In the world of kids' toys, there are playsets, and there are playsets — the kind of playsets that most kids would do anything to get their hands on, even if it means washing the car for their parents every week for an entire year. These were the truly over-the-top playsets of our childhoods: The ones with working elevators; the ones that transformed in fantastic ways; the ones that even did things like make actual, edible ice cream. So hey, guess what we're taking a look at this Throwback Thursday? You've got it — the best playsets you always wanted as a kid, because sometimes, you just want to be able to open up a plastic van and find an entire city inside.
I'll admit that I've played a little fast and loose with the term “playset” here; while most of the items on this list do follow the technical definition of the word — that is, “toys designed to work together to enact an action or event” — a few of them are… shall we say, less linear in their thinking. But hey, creativity is an excellent skill to foster; as such, they definitely deserve their spots on the list, even if they might not be as traditionally playset-y as some of the others.
All of them, by the way, can be found on eBay — and somewhat surprisingly, most of them are actually quite affordable. I mean, you do still have to justify spending $40 for a child's plaything purely because you, as a fully-functioning adult, would like to have access to it… but that's only about the cost of a night out, and it'll last you longer, too.
Here are the 12 (well, technically 13 — I cheated a little) playsets I remember being the most impressive during the '80s and '90s. Which one was your favorite?
1. Barbie Ice Cream Shoppe
Ways I know I'm older than I thought include learning that this toy, which I remember debuting sometime in the early '90s, actually dates back to 1986/1987. Besides just looking cool, the Barbie Ice Cream Shoppe was notable for being an actual, working ice cream maker. The seats doubled as cups, which for some reason just clinched the whole deal for me. Interestingly, though, this wasn't the only dessert-making Barbie playset around during this era; the Barbie Hawaiian Ice Party playset came with a plastic pineapple that doubled as a slushy machine.
Approximate eBay value: $20 to $25.
2. Star Wars Ewok Village
My older brother owned a lot of toys that I desperately wanted to play with pretty much all the time (like, for example, his Teddy Ruxpin). This enviable toy collection included the 1983 Ewok Village playset, which I maintain is the single greatest Star Wars playset ever created. My favorite part of the whole thing? The little cage elevator. Anything that moved on its own or operated with the use of some sort of crude, mechanical device always got an A-plus in my book. Apparently the Ewok Village was reused for Kenner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Sherwood Forest playset… but let's face it: Little bear creatures trump Kevin Costner any day of the week.
Approximate eBay value: $25 to $140, depending on how complete the set is — but a sealed-in-box one might go for as much as $800.
3. Polly Pocket Jewelry Box Fold-Out Playset
I was never super into Polly Pocket — I think I owned a grand total of two compacts over the course of my childhood — but even I have to admit that this Polly Pocket fold-out jewelry box playset was pretty darn cool. I adored toys that disguised themselves as something else — Transformers, McDonald's Changeables, Popples, Cupcake Dolls, and so on and so forth — so it's perhaps unsurprising that I dug the idea of a thing that looked like a jewelry box, but was actually an elaborate dwelling for a tiny palstic person. This one was produced in 1991, back when Polly really was pocket-sized (she's gotten a little bigger in recent years, presumably to lessen the chance of her being a choking hazard).
Approximate eBay value: $10 to $50. The $10 one is decorated with Lisa Frank stickers.
4. Barbie Motorhome (1996 Edition)
Barbie has had a huge number of mobile homes, campers, and vans over the years; in fact, I would argue that Barbie was glamping before glamping was a thing. Most of Barbie's party vehicles unfolded, revealing that, like the TARDIS, they were all bigger on the inside. At the push of a few buttons, the 1996 motorhome unleashed lights and sounds galore, from a sink that bubbled to a stove that glowed.
Approximate eBay value: $35 to $80. I think the seller who's asking for $80 is a little overly optimistic, though; that particular set is apparently quite beat up and missing a few things.
5. Ninja Turtles Party Wagon
Barbie may have had a motorhome, but the Turtles had a party wagon. Initially released circa 1989/1990, the toy was revamped as the “Turtle Party Wagon Van Retro Classic” a few years ago; both versions, though, go for about the same amount on eBay. Who's ready to unleash some turtle power on the Foot? (I am! I am!)
Approximate eBay value: $35 to $200, depending on how complete it is and whether or not it includes the box.
6. Playmobil Pirate Ship
Like the Ewok Village, the Playmobile Pirate Ship in our house belonged to my brother. After he got too old for it, though, it passed down to me, at which point I celebrated heartily. Released in 1990, it featured a cargo lift, a hold, and bitty little cannons that actually worked—not via explosives, of course, but if you dropped one of the plastic cannonballs inside and pumped the plunger at the back with enough force, the ball would shoot out with an impressive amount of speed. Sadly this remarkable toy is somewhat difficult to come by these days; it was retired in 2000. However, there is a rather magnificent photo set featuring it on Flickr, so at least there's that.
Approximate eBay value: $15 max for the ship itself, mostly because they're usually missing all the fun accessories. It might take a little hunting to complete the set.
7. Littlest Pet Shop Jogging Gerbils Set
I mean, let's be honest: We all wanted pretty much every Littlest Pet Shop playset there was. Personally, though, I always coveted the Jogging Gerbils set, which was produced in 1992; while not as elaborate as some of the other Littlest Pet Shop options out there, there was something about being able to drag an imaginary gerbil through a tube using the magic of magnets that I found irresistible.
Approximate eBay value: $25 to $45.
8. Play-Doh Hair Do Dolly
Some of Play-Doh's most delightfully unexpected playsets feature hair. Hair Do Dolly, which hit toy store shelves in the early '90s, was somewhat disturbing in the fact that you had literally open up her head and shove Play Doh in it in order to make her hair grow — but I'm willing to overlook this aspect of the toy, because making her hair grow was all kinds of awesome. Why, yes, I would love to give Hair Do Dolly a bright red mohawk! She's kind of hard to find today, but there's a Rapunzel-themed playset that's sort of similar. Do with that what you will.
Approximate eBay value: $40 to $90.
9. Chipmunks Tour Van
Another transforming van? Man, we really loved these things, didn't we? The release of the Chipmunks Tour Van coincided with the Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon series that aired between 1983 and 1990; it unfolded to include everything Alvin, Simon, and Theodore needed to take their high-pitched show on the road. I assume Dave was the one driving, although with these guys, you never know.
Approximate eBay value: $15 to $45.
Colorforms have been around since 1951, but no matter how technologically advanced each successive generation gets, we just keep coming back to these little self-adhesive pieces of vinyl. Why? No idea — but they're the best. Pretty much any Colorforms set would do, although you always got bonus points if you managed to get your hands on an officially licensed set featuring your favorite fictional characters; the plain ol' regular one featured here was what I remember mine looking like, though, so pardon me while I get all nostalgic.
Approximate eBay value: A vintage set will typically only set you back $10 or $15… but there are also extremely rare sets floating around that'll run you up a couple hundred bucks.
11. Micro Machines Super Van City
Oh, look! Another van! The Micro Machines Super Van City, I would argue, was the coolest of the bunch; I mean, a van that folded out into a home or a stage is pretty neat, but it's hard to beat something that houses an entire city in its interior. Released in 1991, it's a toy I still regret never having owned.
Approximate eBay value: $22 to $60. You'll often find it paired with the Military Van version.
12. Castle Grayskull and Crystal Castle
Heck. Yes. He-Man and She-Ra factored prominently into the childhoods of most kids who were around during the '80s, and I'm happy to say that both of them had a spectacular fortress in which to base their operations: Castle Grayskull for him, and Crystal Castle for her. Saving the universe is tough work, so you may as well relax in comfort, right?
Approximate eBay value: They're not cheap. If you want one or both in good condition, expect to drop a few hundred bucks on 'em.
Images: eBay (12); kafka4prez/Flickr