Back
The original Tickle Me Elmo from 1996 giggling with money

The Tickle Me Elmo Craze: From ’96 to Now

August 6, 2021

TLDR

So, why was Tickle Me Elmo the most sought-after toy since the Cabbage Patch craze a decade before? We’re diving into the history and hype of Elmo-mania.

The original Tickle Me Elmo was the hottest holiday toy in 1996. Fans of Sesame Street were delighted when Tyco introduced a plush take-home version of Elmo that vibrated and giggled when played with. Tickle Me Elmo proved so captivating to the American audience that pretty much every shopper across the country wanted to get their hands on the interactive toy.

Tickle Me Elmo was the hottest toy of 1996

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 and birthday lists. The beloved Muppet from Sesame Street would shake, vibrate, and utter his trademark giggle, “Uh-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee!” much to the delight of youngsters in the mid-90s.

The little red guy set off a shopping frenzy and sold 1 million units in just six months. Tyco’s sales soared from $70 million per year, to a remarkable $350 million amid the Tickle Me Elmo craze.

The touch sensitive toy went through several evolutions before becoming Tickle Me Elmo

Brief history of Tickle Me Elmo

Tyco Preschool produced the Tickle Me Elmo we would come to know. However, before the furry friend graced toy store shelves, Elmo’s precursor “Tickles The Chimp” was invented by two well-known toymakers, Greg Hyman and Ron Dubren. The toy-making twosome was already somewhat famous in the toy industry for developing a (popular at the time) kid’s learning computer, named Alphie the Robot in the 1980s. You’d probably recognize Alphie if you see him again. He was a cream-colored robot that taught your older siblings how to do math in the mid-80s. Hyman and Dubren were ready to shake up the toy world yet again.

With their latest invention in hand, 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. Tyco released ‘Tickle Me’ versions of baby Bugs Bunny, Tweety, and the Tasmanian Devil. After losing the rights to Looney Tunes merchandise, the toy company gained the rights to Sesame Street instead. It’s safe to say the rest is history. Welcome, Tickle Me Elmo.

By the end of the 1996 holiday season, all 1 million Tickle Me Elmo dolls manufactured were scooped up by shoppers. By Christmas 1997, Tyco had sold a whopping 5 million in total. New editions of everyone’s favorite ticklish Muppet have been released every few years since the original. The 2012 LOL Elmo was especially popular, capitalizing on text speak.


Young kids view Tickle Me Elmo like a friend

Why Elmo?

After market research, Tyco settled on moving forward with Elmo as their Sesame Street character of choice. Elmo’s high-pitched speech often 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 like a friend.

When it was time to start manufacturing, Tyco first unveiled the Tickle Me Elmo doll design at Hasbro Industries. Hasbro still manufactures the toys today. The Tickle Me Elmo voice belonged to Kevin Clash, who performed and voiced Elmo on Sesame Street, and lent his voice for the toy’s Tickle Me Elmo sayings 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.

Buy Tickle Me Elmo on Amazon


Elmo-mania sent people in to a buying frenzy

Elmo-mania

The path to “Elmo-mania” didn’t happen overnight. The toy was first produced in the United States in the summer of 1996 without much buzz. The toy was mostly marketed to preschool-age kids and their parents. But by October, Rosie O’Donnell featured the toy on her highly-popular talk show, The Rosie O’Donnell 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 the original Tickle Me Elmo the hottest toy across the US. Elmo even ended up becoming a favorite guest on the show, appearing many times over the years.

Peak craze

Tyco sold original Tickle Me Elmo dolls for $28.99, but the toy was being re-sold by scalpers and on the internet for up to $1,500, sparking this new Elmo black market that most likely no one was ever expecting. 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 in the height of the shopping frenzy.

The Tickle Me Elmo craze didn’t pass our neighbors up north either. One Wal-Mart employee at a Canada location was physically hurt 10 days before Christmas Eve when a pack of 300 shoppers spotted the man receiving a box of the Elmo toys. 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 running away from the Italian mob

Elmo and the Italian mob?

No, Elmo never had a run-in with the Mafia but 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.

The most expensive Tickle Me Elmo doll

This might just be the most anyone ever paid for an original Tickle Me Elmo. In the 1996 excitement peak, rumor has it that an Elmo doll was sold for $18,500. A Los Angeles radio station held an auction for charity on December 20, 1996. The winners were Bob’s Pharmacy’s shop who eventually had to pay nearly $20k for the toy. But hey, at least the money went to a charity! 

What’s a boxed original worth today?

Like all vintage toys, the value will differ. An original Tickle Me Elmo in box price will be a lot higher than your well-loved nighttime pal you drooled all over for the majority of your childhood. However, if you’re hoping to cash-in on an Elmo doll, you might be disappointed. A Tickle Me Elmo doll in its original box is only worth around 50 bucks. Where are the Princess Diana Beanie Baby prices when you need them?

The most expensive Tickle Me Elmo currently listed on eBay has an asking price of around $250. Others retail for about $50 to $185. Again, this is eBay, though, and the ‘asking price’ doesn’t necessarily mean the buyer will earn that much from the sale. 


The skinless Tickle Me Elmo looks horrifying

Controversy & skinless Elmo

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. 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.


The new Tickle Me Elmo has extra features and sayings

New Tickle Me Elmo

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. Newer Elmos learned how to play peek-a-boo and even hug back, though.

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 quintessential Tickle Me Elmo voice. When you squeeze his feet or tummy, he’ll blurt out more Tickle Me Elmo sayings like “Elmo loves to laugh” and “Keep tickling Elmo” to get kids hyped.

A cool feature about the updated toy is that the more you tickle him and make him laugh, he’ll start to shake more 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.

Where can I buy one?

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 Elmos today that 90s kids pressed their parents for? Think it’s time to head into your parents attic and check if your Tickle Me Elmo from 1996 doll still works? Just don’t skin it, it’s weird.

90s Toys is an Amazon Associate and may earn a commission from qualifying purchases. All contributions help support the site.

Check it out!