Nature’s Playground
Best-Selling Plush and Toys at Zoos and Aquariums

By Karen Appold

For children, picking out a toy or plush at the gift shop is all part of the fun when visiting a zoo or aquarium. By knowing what items are currently hot, gift shops are sure to increase their sales in these categories. 

Rose Ullrich, merchandise buyer, Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Ill., said the best-selling toy category for 2016 was “glow and bubbles.” The Christmas bulb LED and light-up necklace from Windy City Novelty sold more than 8,000 pieces. And that was even in light of cold weather in December that impacted sales of the item in 2016. In 2015, the zoo sold a whopping 13,700 holiday light-up necklaces. “These necklaces are great for kids of all ages,” she said, noting that they are designed after the old-fashioned big lights that used to adorn Christmas trees. 

Inventory Assistant Caleb Carr, Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, Mont., Schleich’s small rubber animal figurines do well for the store.

Running a close second were bubble guns, also from Windy City Novelty. “The bubble guns are a perennial best-seller,” Ullrich said. “We sell them at all five of our locations and staff members use the bubble guns and interact with guests.” Brookfield Zoo stores are all themed differently and are different sizes. Combined, the stores garner $5 million annually.

At Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, Mont., Oly Watt, gift shop manager, said Schleich’s small rubber animal figurines are tops. Due to the center’s location next to Yellowstone National Park, the gift shop sells North American wildlife such as grizzly bears, black bears, moose, owls and eagles. The figurines come in a variety of sizes, from about 2 inches to 5 inches.

Another popular item is Spot It! card games. “Since I was introduced to that game a few years ago, it has become very popular,” Watt said. “It is available in a variety of themes. We sell the ‘On the Road’ and ‘Gone Camping’ versions, which relate to our center. The game’s small size makes it easy to pack and take on the road.”

Brandan Johnson, gift shop manager, Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, Wis., reported that the gift shop’s best-selling toys are from Safari Ltd’s toy line. “I think they are popular because they are a very close representation of the animals they portray,” he said. “Also, its line of mini animals is a big hit with young children and adults.”

For Shelley Haas, merchandise manager, Newport Aquarium, Newport, Ky., the shark laser—which is shaped like a shark, lights up and makes a laser-like noise, is a big hit in the toy category. Another light-up toy, the Light-Up Trident toy, also flies off the shelves. In addition, Mondo’s Shark Water Wigglies are inexpensive and keep kids entertained for hours.

The fill-your-own rock/magnet bag from Squire Boone appeals to kids of all ages who have fun filling their own bag with their personal selections to take home, Haas said. A similar option, fill-your-own tube with PVC animals by Safari, is an interactive display that allows kids to choose either an octopus tube or clownfish tube and fill it with their favorite PVC animals. 

Best-Selling Plush 

For 2016, the top three best-selling plush at Brookfield Zoo were Wild Republic’s 12-inch CK red panda and its 12-inch CK wolf, as well as the 22-inch plush narwhal from Fiesta. “The wolf was the best-selling plush for years, due to its price point, fabric and the look of the product,” Ullrich said. “Once the red pandas arrived for our Wild Encounters exhibit, sales of red panda plush took off. The narwhal (Norbert) is blue and whimsical—kids love it. The tag reads ‘unicorn of the sea.’ It’s hard to see Norbert and not smile.”

Watt said best-selling plush include an eight-inch wolf from Douglas, an eight-inch grizzly bear from Wild Republic and a six-inch Bambi from Aurora. “Our facility has wolves and grizzly bears, so kids want a memorable souvenir of their visit,” Watt said. Although the center doesn’t feature deer, they do live in nearby Yellowstone National Park. “Bambi is a cute spotted plush that captures kids’ attention,” she said. “It has a really cute design and good quality.”

Like Ullrich, a best-seller for Johnson is the red panda. “Visitors to our zoo absolutely adore the red panda,” Johnson said. “It is always the first plush stocked and the first to be sold out.” 

Haas said 8-inch Gentoo penguin plush, eight-inch King penguin plush and 8-inch African black foot penguin are all popular choices—kids of all ages connect with these penguins at the aquarium’s exhibit. In addition, guests love the aquarium’s two unique white gators, making the 22-inch white gator plush a hit. Sharks are always popular; kids especially love the shark tunnel. It’s no wonder that 12-inch great white shark plush take the cake at the 5,000-square-foot gift shop.  

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