There are certain toys in America that families and hobbyists may remember as cult classics — toys that flew right off the shelves during the holiday shopping season.
Some of these high-demand toys have caused Black Friday mayhem, while others are simply timeless collector items.
Here are Christmas toy gifts that have been at the top of children’s wish lists for decades, according to James Zahn, editor-in-chief at The Toy Book, a leading trade magazine serving the toy industry, and also a senior editor at The Toy Insider.
Read on to see if your favorites made the list!
Before there were “G.I. Joe” movies, comics and shows, there were G.I. Joe action figures.
The military toy line got its start in 1964 through Hasbro.
The original action soldiers were marketed as “America’s movable fighting man,” which became a top pick for young boys and girls.
“For nearly 60 years, G.I. Joe has been synonymous with action,” Zahn of Chicago told Fox News Digital. “The brand revolutionized the toy department — twice — coining the ‘action figure’ name as the first wave of 12-inch military figures hit stores in the 1960s, and again in 1982 when the brand was reinvented as a 3.75-inch line of action figures, vehicles and playsets supported by a hit cartoon and comic book series.”
Zahn said Hasbro is already plotting a product line to celebrate 60 years of G.I. Joe in 2024, including products that hark back to the brand’s origins by taking inspiration from real-life members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
An infantry-inspired Action Soldier and a Recon Diver are set to join the 6-inch scale G.I. Joe Classified Series.
In 1969, the Louis Marx Toy Company debuted The Original Big Wheel, a low-riding tricycle with a massive, 16-inch wheel. These tricycles were and continue to be popular among toddlers and young children under the age of 10.
“The three-wheeled trike became a massive hit in the ’70s and inspired countless knockoffs and also-rans to the point that ‘big wheel’ became a catch-all term for any similar trike,” said Zahn.
“The Original Big Wheel has changed hands many times over the years, and now it’s primed for a big comeback. Following the acquisition of the brand from J. Lloyd International last year, Schylling has relaunched the Big Wheel in multiple variations for 2023 and beyond,” Zahn added.
“After seeing how the Big Wheel has inspired a modern range of high-end ‘drift trikes’ enjoyed by kids and adults, Schylling plans to launch a Kickstarter for an adult-sized version of the Big Wheel in 2024.”
A decade after The Original Big Wheel, American children were pedaling along on a different kind of ride.
This time, it was the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, which captured the hearts of kids, usually between the ages of one and five.
Zahn said that the kid-powered car was manufactured in Ohio and quickly became an “American icon.”
“Created by the late Jim Mariol — a former Chrysler designer — the Cozy Coupe features an unmistakable curved design and yellow and red color scheme that is instantly recognizable by kids and adults,” Zahn said.
“It’s a cross-generational toy that has evolved over the years with some modern flair, but at the end of the day, it’s still the same fun ride that kids have been rockin’ the neighborhood in for more than 40 years. And now, Little Tikes owner MGA Entertainment is adding a little EV flair to the mix with the launch of the Cozy E-Charing Station that kids can use to pretend that any Cozy Coupe is an electric vehicle.”
Cabbage Patch Kids entered the American toy scene in 1982 through Coleco Industries, Inc. The line of plastic head and cloth body dolls were designed by toymaker Xavier Roberts, and it didn’t take long for this line to become “must-have holiday toys,” according to Zahn.
“Few toys have ever matched the gotta-have-it level of Cabbage Patch Kids to the point where nearly every single girl and boy had it on their holiday wish list,” Zahn said.
“The Cabbage Patch Kids riots of 1983 had parents and grandparents literally fist-fighting one another for a shot at purchasing the dolls. The craze also really ignited the secondary market of scalpers and flippers as opportunists began selling Cabbage Patch Kids from the trunks of their cars.”
“A decade later, the popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids largely inspired the plot of the holiday film, ‘Jingle All the Way,’” Zahn continued. “The license to make Cabbage Patch Kids has been granted to many companies since the ‘80s and is now held by Jazwares.”
Sesame Street’s Elmo led to one of the most successful toy launches to date with Tyco Toys’ Tickle Me Elmo. The squeezable plush toy would talk, laugh and shake whenever kids pressed its button, which was located on the furry character’s belly.
“When TYCO launched Tickle Me Elmo in the summer of ‘96, no one expected the little red Muppet to be such a hit,” Zahn told Fox News Digital.
“By the time Black Friday rolled around, it was a different story, as shoppers from coast-to-coast stormed retailers as doors opened and practically trampled one another. Fights and injuries were reported throughout the holiday season as the supply was exhausted.”
Zahn added that following the release of a 25th anniversary “Tickliest Tickle Me Elmo” toy under Hasbro’s Playskool brand in 2021, Sesame Workshop granted the license to produce Sesame Street toys to Just Play. The company introduced the Elmo Slide this year, one of the hottest toys of the 2023 holiday season.
The first-ever toy inspired by the groundbreaking “Star Wars” franchise was released in the late 70s by Kenner, a subsidiary of General Mills at the time, after Mego Corporation turned down both Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox.
After the film’s release in 1977, kids wanted toys to create a world with their favorite characters; yet the makers at Kenner did not have time to release a new product in time for Christmas, so they reportedly sold empty boxes to fans.
“The infamous ‘Early Bird Certificate’ program was a genius move that was in response to a forced hand — Kenner simply couldn’t get the first wave of action figures produced and shipped to retail in time for the 1977 holiday season,” Zahn said.
The iconic action figure line reportedly produced over 250 million “Star Wars” characters before it came to an end in 1985, following the decrease in sales.
“The original Kenner collection of action figures, vehicles, and playsets remains the gold standard for worldbuilding in the toy industry and is still inspiring toymakers every day as they hope to inspire new generations of kids or reconnect with adults by pushing the nostalgia buttons,” Zahn said.
“If it wasn’t for the Gameboy, we wouldn’t have the Nintendo Switch,” Zahn said.
Game Boy was first released in 1989. It changed the way video games could be played, especially since it was an on-the-go experience.
Gameboy offered players the opportunity to have fun on the go, and it managed to become a hot item on more than one occasion, particularly upon the release of Gameboy Color.
“Game Boy was not the first handheld gaming system, but it was certainly the most popular,” Drew Robarge, a museum specialist at the American History Museum, shared with Smithsonian Magazine. “There were others before it, but they were mostly one-function systems. Game Boy used interchangeable cartridges, like the home consoles, so you could play different games.”
A few weeks after its release, the Game Boy had already sold one million units in America — and by the end of its lifespan, it had sold 120 million worldwide, the online magazine continued.
Throughout its 16-year franchise, the Game Boy went through a variety of iterations: Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Micro, along with a variety of accessories, the same source said.
“The idea of making real video games portable was a revolutionary idea at a time when the industry was used to self-contained, single-title electronic games with two-color LCD screens,” Zahn added.
A $5 plush toy, semi-filled with plastic beads, became a huge hit with children — and adults. Ty Inc. was founded in 1986 and released the iconic Beanie Babies seven years later in 1993.
Beanie Babies come in all sorts of animals, but each comes with its own poem on the heart-shaped tag.
“By the mid-1990s, Beanie Babies became wildly popular, with special edition toys made in partnership with businesses like McDonald’s and Wrigley Field,” Time Magazine wrote.
In 1998, USA Weekend, a Virginia-based newspaper that stopped publication in 2014, created a poll that estimated at least 64% of Americans had a minimum of one Beanie Baby in their home. That same year, Ty Inc. surpassed $1 billion in sales.
“When the toy industry talks about a “craze,” Beanie Babies are at the top of the list alongside Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo,” Zahn said. Adult collectors and speculators helped to drive sales of Beanie Babies beyond anyone’s expectations. Ty Inc. founder Ty Warner quickly became a legendary figure within the industry as his creations became timeless treasures for generations of kids and collectors.”
He went on, “I’ve heard that Warner considers his products to be “more than a toy,” and that’s very true — they’re also a staple product for thousands of independently owned toy stores, gift shops, and specialty retailers, so their existence supports small businesses in a way that most members of the public will never know.”
Furbies took over the hype following the Beanie Babies craze. It dominated the late ’90s and early 2000s following its debut at the International Toy Fair in 1998.
Over 40 million units were sold globally in the first three years, Forbes reported.
“I was in the retail business when Tiger Electronics — pre-Hasbro acquisition — unleashed Furby upon the unsuspecting masses,” Zahn said. “Pallets of Furbys would arrive at retail and spark a frenzy as parents and grandparents — with memories of Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids still top of mind — scooped them up in a matter of minutes.”
“It was fascinating to watch as Furby incited conspiracy theories as to whether or not the whimsical little toys were ‘spying’ on families,” Zahn added.
Following its popularity, the Furby franchise was discontinued in 2002; but 25 years after its debut, the Furby has made a resurgence.
This past July, Hasbro released the new-and-improved Furby for a new generation of fans to enjoy.
“Following its craze-inducing launch in 1998, Furby has taken the world by storm, impacting every corner of the culture zeitgeist, from music to television and film,” Kristin McKay, vice president and general manager of Hasbro fashion and preschool, said in a press release.
“For the brand’s 25th anniversary, we wanted to ignite the same excitement for this new generation by harnessing Furby’s power of nostalgia while giving Gen Alpha everything they crave,” McKay added.