It’s 7 a.m. on a sunny, summer Saturday morning in Romeoville, Illinois, a community of about 40,000 people located 26 miles from the city limits of Chicago. Despite it being early, the parking lot of the local Walmart is packed, and there’s a distinct rumble on the ground with an element of excitement in the air. It’s a scene that’s been playing out on select weekends from coast to coast as Mattel brings its 2nd Annual Hot Wheels Legends Tour to Walmart stores from March to October, bringing families together for a celebration of something that’s no longer just a toy, but a lifestyle.

The Hot Wheels Legends Tour is a traveling car show that offers grassroots builders a shot at seeing their real-life creations immortalized as a 1:64-scale mainline Hot Wheels toy car. Eighteen winners will be chosen throughout the year, and the ultimate winner will be crowned at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas in November.

The local stops are a fascinating portrait of America. Families and fans of all ages come not only to see the cars, but also to experience hands-on activities and activations. They also can get their hands on some toys and merchandise exclusive to each tour stop. For the Chicago-area date, legendary Hot Wheels designer Larry Wood helped judge, stopping every so often to mingle with fans and sign autographs. Near the center of the lot, the Hot Wheels Vending Truck set up shop to offer fans — some of whom camped out overnight — a chance to purchase exclusives.

Inside the store, the entire midway in front of the toy department was freshly stocked with new Hot Wheels products, brought in specifically for the event. From basic $1 cars to collector-focused, premium, die-cast vehicles, play sets, and licensed assortments, there was something for everyone, and the toy department was swarmed. People were buying toys — a lot of toys — and not just Hot Wheels. The event pulled in multistate traffic, and the additional shoppers were … shopping.

The Legends Tour is one of the latest examples of a growing trend in which toymakers and pop culture and entertainment brands are starting to steer their own destinies by creating their own events and experiences, creating stronger connections with existing consumers while attracting new fans in the process.

They’re taking their toys to the people, and as the saying goes: Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.

Entertainment Earth SDCC

Conventions and Gatherings

Last year, as the toy industry worked to reconfigure itself and shift focus in hopes of filling the sales void left behind by the closure of U.S. Toys “R” Us stores, panelists at Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) discussed the future of toy retailing. During the discussion, Jason Labowitz, co-founder and owner of Entertainment Earth, predicted a future in which the industry would thrive through in-person connections.

“We’re sitting where the void is being filled,” Labowitz said at the time. “The presence of comic cons all over the world is the place where the toy industry can live. We can think about stores, and brick and mortar, but what we actually have here is the most dedicated group of fans and collectors, coming together at every con.”

Perhaps more importantly, there are a lot of families present, and this summer, when the doors were opened for the 50th SDCC, the presence of toys and family entertainment were felt more than ever.

At the Entertainment One booth, Peppa Pig and PJ Masks character appearances were enhanced by the opportunity to purchase limited-edition toys from Just Play. Across the hall, Basic Fun! was selling an exclusive My Little Pony Classics Majesty figure — a companion to the My Little Pony “Through the Years” set that Hasbro sold through its expanded Hasbro Pulse store. While the company has maintained a large presence at SDCC for many years, the depth of assortment — both on display and for purchase — seemed dedicated to bridging cross-generational families of fans.

Likewise, Jazwares rolled into San Diego with exclusive Roblox, Fortnite, Feisty Pets, and Domez toys. At the sprawling Mattel booth and companion store, families could experience the return of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and get hands on with the latest toys from WWE, Hot Wheels, and more. Funko, known for having a massive booth at SDCC, expanded its space with two booths on opposite corners of the convention center. Fans lined up to purchase from an assortment of more than 75 event-exclusive figures.

The convention industry has been known to expand and contract from time to time, which presents some additional challenges in planning for the future as companies hit the road. In recent years, players such as ReedPop, Wizard Entertainment, ACE Comic Con, Walker Stalker and its FanFest Events, and numerous smaller organizations have been shuffling schedules as they compete for audience attendance and dollars, not just in major markets, but in second- and third-tier areas as well.

The Traveling Circus

For decades, the “traveling salesman” was a staple of at-home retail sales, peddling everything from vacuum cleaners to greeting cards and packaged meats. Gone for a while, but never fully gone away, there has been an increase of at-home delivery in recent years — particularly in the food and beverage segment. Now, there are traveling salespeople hitting the road in specialized vehicles that range from converted food trucks and Sprinter vans to unique haulers, such as the Amazon Treasure Truck.

The salespeople aren’t going door to door, but the Treasure Truck is this generation’s equivalent. According to Amazon, its Treasure Truck fleet has grown more than five times its launch scale, now encompassing vans and kiosks, and it’s worked with more than 1,000 real estate locations and brands to bring new products to the masses — including toys and games.

Amazon Treasure Truck

Through the Treasure Truck, Amazon says that more than 80,000 games have been sold, including board games, video games, and retro consoles, such as the Nintendo NES Classic Mini. The mobile distribution nature also makes it easy to plug the truck into bigger fan events and conventions. At this year’s Star Wars Celebration, presented by Lucasfilm, the Amazon Treasure Truck not only pulled into the convention center to sell items from a variety of brands and licensees, but it also used the in-person connection to build buzz for further online exclusives. The truck was also used to distribute a variety of Marvel-licensed toys during a philanthropic initiative tied to the premiere of Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame.

This summer, Basic Fun! used the Treasure Truck to launch series two of its Cutetitos collectibles range, and on the day of the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT), the Treasure Truck distributed a GoT bundle of Funko Pop! Vinyl figures at a discounted price.

In August, WowWee used the Treasure Truck as part of its launch platform for the new line of Pinkfong Baby Shark plush — appropriately during Shark Week. “Collaborating on the Treasure Truck allowed us to leverage a new marketing channel and reach new customers with the popular Pinkfong Baby Shark song dolls,” says WowWee Brand Manager Emily Chacra.

Similarly, the Hot Wheels Vending Truck from the Legends Tour has been making off-date stops at locations across the country, and Mattel is taking Barbie on the road, with the Barbie Truck: Totally Throwback Tour making its way across the U.S. through next year. Additionally, MGA Entertainment commissioned a converted food truck to launch its Hangrees parody collectibles range, with appearances throughout California following its debut on the streets of San Diego in July.

Going Big for the Full Experience

When it comes to fully branded family events, there may be no better example than the Nickelodeon SlimeFest. Launched internationally to much success abroad, Viacom brought the event to the U.S. for the first time last year, following it up with another event this June.

The two-day, family event welcomes visitors to be fully immersed in the Nickelodeon lifestyle from beginning to end. Concerts featuring network stars and crossover staples, such as JoJo Siwa, Pitbull, and T-Pain, put some big talent on the marquee while young fans can meet actors and performers from their favorite Nickelodeon series; pose for photo ops with characters, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob SquarePants; and get active with physical challenges, such as obstacle courses, mazes, bounce houses, and more. There’s also cross-generational appeal, with throwback experiences tied to Nickelodeon’s ‘90s heritage — an era that is currently experiencing a renaissance.

And as the name implies, there’s slime — thousands of gallons of the iconic green slime that’s been a staple of the Nickelodeon branding since You Can’t Do That on Television! arrived on the network in 1981.

Nickelodeon SlimeFest

In Atlanta, Nickelodeon opened its first-ever Slime City pop-up this summer — a 20,000-square-foot location dedicated to being “the ultimate symbol of free-spirited mess and the physical embodiment of the fun and irreverent spirit of Nickelodeon,” according to Sharon Cohen, executive vice president of Nickelodeon Experience.

“Our research shows today’s generation of kids count their parents as their closest friends, and families are increasingly looking for opportunities to spend quality time together,” Cohen says. “We want to be the platform that facilitates ‘making memories.’ To meet that demand, we’ve taken strategic steps to ensure we are well-positioned for the future, which includes continuing to make big moves into on-the-ground, live experiences like Nickelodeon SlimeFest, Nickelodeon Slime City, and our recently launched Good Burger Pop-Up Restaurant in Los Angeles.”

While planting a flag in one city for a weekend makes a major statement, live theatrical tours have been an outlet for brand extensions and merchandising sales for decades. They’re continuing to do big business, with IP holders entering into partnerships with producers to bring TV-first properties into a real-life setting. Baby Shark, PJ Masks, Disney Junior, and American Girl are among some of the recent brands going theatrical, joining long-time staples, such as Peppa Pig and Sesame Street.

Now, arenas are in the mix, as Raycom-Legacy Content Co. brings Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live to arenas across the U.S. and Canada. The spectacle is so popular that it’s heading to Europe next year. The translation of popular Hot Wheels toy cars and trucks, including Bone Shaker and Rodger Dodger, into life-sized Monster Trucks (or, in some cases, Monster Cars) is wrapped in a 360-degree brand experience that has also become a six-episode TV series and fuels fan interest that drives them right back to toy departments.

If You Build It, They Might Come

Temporary experiences are one thing, but permanent locations are gaining steam, particularly with dedicated Family Entertainment Centers (FECs).

Last year, Hasbro announced a partnership with Kilburn Live to develop and build FECs across the U.S. and Canada. Using brands such as My Little Pony, Monopoly, Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe, Clue, Battleship, Hungry Hungry Hippo, Trivial Pursuit, Chutes and Ladders, and more, the company plans to “create interactive, immersive entertainment experiences in multiple activity zones.”

Most recently, Hasbro unveiled a partnership for a themed water park in Malaysia and a deal with Kingsmen Xperience Inc. to open Nerf-specific FECs in the U.S. under the NERF Action Xperience name. The first international location will open in Singapore later this year.

Months later, Mattel inked a deal with iP2Entertainment to create similar spaces geared toward kids ages 4-10. Initially, the project will focus on the first location — a 25,000-square-foot space that will open in Toronto next spring. Themed worlds based on Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Mega Construx will offer kids a variety of play experiences while the developers also promise family game nights, special events, experiential retail, and a full range of food and beverage options.

Crayola Experience

Of course, Crayola has been perfecting the branded experience for years, with the Crayola Experience expanding beyond its Easton, Pennsylvania, roots, now boasting locations in five states. Each experience includes multiple worlds for kids to get hands on with Crayola products as they flex their imaginations and creativity. Like the FECs that are currently in the works, the Crayola Experience offers dining options and experiential retail, in addition to special events and seasonal fare.

The bottom line is to connect with families wherever they are — and then tie it all together. “With engaging content, experiences and IP as the connectors, we can take audiences anywhere they want to go,” Nickelodeon’s Cohen says.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of the Toy Book.