Making enough noise to startle the most jaded New Yorkers, the silly and the serious turned the heads of pedestrians outside the 88th Annual American International Toy Fair in midtown Manhattan.

Hawkers in life-size toy costumes and king-size props - overblown versions of the Toxic Avenger, Archie and Thomas the Tank Engine - rollicked on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk. They were joined by protesters claiming that some U.S. toys are the products of exploitation, specifically that many toys imported from China were made by children and forced laborers - a charge toymakers denied.The protesters' bullhorn had to compete with a marching band parading with the Toxic Avenger and the electronically amplified toots of a mock steam engine.

The scene was almost as chaotic inside the fair.

Some 20,000 retailers from around the world jostled elbow to elbow, often carrying bags filled with loot gathered from some of the 1,300 exhibitors - promotional toys, posters and novelties meant to snare attention in a crowd where almost everyone had something to hype.

The mood was more somber at a news conference opening the fair, where industry officials tried to put the best face on a lackluster Christmas 1990 and made predictions for modest sales improvements in 1991.

George Ditomassi, chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America, said retail toy sales, at $13.4 billion in 1990, virtually were unchanged from 1989. Adjusted for inflation, those figures represented about a 5 percent sales decline for the industry.

Ditomassi predicted wholesale and retail toy sales will advance a modest 5 percent this year. He based the forecast on several favorable trends:

- Cut-throat discounting that retailers did in the fourth quarter means their shelves are empty to an unusual degree and so they can be expected to spend more to restock in the next few months, a traditionally slow period for manufacturers.

- More U.S. toymakers are looking abroad, especially to Europe, for customers. In many cases, foreign markets are growing faster than domestic demand. Demographics and economics help to explain the trend. Europe has 71 million children, 30 million more than in the United States, and most economies there are more robust now.

- The video game craze, considered a rival to traditional toys, may be headed for a decline. Fueled by new entries such as Nintendo's Game Boy portable game, video gamemakers enjoyed more than $3 billion in sales last year, a 21 percent gain over 1989. But Ditomassi predicted video game unit sales may slide by as much as 30 percent this year.

That would leave more cash available to buy conventional toys.

Ditomassi said it's unclear what consequences the Persian Gulf war and the recession will have for the toy industry, but he said economic downturns sometimes have played to the advantage of retailers and toy manufacturers.

"With the price of the average toy far lower than the cost of most other forms of entertainment, the choice by many Americans to sit out the economic downturn by staying at home could also provide many companies with opportunities for increased sales," he said.

Protesters barged into the news conference to hand out magazine articles and leaflets claiming children as young as age 10 and forced laborers routinely are paid pennies for 14-hour days making toys and other products destined for the United States.

Ditomassi denied that any members of his trade group used exploited labor in China or anywhere else. He also said toymakers will continue to press the Bush administration to grant China most-favored-nation trading status, a move that would lower tariffs on Chinese imported goods.

"The American public was, rightly, outraged at the PRC's (People's Republic of China's) behavior in Tiananmen Square (where hundreds of political protesters were killed by Chinese troops), but what consumers didn't understand was that U.S. toymakers, by their presence in China, contribute to the development of that country and the betterment of the lives of the people who work in our toy factories," Ditomassi said.