Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is widely considered the opening of the holiday shopping season. This annual tradition may have earned its colorful name because it represents the time of year when retailers finally turn a profit (they're no longer "in the red," so to speak). Determined shoppers wake up at the crack of dawn that morning—or even skip Grandma's sweet potato pie on Thursday night—to take advantage of sales, seek out hard-to-find gifts, and sometimes cause each other grievous physical harm.
Through the decades, one thing has remained constant about Black Friday, and about the holiday season in general: toys. People buy (literal!) tons of toys. Here's a look back at the elusive playthings—some expensive electronics, some straightforward stuffed animals—that have captivated children of all ages over the last 20 years.
Sky Dancer, a doll that flies into the air when a string in its base is pulled, became the first "girl's" toy other than Barbie to top national bestseller lists. Sky Dancers spawned both an animated TV show and a boys' variant, Dragon Flyz, which in turn spawned its own animated TV show. Binaries!
The blockbuster success of Toy Story, released the day before Thanksgiving, gave nostalgic toys like Mr. Potato Head a boost this holiday season. An updated line of Star Wars action figures also figured prominently on Black Friday shopping lists.
This unassuming toy, who'd giggle and shake when his belly was stroked, was briefly a full-blown pop cultural phenomenon. The flames of Tickle Me Elmo's popularity were stoked by TV appearances on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Today.
A Tyco Preschool spokesperson estimated that every Tickle Me Elmo was sold out by 10 a.m. on Black Friday—one million were purchased through the holiday season. Though the toy retailed for approximately $30, by December, black-market sellers hawked it to desperate parents for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
“Plan on suffering if you have yet to buy a Sing and Snore Ernie,” warned the New York Times after Thanksgiving weekend. True to his name, the heir apparent to Tickle Me Elmo's Sesame Street toy throne would snore and occasionally serenade his owner with a sleepy rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
As of September 1997, the Tamagotchi—a handheld digital pet that would eat, sleep, defecate, even die if its master left it unattended for too long—had sold 70 million units worldwide. Created in Japan, it retailed for around $17. The Tamagotchi remained a hot commodity through Black Friday.
At the height of their late-'90s popularity, Beanie Babies weren't a Black Friday-specific phenomenon, exactly, so much as they were an all-seasons national fugue state. The bubble for these $5 plush collectibles, which raked in $1.4 billion in 1998, finally burst around 1999.
Kids' increasing interest in toys with a digital component only grew stronger with the introduction of the Furby, a cute, interactive creature that chattered away in a made-up language called Furbish.
One Florida woman in search of a Furby (a portmanteau of "fur ball") was "disgusted" when she trekked to a Wal-Mart at 6 a.m. on Black Friday to find dozens of shoppers already waiting to purchase the toy. The same morning, a Manhattan Kay Bee Toys store was cleaned out of its stock of 200 within minutes.
Though sold in stores for only $30 to $35, black-market Furbies fetched as much as $200 on eBay.
Right before Y2K, it didn't matter so much what the toy actually was, so long as the slightest hint of Pikachu dander was in the air: anything Pokémon was a big draw on Black Friday, which fell two weeks after Pokémon: The First Movie was released in the North America. Fans of the Japanese "pocket monsters" franchise (or, perhaps more accurately, parents of fans of the Japanese "pocket monsters" franchise) swept up trading cards, video games, dolls, and more. The Toy Report newsletter editor Chris Byrne estimated that one in five holiday gifts received by children in 1999 would be related to Pokémon. Gotta catch 'em all.
The New York Times Black Friday dispatch hailed scooters as "this year's must-have item," with Razor among the most prominent brands thereof. (Fun fact: A 2014 study found that toy-related injuries had jumped by 60 percent in the previous two decades, a trend researchers linked to the proliferation of scooters in 2000.)
The robot dog Poo-Chi was the best-selling new toy of 2000, with 1.5 million sold in the United States alone in the last week of November and first two weeks of December. It could bark, wag its tail, and express emotion with its red LED eyes. The sought-after PlayStation 2 was also scarce following its October debut.
As one Toys 'R Us shopper said of her Poo-Chi enthusiast two-year-old that November, "She goes after the gadgets. I guess stuffed animals aren't the thing anymore.'"
After the events of September 11, retailers reported a surge in the popularity of first-responder toys, including police officer and firefighter action figures. Fisher-Price's Rescue Heroes Collection doubled its sales in the 2001 holiday season, which was markedly less electronic toy-driven than previous years.
The highly anticipated mid-November release of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone movie buoyed licensed toys like the LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle.
Tiger Electronics, the makers of Poo-Chi, stepped their interactive game up with FurReal Friends in 2002. No more plastic "fur" or LED eyes: The first model (with a price tag of $35), a cat, was soft, cuddly, and nearly sold out around the country as of the first week in December.
In a trend that will become increasingly common in the new millennium, there wasn't a single Black Friday blowout toy in 2003, although there were some noteworthy standouts.
Yet another Elmo, Hokey Pokey Elmo, sold briskly in 2003. As of the day before Thanksgiving, this toy—which, unlike its predecessors, moved its entire body—was projected to hit one and a half million sales through the holiday season.
Bratz dolls, too, were unavoidable in the toy aisle: These modern, diverse, and (to some) unnecessarily adult alternatives to Barbie made $1 billion between their summer 2001 debut and October 2003.
The iPod first hit the market in 2001, but Apple's portable MP3 player only became a must-have gift for grownups and kids alike in 2004. They were in high demand on Black Friday, and in late December, it was estimated that Apple would sell 4 million iPods in the fourth quarter of the year.
The RoboSapien proved to be another irresistible holiday item, recognized by many parenting publications and on dozens of "best of the year" toy lists. This $100 robot came programmed to perform 67 functions like grasping objects, karate chopping, burping, and farting. More than one million units, a veritable RoboSapien army, were sold in the 2004 holiday season.
The sleeper hit of '05 was a modern, electronic twist on a classic baby doll: Meet Amazing Amanda, a talkative (and, frankly, kind of creepy) interactive toy who addressed her owner as "Mommy." For the price of $90, you too could get to hear Amanda tell you that she loves you more than bunnies.
The Xbox 360, released just three days earlier, was virtually impossible to find on Black Friday. For those shopping for little kids, Dora the Explorer toys like Dora's Talking Kitchen were high on the list.
The 2006 holiday shopping season was largely dominated by the hunt for the PlayStation 3 ($650) and Nintendo Wii ($250), which hit the shelves within the week before Thanksgiving. The frantic demand for these expensive gaming consoles (and the iPod before them) shattered long-standing toy industry beliefs that parents would never spend more than $100 on a plaything. Their steep prices aside, both the PS3 and Wii were in very short supply on Black Friday.
Fisher-Price marked the tenth anniversary of Tickle Me Elmo with the T.M.X. Elmo, a.k.a. Tickle Me Elmo Extreme. T.M.X. Elmo's movement was a huge step forward from that of previous generations: He'd roll around on the floor in a fit of giggles and then stand up on his own.
Fueled in part by its mysterious prerelease PR campaign—and a "top secret" box that hid the $40 toy from shoppers until it was purchased—T.M.X. Elmo inspired a frenzy of its own. One Black Friday shopper called the chaotic Elmo line at the Times Square Toys R' Us, in place since the store opened at 6 a.m., "complete madness."
Riding the tidal wave of both American Idol (the Fox reality singing competition—fresh off its sixth season, the year of Sanjaya—couldn't have been hotter) and Guitar Hero, manufacturers courted holiday shoppers with a varied array of music-themed video games, including the multi-instrumental Rock Band, the karaoke-esque American Idol Talent Challenge, and, for the Fisher-Price set, the I Can Play Guitar System. Transformers merchandise was also inescapable thanks to the summer premiere of the first Michael Bay movie inspired by the toy line.
2008 marked yet another year without a single blockbuster toy—not to mention a year that saw consumers do more of their holiday shopping than ever before online. It's nevertheless worth highlighting the much-hyped arrival of Elmo Live ($60), who could crack jokes, tell stories, and even sneeze. Meanwhile, Disney (Fusion, full disclosure, is partly owned by Disney's ABC network) successfully capitalized on kid-favorite franchises with dolls and games related to properties like Hannah Montana and High School Musical.
Zhu Zhu Pets were Black Friday catnip—or maybe hamsternip? Named for the Mandarin phrase meaning "little pig," these miniature plush robots would purr and zip around a room howsoever their mechanical hearts desired. Parents were wooed by their $7.99 price, although Internet black markets saw them marked up as high as $50.
Why settle for a bride toy, a dog toy, or a Spider-Man toy when you could have all three, and a dozen more characters to boot? Such was the magic of Squinkies. These tiny, affordable (16 for $10!) foam collectibles owed their holiday success in part to the endorsements of influential mommy bloggers.
No one toy emerged as the be-all and end-all of this holiday season, but Angry Birds toys (based on the mega-popular mobile game), Hot Wheels Wall Tracks, and Lalaloopsy dolls with pliable plastic hair all sold well around the country.
Parents also relished the opportunity to trick their kids into learning something with the LeapPad Explorer ($79.99), a handheld gaming console loaded with educational activities.
Just when you thought it was safe: Furby came back. In 2012, 1998's hottest toy got a makeover, featuring bright LCD eyes, as well an app that can communicate with the toy and translate Furbish to English.
Like Beanie Babies, the Rainbow Loom wasn't specifically a holiday toy, but an every-day-of-the-year toy. This crafting kit (priced around $15) allows kids to weave rubber bands into colorful bracelets. It developed a large following among boys as well as girls.
Frozen toys couldn't be beat last year. The Disney movie—the highest-grossing animated film of all time—captured the hearts of children, the wallets of parents, and the ears of anyone who, in 2015, still has "Let It Go" stuck in their heads. A Castle & Ice play set was particularly popular, priced for $120 at Toys R' Us (where it sold out) and $230 on Amazon.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.