February might seem a little early to ponder what items will be on your child's holiday gift list, but the toy industry is already giving it plenty of thought.
Toys haven't had an easy go of it in recent years. In October last year, surveys indicated fewer adults planned to purchase toys when shopping for the holidays, and nearly one-third of those who did said they would spend less money on them, according to The Harris Poll. Companies including Hasbro, Mattel and Toys R Us later reported lackluster results for the fourth quarter, based in part on weak toy sales.
"The problem with the toy industry, frankly, is a lot of the toy companies are afraid to take a chance," said Isaac Larian, CEO of MGA Entertainment, whose brands include Little Tikes, Bratz and Lalaloopsy. It can be a struggle to get retailers to carry innovative toys, he said, and consumers sometimes aren't ready to buy them.
(Watch: Hot holiday toys at Toy Fair 2014)
Which means finding the hot toy is crucial for the toy industry. These 16, on display at the Toy Industry Association's Toy Fair in New York from Feb. 16 to 19, could be contenders that will be hard to find on shelves.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 19 Feb. 2014
Lay claim to the dog token or Broadway with a photo of yourself. This version of Monopoly, to be released in August, lets players affix photo stickers to property spaces, tokens and game cards, making the game a little more personal. (Who won second place in a beauty contest, to collect $10 on that Community Chest card?) Pick from Facebook, Instagram, Flickr or other photos, and print them at home with the included sticker sheets.
It can take serious effort to get a dog to take a bath, or so Goldie discovers in the latest of the popular series of girls' engineering toys, released in February. The story teaches kids the hinge and lever concept, through building a dunk tank. (Other kits already on the market have focused on belt drives, and wheel and axle.) More kits and expansion packs are on the way this year.
The newest Lalaloopsy dolls are bath-time ready. Fill your doll's hair with bubble solution (or shampoo or bath soap), and then squeeze her tail to create a bubble hairstyle. The dolls, which were released in January, also come with a pet octopus that squirts water.
Defend your base against alien invaders. The giant rover, due out in September, comes with light-up alien holding chambers and moving claws, drills and saws (complete with sound and light effects) to finish space construction projects. There's even a detachable fighter ship that launches disks at enemies.
Elmo has been big on hot holiday toy lists for years, and this year's contender wears a few different hats—literally. Elmo plays different learning games depending on whether he's wearing a prince's crown, or a cowboy or sea captain hat. Without a hat on, he still talks and reacts to tickles and squeezes.
Your objective: Navigate a character around obstacles and enemies to snag the gold puzzle piece. But Ludos, a hardware tray that plugs into your gadgets and uses app-based games, is more than just fun. Game play teaches basic programming as kids create and execute a sequence of action keys—go left, jump, repeat, then go right—to solve the onscreen puzzle. The first game is in preorders now for a summer release; future games will use new key sets to teach other skills, including reading music and calculating chemical formulas.
$19.99 and up
Regular sets can be complex for little hands to build. The newest line of kits eases the transition from big Duplo pieces to smaller LEGO ones. Juniors, which launches in March, includes a few big, one- or two-piece items, like a princess's castle or a superhero's secret lair, as well as smaller elements to construct.
Secure evidence of an epic battle or an impossible-to-make shot with Nerf's latest blaster, out this fall. It contains a 4GB memory card that holds up to 2,000 pictures or three hours of video. Watch instantly on the blaster's color screen, or download the footage to share online. And of course, the blaster packs fire power: a 12-clip of darts that can soar as far as 90 feet.
Plug 'n' play games have been high on holiday wish lists, and Jakks Pacific's version, out this fall, is a relative bargain. The game costs half what its competitors charge, and doesn't require a video game system—it plugs right into the TV.
Kids can swap out action figures on the portal, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and Superman, to change play abilities in the onscreen games.
(Read more: 10 hot holiday toys for kids)
$2.99 and up
The company's Trash Pack collectibles for boys are preparing for their seventh series of garbage-themed figures; soon there will be a grocery-themed character line for girls. Shopkins, which launch this summer, include more than 140 minifigures (a la Cupcake Queen and Twinky Winks), as well as store play sets and shopping baskets.
$6.99 and up
Paw Patrol's pups always save the day, and these new action figures do, too, with gadgets that pop out of their backpacks. Each of the five pups, to be released in June, comes with a snap-on badge for the owner.
Soon, girls can create their own doll for the popular Monster High franchise, from the inside out—does she have literal butterflies in her stomach, or other emotions? Then add eyes, a face-plate, hair, clothes and accessories from one of three different interchangeable kits (out in June) for a totally customized monster.
$4.99 and up
Aimed at kids who have aged out of Play-Doh, the new DohVinci compound lets kids create 3-D art. The kits, out this fall, include design elements, colorful DohVinci tubes and a styler. The compound sticks to wood, glass, paper and other surfaces.
Once dried, it can be peeled off, letting kids reuse kits—and limiting casualties should the kitchen table or couch cushions get a little DohVinci'd during the process.
The rubber-band bracelet craze may not die down any time soon, but Cra-Z-Art is betting that tweens will be interested in looms to make bigger projects. Their line of knitting looms, out in fall, use yarn to make everything from leg warmers and hats to purses and dog sweaters.
Whether you're looking to race a friend on a virtual track or compete on a strategy puzzle, smart game piece Ozobot is ready. When it's released in July, the robot will come with four different game apps to use on a tablet.
It also recognizes colors, letting users map out complex tracks for it to follow on paper. Different color sequences relay commands such as "left at the next fork" and "speed up."
Zoomer the Dog was a hot holiday pick for 2013; this year, there's Boomer the T-Rex. Color-changing eyes show his mood, which determines his actions. He'll dance when happy, or roar and charge when angry. Or use the control to send Boomer chasing after annoying siblings.