My kid had three requests this year for his birthday, one of which was to go to Build-A-Bear in Mayfair Mall. I had heard of this faux stuffed animal factory, but knew almost nothing about what it entailed. Twenty minutes of Internet research later, I was well-versed in the building of bears, and although skeptical at the time, I agreed to make it one of the destinations on his sixth birthday.
I was slightly leery of the concept. I’m all for making your own dolls and stuffed animals -- I hand-sewed a doll years ago with both of my sons -- but I didn’t think Build-A-Bear would offer much in the area of creative work. Also, I was concerned about getting "nickel and dimed" to death. I knew the "building" of the bear was just part of the process and that hundreds of accessories were available for purchase, including soft, tiny Sketchers shoes and, yes, leather chaps for the Harley-riding bear.
However, despite my initial concern about Build-A-Bear, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. Despite a lot of Saturday afternoon traffic, the shop ran as smoothly as a Swatch watch, and early in the process I realized they were, indeed, selling animal compassion along with furry friends.
"Build-A-Bear is designed for kids who love animals," says Sara Monty, the chief workshop manager at the Mayfair Build-A-Bear.
Build-A-Bear is divided into multiple stations and the entire process takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on how much time your child wants to spend at each station and how much time you allow for clothing and accessory shopping.
The first stop is to pick out a stuffing-less bear or animal -- there are about 30 different animals to choose from and they range in price from $10 to $25. Most of them have a "baby" available for an extra $5. My boys both picked dogs.
After choosing the animal, kids proceed to the "stuffing station" where a machine blows stuffing into the body.
At this time, kids can pick a free cloth heart to insert into the body before it’s stitched closed. The staff member asks the child to warm the heart with his or her hands and to make a wish before putting the heart into the animal. I found this part particularly sweet, especially considering my rough-and-tumble boys took it so seriously.
Also, a tracking label is inserted at this point into the body, similar to microchipping a real animal. This way, if a stuffed animal is returned to Build-A-Bear, the staff can identify who it belongs to via this special feature.
Kids also have the choice of inserting a $3 sound device in the paw that barks, growls or says "I love you" when pressed.
The next station is the "air bath station" complete with hand-held blowers to eliminate any bits of stuffing still on the animal’s body. The final step is to create a birth certificate for the animal, which allows kids to name their animal and register it.
However, to get to the computer area, you walk past racks and shelves of outfits, shoes and other accessories (be prepared!). My sons picked out a Batman costume, Spiderman costume and Green Bay Packers' uniform for their dogs. They also got a pair of tiny "tighty whitey" underpants.
Build-A-Bear Workshop offers kids the chance to make a lot of choices, which makes the process very satisfying for them. The key is to go prepared to drop about $50. You can get by for cheaper, but you’ll have to say "no" a lot to the extras and it might end up being more of a whine fest than a fun family outing.
The most redeeming aspect of Build-A-Bear is that it does make the animals seem "real" and in need of love. My kids seem to value their Build-A-Bear creatures more than other stuffed animals, most likely because they "made" it and because the process is laden with messages of care and compassion.
Build-A-Bear is an international company based in St. Louis, Mo., that was founded in 1997 by a woman named Maxine Clark. There are five Build-A-Bear locations in Wisconsin, but Mayfair houses the only Build-A-Bear workshop in Milwaukee. Build-A-Bear offers birthday parties that start at $60.
Best of all, Build-A-Bear guarantees their animals for life, and if need be, the staff will repair any holes or rips.
"These bears have the best life insurance in the world," says Monty. "Just bring them in and we’ll fix ‘em up for free."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.