Wading through a neverending sea of department store toys that either light up like Rockefeller Center at Christmas or require the services of an armed guard due to their immense yet flabbergasting popularity is kind of like washing down a handful of Pop Rocks with a Coke. By the end of it, someone's head is going to explode, and it's probably mine.
This time of year, the web is my true partner in crime, my Secret Santa, my pick-and-click sanity saver. And granted, while it makes holiday shopping infinitely simple since visits to overcrowded brick-and-mortar stores where people use carts as battering rams, or Ro Sham Bo for the last Crayola magic marker phenomenon (true story) are not involved, there's something lacking in the sense that it just can't provide the hands-on experience of hand-selecting a special gift for a little someone.
So, when Build-A-Bear Workshop graciously invited my family to experience their award-winning, stuffed pal-making process first hand, I could hardly say no. Tis the season after all. That and they promised to keep me in one non-stressed piece.
Arriving at the Fox Valley Mall-based Build-A-Bear-Workshop (playfully renamed "Santa's Workshop" for the holidays), was a little like stepping into an assembly line at the North Pole, which my son was fully convinced St. Nick's set-up must look like.
Neat shelves and bins were stocked to teeming with friendly-faced animals, outfits and accessories, which was simultaneously overwhelming yet exciting, and since we were all Build-A-Bear novices, store manager, Jaime, walked us through the fairly straightforward six step-process involved. The kids would choose a bear (other animals available, too, with many that benefit different children's charities), select an optional sound effect (think Brahm's lullaby, holiday ditty or recordable message), help with the stuffing machine, give the bear an air bath, decide on an outfit, and create a birth certificate at the in-store computer kiosk.
My son immediately gravitated toward the Lil' Chocolate Cub and chose the Allergy & Asthma Friendly Velvet Bear for his little sister. Good choice since the latter has baby-safe embroidered features and is one of the few styles that's fully machine washable. With both unstuffed animals in hand, we then stopped at the sound station, where we were able to listen to an array of sounds that can be inserted into the bear's paw. It then plays when squeezed. After careful deliberation and plenty of sound byte testing, my son came away with a "magic" sound and we decided to go au natural for the other one.
Each one of us really enjoyed the next two, surprisingly interactive steps, which involved a gigantic stuffing machine and a small bin of stuffed, red and red-and-white gingham satin hearts. As Jaime held the bear in place, my son stepped on a sewing machine-like pedal to start the stuffing (FYI: store associates have control of an automatic shut-off for over zealous steppers). Kids can choose lots of stuffing to make their bear extra firm or less for more huggability.
Jaime then asked him to choose a heart for his bear, and led him through the charming process of rubbing it on his head so his bear would always be smart; rubbing it on his tummy so his bear would never be hungry; rubbing it on his cheeks so his bear would always be happy; giving it a hug and kiss so his bear would always be loved; and putting it on his nose to make a wish. My son then rubbed the heart between his hands, very seriously I might add, to make it nice and toasty before tucking it into his bear. He then repeated the process for his sister's bear, helping her along the way since she's too little to do it herself. It was really very sweet considering the two often go together like pants on a trout.
With that, Jaime expertly stitched the bears up and invited my son to give them both an air bath to remove any excess fluff, and to make them nice and shiny. Identification numbers from the hang tags were tucked into each bear, too, which means if either ever gets lost and is returned to a Build-A-Bear Store, staff can use those numbers to match them up with their owner. Kind of like a pet-finding microchip. Fancy, but a smart money saver for parents.
Choosing outfits, accessories (they have mini "dressing room" stations for the bears) and making up birth certificates was easy, relatively quick and creative. My son got to name both bears, and came up with Double Turn for his race car-themed bear, and Belle for his little sister's fairy princess-themed bear.
Each birth certificate includes an access code for buildabearville.com, Build-A-Bear's safe, free, kid-friendly web site. I visited the site a few days after our visit, and while I found it to be a little advanced for my three year old, he did enjoy seeing his bear "come to life," and liked choosing a character for himself. For some reason, I can't get our second access code to work, but there's no rush, as my daughter is way too young for interface time anyway.
Build-A-Bear's mission statement says, "We are committed to providing our Guests JOY… happy, memorable and friendly experiences," and I think they're pretty spot on in making that happen. No one whined. No one cried. Everyone had fun, came out with a smile, and best of all, the experience was wholesome. The kids have to use their imaginations to play with their new friends, and I think that's really key to their overall development.
Don't know what to do with your Cub Condo once you get it home? It's recyclable, but my son came up with an innovative idea to turn it into a train tunnel.
And, though I still find comfort in malling with my mouse, Build-A-Bear impressed me with it's family-oriented approach to gifting. It combined all the things I look for in a children's toy company, and toys themselves - customization, philanthropy, interaction and a range of price points (some animals start as low as $5), which at the very least, merits a return trip ... or ten.
For those who need to pop in and out quickly after work or on a weekend when the kids aren't in tow, Build-A-Bear offers a range of Gifts to Go that have already been stuffed and dressed. You can order them online here or pick one up in store. Be sure to check out their latest 10 Days of Furbulous Deals for the holidays.
Freebie: From Nov. 1-Dec. 25, guests who visit any location will receive an Honorary Elf Access Card, while quantities last. It offers kids access to elf jokes, free virtual gifts to use at buildabearville.com and more. Using the card around the store reveals secret messages from the elves, too. No purchase necessary.
Did you know that Bulid-A-Bear hosts birthday parties? Get more information here.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.