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A toy for the trip is just the trick

It takes more than a road map and a couple of packed suitcases to get the Menzel family on vacation.

It takes toys.

Kelly and Craig Menzel of Timonium, Md., generally buy one for each of their three children before piling into an airplane or minivan. Not only do the toys bring peace and quiet to the back seat, they give the children something to do if it rains after they arrive.

"They can be worth every penny," Kelly said.

Don't think the toy industry hasn't noticed parents like the Menzels. In recent years, there's been a flood of new travel products _ from electronic hand-held toys to compact versions of popular games _ trying to capitalize on the family vacation market.

"Kids spend a lot of time in the car, not only on vacation, but for a variety of reasons, and they want portability," said Maria Weiskott, editor-in-chief of Playthings, a toy-industry trade magazine.

To find out which travel toys are worth their plastic (and yours), we enlisted the help of the experts, the youngest Menzels. Blair, 9, her sister, Allie, 7, and Brett, 4, agreed to spend a week playing with several toys, taking them on every family drive and a weekend trip to the beach.

The youngsters turned out to be a discerning bunch. Most of their favorites had familiar names, but there were still some surprises (turns out the magical name Harry Potter doesn't turn quite everything it touches into gold). From top to bottom, here's how the travel toys rated:

Game Boy Color (Nintendo; suggested retail price $69.99). Easily the biggest success story of them all. Add in a $29.99 game _ in this case, the popular Kirby Tilt 'n' Tumble (featuring a heavenly obstacle course for the roly-poly hero), and any pre-teen will be entranced. Even 4-year-old Brett could handle the controls.

The Menzels didn't own a Game Boy before their test sample arrived, but that's likely to change soon _ despite the toy's high price.

"Talk about a great way to travel," said Kelly, who still draws the line at buying the new Game Boy Advance for $90. "I would never have bought it _ until we tried it. The only trouble now is deciding who gets to play."

Turbo Twist Spelling (Leapfrog; suggested retail price $34.99). An electronic spelling bee on a stick, this was 7-year-old fledgling reader Allie's favorite. "There's nothing I don't like about it," she said. Her parents weren't wild about the toy's constant talking and singing, and were happy to discover it can be silenced by attaching headphones.

Hello Kitty Instant Polaroid Pocket Camera (Emerson; $29.95). Could a compact Polaroid that makes stamp-sized photos keep children amused? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The major drawback: The built-in flash makes this a no-no for use in a moving car.

I Spy Gold Challenger (Scholastic; $13.95). This is not really a toy, but one of the latest in a series of picture riddle books in which children find hidden objects. A winner with all three youngsters, it also proved the power of a clever children's book. "I'd get one for each of them," Kelly said.

52 Travel Activity Kit (Chronicle Books; $14.95). This cleverly designed compact case is chock-full of stickers, markers, travel games, stencils and a self-inking stamp that can keep the back seat busy for hours. One of the five best they tested, the family agreed, although a bit advanced for 4-year-old Brett.

Travel MagnaDoodle (Fisher-Price; $11.99). A downsized version of the mess-free magnetic drawing board, MagnaDoodle was a crowd-pleaser. The small size fit Brett's car seat perfectly.

Travel Etch A Sketch (Ohio Art Company; $7.99). See above. Etch A Sketch was probably a better choice for Blair, while the MagnaDoodle was easier for Brett to handle, but that's splitting hairs. Either will do.

Wind Up Fishing Game (Ja-Ru; $1.99). All right, so it's a silly little fishing game (the pond revolves, and you have to catch the fish with a magnet on a pole), but it demonstrated that a cheap novelty can keep the younger two children amused _ at least for a day. Only the 9-year-old was immune to its charms. "It was way too boring," Blair said.

All-In-One Pack-Up Games (Pressman; $8.99 each). There are three games in this series, each of which fits in its own plastic briefcase: MasterMind Jr., which the older girls liked a lot but had too many loose pieces for the car; Scooby Doo! vs. The Monsters Spinning Tops Game, which all three liked and which worked surprisingly well in the back seat; and Rummikub Jr., a matching tile game, which none of the kids enjoyed. The verdict: Keep the tops and lose the Rummikub.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Quidditch Card Game (Mattel; $6.99). Finally, a game that all three children could detest. Even their mother found the instructions confusing. "It was too hard and too complicated," Blair said.

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