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It's officially Chicago Toy & Game Week, the annual gathering of toy industry players here on the Third Coast. Toy & game designers, inventors and innovators will be meeting with acquisition executives from major toymakers as a variety of conferences take place leading up to the annual TAGIE Awards on Friday, followed by the main event on Saturday and Sunday - #ChiTAG: the public Chicago Toy & Game Fair. Happening at Navy Pier, November 17 & 18, 2018, ChiTAG has become a Chicago tradition to usher in the holiday shopping season by allowing families to go hands-on with some of the hottest toys of the season, along with some under-the-radar picks from major manufacturers and independent toymakers alike. There's fun for the whole family, and this year there's some new additions on opposite ends of the spectrum... like the baby and toddler play area and a beer garden (with games!) for the "big kids" (21+).

As we enter one of the most unusually competitive holiday seasons in recent memory, despite the closure of Toys "R" Us in the U.S., parents and other gift-givers have more options than ever for where to by toys. Local toy stores still exist, and one company that's been around for a few decades is Learning Express. While it might be a chain with around 110 locations, each store is a local, family-owned franchise that's catered to the communities that they serve. That means that while each store may be a little different, they're all focused on delivering what kids want. Staffed by toy experts that can demonstrate the latest toys as they stay on top of current trends, they also offer a personal touch with services like holiday and birthday registries, free gift-wrapping, in-store pick-up and a host of regular events (which I've taken my girls to on occasion). In addition to launching their 2018 Holiday Catalog, Learning Express has named their Holiday Hot Toys of 2018, so it's time to take a look...

Back in the day, there was a fantasy that many kids had, and it was in large part due to Nickelodeon putting the bug in those kid's heads. The old Super Toy Run would find contest-winning kids getting to run loose in a Toys "R" Us store to load up their carts, snagging as many awesome toys as they could within a certain time limit and up to a specific dollar amount. Now, while TRU is gone, the dream is back! Nick and Walmart are teaming up to present Nickelodeon Toy Run: Family Style in Walmart stores across the country. Hosted by Nickelodeon’s JoJo Siwa, Nickelodeon Toy Run: Family Style will give three grand prize winners a shopping spree in the toy aisles of their local Walmart to stock up on their favorite, must-have holiday toys.

The holiday shopping season is officially upon us, and as promised, the #ToyWars are in full-effect with retailers stepping up to serve families who may be saddened by the loss of Toys "R" Us this year. While the big guns have been getting much of the press, there's quite a few smaller, regional retailers who are upping their game, and one is an old favorite of mine - Blain's Farm & Fleet. Family-owned and with just 39 locations across Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, they might not be a familiar name, but they're a store that I've always enjoyed stopping at, particularly as a kid. In fact, while the closest store to us is over 20 miles away, my mom still does occasionally check out the location near her for their annual Toyland tradition, and as of today it's open for 2018 - promised to be bigger and better than ever. For over 60 years, customers have lined-up in the darkness prior to the 7am store opening, but this year there's even more fun to be had.

Zuru Toys is a curious outfit. On one hand, they have fantastic, original lines like their global hit Bunch O Balloons, this year's successful Smashers (now in Series Two) and one of my current Holiday Wish Guide™ picks - Rainbocorns Sequin Surprise (my girls LOVE theirs). But then they tread really close to other popular brands, releasing toys that there's no denying are at least inspired-by some heavy-hitters, perhaps stopping just short of being called something more unsavory... knockoffs. There's 5 Surprise, which as the name implies places five toys inside a round orb, no doubt taking some cues from MGA Entertainment's L.O.L. Surprise line, but packing-in toys akin to what you'd find in a 50¢ vending machine. Then you've got X-Shot, which is a straight-up competitor to Hasbro's NERF line; METAL MACHINES which is a value-priced diecast line that's clearly inspired by Mattel's Hot Wheels; Oosh which is essentially Educational Insights' Floam; you get the idea. Now they're chasing LEGO with MAX BUILD MORE, a new collection of "compatible" building bricks that's just launched as a Walmart exclusive (yes, that's an affiliate link because if you absolutely have to have them, I'll gladly make a few pennies on the deal - but you could also just shop the fantastic LEGO selection instead). In a press release, Zuru touts them as "a premium quality, value-priced toy brick line -- compatible with all major toy brick brands and offering unbeatable value for budget with hundreds of high-quality bricks in each set for a fraction of the current price."

It's been an incredible (and unusual) year for toys, and as I happened to come across a small selection of FAO Schwarz-branded toys at Kohl's this past weekend, I was reminded that one piece of news that many have been waiting for is the full details on the opening of the new FAO Schwarz flagship store in New York City. Today, we know that November 16, 2018 will be the official opening date of the NYC store located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The new store will feature over 20,000 square feet of FAO Schwarz signature toys and items from partners such as Melissa & Doug, Marvin's Magic and Build-A-Bear as well as FAO Schweetz in partnership with IT'SUGAR. But that's not all...

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