After learning that Viator was offering New Yorkers the chance to spend an entire morning inside of FAO Schwarz with no other shoppers present, I had to jump at the opportunity. The iconic toy store has been the emblem of childhood dreams in Manhattan for decades, after all, and being able to peruse its aisles alone felt like a solid bucket list item.
On a recent Monday morning, I was able to make that dream come true.
After arriving at the store at 30 Rockefeller—the brand’s new flagship location since 2018—I was greeted by my very own toy soldier, Johnny.
More than just a guide, Johnny felt like a blast from my past: the sort of lifelike toy that seems real (maybe just to you). In a way, he was nostalgia personified, a sentiment that is at the very heart of the solo store experience.
From an avalanche of stuffed toys to an entire section of dolls and another one devoted entirely to cars, the midtown destination is heavy on the physical toys (duh!) but also seems to cater to the new world order of playtime. Competing with screens and video games is no easy task, after all, which is why the toy store has also incorporated six live experiences to go along with any visit to the premise.
The activities include a classic Build-a-Bear workshop, an in-person magician, a build-your-own car section and another dedicated to creating your own Sesame Street character. There’s lots to buy at FAO Schwarz—but there’s also a lot to do in here.
Those on the private tour—which is only offered in the morning, before the store opens to the public—also get to fill up a bag with a seemingly endless amount of candy from the FAO Schweetz section. (See what they did there?)
As exciting as walking through the aisles and indulging in a ton of candy early in the morning is, it’s toy soldier Johnny’s storytelling that enhances the entire experience. The guru recounts the origins of the cherished brand, mentioning the various other labels that the new parent company now owns (among them: Sharper Image, which is why you’ll see a portion of the store entirely dedicated to products from the brand) and offering tidbits of toy-related trivia that stay with you long after you’ve said goodbye to the store. Among them: the story behind how teddy bears got their name. (Former President Teddy Roosevelt is heavily featured in that not-so-PC yarn.)
But the piece de resistance, not surprisingly, is the store's infamous giant piano, one eerily similar to the one that appeared on the 1988 classic Big, starring Tom Hanks.
After directing guests to the instrument, Toy Soldier Johnny reveals that the piano was actually not originally part of the store. Legend has it, he explains, that Penny Marshall, the director of Big, called FAO Schwarz mentioning that the piano was written into the script and the store agreed to bring it in and eventually decided to keep it. The one you can gaze at and play around with today is not the original one, though.
After that bit of history, my guide actually taught me how to play the first few notes of that famous "Chopsticks" song with my feet. Let’s just say that Mr. Hanks was undoubtedly a quicker learner than I am.
Although the hour-long tour rushes by, the experience wraps up with what ends up becoming my favorite portion of the ordeal: the 10am opening ceremony of the iconic store. An experience akin to the changing of the guards at London’s Buckingham Palace, the opening ceremony at FAO Schwarz truly harks back to simpler days. After asking two young "audience members" to hold on to the store’s flags, toy soldier Johnny delves into a soliloquy about the importance of not just feeling young but staying young at heart—which is exactly what happens upon entering the premises.
Ah, to feel young again.