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Giggling his way into department stores in 1996, the original Tickle Me Elmo became the most sought-after holiday toy since the Cabbage Patch Kids. With only a million units produced in time for Christmas, “Elmo-Mania” soon took over, and the Tickle Me Elmo doll quickly became the #1 must-have toy for kids nationwide. Legions of desperate parents (and opportunistic scalpers) converged on retail outlets leading to stampedes, fights, and even a few injuries. Strap in as we dive into the hype and history behind the 1996 Tickle Me Elmo craze.
The original Tickle Me Elmo was released in July 1996 by Tyco Preschool. While only 400,000 units were initially produced, the toy sold steadily and was available in stores before selling out the day after Thanksgiving.
Tyco Preschool ordered another 600,000 units, but by this point, news of the Tickle Me Elmo’s scarcity had driven shoppers into a frenzy. Dubbed “Elmo-Mania” by the press, it wasn’t long before journalists were reporting on stampeding crowds, injured workers, and profiteering resellers.
Check out this 1996 news clip reporting on the Tickle Me Elmo craze:
Fans of Sesame Street were delighted when Tyco introduced a new Elmo doll that vibrated and giggled when played with. Tickle Me Elmo’s 1996 debut proved so captivating that almost every shopper across the country wanted to get their hands on one.
Older kids were begging their parents for a Nintendo 64 that year, but if you were still a tot in 96′, chances are, the Tickle Me Elmo doll was at the top of your Christmas list. This beloved Elmo toy contained a vibrating sound box that gave Elmo the ability to shake, wiggle, and utter his trademark giggle, “Uh-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee!”
The little red guy started a shopping frenzy and sold 1 million units in six months. Tyco’s sales soared from $70 million per year to a remarkable $350 million amid the Tickle Me Elmo craze.
Tickle Me Elmo was created by toy inventors Greg Hyman and Ron Dubren based on a prototype called “Tickles the Chimp”. Hyman and Dubren were already well-known in the toy industry for developing a kid’s learning computer named Alphie the Robot in the 1980s and were looking for their next big thing.
In 1995 the duo presented “Tickles The Chimp” to Tyco Preschool. The toy monkey was complete with a computer chip that made it ‘laugh’ when tickled (sound familiar?)
At the time, Tyco was more interested in tapping into big-name enterprises, like Looney Tunes and Sesame Street; however, they still didn’t have the rights to make Sesame Street toys. After losing the rights to Looney Tunes merchandise, Tyco gained the rights to Sesame Street. Thanks to the runaway success of Tickle Me Elmo, other Sesame Street characters like Big Bird would eventually get the “Tickle Me” treatment.
By the end of the 1996 holiday season, all 1 million original Tickle Me Elmo dolls were scooped up by shoppers. By Christmas 1997, Tyco had sold a whopping 5 million in total. New editions of Tickle Me Elmo have been released every few years since. The 2012 LOL (Laugh Out Loud) Elmo was especially popular as it could respond to sounds it hears as well as being tickled.
Based on extensive market research, Tyco Preschool settled on moving forward with Elmo as their Sesame Street plush of choice. Elmo’s high-pitched speech reminds kids of how their parents spoke to them when they were babies. To toddlers, Elmo mimics their behavior, limited self-understanding, and perception of the world around them – making them view the fuzzy red doll as a friend.
The Tickle Me Elmo was voiced by Kevin Clash (who puppets and voices Elmo on Sesame Street). Kevin lent his voice for all Tickle Me Elmo dolls from 1984 to 2012. We’ll get back to Kevin a little later, but first, let’s cover just how the ticklish toy sparked outrage, fury, arrests, and injury.
The “Elmo-Mania” phenomenon didn’t happen overnight. When it was initially released, Tickle Me Elmo enjoyed decent sales, but nobody was trampling over one another to get one.
Things changed once Rosie O’Donnell featured the toy on her highly popular talk show. Tyco sent the show 200 Tickle Me Elmo dolls to be given out to audience members. Elmo’s lovable laugh and those sweet hugs that made him giggle quickly made him the most sought-after toy in 1996. Elmo became a favorite guest on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, appearing many times over the years.
The original Tickle Me Elmo retailed for $28.99, but thanks to demand from desperate parents, some scalpers were selling the toy for upwards of $1500. (Source: People.com)
Suddenly, there was a Tickle Me Elmo black market to rival the Beanie Babies craze.
The fad reached its peak during the 1996 Christmas shopping season. Some buyers even turned to violence to get their hands on one. Reports of fights over the last dolls in the store, people running after delivery trucks, and trampled store clerks popped up regularly on the evening news. Two women were even arrested at a Chicago toy shore for fighting over the toy.
The Tickle Me Elmo craze didn’t pass our neighbors up north, either. One Walmart employee at a Canada location was physically hurt ten days before Christmas Eve when a pack of 300 shoppers spotted the man receiving a box of Tickle Me Elmos. The employee suffered back, jaw, and knee injuries, a broken rib, and a concussion.
While this is one of the most extreme cases of “Elmo fans gone wild,” it’s shocking just what lengths people will go through to get an in-demand product. Little did these parents know in 1996, they’d be back in the long lines, Toys “R” Us brawls, and dabbling into the black market for a Furby just a few years later.
Elmo never had a run-in with the Mafia, but he made headlines again during the 1996 Elmo-Mania. Disgruntled shoppers became upset when The New York Daily News reported that John Gotti, Jr. (yes, the son of the Gambino crime family boss) purchased a case of Tickle Me Elmos at a Toys “R” Us in Queens, NY. Tyco officials claim Gotti was just at the right place at the right time, and the toy store granted no special treatment. We’ll let you be the judge of that one.
This might be the most anyone ever paid for an original Tickle Me Elmo. During the peak of the craze, rumor has it that a Tickle Me Elmo sold for an insane $18,500!!! (Source: Wikipedia.com)
The story goes that a Los Angeles radio station held an auction for charity on December 20, 1996. The winners were Bob’s Pharmacy’s shop, which eventually had to pay nearly $20k for the toy. That’s a lot of money to spend on a stuffed animal, but at least the money went to charity!
Like all vintage toys, the value will differ. A sealed original Tickle Me Elmo will be worth much more than the well-loved nighttime pal you drooled all over as a kid. However, if you’re hoping for a massive increase from Tickle Me Elmo’s 1996 value, you might be disappointed.
As of writing, a sealed, original Tickle Me Elmo’s value is only around 50 bucks on eBay.
Kevin Clash, the puppeteer and voice of Elmo, faced allegations of sexual misconduct in 2012. The Tickle Me Elmo South Park parody ‘Stop Touching Me Elmo’ responded to the charges against Clash – in true South Park fashion. All three cases were eventually dismissed.
Have you ever seen Tickle Me Elmo with no fur? It’s pretty damn creepy. Leave it to the internet to turn a lovable toy into something that nightmares are made from (*cough* Long Furby *cough*). The Canada Science and Technology Museum released a terrifying video of a skinless Tickle Me Elmo, saying, “It’s all in the name of science.” We’re not sold.
Tickle Me Elmo is back. Although he never really went anywhere. There’s a whole new generation of Elmo fans who laugh, giggle, and swoon over the plush toy just like kids did over 25 years ago. Naturally, a new Tickle Me Elmo 2000’s edition will have a couple more advances than the original, but for the most part, not too much has changed.
The latest version is manufactured by Hasbro and was released on March 27, 2018. The new scaled-down model is a little smaller than the original and features shaggy, plush-looking fur.
So, what does Tickle Me Elmo say today? Well, it wouldn’t be a hit without Elmo coming alive and laughing, “Uh-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee!” and “Elmo is one ticklish monster” in his signature high-pitched voice. When you squeeze his feet or tummy, he’ll blurt out more iconic sayings like “Elmo loves to laugh” and “Keep tickling Elmo”.
A cool feature about the updated toy is that the more you tickle him and make him laugh, he’ll start to shake and laugh even harder. Kids today can press Tickle Me Elmo’s tummy or squeeze his foot to hear his funny phrases, giggles, and chuckles. The original Tickle Me Elmo only had an activator in his belly.
Many places, actually. Updated versions of the red plush toy can be found at major toy stores, online, and general retailers. However, if you want to get your paws on an original Tickle Me Elmo from 1996, your best bet is going to be eBay.
Where are all those vintage Elmos 90s kids pressed their parents for? Perhaps it’s time to head into your parent’s attic and check if your Tickle Me Elmo from 1996 still works. Just don’t skin it – it’s weird.
All 1 million Tickle Me Elmo’s were sold in 1996. More would be produced to sell the following year.
Tickle Me Elmo was never recalled. There was a brief fake news story about the dolls containing asbestos, which was quickly debunked.
Tickle Me Elmo had plenty of unique voice lines like “That tickles!”, “Elmo loves to laugh”, and his trademark giggle, “Uh-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee!” More lines would be added with subsequent editions of the toy.
Lee is curator of nostalgia and a long-time collector of loveable junk. An 80s baby, 90s kid, he knows he had it good when it came to Saturday morning cartoons. Spends his life trying to recapture the dopamine hit of playing Game Boy for the first time and believes Beanie Babies will make a fortuitous comeback. Obsessed with everything (and anything) retro, he is your trusted guide to a world of 90s toys, games and collectables.
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