
The Pony Royale princess pony dolls line has been so well received by industry experts that Zwiers was one of five nominees up for the Inventor Award for Excellence in Toy Design at Friday night’s TAGIE Awards, considered the Oscars of the toy and game industry, at the Chicago Field Museum.
While results weren’t available by press time, Zwiers felt she had a great chance of winning the coveted award.
“Other awards are given to products, this is given to the inventor. It’s a more personal validation,” she said. “To be singled out for this award is a great honor.”
Zwiers wants to invite the public, and particularly Morris residents, to visit the toy and game fair, which runs through Sunday. There will be all sorts of activities, including giant-size games to play, free contests and tournaments, and a chance to meet the Moshi Monsters.
There will be a special Pony Royale Princess party for girls (3 to 8 recommended), from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. It will be a chance for girls to be introduced to the ponies and walk away with one of their very own while supplies last, Zwiers said.
“They’ll be some of the first in the area to check them out (and own one)” Zwiers said, “which is very cool.”
Zwiers hopes Morris residents who remember her family, including parents Marilyn and Don Zwiers, and those who want to meet a hometown girl, will stop by either her booth or the princess party.
“It would be great to see some folks from my hometown,” she said. “It would be so awesome.”