You may not instantly recognize the name but if you grew up in the 80’s then Worlds of Wonder was probably a part of your childhood. WOW brought out several big hits in the toy world before bombing and fading off into obscurity. They had huge sales with some major favorites for several Christmases in a row before their fall which was just as fast as their rise.
Worlds of Wonder was started by a former Atari employee, Don Kingsborough, who had no experience in toys but stumbled upon the inventor of Teddy Ruxpin. Teddy Ruxpin had been shown to the major toy companies but had been rejected because of the video game bust that had soured all the toy makers on electronics. Kingsborough thought it was a great idea and WOW licensed Teddy Ruxpin and had a huge hit on their hands. The talking teddy bear was so insanely successful for World of Wonder that other similar toys were eventually brought out by WOW.
The technology that went in to Teddy Ruxpin (which was adapted from the animatronics used in Disney’s Hall of Presidents) was used in Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, and Mother Goose toys and each was well received.
Teddy Ruxpin was the big hit in 1985 but Worlds of Wonder wasn’t going to be a one hit wonder as it followed up with Lazer Tag in 1986. Designed as a way to improve on the simple game of Tag, Lazer Tag was brought out with huge fanfare including a series of commercials that cost over a million dollars each, a completely unheard of number in the toy business at that time.
Lazer Tag was a big hit when it was first released but it began the string of bad luck that WOW would experience. Sales after Christmas were slow and eventually a child was killed by police who thought the Lazer Tag gun was a real weapon. The news hurt Lazer Tag’s sales even more.
WOW tried to follow up Lazer Tag with Julie, a doll that had some pretty advanced technology inside. Julie was made to recognize words its owner said and respond based on certain words it heard. Unfortunately for Worlds of Wonder, Julie didn’t always work very well and was brought out with several talking dolls from competitors pretty much beating Julie down and keeping the doll from being the huge Christmas hit that Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag had been the years before.
1987 wasn’t the year for Julie but Worlds of Wonder had one more big trick up their sleeve. They had originally distributed the NES in North America for Nintendo and they wanted back in the video game business. They brought out the Action Max which needed a VCR to work. All of the games for the Action Max were on VHS tapes and would play real video that you would shoot at with the light gun. I still own my Action Max and I can attest to it not being great. It can be fun for a few minutes but beyond that it gets pretty boring. Needless to say the Action Max couldn’t compete with Nintendo and is barely a memory in the world of video games today.
WOW wasn’t quite ready to give up just yet. After Julie and Action Max were anything but successful they tried some school supplies under a single line called Class Act. The line consisted mostly of simple items like locker shelves and backpacks but it did also include something different in a locker answering machine. Unfortunately Class Act was brought out right before Worlds of Wonder declared bankruptcy and the line was cancelled pretty early in its lifespan.
WOW was out of business by 1990 but both Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag have lived on, first through companies started by former WOW employees and later by Tiger Electronics and Hasbro (Lazer Tag) as well as Playskool and Backpack Toys (Teddy Ruxpin). It’s unfortunate that the risks WOW took to bring out some fairly revolutionary toys didn’t continue to pan out in the later years as well as it did in the beginning. Their good ideas have been revamped a few times and brought back several times. It’s hard to tell what Worlds of Wonder might have brought is if it had survived well into the 1990’s.