Most Popular Christmas Toys, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Rubik’s Cube

The Daily Beast combed the records of Christmases past for a look at the top-selling toy crazes over the last three decades.

Most Popular Christmas Toys

For the last 25 years, the American toy market has been spellbound by the once-a-year holiday bonanza that sends the sales of a single toy into the stratosphere. Talking Elmo, Teddy Ruxpin, Razor Scooters—all one-off toys that have become part of our holiday memories and consumer history.

In the spirit of holiday nostalgia, The Daily Beast combed the records of Christmases past for a look at the top-selling toy crazes over the last three decades.

Patril Stollarz / AFP / Getty Images

Rubik’s Cube

Breakout Year: 1980
Breakout Year Sales (units): 4.5 million 

If you have never tried to solve a Rubik’s Cube, you have missed out on the granddaddy of trendy holiday toys. Twenty-nine-year-old Erno Rubik invented his cube in 1974 but it wasn’t until Ideal Toys introduced it at international toy fairs in 1980 that the cultural phenomenon lifted off. At first Rubik himself couldn’t solve the puzzle, which “takes an engineer to figure out,” an F.A.O. Schwartz manager told The New York Times in 1980. Today, with 350 million sold worldwide, the best of the best complete the Rubik’s Cube in less than 10 seconds.


Breakout Year: 1982
Breakout Year Sales (units): 550,000 

Atari was the undisputed king of home gaming until ColecoVision came along, bundled with the hugely popular and addictive Donkey Kong. “Hello, my name is Leo Freidhofer,” one gamer wrote then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop. “I'm hooked on videogames. I tried to quit lots of times, but I couldn't … I also like computers. I want to buy an Atari 800 or ColecoVision in the near future. This is the first time I told anybody this.” [sic] For a year, Coleco was at the top of the videogame heap, until their expensive and flawed expansion modules failed to catch on. ColecoVision was shelved in 1984. 

The Agi's / Flickr

Cabbage Patch Kids

Breakout Year: 1983 
Breakout Year Sales (units): 2.5 million 

The “inventor” of Cabbage Patch Kids, Xavier Roberts, struck gold when he figured out that parents were willing to cough up extra money for dolls marketed with “adoption certificates.” After a few years of gaining popularity, Cabbage Patch Kid became the toy of 1983—causing near-riots at some stores short on inventory—and the popularity of the Cabbage Patch Kids lasted for years. In 1984 sales of Cabbage Patch Kids and licensed products reached $1 billion, helping parent company Coleco offset losses from the aforementioned Icarus-like ColecoVision. The Babyland General Hospital—a 70,000-square-foot building sitting on 650 acres in Cleveland, Ga.—was erected in 2007 to house a history of Cabbage Patch Kids. More than 115 million Kids have been sold to date. 

Steve Berry / Flickr

Trivial Pursuit

Breakout Year: 1983 
Breakout Year Sales (units): 1.3 million 

Much like its 1983 counterparts from the Cabbage Patch, the fuss about the trivia-themed board game lasted well after the holiday fluster subsided. In 1984, 22 million Trivial Pursuit board game sets were sold. The success of the game turned the inventors—Canadian pals Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, who worked as newspaper editors—into millionaires and the duo finally sold the rights to Hasbro in 2008 for $80 million. Haney died this year, but the game’s success continues. It’s now sold more than 100 million copies in 26 countries and nearly 20 languages with sales pegged at more than $1 billion. 

Gustavo Vargas / Flickr


Breakout Year: 1984 
Breakout  Year Sales (units): 10 million 

Dubbed the “little boy’s Cabbage Patch,” The Transformers took over the retail spectrum in 1984 thanks to the television cartoon that essentially served as a 30-minute advertisement for the mutable robot toys. Whether kids were wanting of the Heroic Autobots or Evil Decepticons, the supplies were limited when Christmas came around. “We have 25 factories in Tokyo working on nothing but Transformers,” a Hasbro spokesperson told the Associated Press in 1983. “We knew several months ago that we were not going to meet all the orders that have been placed. There is just a limit on how much you can manufacture.” 


Breakout Year: 1984 

Breakout Year Sales (units): 15 million 

The GoBots were pretty much the same as Transformers, only smaller and with less iconic names. They were stars in a cartoon series that coincided with the toys’ release, fighting an evil overlord on a distant planet, and Tonka set aside an $8 million marketing war chest to compete with Hasbro for little boys’ parents’ hard-earned dollars. In terms of longevity and cultural cachet, Transformers are the undisputed champion, but in 1984 it was neck-and-neck, with both companies claiming $100 million in orders by the summer, according to published reports. 

Teddy Ruxpin

Breakout Year: 1985 
Breakout Year Sales (units): 1 million 

The creepy-in-retrospect (thanks Chucky) Teddy Ruxpin was billed as the “Original Animated Storytelling Toy.” A cassette tape in Teddy’s back gave voice to his adventures, and simple animatronics made his mouth move. Like just about every other hot toy in the 1980s, Teddy Ruxpin had his own cartoon and cast of auxiliary characters.  

Zak Hubbard / Flickr

My Little Ponies

Breakout Year: 1985 
Breakout Year Sales (units): 16 million worldwide by 1987 

Like Barbie before it, My Little Pony became a longlasting hit, reigning as a popular toy from the mid-'80s until now. In 1985 and 1986, the My Little Pony franchise racked up $60 million in sales annually. Of course, the My Little Pony television show helped to encourage small consumers with hopes of collecting enough ponies to fill a stable (there were more than 50 ponies available in 1987, as well as accessories). As the spokesperson for the Toy Manufacturers of America explained to Adweek in 1987, “My Little Pony really is its own kind of phenomenon.” 

Charles Williams / Flickr


Breakout Year: 1988 
Breakout Year Sales (units): 7 million (plus 32.5 million cartridges) 

The videogame console that simultaneously cemented the lore of Pac-Man and reinvigorated an entire industry made 1988 “a Nintendo Christmas.” One out of every six dollars families spent on toys in 1988 went toward videogame systems and software. Nintendo revenue from the system and cartridges (1988 was the year of Super Mario Bros. 2) amounted to $1.7 billion. The company estimated it could have sold 40 percent more cartridges if not for the worldwide shortage of computer chips that year. 

Yamashita Yohei / Flickr

Game Boy

Breakout Years: 1989 
Breakout Sales (units):
1.1 million (plus 2.5 million cartridges) 

Nintendo, of course, wasn’t only about the home videogame consoles. The company developed a television show around stars Mario and Luigi and the Nintendo magazine had 1 million subscribers in 1989. That year it released the Game Boy, a gray-and-white handheld video game device that outslugged its much more graphically enhanced competitors to eventually become the top-selling game of all time, with well over 100 million units sold by 2000. 

Rob Blatt / Flickr

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Breakout Years: 1989-1990 
Breakout Years Sales (units): 30 million by end of 1990 

The summer blockbuster—which earned the record for the top-grossing independent film of all-time— grossed $175 million in the first two weeks in theaters (and children paid just three bucks to get a seat in movie theaters in 1990). Even the rock album the group released sold 250,000 copies during the first four days of its release. The Turtle industry was valued at $1 billion by 1990. 

Richard Drew / AP Photo


Breakout year: 1992 
Breakout year sales (units): 2.2 million 

Barney, that big purple dinosaur adored by toddlers and despised by teenagers, was seeing green in the early 1990s when Barney and Friends began airing nationwide and retailers couldn’t restock their shelves fast enough. “This past summer it began,” a Georgia retailer told The Augusta Chronicle in December 1992. “He was the rage.” 


Breakout year: 1994 
Breakout year sales (units): 350 million 

“Remember Alf? He’s back, in Pog form,” Milhouse tells Bart in the memorable 1995 Simpsons episode “Bart Sells His Soul”. Pogs evolved from their genesis in Hawaii as a schoolyard game that used caps from POG brand juice, to an industry that would print anything and everything on the mass-produced game caps. Ultimately it was those same schoolyards that led to the downfall of Pogs, as kids couldn’t handle losing their expensive Pogs. “We hear kids say, 'He took my Pogs,’ and we go, 'God, those Pogs again,” one school principal in upstate New York told the Albany Times Union in 1995. 

Dominique Godbout / Flickr

Beanie Babies

Breakout year: 1995 
Breakout year sales (units): 100 million between 1993-1996 

Beanie Babies weren’t popular because they were especially inventive. They were popular because Ty Warner Inc. embarked on a successful marketing strategy that turned Beanie Babies from fad to collector’s item. The success of the Beanie Babies spawned numerous counterfeit stuffed collectibles, and Mary Beth’s Beanie World Magazine, whose second issue sold an unverified 440,000 copies. 

AP Photo

Nintendo 64

Breakout year: 1996 
Breakout year sales (units): 1.6 million 

The waitlist for wannabe Nintendo 64 buyers didn’t subside until months after Christmas in 1996. Demand was so high for the $199 console that by February of 1997, Nintendo was shipping 100,000 units to the U.S. per week and was still unable to fulfill orders. The company sold at least 1.6 million units between September 29th and the end of the year, but the number of buyers who were reportedly searching for an available box to take home was closer to 2.5 million. All the fuss was for a 64-bit processor and updated graphics, and of course the return of Mario with Super Mario 64, which sold 11 million units by 2003. 

AP Photo

Tickle Me Elmo

Breakout year: 1996 
Breakout year sales (units): 1 million 

Based on the squeaky-voiced character from Sesame Street, Tyco’s Tickle Me Elmo, a stuffed animal with interactive tickle spots that, when stimulated, would cause him to laugh hysterically, caused mass chaos when it was released in 1996. Due to unexpected demand, the toy, which had a retail price of $28.99, was in short supply, resulting in parent-on-parent showdowns at various toy stores, and people asking for as much as $1,500 for the coveted doll on the Internet, according to People. Walmart clerk Robert Waller in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, found himself in the middle of “Elmo-mania” on the night of December 14, 1996, when 300 eager customers trampled him. “I was pulled under, trampled—the crotch was yanked out of my brand-new jeans,” said Waller, who suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib, and a concussion. “I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious.” 

AP Photo


Breakout year: 1997 
Breakout year sales: $150 million 

This handheld digital pet, created in Japan by Bandai, comes housed in a keychain-size, egg-shape computer equipped with a three-button interface. As soon as the tag was removed, an egg would appear, hatch, and then the owner would have to care for their brand new virtual pet—feeding and entertaining it, as well as cleaning its poop. If the pet was left unattended for around five or six hours, it would die. The toy became so addictive for children that the Greenville Elementary School in Edgemont, New York, was forced to ban the pet after third graders who were taking a standardized test repeatedly put down their pencils to feed it, according to The New York Times. “'The children were more concerned with the toy than with succeeding in the test,'” said Andrea Silverman, a special-education teacher. 

AP Photo


Breakout year: 1998 
Breakout year sales (units): 1.8 million   

With its big, owl-like eyes, and 5-inch tall, hamster-esque body, this robotic pet became the must-have toy following its release during the holiday season of 1998. The painfully cute animatronic toy would first speak “Furbish”—an invented language concocted from Japanese, Thai, Hebrew, and Mandarin Chinese, and gradually learn to speak English as it became exposed to the language. Retailing for around $35, 1.8 million Furbies were sold during the holiday season of 1998, followed by another 14 million in 1999, leading Time magazine to write this about the highly sought-after item: “Your kid won't stop begging for a Furby, right? She says they squawk in kiddie gibberish and make gurgling noises and sing songs. And you've driven to every mall in the state and still can't find it. Your next-door neighbor traded his car for a dozen on a black-market website, but he's hoarding them until just before Christmas, prime time for scalping. You're stuck with a Kmart waiting list and cheerful lies from salespeople: ‘We'll call you soon.’ Makes you wanna gouge those adorable Furby eyes right out of their electronic sockets.” 

Goldeneye 007

Breakout year: 1998 
Breakout year sales (units): 2.1 million   

Loosely based on the 1995 film Goldeneye, this first-person shooter videogame for the Nintendo 64 console was one of the most in-demand gifts during the 1998 holiday season. In particular, its multi-player death-match mode, deftly utilizing the N64’s four-player capabilities, was wildly popular among teens, and served as a forerunner to current multi-player shoot-em-ups like the Halo and Call of Duty games. In June 2008, the videogame reviews site ScrewAttack listed GoldenEye as the top first-person shooter game of all time, and Empire magazine called it the 10th greatest videogame of all time, saying, “A genuine classic that introduced stealth, sniping and scintillating style to the familiar Doom template, GoldenEye 007 now stands as one of the most influential console blasters of all time, and a fan favorite for its delirious multiplayer mode where Jaws, Baron Samedi, Oddjob and a wealth of other Bond villains battled it out in a variety of exotic locations. Grenade Launchers in the Temple, anyone…?” 

AP Photo


Breakout year: 1999 
Breakout year sales: $1 billion  

Created by Satoshi Tajiri in 1996, this phenomenon started as a pair of role-playing videogames for the Game Boy—Pokémon Red and Blue—and soon became the second most lucrative videogame-based media franchise ever (after the Mario series), encompassing everything from trading cards and toys to books and movies. In the Pokémon universe, players are designated as Pokémon Trainers, and must collect, train, and battle their horde of Pokémons—cute, multi-colored, rabbit-like creatures—against those of other trainers, in an effort to become the “Pokémon Master.” With its release coinciding with that of the new Game Boy Color, Pokémon Yellow became the fastest-selling handheld game of all time when it was released in October 1999, moving 1 million units in its first two weeks, and of the 10 top-selling videogames of 1999, five were Pokémon titles. 

AP Photo

Razor Scooters

Breakout year: 2000 
Breakout year sales (units): 5 million 

Invented by Micro Mobility Systems and manufactured by JD Corp., the Razor scooter—a compact Kick scooter whose handlebar and headtube fold together for easy carriage—was discovered by Sharper Image’s CEO at the 1998 Hong Kong Toy Fair, according to PBS, and in April 1999, he ordered 4,000 such scooters to test sales in stores. One million Razor scooters sold in its debut year, and, with a price tag just under $100, the toy eventually became one of the hottest Christmas gifts during the 2000 holiday season. Hell, even Hansel, the freewheeling supermodel (played by Owen Wilson) from the 2001 film Zoolander, got around on one. 

AP Photo

Bratz Dolls

Breakout year: 2001 
Breakout year sales (units): 125 million worldwide 2001-2005 

In an effort to provide a counter to Barbie’s generic blonde, MGA Entertainment developed a line of multi-ethnic teenage fashion dolls with large heads, skinny bodies, almond eyes, revealing clothing, and lots of makeup. The company released four original 10-inch dolls in 2001—Chloe, Jade, Sasha, and Yasmin—and they soon become a hot Christmas commodity. What followed was an empire that included a (regrettable) Hollywood movie, a TV series, videogames, music albums, and more. By 2005, global sales of Bratz branded products were $2 billion and by 2006 Bratz had about 40 percent of the fashion-doll market, according to The New Yorker. Although Bratz maker MGA was embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with Mattel over the Bratz design, they eventually emerged victorious. 

FurReal Cat

Breakout year: 2002 
Breakout year sales (units): Millions 

With the rising popularity of robotic pets, including 1998’s breakout hit Furby, Hasbro created a toy brand division exclusively dedicated to robotic pets called FurReal Friends, and debuted the FurReal cat during the holiday season of 2002. According to the product’s description, the life-like feline comes “to "life as it opens and closes its eyes, moves its head and ears, swishes its tail and even ‘purrs’” when you pet it, “but be careful when holding its tail—it just may hiss!” The FurReal cat, priced at $34.99, became the surprise hit of the holiday season, with many parents forced to turn to eBay and other Internet auction sites to snag the coveted kitty. “We blew through them,” Alan Marcus, a spokesman at F.A.O. Schwarz, told CBS News. 


Breakout year: 2004 
Breakout year sales (units): 2 million 

The RoboSapien introduced new sophistication into the robot toy craze. Not only can the little black-and-white android walk, talk and dance, it was designed by creator Mark Tilden to be hacked. Straight from the box, the innocent robot will stretch its arms and yawn, but with a little creative tinkering with its internal tech toolbox, it can be armed with just about anything—including a flamethrower.  

AP Photo

XBox 360

Breakout year: 2005
Breakout year sales (units):

Rushed to shelves on November 22, 2005, by Microsoft and its founder, Bill Gates, in order to beat the much-anticipated Sony PlayStation 3 to the market, the Xbox 360 is the successor to the Xbox, and features an integrated Xbox Live service that allows players to compete with one another online and download arcade games, TV shows, or music, as well as third-party media streaming services, like Netflix. The Xbox 360 was initially available in two options: the $399 “Xbox 360” package, boasting a 20 GB hard drive, or the “Xbox 360 Core” at $299, with less storage space. The system was a big hit, moving 900,000 units between its launch and the end of 2005, and a total of 4.5-5.5 million units in the first six months of its release. At the end of Microsoft's first-quarter 2011 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2010, Xbox 360 sales reached 44.6 million units worldwide, according to IGN, and the system is the industry leader in online gaming, according to a recent Nielsen survey. 

AP Photo

Nintendo Wii

Breakout year: 2006 
Breakout year sales (units): 3.19 million   

The fifth generation of home consoles created by Nintendo, the Wii gave new meaning to playing a videogame, adding a motion-sensitive controller and 3=D motion detection. It was a hit with parents, kids, and gamers alike. GameSpot declared it to be the best hardware of 2006 and PC World magazine named it as one of the most innovative products of the year. More Wiis were sold in the first half of 2007 than PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 combined.  

Brad Barket / Getty Images

PlayStation 3

Breakout year: 2006 
Breakout year sales (units): 3.5 million (fiscal year ending 3/31/07)  

It was no match for the Wii and was initially panned by critics—it even ranked on PC World’s list of the top tech screw-ups of 2006—but that didn’t stop PS3 from being one of the season’s top sellers in 2006. It arrived on shelves six months after Sony had initially promised with a $599 price tag, but serious gamers and PlayStation devotees snapped 'em up and even resold them for twice the retail price. Progressive software updates and expansive game options kept the PlayStation 3 among the top sellers for years. 

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

iPod Touch

Breakout year: 2007 

Breakout year sales (units): 13 million by March 2009  

An iPhone without the phone, the iPod Touch has become one of the vaunted tech company’s top sellers in recent years. Of course, Apple doesn’t break out iPod sales, but smart fanboys who follow the company have pegged its sales at close to 45 million and climbing. While Steve Jobs referred to the music player as “ training wheels for the iPhone,” at $299, consumers were attracted to the smaller price tag compared to the $400 iPhone. To be fair, however, sales took a slight drop when a mother in Kentucky sued Apple in 2009 for $225,000 in damages, claiming her teenage son's iPod Touch exploded in his pants and lit his underwear on fire. 

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Zhu Zhu Pets

Breakout year: 2009 
Breakout year sales (units): 10 million 

The cast of battery-operated hamsters, with cuddly monikers of PipSqueak, Mr. Squiggles, Num Nums, Chunk, and Patches, were a welcome respite to parents last year. The battery-operated hamsters were less smelly and less messy than their living counterparts, and, priced at less than $10, they were cheaper than trendy toys of years past—assuming parents could find them. Spare shelves at big-box stores meant some parents had to turn to eBay and shell out between $60 to $100 for the furry fobs. Zhu Zhu creator and longtime toymaker Russell Hornsby, who designed the toy after watching hamsters on YouTube, put an estimated $70 million in his company’s coffers from the toy market coup.


Breakout year: 2010 

Breakout year sales (units): unknown 

0Squinkies landed on store shelves in August 2010, but sold out at Target by the end of the first week and now stores are limiting the number of Squinkies a person can snap up. Like many toy fads that have done well during previous holiday seasons, Squinkies are small, cheap and collectible. The toys—tiny animals and dolls that come packaged in plastic bubbles and are packaged in groups of 16—retail for just $10, but with 300 characters available, amassing a complete collection becomes an expensive proposition. “They hit the sweet spot for what’s hot in girls these days,” toy analyst Gerrick Johnson told The New York Times.


Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Star, Harmony B. Sharp

Breakout year: 2012
Breakout year sales: unknown

There was no real breakout toy of 2011. “We are not seeing clamor for any single item,” Stephanie Lucy, vice president for Toys at Target told The New York Times last year. But this year, the new Lalaloopsy Silly Hair doll, Harmony B. Sharp, has made the most-wanted list. The rag dolls line, that now counts some 50 characters, were introduced in 2010.