What Happened To Tickle Me Elmo Dolls?

There were many toys around to tickle the fancy of '90s children, but arguably, there was only one toy they could tickle back. That toy was none other than Tickle Me Elmo, a furry red ball of contagious laughter that had everybody's spirits soaring. Upon release of 1996's most sought-after toy (via AARP), creator Ron Dubren told reporters at the Chicago Tribune that "this will be my most successful toy," calling the beloved animatronic a "once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Designed around the wildly popular "Sesame Street" character Elmo, Tickle Me Elmo had one unique piece of programming that caused quite the uproar. At first glance, it was much like any other laughing doll, its giggle echoing out from behind a furry forehead almost magically. But unlike other similar toys on the market, Elmo's laughter had a climactic component, and the giggles increased with each new tickle until the series of chuckles became uncontrollable, much the way tickling works in real life. The simple genius behind this toy is what makes it a classic vintage find. But whatever happened to Tickle Me Elmo? Is the jolly monster Muppet still around?

Tickle Me Elmo was almost Tickle Me Taz

Like most great toys in the vintage bin, Tickle Me Elmo looks nothing at all like the original prototype. Mental Floss reports that creator Ron Dubren wanted to mimic that euphoric feeling that comes with being tickled by creating a doll that tickled the child cradling it. This initial blueprint was put forth in the form of a chimpanzee that was designed to tickle the children, but it did not do much in the way of tickling executives in charge of toys at Tyco. They wanted Tickle Me Taz.

At the time, Tyco only had a plush license for Looney Tunes characters, and the Tasmanian Devil — already a whirlwind of incomprehensible, escalating sound — seemed the perfect candidate for tickle tech. The main change, initially, was that children would be tickling Taz — not the other way around. Former Vice President of Marketing for Tyco Preschool Janice Yates told Mental Floss that the Tickle Me Taz prototype was quickly reduced to a mere laughing stock. "It was good for Taz, he had a crazy personality, but during the evaluation, Tyco decided not to renew the Warner Bros. license," she explained.

As Elmo, the toy was a holiday hit

Imagine being so wildly popular that everywhere you go, there are shrieks, fistfights, and even stampedes. Imagine top-secret pickup plans and private jets becoming necessary for your transport into the arms of adoring children everywhere. According to Uproxx, this was the general "Elmo Fever" felt all across the nation.

Sales jumped shortly after the lovable red monster shook things up by making an appearance on the "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." After this media boost, Tyco struggled to keep up with soaring sales and stock clerks getting beaten to a bloody pulp by frantic, eager parents (via AP News). Even hip-hop stars like Mase were mentioning Tickle Me Elmo in their lyrics, and the result was huge holiday sales and, in some cases, full-on brawls over the popular product. By 1997, Tickle Me Elmo was neck and neck with Nintendo 64 for hottest holiday toy, having sold over 5 million units and counting (per AARP).

Scandal clouded the cash register

AP News reports that in December 1996, right at the peak of Tickle Me Elmo's fame, tragedy struck when a New Brunswick Walmart employee was horrifically trampled and seriously injured by parents who were trying to get to the doll. As it turns out, 300 consumers had stood in line for hours on end, but when they finally reached the register, there were only 48 Elmos to go around, and things took a turn for the worse. Similar events were reported across the country, the latest of several '90s era Elmo scandals.

According to Mental Floss, other scandals were unfolding far beyond the toy store shelves. One in particular even involved the FBI, which briefly suspected Tickle Me Elmo electronics designer of having a secret identity as the Unabomber. "The FBI basically had 10,000 people on a list, and one of the ways to get on was to order a bunch of electronic parts," the now cleared-of-suspicion designer told Mental Floss.

A succession of other Tickle Me Sesame Street characters ensued

Times Union reports that scandals didn't scathe the Tickle Me Elmo franchise. Rather, it was the popularity of new animatronic toys like Furby that somewhat eclipsed its initial success. Even so, that original wave of popularity was enough to spark an unforgettable succession of Tickle Me Sesame Street Toys. These included Tickle Me Cookie Monster, Tickle Me Big Bird, Tickle Me Ernie, and even a Tickle Me Zoe (per The Toy Box). Notedly, Oscar remained grouchy throughout the tickling craze and is one of a few Sesame Street characters whose plush was never programmed to giggle uncontrollably.

Although the uproar subsided, the full line of Tickle Me Sesame Street toys performed well enough to remain on the market. In fact, many are still popular in the present day. Oddly enough, vintage Elmo is not worth nearly as much today as in the old days, when people were placing ads to pay thousands of dollars for the jolly red Muppet (via AARP).

Today, Tickle Me Elmo is a Playskool Product

If you're a collector or one of the millions of '90s kids that couldn't quite get your hands on the classic toy back in the day, you'll be thrilled to learn that vintage Tickle Me Elmo can be snagged via eBay. Prices range significantly, from a little over $50 to about $500, but none have reached the exorbitant price tags seen on some originals. Most of the classic dolls are being sold in the box in generally decent to even mint condition.

Newer models circa 2017 are also available for retail, thanks to Playskool reintroducing this fan favorite. According to Playskool, updated Elmo has six fun phrases and loves to be tickled and squeezed. Much like the '90s edition, his laughter increases with each tickle as his tummy is pressed or his foot is pinched. For just over $40, this new toy can be purchased at many popular stores, including Walmart, Target, and Amazon.