Kids' toys go retro this season as old favorites make a comeback

Out shopping is Michelle Dowell, Templeton (rear) as daughter Sydney Dowell, age 3, plays with a doll house at Tom's Toys in San Luis Obispo.
Out shopping is Michelle Dowell, Templeton (rear) as daughter Sydney Dowell, age 3, plays with a doll house at Tom's Toys in San Luis Obispo.

Jack Dolan’s friends have plenty of electronic toys and gadgets. But for Christmas, this 8-year-old San Luis Obispo boy wants Legos.

And not the fancy Minecraft, Batman or Star Wars Legos, either. Just the regular, old-fashioned box of plastic bricks you stick together.

“I like building my own creations out of Legos, like cities and rocket ships,” said Jack, who visited Tom’s Toys in San Luis Obispo on Friday with his mother, Nora Dolan.

The articulate third-grader isn’t alone in that desire. Lacking a blockbuster new toy this year, many kids are asking Santa for toys their parents played with. As far back as February, the Toy Industry Association noted that this year’s biggest-selling toys were actually going to be old toys. And retro toys and games were identified as one of the top six industry trends at the American International Toy Fair earlier in the year.

“We’re seeing an abundance of nostalgic products,” said Adrienne Appell, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association.

In years past, there was always a new hot toy parents could fight over on Black Friday. Remember those scuffles over Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo?

“There isn’t really a hot toy this year,” said Lesa Smith, who owns Whiz Kids! in San Luis Obispo.

While a lack of innovation might explain why toy sales in America have been flat during the economic recovery, it should also be noted Americans spend about $22 billion a year — quite a bit of playing around money — on toys.

David Smith, a writer for the toy industry magazine ToyNews, recently wrote that parents prefer to buy familiar, sure bets while holiday shopping during tough economic times.

“This often means opting for tried and trusted products remembered from childhood,” he wrote. “You know exactly what you are getting, and the risk of disappointment is reduced.”

That might explain why Rubik’s Cube — that nagging 1980s 3-D puzzle — is faring well at Tom’s Toys. Or, one could argue, those who twisted their brains around the Rubik’s Cube in the ’80s figure their kids would also enjoy a mind game.

“Parents and grandparents like to buy that kind of stuff because it’s something they played with,” said Carlos Macias, store manager at Tom’s Toys, who said he often sees adults smile when they enter the store. “Sometimes, the parents are more happy than the kids when they’re in here.”

Near the doorway, 11-year-old Max Waldorf is eyeing that staple of Christmas tree decor — a train set — and digging it.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said.

His father, Dan Waldorf of San Luis Obispo, acknowledges that he wants his son to enjoy the same toys he played with — including Legos, Hot Wheels and the game Operation. For one thing, it allows him to relive his own childhood.

“That’s why you have kids, right?” joked Waldorf, 46.

It also provides an easy way for parents to connect with their children.

Toy companies market to that desire, as Hot Wheels did in 2009 with its retro packaging. (Hot Wheels has also recently put out cars related to ’80s TV shows “The A-Team,” “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I.”)

At Tom’s Toys, two entire rows of shelves are committed to Legos. There’s also a healthy supply of familiar board games, including Monopoly, Scrabble and Life. But in an era when some elementary children are reading textbooks on iPads, some children get even more traditional.

Every Christmas, Jack Dolan picks out a gift for his 6-year-old sister, and she likes to be creative.

“She likes stuff that feels good — that she can squeeze on her hands,” he said. Then his mother added, “Like clay and art stuff.”

While stores such as Tom’s Toys and Whiz Kids! might cater toward more traditional kids, even at Target you’ll find old-school toys such as Furbies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Ponies not far from the more modern tablets and video games.

Some of the retro toy movement is a reflection of TV and movies, Appell said.

While adults might have watched “My Little Pony” features in the 1980s, their kids could have grown up on the newer, slicker “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series, which began in 2010. The upcoming film “The Lego Movie” is sure to create a boost for Lego products. And, of course, Barbie has stayed fashionably hip through a never-ending series of straight-to-DVD movies.

“We like to say toys are a hybrid of fashion and pop culture,” Appell said.

Lego, which has also tied itself to other pop giants such as the “Star Wars” franchise, has fared especially well. In 2012 alone, revenues increased 25 percent from 2011 — to $4.2 billion — in the U.S.

Not that there aren’t new toys out there.

“Goldie Blox are a new item,” Smith said, standing near a display of stuffed My Little Pony toys. “This is from a young woman who at Stanford designed this toy to encourage girls to go into engineering.”

As a delivery driver dropped off four boxes of new Goldie Blox sets, Smith added, “This is definitely something that’s been in the news a lot.”

According to retail giants Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, other popular new toys include Zoomer, a robotic dog, Flutterbye flying fairy dolls and Leap Pad Ultra, a tablet for kids. But shoppers probably don’t look for those at Whiz Kids!, where Smith prefers toys and games families can play with together.

“The electronic thing is not something that people can do together,” she said. “So that’s not our deal.”

Dan Waldorf — a puzzle enthusiast as a kid — likes the idea of his son playing traditional games. But he’s also realistic when shopping for Max, who in recent years has received a scooter and a remote-control helicopter for Christmas.

“We always want to get a traditional toy,” he said. “But we also want to get him something that he’ll play with.”