I imagine the brainstorming room at a toy manufacturer being occupied by one of two types of people: either they sweat while painstakingly overcoming the trials of creating a toy which is challenging to children, attractive to adults, and durable enough to handle a grade school workout. Or, they snicker and slap their ink blotters and sketch pads, while frolicking in piles of money as they imagine a parent going quietly crazy while trying to assemble their gadget over a period of hours under the watchful eyes their increasingly impatient and nagging child.
Meet the Imaginarium Motorized Marble Race. "Over 150 pieces" says the box. "Spinning Wheels", "Light & Sound", "Power Lifter". It also takes four AA batteries - not included, but no big deal, - and nine small-voltage batteries, the kind found in watches. Sure these are included, but one can foresee the day they wear out: the chances I'll remember to head to my local watchmaker for replacements are far less than the chances my children will forget to ask me for them the moment I walk in the door.
But let us not worry about batteries. Let us instead focus on other things: the instructions for instance. One challenge for this company, which they would have had to have discussed in the boardroom, is how to clearly represent, in an instruction manual, the more than 150 pieces which eventually construct a marble rollercoaster containing as many as eight towers, each reaching heights of up to more than three feet. Realistically, this would require either a computer simulation, or several pages allowing the parent to not only build each component, but build it simultaneously to the tower next to it in order that they may brace each other, and not simply topple over once their full height is reached.
They didn't solve this in the boardroom. Instead, parents are provided with a single sheet of paper, divided into sections, each of which has a black and white snapshot of one variation of the coaster represented from one point of view. The resulting image inevitably hides one or more of the towers, leading to a lot of guessing, a lot of toppling, a lot of "Can you hold this, please!?", a lot of "What's taking so long?!", and a lot of "I'm trying my best!" The good news is this is also (hopefully) followed by a couple of "I'm sorry"s, and a couple of "I love you"s.
As the beast is nearing completion, a new challenge will need conquering: if each of the towers weren't initially built on specific angles in relation to each other, the pieces won't interlock. The solution to this is to slowly rotate each tower into the correct position. This must be done extremely carefully as to not create a domino toppling effect forcing you to begin construction anew. Bad enough you will inevitably - due to the enigmatic construction diagram - realize certain pieces need to be exchanged with those in an adjacent tower; a very delicate manoeuvre.
Ok, so the thing is built, rotated properly, transplants have taken place from one tower to the next, and everything seems to make spatial sense. You flick the switch and allow the "power lifter" to carry the marbles to the top of the coaster and begin their travels along the endlessly varied paths of descent to the bottom of the structure where they will be once again lifted to the summit. There should be hours of gleeful observation and cheering on the horizon...expect this is where you realize that if your floor isn't perfectly level, you're in trouble.
See, each piece of track is a slightly concave length of plastic. In the boardroom, someone was in charge of determining the degree of concativity of these shapes, so the ball, with its given momentum, will stay within its grooves, while using a cost-effective amount of plastic, keeping the price-point competitive. Of course, simple physics dictates if your floor is slightly off kilter, the marble will pick up more speed in a given direction, thereby carrying more momentum than can be handled by any insufficiently concave curve near the bottom of the track, where speeds are at their peak. Due to this, the marbles fly off the track, and roll under the sofa.
I would therefore suggest finding, as I did during my second rebuild, a piece of plywood to serve as a foundation. This can not only be shimmed, but can also more easily be slid around the floor to relocate the coaster after construction, once the kids are bored of it...after a day or two. Another option is to move into a new house with level floors. Mine, built in 1955, is obviously imperfect.
I would also suggest investing in an interactive gaming unit, such as Wii or X-Box, or a couple of new children's movies just prior to assembling the coaster. That way, once the two hour construction period has passed and the frustration levels have reached their peak, you and the kids can loosen up with a game of video wake-boarding or a bowl of popcorn.
I would also suggest assembling such complicated toys during the summer months; a decompressing walk around the block to get beer and ice cream is a lot more forgiving on July 4th than it is on thanksgiving.
K.B. - November 25th, 2011.
P.S. Fact: men don't live as long as women. Fact: In a two-parent household, men are more often in charge of assembling complicated toys.
I don't believe these two facts are unrelated. Happy Black Friday, America.