Which of this season's hottest toys deserve a place under the tree? And which should be shipped back to the North Pole? To find out, we gathered 16 toy experts ages 1 to 11 to race, build and cuddle 50 of this season's hottest items.
Click any toy to see video of the toy in action, plus analysis from Diane Toroian Keaggy.
CitiBlocs Little Builder Set
Young builders can create towers and houses with this 22-piece wooden set. It includes colorful blocks that rattle, plus stairs and roofs. Testers enjoyed the hands-on activity and spent lots of time stacking and lining up the blocks.
Lego Duplo My First Fire Station
Kids can build a fire station out of Duplo bricks and use the firefighters, truck and car to put out an imaginary blaze. The set also comes with a hydrant, fire hose and dog. One of our testers spent the bulk of his time playing with the pieces and racing the car around with the firefighter inside.
Fisher-Price Little People Zoo Talkers Animal Sounds Zoo
Our youngest tester especially enjoyed the many features of the Little People zoo, a combination tree house/water park for toy animals. The polar bear can ride down the slide, the gorilla can sway in the tree swing, the lion can sit in the branches and the zookeeper can visit them all. The animals and zoo have buttons that make sounds so little hands have plenty to explore.
Sesame Street Count 'N Crunch Cookie Monster Plush
You can feed three toy cookies — one at a time — to Cookie Monster, who laughs, counts, jokes and even burps. The treats go in Cookie's mouth and end up in his attached backpack. One of the girl testers loved playing with the toy, but the others did not show much interest.
Playskool Poppin' Park Elefun Busy Ball Popper
Turn on the popper, insert the five plastic balls and watch them pop out the elephant's trunk while songs play. The trunk can be rotated, so the balls can go in the air, on the floor or drop into the elephant's tummy. Parents appreciated that the air-powered toy did not shoot the balls out too far.
Sesame Street Let's Rock Elmo
Depending on which instrument is chosen for him, Elmo will shake a tambourine, sing into a microphone or play the drums. Testers played with the accessories, but seemed put off — even scared in one case — by Elmo's comments and music. They did not even try to have Elmo play any of the instruments. Like the Rock Star Mickey, Let's Rock Elmo did not hold kids' attention.
Vtech 2-in-1 Discovery Table
This activity table has one side covered in buttons, piano keys, a book and a clock. The tabletop can be flipped over for a drawing surface, although switching the sides can be a little tricky at first. This toy skewed young for a couple of our testers, but others liked pressing the buttons.
Fisher-Price Disney's Rock Star Mickey
This Mickey Mouse rocks out with his songs — his repertoire includes the classic "You Really Got Me" — head bops, dance moves and mini-guitar. He turned out to be more of a novelty toy. One parent speculated that Mickey would entertain adults more than children.
Vtech Catch-Me Kitty
This cat on wheels has a sensor that detects movement around it. The idea of the toy is to keep kids running or crawling after the cat, but our testers didn't pay any attention to it as it rolled around the floor. The cat also has three shape buttons that make sounds.
CAT EZ Machines
This truck, with its one-button remote control, is targeted toward young kids. When you press the button, the truck moves forward; when you release the button, it turns in circles. Testers wanted to use the remote but lost interest when the truck started spinning.
HABA animal blocks sorter
This shape sorter comes with six blocks and two double-sided faces that slide on the box so children can vary the patterns. The concept is clever, but one parent found it limiting because each side offered only three holes for the shapes, and the slide-on feature was too difficult for kids to use by themselves.
These modernized blocks have bristles on their sides that stick them together. Kids can connect the colorful Spinaroos to form characters, buildings or random shapes. Testers liked experimenting with the different pieces. "She likes them but doesn't know what she's supposed to do with them," said Katie Gordon, mother of 2-year-old Jaci, of the toys.
Matchbox Smokey the Fire Truck
The real star in this category, Smokey the Fire Truck can move into two modes — firetruck mode and water-cannon mode. In firetruck mode, Smokey flashes his lights and speaks about 95 phrases and sings songs. In water-cannon mode, Smokey can launch "water" balls across the room. Guess which mode was our testers' favorite. "Wow, those balls can really fly. I can see them breaking a lot of stuff," said Sarah Connelly with a laugh as her son, Jack, sent the series of three canons across the room.
Cepia Zhu-Fari toys
$9.99 - $19.99
Cepia, the St. Louis-based toymaker, has created several new adventures for its adorable Zhu Zhu pets, including the Fun Rover vehicle, Lion's Park and the Zippity Zip Line, which connects the various playsets. Our testers liked manipulating the playsets to create various scenes and transporting baby Zhu Zhu pets via the zip line's basket. The good news is the playsets require no batteries; the bad news is they require some assembly.
Toy State Caterpillar Iron Diesel
This train has seven feet of track for young engineers and features two CAT machines and a movable crane car. Jack Connelly, 4, enjoyed moving the train around the track as well as playing with the removable CAT machines on their own, "It's almost like two different toys," said Jack's dad, Michael Connelly. "And the tracks stay together better than the tracks for his Thomas train."
Fisher-Price Dora Fiesta Favorites Kitchen Playset
Tomorrow's foodies can make burgers, huevos rancheros and other recipes in Dora's kitchen, which comes equipped with a refrigerator, stove and oven and sink. Dora speaks 60 English and Spanish phrases. Tester Cali Graeler enjoyed stocking the leche and fruit in the fridge and frying an egg sandwich.
Dado Cardboard Bricks
Children can construct towering skyscrapers with these colorful, interlocking bricks. The set comes with 20 interlocking double bricks and 10 single bricks. Parents complained the bricks were difficult to assemble.
Innovation First Hexbug Hive Habitat
Children can create complex mazes for their Nanos with the set's 16 adjustable pegs and 16 flags. The set collapses into an easy-to-carry case. Comes with one Hexbug Nano Mutation.
My Baby Alive
This chatty baby makes "real poop" and "eats" her own doll food. Pay attention to the multiple manufacturer's warnings. For instance, Baby Alive food won't kill humans, but children are strongly advised not to eat the fake peas. Also make sure to clean your Baby Alice doll well or she may get "constipated." And like real babies, Baby Alive costs a lot of money to maintain. A refill of Baby Alive food and diapers, sold separately, costs $23.90.
WABA Fun Bubber Bucket
Bubber should come with its own vacuum cleaner. This soft and squishy modeling clay disintegrates into tiny flecks almost instantly. Kids liked it, but parents agreed this toy was too messy. "This stuff is nasty," remarked Bridget Gehm as her 4-year-old, Reagan, rolled the Bubber into balls.
Fisher-Price Sing-a-ma-jigs Duets
This plush toy chatters and harmonizes when you press its belly. Sing-a-ma-jigs were selected as a Toy Industry Association Toy of the Year. But none of our testers from any age group could be bothered to play with this toy.
Zillionz Talking Cash Register
This register features a scanner and a talking calculator that speaks in English, French and Spanish. Our testers, however, were unsure what to make of the paper money. "They only know what credit cards look like," remarked mom Bridget Gehn.
Toy State Road Rippers
Road Rippers come in a variety of models. Press the buttons to make the car go forward and reverse, flash its lights and play classic rock like "Free Bird" or "Takin' Care of Business."
Small World Toys CAT Take-Apart Machine
Children can use the accompanying power drill to take apart this sturdy dump truck's tires, cab and dump bed.
Hasbro FurReal Friends Newborn Chimpanzee
This plush primate coos, sleeps and takes a bottle.
Battat Take It Easel
This portable easel has an erasable whiteboard on one side and a chalkboard on the other, and comes with 10 nontoxic washable markers. Testers liked the idea that you can store other art supplies inside.
Mattel Hot Wheels Wall Tracks Starter Set
One of the coolest tracks Hot Wheels has made. The track attaches to a wall with 3M Command Strips. The set includes one die-cast Hot Wheels car.
Nickelodeon Victorious "Make It Shine" Tori Singing Doll
Tori from Nickelodeon's "Victorious" sings the hit theme song "Make It Shine." Simply raise Tori's left arm to hear her sing and raise her right arm to hear her fans cheer.
Ben 10 Tech Blaster
The Blaster, from the popular "Ben 10" show, converts into five different toys: Deluxe Blaster, Mini Blaster, Super Decoder, X-Ray Scanner and a Multi Scope.
These new colorful, collectible hermit crabs (pronounced ShaSha) scatter around by pressing the claw. They love to hang out in their own special Confetti Cottage ($19.96) or the Xia-Xia Copacabana playset ($28.94). The playsets connect, and the crabs can crawl around.
Power Ranger Samurai Clawzord
Claw Battlezord has four battle faces to morph for the different battle scenes as seen in the television series. It measures up to 10 inches tall. It's the perfect toy for any Power Rangers fan.
Playmobil Top Agents Robo-Gangster SUV
This SUV has lots of little pieces that need to be attached by an adult. But once it is up and moving, the kids will enjoy running this vehicle. (remote control model 4856, sold separately, $54.99)
DaGeDar Two Lane Battle Jump Raceway
The balls are designed with drawings of goblins, bandits, bounty hunters, fighters and fire-starters (sold separately). They roll around the track, similar to a Hot Wheels track. (Supercharged Ball Bearing Toy two-pack Random Balls, $8.98)
ThunderCats ThunderTank with Exclusive Snarf
The new ThunderCats animated series is a sweeping tale that combines swords and science. The ThunderTank includes a four-inch scaled figure of Snarf. To activate lights and "ThunderCats, Hooo" phrase, place Snarf inside the cockpit.
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" MechTech Leader Sentinel Prime
Spring into action with this vehicle-to-robot hero. You can switch the Sentinel Prime figure from robot mode to a firetruck mode.
Umagine Bizu Styling Studio
This style center lets you store, select and dispense your Bizu collection, making you the designer. With more than 15,000 combinations, the rotating tower allows you to inventory your Bizu collection and create new fashionable accessories.
Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming console
The 3D display gives objects within the game world a feeling of space and depth that extends far into the back of the screen. A 3D depth slider lets you determine how much 3D you want to see. The console comes loaded with a variety of fun games, applications and features, such as a Nintendo 3DS Camera. The kids played Puss In Boots Nintendo DS game ($29.99) and the Monster High Ghoul Spirit ($49.99).
Umagine Doctor Dreadful Zombie Lab
Part chemistry experiment, part cooking lesson, this Zombie Lab made the top three list for one of our boys and one of our girls. They loved making the edible "barf" and "slime." Gavin McCoy, said, "It tastes great. Kind of like peach" about the "barf." Parents seemed to like that it required thinking and that it would keep the kids busy for a good amount of time, but one lamented the cleanup after.
Microsoft Xbox console with Kinect
The commercial says, "You are the controller" and we found this surprisingly accurate. With the Kinect's full-body tracking technology, the movements onscreen mimic the movements of your body. And with the Sports Season 2 game ($49) you can play tennis, golf, football, baseball, skiing and darts. Kids from age 5 to 11 (and even several — ahem — older kids) loved the technology and the physical aspect of this game. It was the No. 1 pick of both boys in this age group, and more than one grown-up said they wanted it for themselves.
Fijit Friends Willa Interactive Toy
This squishy Fijit Friend has several interactive features, including voice recognition, beat detection, dance mode and more than 150 built-in responses. It dances and even tells knock-knock jokes. Several adults found the toy quite charming, but the Fijit sat sad, alone, on the side of the mat as kid after kid pressed a button, lost interest and moved on.
Crayola Model Magic Jewelry Boutique
This jewelry maker lets you create bracelets, necklaces and earrings. First you use the molds (they come in eight colors) to create beads. Let them dry for 24 hours, glaze them and string them up in necklaces, earrings or bracelets. Both girls in the 9 and up group picked it as their favorite toy, and both spent a lot of time making beads and creating jewelry with the beads we'd made the day before.
Beyblade Metal Masters Triple Battle Set
Challenge your friends to tops battles with this new set from Beyblade. Kids who like Beyblade were drawn to it, though they didn't find it much different from other Beyblade games. Others said it was a lot of work to prepare the top for a short payoff. "It only spins for like 5 seconds," says Gavin McCoy, 11.
First Act Voice Rockrz Mic
With this microphone you can change your voice (think auto tune), hear applause behind your voice and use the accessories (a ring and bracelet) to tap the mic for even more voice effects. Perhaps because it was loud in the room, the kids in the group were not impressed with the mic. Though some girls from younger groups did play with it for a few minutes.
Find It: A Contained Adventure: Original Version
Spin it, twist it, shake it, in your search for the 47 trinkets (bell, pearl, baseball, feather) hidden amid the plastic sprinkles. The kids loved it; the grown-ups loved it. It made three of four top-3 lists in this age group. "I just think it's fun to find the things," said Nicole Picchioldi, 9.
Design 'N' Doodle Runway Model
The girls found this intriguing at first. "It's like a grown-up paper dolls," said Teri Picchioldi, Nicole's mom. It comes in a handy carry case with two magnetic girls you can dress up in a variety of magnetic clothing. Some of them are plain white, but the kit comes with markers so you can create your own designs. As cool as that sounds, they had trouble keeping the clothing on the dolls and quickly lost interest.
WWE FlexForce Colossal Crashdown Arena by Mattel
Essentially a playset for wrestling fans, this toy features a large RAW-themed ring with an 18-inch collapsible superstructure. The only problem is, though it collapses, you have to put it back together the next time you play, which takes more time than any tester was willing to do more than once. Even WWE fans were disappointed by it, though some said they'd just play with the toys and create their own ring … out of a box perhaps. (Figures sold separately, $9.99-$13.99)
Lego Ninjago Mountain Shrine
Lego launched Ninjago in January. It uses themes from other ninja series but with a skeleton army. It uses "Spinjitzu," where the figures spin to fight. We started the toy test with this toy mostly put together, and maybe it lost the appeal Lego toys have of putting them together, but even boys who described themselves as Lego fans didn't play with this.
Monster High Dolls
The truth is, these dolls didn't really do anything, so though they may be infinitely "cool," they ended up sitting there all spooky-beautiful by themselves.
Air Hogs Hyperactives Pro Aero GX
Despite its small size, the Air Hogs Hyperactives Pro Aero GX car is superpowerful and super-fast, reaching speeds of 20 mph. It features a flexible roll bar (a clear plastic that looks like packaging, so be careful not to cut it off). The car's controller runs on a multiband frequency that allows kids to run up to 10 cars at once. The kids liked this one, but they tended to like the Tonka XT car better.
Hasbro Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro
We tested another version of this last year as well and declared it the No. 1 toy then. It was a hit this year as well, but more with the parents, who considered buying it as much for themselves. This version, the Stunt Pro, can twist-left, twist-right, flip-over, elevate and even remember the stunts. The kids loved flipping it and running it into things. Some of the parents worried about the dangers to siblings … and walls.
- Winners in each age category are denoted by a badge:
- The price listed is the manufacturer's suggested retail price.