Playing Hotel

By | November 18, 2011

While doing some early Christmas shopping on the Internet, my friend came across a vintage 1974 Holiday Inn set by Playskool. I loved toys like this when I was a kid, although my family was partial to similar items by Fisher Price. We had the Play Family Airport, the Play Family Village, the Play Family House and the Play Family Farm, as well as dozens of random Little People. Now that my kids have inherited the collection, I can say with confidence that these are among the most ingenious toys ever invented. They can be relied upon for hours of quality, engaging entertainment. Why? They take recognizable settings and allow children to manipulate them as they wish. I can’t imagine how many hours of therapy Playskool and Fisher Price have averted with their creations.

All images are of a Playskool Holiday Inn set (1974), source: Etsy.

Equally important to the processing of common, day-to-day existence is the notion of fantasy. This is where, from a marketing standpoint, Playskool really one-upped Fisher Price. In the 1970s, it introduced the “Familiar Places” series, which included not only the Holiday Inn set, but also Texaco and McDonald’s (Playskool’s McDonald’s was the first play set in history to sell over a million units in the first year; Fisher Price partnered with McDonald’s in 1990, but this version was far less successful). Deftly reading consumer culture, Playskool capitalized on the symbols of roadside America synonymous with summer vacation, visiting relatives and the freedom of the open road.

I’m ambivalent about these tactical strategies. On the one hand, I feel slightly disgusted by the brazenness of large corporations who will stop at nothing to reach the juvenile audience. On the other hand, I appreciate the nostalgic pull of symbols from my youth. Seeing the “Great Sign” replicated in bright yellow and green plastic brought back memories of my own family’s cross-country travels. I admit that a generic motel play set would be much less effective. The fact that Playskool focused on the company’s salient feature is what makes the product so effective and accessible.

In Architourism, contributor Neil Leach analyzes escapism in terms of contemporary culture and argues that this condition is equally inscribed within all architectural icons, from Bilbao to Las Vegas. He states:

“Advertisements play a crucial role in fostering this cult of the make-believe. They are intended to conjure up in a Proustian manner a whole dreamworld of lifestyling and commodity consumption. Viewers are invited to imagine themselves in the scenario depicted, transported there as though on some magic carpet, and then to retain that fantasy within the “real” world once they have acquired whatever product is being advertised.”1

While Leach speaks to an adult audience, his analysis applies to all ages. Ideas of escapism germinate at a young age. Playskool knew this. Holiday Inn knew this. And parents knew this too. “Familiar Places” resonated with its audience because it took a familiar object and repackaged it within a make-believe context, proving that the company’s success was not limited to its physical parameters or, for that matter, its paying customers. Rather, it gained value in its ubiquity as a brand.


1Neil Leach, “Introduction” (Escapist), in Architourism, ed. Joan Ockman and Salomon Frausto (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2005), 117.

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