) -- Toy sales are expected to strengthen in 2011 as toymakers bet on new plush toys, digital updates to old classics and the return of an iconic relationship.

Toy sales grew 2% in 2010 to $21.87 billion, according to the NPD Group, with online toy sales buoying results with a 22% surge. The strongest category was plush toys, which saw sales climb 18%, followed by building sets, which spiked 13%. Dolls and preschool toy sales increased 6%.



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is banking on the ever-successful Barbie line of dolls and accessories, especially now that Ken is officially back in her life. Digital video recorders were added to Hot Wheels to rev up that line of cars. The release of the

Cars 2

movie, complete with twice the number of characters and an international spy theme should also help boost sales.

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, the latest movie in the


series is likely to be a boon. Older toy lines like Strawberry Shortcake were reinvigorated by the success of their affiliated television shows on the new kid network, The Hub, and toys, dolls and accessories are expected to benefit from renewed consumer awareness.

Many of the hottest toys of the year won't appear on the market till the fall, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Click through this slideshow to get a sneak peak at this year's must-have toys, some of which won't hit store shelves for several more months...

Let's Rock Elmo

Hasbro recently inked a decade-long licensing agreement for Sesame Street that began in 2011, usurping a role Mattel previously enjoyed.

Last year the line sold under $80 million as Mattel phased it out, but it's expected to grow in 2011 with the launch of Let's Rock Elmo and other education-based toys featuring Elmo and the roster of Sesame Street stars, according to Sterne Agee analyst Margaret Whitfield.

Let's Rock Elmo and Hasbro's line of Sesame Street toys will be available in 25 countries by this fall.

Next ... Rock Star Mickey

Rock Star Mickey

For a new generation of Dance Star Mickey fans -- and you know who you are -- this year Fisher Price will launch Rock Star Mickey.

Mickey plays three classic rock songs, including

You Really Got Me

. Aspiring child singers can also rock out with Mickey through the "You're a rock star" mode.

The featured plush toy in 2011, Rock Star Mickey follows the success of Dance Star Mickey in 2010. It will be available on Sept. 13 and will retail for $49.99.

If the toy is to prove successful with kids though, it will face some competition. "We believe Hasbro's new Let's Rock Elmo may give Mickey a run for the top plush toy in 2011," Whitfield said.

"This year with Rock Star Mickey, we're bringing the pure magical experience of music and movement to the youngest fans. It's all about the fun and excitement of being in the rock star moment," Diana Dunn-Graves, vice president, marketing at Fisher-Price, said in a statement.

"Mickey will encourage kids to get on their feet, sing, dance and rock along with him. We think he can even teach today's artists a move or two."

Next ... KRE-O


Hasbro's entrance into the popular construction toy segment comes with the launch of KRE-O, which means "Create It."

The KRE-O line will feature 12 Transformers construction sets, at two builds per set. Think robots and vehicles as options. The new Sesame Street line will also be available in KRE-O.

Available this fall in the U.S. and worldwide in 2012, the sets will cost between $6.99 (for a set of 65-70 bricks) and $59.99 (for a set of more than 500 bricks plus accessory pieces.)

"We believe Hasbro will offer more bricks per set than the equivalent


set," Whitfield said. Better yet, the bricks will be compatible with Lego sets.

Whitfield pointed out that construction toy sales grew 23% in 2009 and another 13% in 2010, compared with industry growth of just 2%, so the category is clearly expected to be a winner again this year.

Next ... Barbie and Ken

Barbie and Ken

"Barbie is always hot," Whitfield told


, and more so now that Ken has returned to her life.

Barbie led Mattel's success in 2010 as the number one toy brand, and in 2011, according to Whitfield, "we believe Barbie is positioned well to again be a strong line at retail with publicity surrounding the return of Ken aiding in that regard."

According to Mattel propaganda, the plastic heartthrob wooed back Barbie earlier this year, exactly seven years after the iconic couple split in what was deemed the breakup of the millennium. The blonde bombshell was, according to the company, won over by Ken's showers of affection via billboards in Times Square that read "Barbie, you're the only doll for me," and on his Facebook and Twitter pages.

"Ken, who played a feature role in

Toy Story 3

, has been visible at retail with new products including Sweet Talking Ken and Shaving Fun Ken along with Fashionista Ken with separate packages of Ken apparel offered," Whitfield noted. "Other important characters in Barbie's life who have largely disappeared from toy shelves over the years also return, including her sisters: Stacie, Skipper and Chelsea."

New Barbie career dolls, including architect, vet, chef and skier, will appear, as well as a DVD-based line including

A Perfect Christmas


Princess Charm School


Next ... Nerf


The safe-for-indoor-play Nerf line has retained popularity through the years.

Barricade for Nerf will hit store shelves on Sept. 10 in 33 countries.

Nerf's Vortex will also debut. It will be a new kind of Nerf shooter of soft foam-like balls in a "Vortex-themed" orange with black stripes.

Next ... Barbie Basics

Barbie Basics

Barbie's popularity extends far beyond just one line of dolls and accessories.

One of the iconic line's recent successes came in the form of the popular Barbie Basics, a line of "black dress" fashion items.

Sleek and sophisticated, the collector's edition line of Barbie dolls was released in 2010 with the dolls sporting "basic" clothing most women usually have in their closets -- namely the little black dress.

In 2011, the Barbie Basics line of fashion will extend to a denim-based line.

Next ... Beyblades


Hasbro's Beyblade line of high-performance spinning top toys have been around through several incarnations for over a decade, gaining in popularity throughout the early 2000s.

The Beyblade line's sales peaked in 2003 at $300 million, though the product has been in short supply in recent years, Whitfield said.

But production of the toys is expected to increase by the middle of 2011 with international distribution growing to 44 countries this year, from 22 countries last year.

Available his fall, in time for the holiday shopping season, Beyblades will debut a new line of electronic spinning tops called Extreme Top System IR Spin Control.

Next ... Monster High

Monster High

Monster High's popularity grew in 2010. It "was the number one new fashion doll line of 2010," Whitfield said -- and in 2011 Monster High will add new characters and two new books to its roster of affiliated products.

"Mattel will continue to pursue

Monster High's franchise model with a healthy stream of licensing revenues," Whitfield noted, adding that "greater supply plus added characters and new partners should enhance its contribution in 2011."

"Monster High is the first of a planned series of brand franchises to be offered by Mattel, versus a focus upon toys and commercials previously," she said.

Adding to Monster High's expected successes this year will be a greater supply of the line's toys available on the market, as well as licensed products, including apparel, accessories and books.

Next ... Transformers


The movie lineup for 2011 through 2013 appears "rich" for Hasbro, Whitfield said, particularly with the release of the latest

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

film this year.

In 2012 expect





Spiderman 4

and the re-release of

Star Wars: Phantom Menace

in 3D, supplemented by



Captain America



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this year, to help bolster sales.


pulled in more than $150 million in revenue last year.

The KRE-O line will feature 12 Transformers construction sets this year, at two builds per set, so accessories for the movie line are already in place.

Adding to


expected success this year is the new

Transformer Prime

television show, which debuted on The Hub in February.

Next ... Hot Wheels Video Racer

Hot Wheels Video Racer

Hot Wheels is becoming interactive, with its new Video Racers on sale this fall.

Mattel has implanted video cameras into the miniature race cars to allow children to shoot footage of the cars traveling along the track. The video is stored on the car and can then be downloaded to a computer by plugging it into a USB that comes with the car.

These Hot Wheels cars can also be used as accessories by popping them into protective cases that attach on to almost anything, including skateboards, bikes and helmets.

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A helmet, sold separately, comes equipped with the capability to hold the car/camera while kids bike or skateboard while filming.

Children can watch the videos to see what the drivers would see, and even upload the clips on Youtube.

Next ... LIVE


Hasbro has come out with a new interactive game tower for old-school boardgames like Monopoly and Battleship.

The new tower "reminds players about the rules, tracks the game, keeps score and adds unexpected twists to game play," according to a Hasbro press release.

The interactive games feature motion sensors and sound effects to enhance the gaming experience.

In Battleship LIVE, a typhoon could suddenly cause damage to ships or an air attack could undermine the mission," Hasbro said. In Monopoly LIVE, "a sought after property could suddenly be up for auction or players could be invited to send the cab around the game board to earn cash when landing on Free Parking."

In the Battleship game, an infrared light tower scans the board to "see" where players' pieces are. Also, the "voice of a naval commander provides direction as the Motion Vision Play technology in the LIVE tower detects all ship, cannon and hand movements during the game," the company said. "Firing at targets comes alive with the sound of missiles flying through the air and water splashing as ships are correctly targeted and sunk."

As in the traditional game, players use coordinates to locate and "sink" their opponent's ships. In the updated version, there are also spy planes that can fly and track where opponent's ships are located.

Next ... Hairtastic


Hairtastic, yet another extension of the Barbie line of dolls and accessories, is a design-your-own-hair-extensions set.

Children can design their own hair extensions using Printables software, choosing from a collection of patters and colors.

Kid hair designers can also import art or photos from their personal computers.

The hair extensions are attached to special sheets of paper, then run through standard inkjet printers, creating instant, unique hair designs.

The extensions come in human and Barbie sizes, and will be available this fall, retailing for $29.99.

Next ... Littlest Pet Shop

Littlest Pet Shop

Hasbro's Littlest Pet Shop benefited from the addition of a new doll, Blythe, in late 2010.

The entire line will continue its success in 2011 with walkable pets added to Littlest Pet Shop products, retailing for $7.99.

The original toy series debuted in the early 1990s.

In 1995 an animated television series followed, following the lives of five miniature animals.

A video game of the Littlest Pet Shop franchise came later, a second version of which was released in late 2009.

Next ... Figit


Figit is a voice-recognition line of toys from Mattel.

Mattel executives tapped the toy line as a winner, particularly for the 2011 holiday season.

"Fijit was called out as a key line for girls that offers voice recognition technology (recognizes over 30 different words/phrases with 100 responses)," noted Whitfield.

The toy will retail for $49.99.

Next ... Captain America

Captain America

Hasbro's movie line up for this year through 2013 will help bolster sales for the toy company. As with

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

, the

Captain America

movie from


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is expected to be a boon.


products are due to have shipped last quarter, in line with the year-earlier timing of

Ironman 2


Whitfield pointed out that the key product for


is a Lightning Hammer.


Captain America

, a cartoon character that first appeared in a 1941 Marvel comic, the line will feature a Disc Launching Shield.

Next ... Cars 2

Cars 2

Toy makers are capitalizing on some blockbuster movie launches this year, including

Green Lantern


Happy Feet 2


Cars 2


The Smurfs


Mattel's entertainment toy lines "should be buoyed by

Cars 2

with double the number of characters and a spy theme, along with toys tied to the upcoming

Green Lantern

movie," Whitfield said.

She said the second


movie from Disney, following the successfully popular line from the original movie in 2006, will be "key" for Mattel this year.

"Interestingly, Mattel enjoyed an increase in


-related sales last year over 2009 despite the absence of entertainment support," Whitfield added.

Along with toy vehicle sales, the


line features play sets and the new spy jet plane.

In all, there will be more than 300 individual products available, from games and puzzles to preschool lines, affiliated with the


line in 2011.

Next ... Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry Shortcake

Acceptance of the Hub television networks, launched in October, was hugely beneficial to a number of toy lines with associated TV shows.

Strawberry Shortcake, which has been around for decades, was reinvigorated by its show on the Hub, Strawberry Shortcake's Berry Bitty Adventures.

Advertising on the Hub is up more than 60% since its 2010 launch to over 80.

"Hasbro Studios has developed 335 half hours of programming content with its second season," Whitfield said, including "six new series and 135 added half hours of content."

"Incremental merchandise sales are beginning to ramp up," she added.

Next ... Hot Wheels Wall Tracks

Hot Wheels Wall Tracks

Along with Hot Wheels Video Racers, set to be released this fall, other new innovations to the line in 2011 include a Wall Track set and Rev Ups, which drive vertically up the wall.

Entering into the digital world is a big step for Mattel as its toys become increasingly interactive.

In Wall Tracks and Rev Ups, traditional toy car stunt tracks are moved off the floor, into the air and onto the walls.

Tracks stick to vertical surfaces with the aid of


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adhesive Command strips.

Hot Wheels Wall Tracks are due to hit store shelves this fall in time for the holiday shopping season.

The starter set will retail for around $30, and will be compatible with the existing Hot Wheels track sets, so car racing action can move from the wall to the floor and back again.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here:

Miriam Reimer


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