After spending years in art publishing, John McGrath decided to buy a failing
toy company, W.J. Fantasy. (ToyDirectory)
The company, founded in the late 1980s, had originally sold Advent calendars.
The first owner quickly learned that the company could not survive on seasonal
products alone and branched out to include a selection of toy products with
When McGrath assumed control in 1994, W.J. Fantasy had just introduced
their first set of nesting blocks, the Mother Goose Building Blocks.
As he sought to rebuild the company, McGrath decided to dramatically expand
offerings of nesting blocks. “The building blocks appealed to me personally,”
explains McGrath. “They were very traditional, very low-tech.”
My Home Town Building Blocks
Even though W.J. Fantasy is still one of the country’s largest publishers
of Advent calendars, that market accounts for only about 10 percent of
the company’s business. Instead, W.J. is known for their nesting blocks
and now boasts 18 different 6-to-10-block sets in graduated sizes.
Sets range from the Victorian Alphabet Building Blocks
to My Home Town Building Blocks and Maxi Bug
Building Blocks. In March of this year, W.J. Fantasy unveiled
a set of nesting blocks with a twist: Let’s Play Drums! Building
Blocks. Instead of the usual cube-shaped blocks, the set features
cylindrical drums. The drum set includes five blocks decorated with people
and places around the world, drumsticks and a carrying case. In addition
to stacking, children can pound out a beat. But, McGrath is quick to add,
“It’s not too loud or irritating.” They will soon be adding construction-themed
and Noah’s Ark sets of nesting building blocks and a set of soft blocks.
Let’s Play Drums!
Because W.J. Fantasy’s blocks are hollow with only five sides, they can
be stored “nesting” inside the largest block when not making block towers.
Made of laminated cardboard, the blocks manage to be both lightweight
and sturdy. “If people ask how strong they are, I’ll take a large one
and stand on it,” explains McGrath. “And we’re talking 200 pounds,” he
adds with a laugh.
ABC Building Blocks
“Building blocks are our niche,” says McGrath. “Parents see them as very
retro, very low-tech.” Low-tech or not, the different sets offer countless
educational opportunities for children to learn numbers, animals and more.
Although several of their sets are brisk sellers, the ABC Building
Blocks set is the company’s bestseller.
“They appeal to children as well as parents and grandparents,” McGrath
says. “The subject matter is traditional, the artwork outstanding and
adults can introduce children to learning with them.” In addition to being
used to build towers, some of the sets, such as the new Doll House
Building Blocks, can be arranged as a playhouse for small toy
Doll House Building Blocks
W.J. Fantasy’s nesting building blocks have become so popular that the
company has begun to develop custom sets for companies and organizations.
“They [organizations] usually come to us with an idea,” McGrath says.
When Robert Leiber started his job at the Golden Gate National Parks
Conservancy in 1997, he had a “brainstorm” for a gift that would complement
the mission of the conservancy: tree stacking blocks. “When I began the
project, I went to the company I thought had the best product, W.J. Fantasy.
Their quality is excellent, and they have been eager to help us every
step along the way,” says Leiber.
Tallest Tree Stacking Block
The conservancy followed up their Tallest Tree Stacking Block
set with a Lighthouse set and will be introducing a new
set this fall portraying the metamorphoses of a butterfly and a frog.
W.J. Fantasy has also developed sets for organizations like Crate &
Barrel, UNICEF and the National Wildlife Federation.
At a time when many companies are striving to develop the newest trend in
toys, W.J. Fantasy has constructed its reputation around timeless toys --
producing building blocks not only for today’s children, but also for their
children and grandchildren.