The R/C aisle is ready for a change. This time last year, the category was in a bit of a strange place, trying to find its footing after the drone craze that dominated R/C sales for multiple years completely subsided.

According to The NPD Group, the category underperformed by 4% when compared to the total toy industry for the 12-month period that ended this January. Sales of air-specific R/C products continued their steep descent with a 47% decrease in that same time period, while sales for ground, sea, and other R/C products decreased by 7% (compared to the 12.3% decrease in the 12-month period that ended last January).

Spin Master MEGA Grave Digger
Spin Master’s MEGA Grave Digger

Now, that uncertainty seems to have passed as the products in this year’s R/C toys lineup are huge — both in literal size and their level of innovation, from monster truck madness to vehicles that can transform or drive on water.

This past holiday season, Spin Master introduced the Mega Grave Digger R/C Truck, a monster truck that clocked in at more than 2 feet long. According to Kate Keller, vice president of marketing for R/C at Spin Master, oversized R/C vehicles make kids feel like they are behind the wheel of a real truck. “They simulate real action, delivering an immersive and exciting play experience that puts them in control of the trucks they know and love,” she says.

The company has found success with the Monster Jam license — the No. 2 property in R/C toys last year, according to The NPD Group — which translates naturally into the vehicle category while still providing the familiarity of a licensed product. Keller credits Monster Jam’s wide age appeal and family-friendly nature with its success.

Monster Jam vehicles — and monster trucks in general, which are plentiful in current R/C offerings — are also tailor-made for doing stunts and tricks, something Keller notes as a primary objective for kids. “Kids like to push the limits and conquer new stunts or tackle new terrain, so we are always in search of new features, form factors, or technologies to deliver just that,” she says.

Spin Master’s R/C offerings for this fall continue in that vein. The company’s Monster Jam Megaladon shark, for example, will drive on rocks, dirt, and mud, and even in water.

This outdoor component may be another positive for the R/C category at a time when parents are seeking out screen-free play options, says Beth Ann Vernon at Hobby Express, a hobby and toy store in Pennsylvania. “It gets kids away from the computers and the tablets, and that seems to be such a major thing for people, that they want the kid to do something,” she says.

Odyssey Toys’ Drive & Blast

Many of this year’s upcoming R/C offerings also have features intended to inspire the “wow” factor. According to Sal Irigoyen, head toymaker at Odyssey Toys, success in the R/C category is “all about uniqueness and being different. … It’s not about colors. It’s not about the fact that it just rolls on the ground. It’s got to be something cool.”

Irigoyen says that Odyssey Toys, which has had sales increases for its R/C products, incorporates something into each of its R/C offerings to make them stand apart. For example, the company is launching the Drive & Blast this fall, which transforms from an R/C vehicle into a blaster.

Another innovation in this year’s R/C offerings blends R/C technology with a different toy category: ride-ons. Multiple prominent ride-on companies, including Rollplay and Pacific Cycle, are launching vehicles that feature a parental R/C component. Using an included remote, parents can operate the vehicle, which allows younger kids to safely enjoy the ride-on experience.

Alina Richardson, product manager at Rollplay, says this feature has been available in Rollplay vehicles internationally for many years, but the trend is starting to catch on in the U.S. Rollplay successfully launched a version of its Porshe Macan with an R/C component last fall, and it will follow with a Mini Cooper Countryman this fall. While the R/C feature is primarily intended for parents to use, Richardson says it also has creative potential.

Rollplay Mini Cooper Countryman

“Not only is this feature great for safety, but it is also tremendously fun,” she says. “We have seen some creative uses of this feature, from dogs to even chimpanzees now being able to ride and join the electric ride-on fun.”

Once kids are old enough, they can take over the R/C controls, too, effectively making the ride-on a massive R/C vehicle and expanding the lifespan of the toy.

It is certainly a year of innovation for R/C, but only time will tell if these innovations are enough to turn around sales in the category.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of the Toy Book.

About the author

Madeleine Buckley

Madeleine Buckley

Madeleine Buckley is a senior editor at The Pop Insider, The Toy Insider, and The Toy Book. She covers all things toys and fandom, and has appeared on Cheddar and a variety of regional news networks to talk about the latest trends in both. She is a movie score enthusiast, mediocre knitter, proud Syracuse alumna, and Marvel lover. You can usually find her at the movies or hanging out at home with her super-pup, Parker.