The Tracy Island playset is famous for being at the top of everyone’s Christmas list, not only in 1992 when the series was given it’s first major re-run on BBC2, but again in 2000. My own mother was on high alert to get my brother the 1990’s Matchbox Tracy Island and I was beyond excited to unwrap my own Vivid Imaginations Tracy Island in 2000. That’s right, we were a two Tracy Island family – in fact we still are, as I kept both of them, and although they were incredibly well played with, they were also incredibly well looked after and my Vivid playset even retained all of its palm trees (the same could not be said for my brother’s Matchbox version!)
These are of course the two most well-known renditions of Tracy Island in playset form, with the new 2015 Thunderbirds Are Go set now in the mix also, but there are a couple of alternatives that I’ve been fortunate enough to collect over the years. In this article I’ll be taking a look at some of them. Unfortunately my collection is packed up ready to be shipped to my new home, so all my observations are being made from memory and photos from other online sources. Let me know if you have any thoughts on these sets from your experience.
1992, Matchbox Tracy Island Playset
This is by no means the earliest version of Tracy Island that viewers could have in their own home, but it’s reputation proceeds it as being one of the greatest Christmas toys of all time.
It’s hard to critique something that was such an integral part of my childhood. The playset manages to capture the iimportant details of the original Tracy Island, simplify them, and cram them all together into a big lump of plastic that was lightweight, but also extremely robust.
The amount of assembly required was kept to an absolute minimum. The only decals that need to be applied are on the Thunderbird 2 launch ramp and Cliff House, and only a few pieces need to be clicked and slotted in place before Thunderbirds Are Go!
The vehicles were not originally included but once you have them this set is an absolute playground for a child’s imagination. The details of the Thunderbird machines launch sequences are simplified down to the absolute coolest parts. The cliff door swings open for Thunderbird 2 to roll out as the palm trees simultaneously lean back. Once TB2 is in place, the ramp can then be raised. The diecast metal Matchbox TB2 is a tad weighty so one had to have pretty nimble fingers to flick the launch ramp up in one go. TB1 can be kept in position underneath the pool and a quick twiddle of the diving board moves the pool back and reveals the mighty rocket. Thunderbird 3 simply sits in a hole beneath the round house ready for lift off.
In terms of electronics, this set is nice and basic with four sounds triggered by individual buttons inside Thunderbird 2’s hangar. The sound effects certainly add to the excitement and play value, but the fact the set isn’t bogged down in complex electronics and programming leaves it open for the playset owner to apply their imagination with full force.
In the grand scheme of things, we don’t actually see that much of Tracy Island’s exterior in the series. Everything we do see is pretty much included in this set somehow, and a few extra treats have been added by the toy designers. I love the little pathway and steps down the cliff on the Round House side of the island. You can imagine Jeff strolling down there to meet visiting boats. I also really like the small cave that’s been cut out of the side towards the back. Nothing like it featured in the TV series, but as a child I used to store all my pod vehicle toys back there, although you could equally use it as an emergency launch area for Thunderbird 4.
Overall this is a great set which laid the foundations for some of the fantastic toys that came later.
2000, Vivid Imaginations Soundtech Tracy Island
When Thunderbirds was digitally remastered by Carlton and repeated on BBC2 in the early 2000’s, a huge wave of merchandise was launched once again to coincide. Captaining the team was this new Tracy Island playset.
Now you would be right in assuming that this set is pretty similar to the Matchbox one. The basic layout is the same. Thunderbird 2’s hangar has been angled more towards the front, and more decals are provided with a bit of extra detail on. The set is compatible with the Vivid Imaginations plastic vehicles which were sold seperately. Certain functions of the Matchbox set were refined for this release. The TB2 hangar has a button in the base which can quickly open the spring-loaded hangar door and lower the palm trees. Said trees are made of a slightly more flexible plastic which enables them to withstand a little more wear and tear before snapping off (did I mention that the ones on mine never did?). The colours of this set are a little more vibrant on this set than those of the Matchbox island, although I think I personally prefer the more subdued tones of the Matchbox version anyway. Thunderbird 1 and 3 launch in exactly the same way. When this set was re-released for the 40th Anniversary, platforms allowed TB1 and 3 to move up and down.
So what was the big selling point of this set which is almost identical to it’s Matchbox predecessor? Did you notice that incredibly cool very early 2000’s sounding word, “Soundtech”? That’s right – this set has the technology of sound. It may not sound like much now, but when I was a kid I knew I was living in the future because my Thunderbirds toys were “Soundtech”. Carved out of the back of the island was an attempt to replicate the Tracy Lounge and it’s TV portraits. Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, (not John because he wasn’t cool enough for Soundtech apparently), Brains and Lady Penelope all had portraits which would light up at the touch of a button and say two phrases each. Somebody feel free to correct me on this but I think Shane Rimmer, Matt Zimmerman and David Graham returned to give their voices to this playset, while the voices of Virgil and Lady Penelope are impersonated. You can tell.
And that’s pretty much it for the “Soundtech” Tracy Island. I have to say the similarity between this set and the Matchbox one never occurred to me quite so much as a child. But on reflection I have to say that I will always have a soft spot for this one because it was all mine as a young boy and did so much to grow my enthusiasm for the show. This was my Tracy Island and I think it is fair to say it was my most beloved toy as a child… which is why I insisted that my wife let me keep it potentially forever… and most of my other Tracy Islands as well actually.
2003, Vivid Imaginations Powertech Tracy Island
Oh boy, if “Soundtech” wasn’t exciting enough for you, just wait until you see this.
I saved all my pocket money for the best part of a year to get this thing, it looked so unbelievably awesome. This smaller Tracy Island set released towards the end of the early 2000’s revival took the basic functions of the original playset from Vivid and stepped it up to ridiculous levels of playability. It’s a “transforming playset” which looks like a bizarrely proportioned rendition of the island from the outside, but at the touch of a button, the set expands and opens up with all sorts of sirens and noises to reveal a simplified version of the Tracy Island interior.
I love the little vehicles included in this set which slot into place and do their thing. Thunderbird 1 has a little launch pad which you can move along and get into launch position. Thunderbird 2 sits above a small conveyor belt containing only the odd-numbered pods. These can roll along underneath and instead of TB2 descending onto them, the pod can be lifted up into the main fuselage at the push of a button (I used to have a lot of fun just firing pods off at random from their incredibly springy platform). TB2 can then be moved out along the little runway, with the palm trees folding back via a small switch, and the ramp lifting up with another. Thunderbird 3 is clipped into place and when it lifts off all sorts of rocket sounds ensue. Thunderbird 4 even has its own little launch area – we don’t see this in the series but it’s a nice little addition nonetheless. Other features include a whole section for Brains’ laboratory and a pod vehicle bay expressed through the medium of stickers. There’s also two little buttons that deliver more sound effects and phrases in case you hadn’t had enough of those.
The Powertech Tracy Island never gained the reputation of its predecessors which is a shame really because it had a lot of cool features. It came along just a little too late into the revival really. Most parents probably weren’t feeling too inclined to buy another Tracy Island when they’d just forked out for one a few years earlier. As I said, I had to pay for this one out of my own pocket money which took a heck of a lot of work for 8 year old me.
2004 Deluxe Thunderbirds Movie Tracy Island
Now regardless of what you might think of the live action 2004 Thunderbirds movie, as a 9 year old when the movie came out I was slap bang in the target audience. And at the time I enjoyed it enough to want a slice of the action and got a few of the toys that were available. This included the Tracy Island playset which was very different to anything that had come before.
As you can see, the surface of the island is split into four quarters, each dedicated to a different Thunderbird machine. You could just buy these four quarters. Or you could buy them with the main central section which had all the fun electronic bits and pieces. I could only settle for the best so got the full deluxe set.
The design of the island faithfully captures the aesthetic of Tracy Island as it was seen in the movie. Vivid Imaginations bravely decided to make this a fairly different set to the tried and tested formula of the Matchbox version. Thunderbird 1 is hidden underneath the pool which moves back and pulls TB1 up when the control centre is pushed down (hope you got all that). Thunderbird 2 sits on its launch ramp which raises up when a button is pushed and the tiny little trees budge back a millimetre or so – not very exciting. Thunderbird 3 had a little platform which could be raised and split apart the round house as it did in the movie. Meanwhile, Thunderbird 4 and The Mole had their own section of the island which contained a little cave with a door and a runway which could descend into the ground and send The Mole sliding out of some concealed doors.
The central section which all these quarters sit on top of contains quite a few fun features. The most exciting part has to be the Thunderbird 2 maintenance bay which can lift the vehicle up and down on a platform while the user wiggles some tools around. There are lights and sounds to go with all of this. There’s a large runway which folds out to allow TB2 and other aircraft to access this area, as well as a few shelves for stacking the little FAB 1 that also comes with the set. On the left hand side is a blue lid which locks away many of the set’s secrets using a (not-so) sophisticated combination. Once you crack it, some pretty buttons and levers are revealed which make a lot of noise, most of which you can’t really understand. The little microphone was pretty cool I seem to remember.
In the end though, this is the only part of my Tracy Island collection that I have chosen to part with. One of them had to go during my move, and this one was the obvious choice really. It was never really played with that much because despite its many features, this set didn’t have quite the same appeal as the other larger sets.
Yujin Tracy Island
I acquired this item relatively recently and although it’s not a playset as such, I felt I just had to mention it here.
This beautiful little miniature has so much detail and excitement going on that I just had to have it. The island comes in several sections which allows it to have a little bit of interior detail. The vehicles are beautifully attached to the island via great billows of smoke and flame. When put together, the shape of the set resembles the classic International Rescue logo. It also comes with an even smaller miniature of the island which inverts the scale of the vehicles.
It’s a tad pricey, but if you can pick up this little set I heartily recommend it. It’s a nice model but does require some very fiddly assembly. It’s worth it in the end though.
That’s the end of my collection. There are two notable sets that I have left out of this list owing to the fact I don’t own them. First is the IMAI Tracy Island kit. I’m not too fond of kits usually but would be intrigued to hear from people that own this one to find out how easily it can be put together.
Secondly is the 2015 Thunderbirds Are Go Tracy Island from Vivid Imaginations. I haven’t dived into collecting much merchandise from the new series because of the high price tags and my lack of space. But when the prices fall a little further and I have somewhere to store the enormous Tracy Island playset I would quite like to own one. If you have one, let me know how the assembly of the set was. I’ve heard it can be a bit of a pain…