In 12 years as a journo, I've had some pretty cool press trips. There have been snowmobiles in Finland, a steamboat on the Mississippi, castles in Italy, taking a limo to have cocktails at the Four Seasons in New York.
Friends, none of this compares to the trip I took last week to Dietenhoven, Germany.
You might not have heard of this small town in Bavaria, but it's the home of Playmobil, probably my favourite toy range EVER.
If you've never heard of Playmobil, it’s a range of 3-inch high figures that inhabit their own world. So your figures can play in a Playmobil playground, go to a Playmobil school, work on a Playmobil construction site, be taken to a Playmobil hospital in a Playmobil ambulance – you get the idea.
When I was a kid, my brother Ross and I would pore over the Playmobil catalogue each January and map out our year. The smaller kits could be bought with pocket money, but we would agree in advance which sets we’d ask for on our birthdays and at Christmas, so we could grow our imaginary world. On weekends, we would take out all the Playmobil and create massive imaginary worlds, spreading over the sofa, dining table and floor. We kept a box in the bathroom for Playmobil pirates, boats and sailors, too. And now I play exactly the same games with Flea.
As you can imagine, I was unbelievably excited to be invited to stay at the Playmobil hotel, visit the Playmobil Fun Park, tour the Playmobil factory and have the opportunity to meet Horst Brandstatter, the man who created the Playmobil brand, with his designer Hans Beck.
Our group was also given a sneak peek at the 2011 Playmobil range. At one point on the tour, I saw a brilliant flying plane on the production line and asked the Playmobil exec if it could really fly. We then spent a happy 20 minutes testing the plane in the huge order picking warehouse and I can assure you it does fly. Not only that, but following a small injury to the pilot, I was given the plane to bring home – result!
The Fun Park is just as brilliant as you would expect, given that there are giant Playmobil castles, houses and pirate ships to play in entertain your children, and at several points in the day I posed for pictures hugging giant Playmobil people. I'm not sure it would be wise to post these on the Internet, but I treasure them. My favourite figures were the display figures of Playmobil children, who stand at around 2.5 feet tall – I think I'd consider swapping my real child for one of them if given the opportunity.
But the real highlight of the trip for me was meeting Herr Brandstatter, and chatting with him about Playmobil’s history and philosophy. Unlike many kids' brands, Playmobil doesn't use licenses, so you won't see Harry Potter or Star Wars Playmobil sets. Herr Brandstatter explained this was a core part of his philosophy – he passionately believes that children should be free to direct their own play and create their own stories, rather than playing within a story world that someone else has created for them.
While I couldn’t persuade Herr Brandstatter to tell me what his favourite ever Playmobil set is (“How can I choose?” he asked me. “Playmobil is a whole world”) he did tell me that in the 30 years Playmobil has been on sale the enduring best sellers have always been traditional sets based on pirates and knights.
These ranges have all been updated for 2010/2011 with a new Dragon Castle and Ghost Pirate range, which I’m hoping to feature on the Great Toy Guide later this year, along with the brand new “Top Agent” range for over 7s – this includes a remote control car with a spy camera that shoots real video that can be uploaded to a computer. There's also a new school set with an optional gym hall that has gone straight to the top of Flea's wish list.
In the meantime, we’ve created a brand new Playmobil reviews section with detailed reviews of many of the best-selling Playmobil toys currently available. If you're a Playmobil fan, I urge you to check it out.