By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
In real life, all that 10-year-old Megan Leffew's cuddly stuffed animals can do is sit on her bed in her room in Rockville. But online, they can play air hockey, whip up a fish-and-chips dinner or take a dip in a hot tub.
They are called Webkinz, huggable, plush toys with elaborate virtual lives that spotlight how children's play is changing, moving effortlessly between the real world and the Web. And in less than two years, they have become must-have items for tech-savvy 'tweeners.
"Play always reflects the adult world," said Christopher Byrne, an independent toy analyst who goes by the Toy Guy. "It's kids aspiring to have a MySpace page, but cognitively and developmentally, they're not ready for that. This gives them the experience of sharing and connecting with friends."
Webkinz combines classic stuffed animals with popular online trends, such as social networking and instant messaging. Other toys and Web sites have made similar efforts. Remember the late-1990s craze of Tamagotchi, billed as the world's first digital pet? More recently, Neopets.com began manufacturing such plush toys as the "cybunny," which mirrored the virtual animals on its site. But Webkinz claims to be the first to marry the physical and the virtual from its inception.
"It's a gaming concept, it's a nurturing concept, it's a highly interactive concept," said Paul Kurnit, who heads KidShop, a consulting firm. "It's really working on a lot of cylinders."
Each stuffed animal comes with an identification number that gives children access to the Webkinz site ( http://www.webkinz.com/). There, owners discover their pets' online personas ("I'll let you in on a secret," reads the profile of a cocker spaniel. "I love fish sticks, and I've always wanted a bunny clown.") Children can buy clothes for their pets using virtual money, outfitting them in baggy jeans or pink tutus. They can also decorate their pets' virtual rooms with such items as a stove, a boy-band poster or a bed shaped like a pirate ship.
For many children, Webkinz offers a "Velveteen Rabbit" moment: a chance for their real-world toys to come to life and play with their friends. Snuggling next to your Webkinz before falling asleep is fun, kids say. Designing outfits for a pet in the Webkinz SuperModelz game and having your friends vote on their favorite is even better.
Children can also train for the instant messaging marathons of their older siblings' worlds by sending preset phrases to their friends. They can even invite pets over to hang out -- virtually, of course.
Last week, one of Megan Leffew's friends held a birthday party for her hippo, Cotton Candy, right in the middle of the Leffew family dinner. Megan excused herself from the table to log on to the Webkinz site, where four other girls were waiting. They played a four-in-a-row game and exchanged virtual presents. (Megan gave Cotton Candy a gumball machine and a snowflake sweater.) There were a birthday cake and goodie bags -- and then Megan's mom, Sandra, finally persuaded her to come back to real-world dinner.
Megan has 10 Webkinz. The first arrival was a plush golden retriever named Scruffy, in the summer. Then came a monkey named Cheeky. Christmas brought a unicorn named Sparkle, a lion called Leo and a polar bear dubbed Icy. Lily the Chihuahua, Ivana the white terrier, identical puppies Lovey Dovey and Dovey Lovey, and Puffy the hippo followed in rapid succession.
She sleeps with them every night and plays with them online several times a week for an hour or so at a time. She has a maze of rooms for her pets, including a back yard with a hot tub where they can swim. On a recent afternoon, she checked in with the twin puppies after being at school all day.
"How are you doing?" Megan asked Lovey Dovey while the other snoozed on its virtual bed.
"We had a big party," the pup responded. "Just kidding."
Ganz, a family-owned wholesale gift company based in Ontario, introduced the toys in April 2005. Spokeswoman Susan McVeigh said it has not spent any money on advertising. Word has spread virally, one playground to the next. The company said the site has more than 1 million members, both boys and girls, ages 6 to 13. McVeigh would not discuss sales but said the toys' popularity has "grown exponentially." Webkinz generally sell for $7.50 to $10 and are available at Hallmark Gold Crown stores; independent retailers; and hospital gift shops, where Ganz previously had contracts to sell its other products. The toys come with a one-year membership to the site.
Rachel Bolton, a Hallmark spokeswoman, said the toys have become so popular that some stores have waiting lists. She said demand began in the Northeast, then slowly moved down the coast into the South. At Go Bananas, a toy store in Ashburn, owner Mary Holmes said she gets 20 to 30 calls each day from people looking for Webkinz. The craze is now spreading to the Midwest. Larry Benson, who operates three Hallmark stores near Kansas City, said a customer came in with three kids begging for Webkinz.
Byrne said Webkinz have yet to achieve the mass-market success of their Beanie Babies predecessors or brands such as Dora the Explorer. But the children who have become hooked are wildly loyal.
Some are even finding that their Webkinz can come to life offline if they just use -- gasp! -- some imagination.
Megan's friend Kathryn Roche, 10, made her seven Webkinz a house in her basement in Potomac. There are three couches, made from scarves and blankets, and a desk created from a stack of books. Another friend, Annamarie Lukish, 9, likes to dress her Webkinz in the clothes made for her American Girl dolls. Then she makes believe her unicorn and pink poodle are mean girls terrorizing the other Webkinz.
But Annamarie said she prefers playing with her pets online "because there's a lot more to do." Her mother, however, is of a different mind.
Before Donna Lukish allows her daughter to get on the computer, she makes her run around the block a few times, weather permitting. At least that way she's sure to get some exercise.
"I was making dinner, and she was on my husband's laptop. And I hear her saying, 'Oh, we're going to go out for a walk now,' as if she's talking to a pet," Lukish said. "Then I look over at the laptop, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, there's something wrong with this picture.' "