The Most Popular Christmas Toys from the Past 40 years
With the holidays right around the corner, businesses are gearing up for what is projected to be a bombshell shopping season, especially when it comes to consumer favorites like toys and gadgets. According to market researchers the NPD Group, the U.S. toy industry is currently experiencing a steady rise in sales, having grown an impressive 5% in 2016 alone, making it a now $20 billion industry.
That being said, every single holiday shopping season has its ‘winners’ and its ‘losers’ in terms of both buzz and sales– and interestingly, the elite toys have the tendency to vary greatly from year to year, both in price and category.
Don’t believe us? Let’s take a trip down memory lane and re-visit the top sellers since 1977, and you’ll quickly see what we mean!
Here is a comprehensive list of the most popular Christmas toys, by year, from the past 40 years…
Star Wars Figurines (1977)
The original Star Wars came out this year to high ticket sales and an immediate fan base, so it’s no wonder why kiddos were clamoring for their very own pocket-sized jedis and stormtroopers. At the time of the toy’s release, each package contained just four characters a piece, a smart move on the manufacturer’s part as this lead to consumers forking out even more for extra figurines.
At the time, the figurines retailed for $9.99, but these days, memorabilia sellers are hawking custom mix-and-match sets for hundreds of dollars. Kenner, the now-defunct toymaker that produced the first round of figurines, sold over 300 million units of their Star Wars series between 1977-1985.
Whether you realized it as a kid or not, the colorful, light-up memory game Simon was actually a ‘disco-inspired’ toy. It even launched at the legendary NYC club Studio 54 at a midnight release party.
The game itself was meant to be an updated version of the children’s classic ‘Simon Says’, but the kids seemed to like this high-tech version a whole lot more, with many heralding it as the precursor to the scores of hand-held video game consoles soon to come.
At the time, it was quite the pricey Christmas gift, costing consumers a lofty $24.99– or roughly $91 in today’s cash.
Atari VCS (1979)
Originally released in September of 1977, the Atari VCS is one of the few gifts on our list that took several years for consumers to warm up to. You see, although this was not the first home video game console to hit the market, it was regarded as one of the more complex– and at $199 a pop (that’s 640 bucks in today’s cash), conservative consumers wanted to make sure that the toy was worth the high price before investing in it.
Finally, after two years on the shelves, Atari experienced their most successful holiday season, selling over 1 million units in 1979 alone.
Rubik’s Cube (1980)
Invented by a Hungarian architecture professor in 1973, this improbable toy first hit the shelves after licenser Ideal Toys took note of it at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979.
Just one year later, in 1980, the Rubik’s Cube became a bonified success story, outselling every other toy during the holiday shopping season. Since its release almost 40 years ago, this mind-bending doo-dad has sold well over 350 million units, making it one of the best-selling products of all time.
Fun fact: The fastest Rubik’s Cube solve time belongs to a German robot. Believe it or not, this piece of artificial intelligence can crack the cube’s code in just 0.637 seconds!
Lego Train (1981)
Although Lego trains had been on the market for some 15 years prior, this second-generation electronic set was truly the one that caught the eyes of the holiday shoppers of 1981.
This surge in popularity was mainly due to the fact that the legendary toy manufacturer listened to their core consumers’ demands for a wider variety of tracks and accessories. Similar to the aforementioned 1977 Star Wars figurines, Lego made the wise choice of selling accessories separately, a decision which led them to outsell any other toy that holiday season.
These days, Lego enthusiasts are known to buy and sell these original second-generation pieces for hundreds of dollars a pop.
BMX Bike (1982)
In 1982, kids began to develop more discerning tastes when it came to their bicycles, as evidenced by this hot-seller, the BMX Mongoose Supergoose. This ‘trick trike’ was marketed to thrillseekers who preferred trying their hands at ramps, rather than cruising the sidewalk.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 1984 medical study called injuries sustained on BMX bikes an “epidemic.” Though this bad press didn’t bring down the sport’s popularity too much, it left a bad taste in the mouths of many casual riders, which ultimately hurt its chances for a repeat best-selling year.
These days, the 1982 Mongoose Supergooses are still quite the hot commodity. The bikes are known to sell for thousands of dollars…when they are available that is; they are currently completely sold out on eBay.
Cabbage Patch Kids (1983)
At the very end of 1983, TIME dubbed the raucous holiday shopping season as “The Year of the Cabbage Patch Riots”– and for good reason, consumers were doing anything they could to get their hands on these dolls, even if it meant breaking the law.
You see, stores had underestimated the demand for the toys, only ordering about 200-500 dolls at a time. Unfortunately, this did not do enough for the thousands of would-be Cabbage Patch buyers flooding the shops; a retail snafu that led to long lines, mini-riots, and even assaults.
Lucky for Colleco, the Cabbage Patch Kids’ manufacturer at the time, the craze only meant more money for the company. By the time the winter of 1985 came around, the toy maker had earned a whopping $600 million in sales from the dolls alone.
In 1984, toy manufacturer Hasbro and comic behemoth Marvel re-vamped a popular Japanese line of ‘transforming robots’, a wise business decision that has since spawned TV shows and big-budget action movies.
At the time of its first generation release, Hasbro offered consumers a wide range of options when it came to accessories for the Transformers, including special cassette players, but they also took a cue from companies like Lego and Kenner by refusing to offer discounted or bundled sets.
Most of the line was priced between $9.94-$20.99 (about $23-49 today), but unopened sets in good condition could currently fetch sellers up to $600. Not a bad for a kid’s toy!
Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)
Unlike Atari’s initial lukewarm release of the 1979 VCS, Nintendo had a record-smashing first year when its NES first hit the shelves in 1985.
Just a few months later, the console went on to outsell every other toy that holiday season, due in part to the comparatively high number of game cartridges available to consumers, which included classics such as Duck Hunt and Pinball.
One of the main reasons why the NES was such a big success right out of the gate was the fact that the company provided consumers with three sets to choose from, including one that contained what would be their most popular title, the now-legendary Super Mario Bros.
Lazer Tag (1986)
Created by toy company World of Wonder in 1986, Lazer Tag was the first of several brands to jump on this short-lived 1980s fad.
In 1986, the same year that the toy was flying off the shelves, NBC executives premiered an animated children’s show entitled Lazer Tag Academy.
Although Hasbro has kept the brand alive today with an iPhone enabled version of the game, Lazer Tag lost much of its popularity after an unfortunate incident occurred, when a California teen was shot by a police officer after his Lazer Tag toy gun was mistaken for a real rifle. Soon after the much-publicized tragedy, sales of the mock guns quickly dropped off, and it hasn’t made an impact during the holiday season since.
In 1987, young toy lovers made the surprising decision to go back to basics when it came to gaming. Although the Ataris and Nintendos of the world were still enjoying a good run, children and adults alike became interested in something much more simple– the architecture-inspired charm of Jenga.
In recent years, the game has expanded to include multiple licensed variations, like Jenga XXL and Jenga Giant, sets with much larger blocks whose towers can reach up to 5 feet and 8 feet, respectively.
Fun fact: Since its Milton Bradley-backed release in 1987, the game has reportedly sold an incredible 80 million units worldwide– that’s roughly 4.3 billion blocks!
Starting Lineup (1988)
This 1988 battery-powered baseball-inspired board game sure is reminiscent of something that legions of fans play today– Fantasy Baseball. In both games, players take on the roles of MLB managers, which gives them the power to create their own dream teams consisting of real-life baseballers.
Kenner, the manufacturer of this hot game, managed to increase sales by hawking various add-on player figurines, costing consumers about $5 for each additional accessory. This smart marketing decision helped make Starting Lineup one of the most popular toys of the late ’80s.
Fun fact: The board game was first devised by, of all things, a former football player–Pat McInally of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Game Boy (1989)
In the summer of 1989, Nintendo released what was to be one of its hottest-selling toys of all time to North American consumers–the Game Boy.
Dubbed the “first hand-held console of its kind,” the video game maker managed to kill two birds with one stone when it came to racking up appeal: 1) a low price point and 2) portability.
You see, the handy Game Boy was a good 30 bucks cheaper than its NES counterpart, making it a no-brainer for parents who wanted to save some cash– and have access to their TV every once in a while! Of course, the portability factor made the mini-console a winner, considering it was so small it could easily fit into a purse or backpack.
Since its inception in 1989, to its end in 2010, the product line sold over 200 million units worldwide.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
It’s pretty incredible to think that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has been going strong for over 35 years now. Since the Mirage-backed comics first hit the shelves in the mid-1980s, fans of the legendary characters have been spending plenty of cash to see their favorite turtles in television shows and feature films.
Although the four famous reptiles have been known for some time, their popularity peaked in the early ’90s. The turtles were everywhere, which lead to massive figurine sales.
In the 1990 holiday season, TMNT fans could choose from an impressive 26 separate figurines, which included cult characters such as Panda Khan, Fugitoid, and Scumbug.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1991)
Judging by Nintendo’s stellar track record, it’s no wonder their Super Nintendo console was the top-selling game shortly following its 1991 North American release.
At the time, the updated console retailed for $199 (roughly $350 today), around 90 bucks more than the original basic NES starter pack from a few years earlier. That being said, consumers didn’t seem to mind the high price–the SNES sold more units than any other toy that holiday season.
Believe it or not, this classic system is starting to make quite the comeback, with major retailers such as Best Buy gearing up to sell plenty of SNES units in the 2017 holiday season.
Barbie Fold ‘N Fun Dream House (1992)
This compact take on the classic Barbie Dream House was such a hot toy in the winter of 1992, many stores sold out before consumers could get there hands on it!
Although Dream Houses have been around since the Barbie brand’s start in 1959, this truly was the first of its kind. Children loved it because of its hip, detailed accessories, and parents loved it because it was light, easy-to-clean, and more compact than previous models.
Fun fact: Up until last year, Barbie fanatics could actually visit a life-sized version of her legendary Dream House at its former site in Sunrise, Florida.
This handheld electronic truly is an example of just how influential the motion picture industry can be on the toy market. The Talkboy became a hot-ticket item after being featured in the 1992 winter blockbuster, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
For those of you who don’t remember, Macaulay Culkin’s character used this glorified recorder in the film as a voice memo– and to bust the Wet Bandits, of course!
Due to the popularity of the movie, toy manufacturer Tiger jumped at the chance to produce working models of the Talkboy, and the next year it went on to outsell every other toy. After 1993, the toymaker continued to cash in on the concept by making spin-offs of the popular electronic, including a pink Talkgirl and a pocket-sized version called the Talkboy Jr.
Power Rangers (1994)
Like Transformers, the Power Rangers were also devised and first popularized in Japan. Recognizing a good possible franchise opportunity, American TV execs brought the characters to U.S. audiences not long after they first appeared in Asia.
Similar to other popular children’s action movies and TV shows, fans bought pretty much any type of merchandise associated with the characters, most notably figurines. Back in 1994, the dolls cost about 10 bucks a piece (around $16 today), a much more accessible price point than the years when Nintendo or Atari dominated.
These days, the franchise has circled back several times, which means that– you guessed it!– these 1994 figurines can be re-sold for a pretty penny.
Beanie Babies (1995)
Anyone who lived through 1995 will tell you that there were only two words on the lips of kids (and some adults!) during that year– Beanie Babies.
The small stuffed animals made by Ty Inc. were first introduced in 1991, but they didn’t start gaining traction until the mid-1990s when serious collectors started to take notice.
Beanie Babies’ appeal managed to transcend traditional consumer lines due in part to the re-sale figures placed on the limited edition pieces. For instance, at one time Princess Diana commemorative Beanie Babies were selling for thousands of dollars. Though most aren’t worth their original cost today, there are countless online forums devoted to trading and re-selling these plush toys.
Tickle Me Elmo (1996)
Not unlike the legendary Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983, the appearance of the Tickle Me Elmo toy in 1996 incited an impressive amount of holiday shopping chaos.
Without heavy advertising or buzz before the holiday season, Tyco Preschool, the giggling doll’s manufacturer, wasn’t expecting the plush toy to do so well in the winter of 1996, but boy were they wrong…
In an unexpected move, the North American stock of Tickle Me Elmos suddenly sold out that Black Friday, a reality that drove the doll to be hawked on the Black Market, with one even reportedly being re-sold for $7,100.
Yet another Japanese electronic to crush North American holiday sales, the original Tamagotchi combined the power of full-sized video game consoles with the portability of the Game Boy.
Marketed mainly to grade-school girls, the keychain-sized electronic contained on it a ‘virtual pet’ that users had to care for throughout the day. Some of the tasks included feeding the ‘pet’, showing it affection, and even cleaning up its poop.
The portable toy was an instant hit, with over 76 million sold worldwide from 1996 to 2010. That’s a lot of virtual pet poop!
Fun fact: The inventor of the Tamagotchi, Aki Maita, won the 1997 Ig Nobel Prize in Economics for her creation.
Though the Furby may appear to be your average, run-of-the-mill electronic stuffed toy, its success truly was a one-of-a-kind experiment gone right. You see, the Furby was the first ‘domestically-aimed’ robot to attain wide mass-market appeal, paving the way for countless more robotic toys that line the shelves today.
In 1998 alone, there were more than 1.8 million units sold and, not unlike Tickle Me Elmo, they sure were hard for consumers to get there hands on, especially during the holiday season. One report indicated that some were selling as high as $300 in local auctions.
Fun fact: Furbies are programmed to speak and recognize 24 different languages.
Pokémon Cards (1999)
In the late 1990s, the Japanese game, Pokémon, became a bonafide phenomenon here in the States. The franchise consisted of video games, comics, and even a TV show, but by in large, the most popular facet of the ‘pocket monster’ craze was the playing cards– and, believe it or not, it still is.
These days, card collectors are known to trade and re-sell dollar-priced cards from the ’90s for hundreds of dollars…if they’re lucky that is.
Of course, Pokémon is an ever-evolving franchise that is still very much alive and well. Its newest creation, Pokémon Go, has had a mind-boggling 750 million downloads since its release a little over a year ago!
Razor Scooter (2000)
The mark of the new millennium brought with it the best-selling scooter of all time– the Razor. This light-weight, foldable mode of transportation was a hit with consumers of all ages. Kids loved its ruggedness and city-dwelling adults loved its sleek, compact design.
When the scooter was first launched in 2000, the company reportedly sold more than 5 million units within the first 6 months following its release. The next year, the inventive scooter was showered with several different accolades, including “Toy of the Year” from Creative Child Magazine.
These days, Razor scooters are still alive and kicking and can be found in most large toy retailers.
Airgo Pogo Stick (2001)
The pogo stick sure has come a long way since it was first invented in the 1920s. Over the years, additional springs, safety stabilizers, and hot colors have been used to update the daredevil toy, but none were more impressive than that of the Airgo, the world’s first air-powered pogo stick.
What made consumers jump for joy over the Airgo was its patented air-powered design, which meant no noisy metal springs. This important alteration allowed users a quieter, much more comfortable jumping experience.
Fun fact: Flybars, the pogo sticks used in XPogo events, retail for upwards of $150 each!
FurReal Friends (2002)
The addition of Hasbro’s FurReal Friends to the list is further proof that robotic pets weren’t just a passing fad that ended with Furbies. As a matter of fact, the FurReal Friends collection managed to reflect exactly what consumers wanted out of a holiday gift at the time– low-priced, cute, and electronic.
Though the top-seller of 2002 was the white Persian cat, other FurReal Friends animals, including a dog and a guinea pig, flew off the shelves, as well.
Since its debut in the early 2000s, the FurReal division of Hasbro has grown to include special apps and even a “create and code” option geared towards young aspiring robotic engineers.
Described as a “biomorphic robot,” the über-popular RoboSapiens followed in the tradition of other popular robotic gifts, like the Furby and the FurReal Friends.
Each RoboSapien was built to mimic the robots seen in popular sci-fi movies; they came equipped with 21 different buttons that allowed users to access its many pre-programmed moves.
Apparently, consumers dug this super-futuristic home bot, because WowWee Toys, the manufacturer of RoboSapiens, sold over 1.5 million units in the 6 months following its release. In recent years, RoboSapiens’ appeal has been on the steady decline, but that doesn’t stop the product from doing well in the re-selling game on places like eBay and Amazon.
Nintendo DS (2004)
In a strategic move, the highly-anticipated Nintendo DS was released just days before Black Friday in the winter of 2004 to positively stellar sales. At $149.99, the portable video game system was relatively affordable, compared to other consoles of its kind.
The DS was released on November 21st and by December 31st of the same year–just 40 days later– Nintendo ended up selling an incredible 2.84 million units worldwide, with the Americas making up over half of the sales. The unique gaming system also carries with it quite the illustrious title of the ‘second highest grossing gaming device of all time’. Not bad!
Fun fact: Super Mario Bros. was the highest selling game for the DS console.
Xbox 360 (2005)
While avid gamers were certainly eating up the Nintendo DS’ compact size just a year earlier, it doesn’t mean that they turned their backs on traditional consoles completely. In 2005, Microsoft dropped the $399 XBox 360, the wildly successful predecessor to its original console, the XBox.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the XBox 360 ended up selling out almost immediately, a happening that came to be known as the “Great XBox Shortage of 2005.” Lucky for consumers, Bill Gates was monitoring the situation and amended the goof by the time 2006 hit.
After the system’s initial release in 2005, the popular console continued to kill it in the sales game, selling well over 84 million units worldwide.
PlayStation 3 (2006)
That’s right; 2006 marked the third year in a row that a video game console earned the coveted title of ‘top-selling holiday toy’. This time, Sony was the winner–quite the feat, considering the company had been at it for a long time without ever having the pleasure of topping the list in prior years.
As expected the highly-anticipated release of the PlayStation 3 coincided with the holiday season, being brought to shelves– you guessed it– the week before Black Friday.
Fun fact: The PlayStation 3 is the most expensive toy on the list, with each console costing consumers upwards of $599.
iPod Touch (2007)
It’s fair to say that the iPod Touch ended up being one of the most impactful examples of marketplace disruption so far this century.
The powerful doo-dad offered something that many consumers had yet to experience, a sleek alternative to a phone that featured a touch-screen controlled interface, a music and video player, a digital camera, and WiFi capability. Sure, we may take those things granted now, 10 years later, but at the time, the Touch certainly was a cutting-edge machine.
That same year, Apple debuted their very first iPhone to their legions of users, but at almost 200 bucks more than the iPod Touch, many consumers saw it as too expensive or risky of an investment at the time. Instead, tech-savvy folks opted for the iPod Touch, and the rest is history.
Nintendo Wii (2008)
You didn’t think you’d be able to escape from the video game consoles for THAT long, did you? In 2008, Nintendo took back their rightful place as the number one holiday toy-seller when they released the Wii, a motion-activated system aimed to capture the interests of a wide demographic.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely own at least one of these consoles–Nintendo has sold well over 100 million units worldwide, after all.
Though Nintendo enjoyed much success when it came to hawking their revolutionary system, the Wii’s debut wasn’t all a bed of roses. In fact, the game maker faced a $5 million lawsuit in 2008, claiming that its controllers were “too dangerous” due to faulty wrist straps. In response to the lawsuit, a pricey product recall was implemented.
ZhuZhu Pets (2009)
It seems that the kiddos were missing their electronic plush pets because once 2009 rolled around, they were turning their noses up at the video game consoles and focusing more on their ZhuZhu Pets.
The adorable scurrying rodents were interesting to young children, due in part to their special modes. You see, a user could either decide to switch their ZhuZhu Pet to a ‘nurture mode’ where it would purr or to an ‘adventure mode’ where the plush rodent would zip around the room.
Not unlike its predecessors– i.e. Furby and Tickle Me Elmo– the toy ended up being the surprise holiday hit of 2009, which meant that many units ended up being re-sold, sometimes to the tune of 60 bucks a pop!
Like the iPod Touch just 3 years earlier, Apple had yet another holiday hit on its hands in 2010 with the revolutionary iPad. Though the iPad certainly had quite a bit hype surrounding its release, many critics poo-pooed its large design and easy-to-crack screen.
The consensus on the tablet sure was polarizing, but that didn’t stop the Apple device from racking up some truly impressive sales in 2010, a whopping 15 million units by the year’s end. With the cheapest models costing a pricey $499 a pop, it’s safe to say that the tech behemoth celebrated plenty at the end of that quarter.
LeapPad Explorer (2011)
With the first generation iPad crushing sales just a year earlier, it’s no wonder why a product dubbed the ‘iPad for kids’ would sweep the holiday toy market the following season.
What made this item a true ‘must-have’ for both kids and parents alike is both its functions, as well as its clever marketing campaign. You see, at its core, the LeapPad Explorer is a device chock-full of pre-loaded educational material for young, grade school learners, a factor that seemed to impact adults’ purchasing decisions.
All the same, the tablet gave children the opportunity to access videos, games, and more than 800 apps. At around 100 bucks, this durable kiddie tablet was a true ‘no-brainer’ holiday gift.
Wii U (2012)
Carrying the elite title of the first Nintendo gadget to support HD graphics, like its first generation 2008 predecessor, the Wii U truly was a revolutionary gaming item– and consumers were quick to take notice.
Like the Game Boy or DS, the Wii U was a powerful console wrapped up in the body of an ultra-lightweight personal gaming system that offered dozens of games right out of the gate.
Following tradition, Nintendo released its new pride and joy the week before Black Friday and, unsurprisingly, the sleek, $299 device ended up sweeping the rest of the holiday toy market’s competition. As of this year, more than 13 million Wii Us have been sold worldwide.
Teksta the Robotic Puppy (2013)
Because robotic gifts truly are the kid’s presents that seemingly have no expiration date, it comes as no surprise that Teksta the Robotic Puppy was the hottest nab of the 2013 holiday season.
Similar to the aforementioned RoboSapiens, Teksta came loaded with a laundry list of unique commands, except this ‘pet’ could do some really interesting tricks. When prompted, the robotic dog had the ability to recognize voices, physical movements, and even hand gestures.
Though this sure was a unique, one-of-a-kind holiday gift several years ago, upon its release, the market quickly became oversaturated with much cheaper, copycat products. These days, you can still find updated versions of Teksta being sold by various online retailers.
Zoomer Dino (2014)
2014’s most purchased holiday gift managed to infuse three things that all kids love: 1) dinosaurs, 2) robotics, and 3) terrorizing the house. Ok, parents might not like the third feature all that much, but kiddos certainly do!
You see, this mighty dino is not unlike 2013’s most popular gift, Teksta, but it’s different in the sense that the toy sure does get around. Its official description touts its trademarked “True Balance Technology,” the one feature that apparently allows its top-heavy body to perfectly balance on its ball-like feet.
These days, Zoomer Dino’s sales are still decent, even despite its lukewarm reviews on Amazon. Hey, if a kid’s gotta have it, a kid’s gotta have it…
Star Wars Remote Control BB-8
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens dominating the 2015 holiday box office, it’s no wonder why a toy inspired by the film would dominate the 2015 holiday toy market, too.
The toy, which is a replica of the film’s BB-8 robot, uses similar technology to that of Zoomer Dino; it balances almost magically on a ball-like shape, as it rolls gracefully atop both hard and carpeted surfaces. The effect is oddly hypnotic– and one that many consumers feel does the film justice.
Even two seasons later, Toys R Us still keeps this item on its shelves. As of today, the Star Wars Remote Control BB-8 can be yours for the low, low price of $129.99.
Pie Face (2016)
Let’s be honest, kids like silly stuff. So, when a particularly colorful reboot of a classic 1960s messy game was re-introduced to consumers just last year, it’s no wonder why the little ones fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.
The legendary game is a simple one; unlucky players who don’t spin the ‘right’ number on the spinner must endure a pie (i.e. whipped cream or shaving cream) to the face via a plastic mechanical hand.
Predictably, this game got much of its initial attention from YouTube videos being posted of internet personalities playing the game. Viral marketing at its finest, folks!
Real Workin’ Buddies Mr. Dusty the Dumptruck (2017)
Though it’s technically too early to call this one, experts are putting their bets on this dump truck-inspired toy sweeping away the rest of its competition.
The toy itself is pretty much a parent’s dream; it’s a ‘truck’ that works like a vacuum to sweep up errant small toys, like blocks, figurines, and Legos. From there, the pieces are stored in a separate compartment, allowing the child to– in a perfect world– put away their toys with more ease.
At $39.99, the mid-range price point is quite accessible for most families, making it our pick for the top-selling holiday toy for 2017. Let’s see if we’re right!