Adopt a virtual pet you can cuddle

Webkinz stuffed animals come with a code that lets you unlock an entire community online.

Published December 25, 2006

Playing with your friends and pets takes on a cyber twist with the latest toy craze: a stuffed animal with a virtual life online.

They are called Webkinz, available locally at Beall's, Hallmark stores and some gift shops, ranging in price from $8 to $15.

While the cute pandas and lions are plush, what attracts kids ages 5 to 13 is the secret pass code that comes with them. That gets you into a Web world where you can design your pet's bedroom, buy it food or play games to earn Kinzcash - the community money - to buy more food, toys or furniture for your pet.

Once online, kids can instant-message their friends and let their pets have playdates. The code is good for a year, and you can then renew or adopt a new pet to keep the account going.

Other online communities for kids - Neopets, NickJr.com and Disney's Toontown - also set up cyber space for play. But Webkinz has no ad bombardment or monthly fees.

Kimmy Jagernauth, 9, of St. Petersburg goes online to feed and play with her pet monkey, Cocoa, "almost every time I get a chance."

"You can save money to buy wallpaper or flooring and you can earn money by playing games," the third-grader said. "I'm trying to earn enough to get a new room."

It's this kind of money management and game playing that has parents interested.

"Caitlyn hasn't had to budget her money too much because I've been racking up money for her playing solitaire on there," said Anne Corey, a mom of a 4- and a 7-year-old who have Webkinz pets - and is as addicted to scoring points as they are.

"I get on there almost every day," said Caitlyn Corey, a second-grader from St. Petersburg, who has a pet unicorn. She once pulled a cyber prank on a friend by logging on as the friend and dressing her pet in a purple leopard-print bikini.

Webkinz sales have topped 1-million after only 16 months on the market, says TD Monthly, a toy industry publication.

And that's with no advertising. The company crows about the fact that the buzz is all kid-generated. You have to go to Webkinz.com for a store locator.

"You really have to hunt," Anne Corey said.

And that's part of the game.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at 727893-8595 or wynne@sptimes.com.

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Welcome to a whole new world, where your plush pet becomes a cartoon animal with a busy, exciting life.