Much like ideas, there are no new toys, only reinventions of the classics.
It's a message driven home every year in our Toy Test by the experts, a diverse group of children of all ages.
They spend a few hours with their parents in a room full of the season's potential hits as holiday gifts.
During that time we notice what grabs their attention, and more importantly, what holds it. A few of the season's hyped toys fail to engage or get poor reviews from parents, and typically a few unexpected surprise winners emerge.
But certain toys are mainstays among the favorites. Play kitchens test well, as do trains, well-made remote-controlled vehicles, dolls and trikes. The best-loved toys share a commonality: They spark imaginative play, are made with quality parts and get children involved in the action.
We also couldn't help but notice that the fun factor of a toy increased dramatically when the child's parent became engaged in the play, too. Sometimes, the best accessory with a new toy is an attentive playmate.
Here's our list of winners and underperformers:
18 months to 3 years old
PlaySkool Come 'N Play Cookie Monster Kitchen Café ($49.99): As different technologies, trends and television characters fall out of favor, boys and girls will still be flipping eggs and pouring milk at their toy kitchens. The Come 'N Play Cookie Monster Kitchen kept our testers engaged longer than any other toy in this group. Ella has two kitchens at her home, so she naturally gravitated to this version of the toy, where she baked a pie. "There is a reason why toy kitchens are so popular -- kids like to do things that they see in real life," said Ella's dad, Steve Garlinghouse. The Come 'N Play kitchen has fewer food items and cooking utensils (a total of eight) than other kitchens, not that our testers seemed to mind. And assembly of the 30-inch-tall toy is super easy.
QuickSmart Scuttlebug Ride On Ladybug ($39.99): Perfect for the littlest riders, this durable indoor-outdoor tricycle is as cute as it is functional. Parents liked that the bike was easily collapsible and could fit in a backpack or large tote. That's a big bonus considering we, as parents, often have to carry home the tricycle after a long day at the park. "It's adorable but also really sturdy," said Jack's mom, Mary White. "It doesn't look like it would be easy to break. And it looks really easy to carry, which is nice."
Wonderworld Peek-A-Boo-Ball ($10): Perfect for younger toddlers, this ball fits easily in tiny hands. Roll it and little pegs marked with smiley faces pop in and out. Our tester Jack enjoyed playing his own version of Whac-A-Mole with the toy. "It has a nice feel to it," said White. "It would be nice to hold during a car trip." Then again, White acknowledged, the Peek-A-Boo-Ball could cause some serious ouchies if thrown by a toddler with poor impulse control.
Toystate Road Rippers Preschool Radio Control Bubble Driver ($15.99): Pour bubble fluid into this street sweeper and watch it make tiny bubbles as it drives. But be warned, the fluid will spill when the truck inevitably tips. The remote control does not seem to steer the truck, only stop it. Though some kids were momentarily charmed, our parents were universally wary. "Bubble fluid can be a real sticky," said dad David Mueller. "It's not worth the mess."
Lamaze Walter the Waddling Penguin ($24.99): A classic pull toy, Walter the Waddling Penguin is soft, cuddly and cute. Perfect for new walkers.
JC Toys Lil' Cutesies Twins in Stroller ($29.99): Two twin Lil' Cutesies come nestled in a pink stroller. The easy-to-clean dolls are made from vinyl.
Playskool Rocktivity Walk 'N Roll Rider ($39.99): Plastic scooter plays music such as "I Like To Move It," "Walkin' on the Sun," "Life Is a Highway" and "Ticket To Ride." The Rider also doubles as a walker when its seat is flipped upright.
Playskool LOL Elmo ($35.99): Press Elmo's foot and watch him go into convulsions as he laughs at his own jokes. Elmo's shrill giggles bored our testers and almost sent their parents screaming from the room. "Not in my house," exclaimed mother Sarah Bowen.
Haba Color Fun Pegging Game ($35.99): Brightly colored, solid-wood game encourages young learners to create three-dimensional patterns and helps develop fine motor skills. Made in Germany, where the toy is called "Steckspiel."
Wonderworld Wonder Glow Blocks ($22.99): A 2012 "Creative Child Magazine" Top Toy winner, these blocks include 30 variously shaped and colored blocks. Frankly, our testers did not play with this eco-friendly toy even upon learning it glows in the dark. "This would be an excellent toy during a power outage," deadpanned dad Garlinghouse.
BKids Touch 'n Go Animated Book ($23.99): Designed for babies, the three-page book plays different melodies when touched. The pixelated animation is charming.
Berenguer La Newborn Nursery Doll ($38.99): So lifelike it's creepy, the La Newborn vinyl doll comes with a change of clothes, socks and a cap.
4 to 6 years old
Chuggington Deluxe Action Playset: Wilson's Wild Ride by Tomy ($59.99): This sturdy plastic train set was popular with Austin and his mom and also chosen as a favorite by Jonah, who is a bit younger. It's based on the Chuggington episode "Wilson and the Wild Wind," and a child pulls a lever to launch Wilson the train down 2 feet of 360-degree spirals. There are little details along the way, such popping cones and a turntable at the end. The trains do not have the magnetic ends like Thomas trains, but the set is more contained because it rises higher rather than spreading out.
Playskool Electronic Spider-man Stunt City Heroes by Hasbro ($49.99): This toy captivated children beyond just this age group. It's a relatively low-tech superhero playset: Spider-man can save the city from the Lizard by climbing walls, using a web swing and riding a motorbike. A wall lights up and makes sounds as Spider-man climbs to the top, but most of the excitement is fueled by the child's imagination. Douglas immediately was drawn to the storybook that came with the set. "This is a fun toy!" he said.
Matchbox Big Boots Dino Adventure Squad Vehicle ($42.99): This vehicle is designed to be used by the Big Boots team to capture a T-Rex that is also included. There are ways to launch, catapult and grab the Big Boots figures. Douglas chose this as his favorite and spent most of his time figuring out the various things the truck could do.
FurReal Friends Baby Butterscotch My Magical Show Pony ($119.99): Hannah fell for this soft-furred, animated toy. It is programmed to respond by moving its head when touched in various spots. It also whines and snorts. She spent time brushing its mane and tail and feeding it a toy carrot. Her grandmother, who accompanied her, said she could see Hannah dressing the pony and accessorizing its mane. But others wondered whether it would hold a child's attention beyond 20 or 30 minutes.
Magic Moves Electronic Wand by Educational Insights ($19.99) at brilliantskytoys.com: This electronic, battery-operated wand speaks commands like "stomp like and elephant!" or "soar like an eagle." None of the children paid attention to it or its commands.
My Little Pony Royal Wedding Princess Castle Playset ($39.99): These ponies have been popular for years, and this wedding castle entertained several young girls. The two ponies come with clothes and crowns, and the set includes lots of small plastic castle accessories.
Disney Princess Cinderella Transforming Pumpkin Carriage ($59.99): We expected this transforming carriage and royal horse, along with the popular princess, to test much better than it did. The pumpkin did not transform so easily as advertised, and the carriage wheels kept falling over. One of the dads said he would be reluctant to purchase this because it would quickly frustrate his daughter. The plastic horse harness kept falling off, as well.
Classic Etch A Sketch Magic Screen ($14.99): It's been around for more than 40 years, and we wanted to know if it still had any appeal. This age group was a little curious, but once they figured out how it worked, it was quickly abandoned. Perhaps the iPad generation couldn't understand why the screen didn't respond to their touch.
Tinkertoy Transit Building Set ($44.99): Another childhood classic that failed to engage children to create a train, garage or bridge. The newly redesigned Tinkertoy pieces snap together, but one parent pointed out that they require a great deal more hand strength and coordination that other building toys such as Legos. They were largely ignored by this age group.
Crayola Color Wonder Magic Light Brush ($24.99): Several children enjoyed using the battery-operated brush to paint masterpieces using clear paints that transform into colors on the Color Wonder paper. Parents liked that projects were less messy than using traditional colored paint, but the toy only works with the specialty paint and paper, which may quickly need to be refilled for prolific little artists.
My First Nenuco with Sleep with Me Cradle ($29.99): A traditional baby doll that comes with the typical doll accessories, like a bottle and blanket. There's also an easy-to-assemble cradle that can be placed next to a child's bed, so their doll can "sleep" alongside her. Our testers didn't find anything particularly special about this doll or her cradle.
Mattel Cars Micro Drifters Super Speedway Playset ($37.99): Inspired by the hit Disney/Pixar films "Cars" and "Cars 2," this racetrack and microcar have a wow factor when the car first launches and speeds around the track. But after a few minutes of watching the car race around the motorized set, children found little to actually play with and wandered off.
7 to 9 years old
The Micro Charger Jump Track by Moose Toys ($34.99): This toy earned high marks with Jake and Landon in this age group. The mini race cars held their attention so long, we had to move them along to the next toy. These cars may be small, but they can travel over 600 mph scale speed. The game comes with one jump track, two micro charger remotes and two micro charger cars.
Nintendo 3DS XL ($199.99) with Super Mario Bros. 2 game ($39.99): You get an extra-large screen with the 3DS. The top screen is 90 percent larger than that of the original Nintendo 3DS, at 4.88 inches. The lower screen is 4.18 inches, up from 3 inches. The 3DS comes with an estimated 6.5 hours of battery life. Landon chose this as his first choice. "I love to see stuff in 3D, and the track roller ball is cool." Jake agreed. "I like playing these systems. I also have Nintendo and the Wii system."
Mattel's Barbie Photo Fashion ($49.99): The new take on an old favorite was a huge success for the girls in this age group. Just charge the battery with the USB cable (included). Switch on the doll, point and shoot. The photo shows up on Barbie's shirt. She holds more than 200 photos, and you can also add one of 30 different photo effects to your shots before you take them. "The camera is really cool, and I like the background photos," said Madeline. "But, I wish the screen was a little bigger," she added. NeQuel had her eyes on the doll more than the camera. "Barbie's clothes are so cute, and I love her outfit."
Angry Birds Splat Strike ($24.99): A parent from the older group of kids, Beth Miller, 45, of Belleville, and daughter Regan, 11, enjoyed launching the sticky Red Birds into the air and watching them land on the game surface. "This game is fun, simple and not a lot of parts. I can easily see this game in our home for some family competition," Miller said.
Lego Friends Emma's Horse Trailer ($24.99): Emma and her horse, Robin, are getting ready for the big show. Put Emma in the saddle and practice jumping, then groom Robin with brushes, combs and accessories. Includes trailer and Emma mini-doll figure.
The Young Scientist Club Magic School Bus Slime and Polymer Lab ($39.99): The characters from PBS' "The Magic School Bus" will help children explore the scientific properties of polymers. Create goop, melt snow, extract polymers from milk, make snow erupt and much more. The self-contained, bus-shaped kit includes 20 experiment cards, a data notebook, science components and 10 containers of polymers, including super balls, rainbow beads, snow and gel crystals. Warning: This set contains chemicals that may be harmful if misused. Adult supervision is recommended.
Mattel's Polly Pocket Wall Party Tree House ($19.99): This toy is played on the wall. The tree house attaches to the wall with Command adhesive strips, and the doll and accessories have suction cups that add even more fun for upside-down playing. Other kits available: Wall Party Pet Park ($14.99) and Wall Party Balloon Ride ($9.99).
K'Nex Angry Birds Hammin' Around Building Set ($30.99): With this set, you can actually build and destroy a level from the original Angry Birds game. Launch Red Bird and Orange Bird to destroy King Pig, Small Minion Pig and Medium Minion Pig. Includes a working launcher.
Zing ZeeBeez Spin, Pop Catch! ($4): Just turn it inside out, drop it flat and watch it jump 6 feet high. Available in six designs.
Moose Gelarti Designer Studio ($24.99): Design your own Gelarti stickers with this fun designer studio for kids. It comes with reusable gel stickers that you can paint and accessorize and a 360-degree turntable. The paint needs to dry for at least six hours, but the kids loved the stickers.
Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shellraiser Vehicle ($37.99): This vehicle features a battle hatch on top that opens, with a rooftop spring-loaded blasting bazooka launcher. The toy has fold-down ramps, sewer pipe battle grips and rail-to-road rough-riding wheels. Raphael ($9.99) and Leonardo ($9.99) Turtle figures (sold separately).
Koosh Galaxy Solar Recon Ball Launcher by Hasbro ($26.99): This launcher has glow-in-the-dark blasting power and awesome sounds and lights. Simply feed the balls through the top of the ball launcher and watch as the LED lights brighten. Includes four glow-in-the-dark Koosh balls.
Marker Airbrush by Crayola ($27.99): Turn Crayola markers into spray-on designs. Attach a marker into the airbrush sprayer, pump it up and out comes a fine spray of ink. It works great on paper and fabrics, and comes with one airbrush sprayer, eight washable markers, four bright fabric markers, four stencils and 20 sheets of blank paper.
10 and up
Air Hogs R/C Battle Tracker Elite ($99.99): Our testers absolutely loved this toy. The robot (or Automated Robotic Turret) tracks the helicopter and shoots foam darts at it. With two players, one can control the robot and another can control the R/C helicopter, which can shoot foam discs back. The toy worked well, and the helicopter seemed durable -- though we wish the helicopter held its charge longer than 15-20 minutes. We had trouble prying one tester from this toy, because he liked it so much. "It was so fun to try to shoot it down, and I liked the two players. I'd really like to play it with my brother," said David. And more than a few dads said they were putting it on their Christmas list.
Nintendo 3DS XL ($199.99) plus Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask game ($39.99): Truthfully, the testers didn't play the game at all. Instead, the played with the XL's camera and other built-in features. Its widescreen LCD showing 16.77 million colors with a more advanced resolution that allows you to see 3D visuals is an upgrade over the 3DS, but most other features are the same. Regan picked this as her top choice. "I love the big screen, and the 3D, and making the Miis," she said. We also tested this toy in the 6-9 age group with similar results. "I love to see stuff in 3D, and the track roller ball is cool," Landon said.
Playmobil Future Planet 5149 Explorer Ranger Headquarters ($129.99): Like most Playmobil sets, this toy offers imaginative play, but with a little something extra. The year is 2113, and the E-Rangers have discovered an unknown planet. In order to live there, they must produce their own oxygen with plants. The base is powered by a real solar panel that actually lights up many features. It also comes with five characters and a racer. Beware -- this took our toy builders well over an hour to put together. But Dreyton said it was his favorite. "I just really like that it uses real solar power."
Monster High High School Playset ($79.99) plus Venus McFlytrap doll and Robecca Steam doll ($19.99 each): The popular dolls can haunt the halls of Monster High with this foldout playset that includes lockers with skull locks, a DJ booth, basketball hoop, cafeteria and more. Though the commercials market this to hipper, older girls, it was certainly the younger girls (as young as 4) who flocked to the playset. It wasn't difficult to put together, though the flimsy plastic made it more difficult than it should have been.
Beyblade Beywheelz Crash Course Battle Set ($34.99): A new take on a favorite (Beyblades) among many kids, the Beywheelz have rubber edges, so they can crash into and bounce off walls without hurting them. This set comes with an arena so you can perform stunts. The fast-spinning action of the battlers seemed to dazzle many of our testers, boys and girls alike.
Hotwheels R/C Terrain Twister ($99.99): This new remote control vehicle can go on all kinds of terrain -- dirt, grass, carpet, even water and snow -- with its unique corkscrew-shaped treads. We were only able to test it on carpet at the toy test, but online reviews say it really does work on all terrains. We love that it includes all the batteries you need; the kids loved that it moved fast and from side-to-side. Several did complain, however, that it was difficult to get it to move forward.
Laser Pegs Building Set Helicopter -- 6 models in 1 ($19.99 at Target): This LED-lighted construction set comes with everything you need to build a helicopter, R2 racer, SR runner, sand rover, satellite tower and medic space cruiser. Or, make your own creation. Laser Pegs are compatible with other building sets as well. Kids found the lighted blocks interesting, but our toy builders said the quality of the pieces wasn't up to par with Lego sets.
Lego Monster Fighters #9466 Crazy Scientist and His Monster ($49.99): Lego's new Monster line was launched in May. This set was a hit among several of our testers. The crazy scientist's lab features a resurrection table with a Lego light brick, a catapult on the roof and a prison. The set also has a vehicle, with three missiles and four mini figures, including Frankenstein, which the kids seemed to really like. It has 422 parts, but our toy builders appreciated the quality Lego construction.
Fijit Yippit's Patter Figure by Mattel ($37.99): We loved that you could start playing with your Yippit right out of the box. It dances, sings, growls, begs and more with your commands (clapping). And the more nurturing you give it, the more it will "behave," just like a real pet. The girl testers were interested in it; the boys pretty much ignored it, but one mom, Beth Miller, said she loved it. "It was fun to play with."
Crorey Creations My Friendship Bracelet Maker Kit ($19.99): It took some time to figure out how to use this bracelet maker, but once our testers did, they really loved it. "It's just so addicting," said Cassidy. "I love how you can be creative and make what you want." The kit comes with 56 threads in 14 colors.
Blingles Bling Studio by Moose Toys ($19.99): The Blingles Bling Studio lets you make gem designs you can transfer to your backpack, iPod case, purse, and more. Our testers found the tiny gems hard to work with, even though they liked the idea of this toy.
Nintendo Super Mario Mini Radio Control Kart Remote Control Car ($34.95): This is a simple, easy-to-use car based on the popular video game character. It's small, only about 8 inches long, but it seemed very accurate and easy to handle, so the kids responded well to it. There is also a Yoshi car, which can run on another frequency, so you can race them and play them together.
All prices are the suggested retail price (or as close as we could find); many are available for much less. Our online interactive guide at utahmomclick.com can help you shop for better prices. Toys can be found at major retailers such as Target, Toys R Us, Walmart and Kmart as well as some smaller stores unless otherwise noted.