When we recall 1996, some might think of the Olympics, others might think of elections, but for a good portion of retail workers, moms, pops, grandparents and great many would-be gift givers, 1996 was undoubtedly the year of Tickle Me Elmo. It served as a reminder of the last true doll craze, the 1980s juggernaut called the Cabbage Patch Kid. Of course, there were Beanie Babies and a good number of other “popular” toys that emerged over the years, but none that could match the Elmo-mania that gripped the nation at that particular point in history.
The idea started out innocently enough, an observation inventor Ron Dubren made one day while visiting his local park. He was watching kids who were tickling one another until they were reduced to fits of giggles. Common enough as the event was, he saw through the moment to grasp onto something that children might truly enjoy – a toy that would bust into giggle-fits when it got tickled. He created a prototype inside a monkey, but toy companies were less than impressed and Dubren faced rejection after rejection.
Then, one fine day, Tyco got the rights to produce a line of Sesame Street dolls. While pondering the possibilities, they remembered Dubren and his giggle concept, which went directly into the belly of an Elmo doll. Elmo was a favorite with the new generation of Sesame Street viewers who instantly related to his cuddly appearance and childlike demeanor. The Tickle Me Elmo doll was created with a variety of unique reactions to being tickled. Sometimes he’d say “Oh, no! That tickles!” Sometimes he’d just giggle. But other times, you’d really get him good and he’d erupt with a volcano of giggles guaranteed to split the sides of any toddler within four feet (Your distances may vary).
It was up on store shelves just in time for the holidays in 1996 and the reaction from parents was instant. It was doing well enough on its own before talk show host Rosie O’Donnell featured the Tickle Me Elmo doll on her program, which set sales through the roof. Soon, Tickle Me Elmo was a permanent fixture on television sets, bringing the new doll into craze-status. As storage supplies began to dwindle, the panic meter for parents went into the red zone. Mob scenes started to take place as stores were opening their doors. Profit-minded individuals also seized the opportunity to make a buck or two by picking up the dolls and reselling them at ten times their original cost. For a short while, our little furry friend was even fetching about $2,500 on the black market.
Once the shopping season was over, surprisingly, so was the craze. Unlike the Cabbage Patch Kid frenzy that never reached such highs, but whose popularity reigned throughout the 80s, the Tickle Me Elmo doll faded into regular toy status. The pandemonium, however, is etched into many a memory. The item remains popular to this day and there have been a number of other interactive spin-offs, including Rock ‘N Roll Elmo, Country Elmo, Baby Tickle Me Cookie Monster, Tickle Me Ernie and Baby Tickle Me Big Bird. More recently, a new generation of Tickle Me Elmo, called TMX, was unleashed upon the public in 2006. Fan reaction was high, but not nearly to the levels of the previous decade, leaving the original toy to go down as one of the biggest toy crazes in retail history.
If you have fond (or not so fond) memories of the Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon, or were just the proud recipient of one of these treasures, we’d love for you to share those recollections in our comments section.