Cute & cuddly ... in cyberspace

Sunday, July 8, 2007
Webkinz, shown here, are plush toys that come with a computer code that logs the animal into an online world. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Connor Underwood, 11, likes to give her pig a bath. She fills the bathroom up with bubbles, plays a bit and then cleans the room with the click of a button.

The pig is actually a Webkinz, a plush toy from Canada-based toy company Ganz. It comes with a computer code that logs the animal into an entire online world. The stuffed animals were voted 2007 Specialty Toy of the Year by the Toy Industry Association Inc.

Once logged on, the owner can name the interactive version of his or her plush toy and receives a room and a gift.

"I got a pink Cadillac for my pink poodle," said Kathleen DeKriek, 11. Along with the pink poodle, Kathleen has a frog and a pug.

The toys are marketed to children ages 6 to 13. Children can buy more items for their virtual pet using virtual money called Kinzcash, earned by completing games and quizzes and even "community service" where they do volunteer work helping doctors, installing flooring or putting up fencing.

A yearlong online term is automatically activated when one toy is registered on an account. Each additional toy registered to that account adds 12 more months of online play. Users can link the toys' rooms to make a house and even invite friends who are registered on the site to come over and play.

When Kathleen first asked for a Webkinz doll, her mother Tanya DeKriek asked other parents for their opinion of the toy.

"Some of the other mothers have been happy with it. Their children have been kind of responsible, getting on the computer and taking care of the pet," she said.

DeKriek said she has talked to Kathleen about what's allowed online and doesn't worry about her time on the Internet.

During the school year, Kathleen had more of a schedule and more time to check up on her online pet, DeKriek said. "With it being summer, she's swimming a lot and doing other activities."

DeKriek said Kathleen still logs on at least two or three times a week.

The Webkinz cost about $13. Kathleen recently bought a slightly cheaper LilKinz, a smaller version of the original plush toy. She uses allowance or birthday money to make the purchases.

"They're actually twice as expensive as Beanies," said Reggie Reed, the manager of Kirlin's Hallmark. The Hallmark store is one of four locations near Cape Girardeau that sell Webkinz. The company hasn't released the toy to big-box retailers yet.

The popular Ty Beanie Babies that hit store shelves in 1996 originally cost $5 and then were raised to $6 in most stores. They did not come with an online life and turned into a collector's item more than a children's toy in the late 1990s.

"I don't see it being like Beanies," Reed said. "It's more of a child thing. Adults aren't really involved."

The Webkinz toys are marketed to young ages and even the Web site is completely child-oriented with a colorful design and bubble letters. There are pink poodles, panda bears, frogs, dogs, horses, monkeys, elephants and several other plush toys for children to beg their parents for or buy themselves.

"Children love animals, just period," Reed said. "So I think that's made the difference, too."

While boys have been interested in the new fad, "the girls are just dominating," Reed said.

The store got the first shipment of Webkinz in January. They were small dogs with hearts for Valentine's Day.

"We could hardly get rid of it," Reed said. The toys didn't start selling until the end of March and now the store receives regular shipments and has a steady stream of customers.

Adrienne Citrin, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association Inc., said the toy has been successful because it merges children's trends.

They love to play online, they love to nurture things and they love animals, she said. "There are toys that do have an online world but not in the pet realm."

The Web site also offers chat rooms to visitors, but you have to be registered to chat and you have to buy a Webkinz to register. Even once you enter the "Clubhouse" to chat, you can only use preprogrammed messages to communicate. Members cannot type their own messages.

In another chat room, members type through a restricted dictionary to construct messages, but if a word is not approved, it appears red and the message cannot be sent. Misspelled messages will not be sent either.

Along with reinforced spelling habits, Webkinz quizzes ask math, science and other educational questions.

"I don't know if it actually teaches them math skills," Citrin said. "But it definitely teaches them something."

Though she spends a large amount of her time playing with the online version of her Webkinz, Connor said she likes the plush toys just as much.

"I sleep with mine. They're really soft," she said.

charris@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 246

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