KANSAS CITY, Mo -- When the little girl found out that Apricot Lane in Kansas City's Town Center Plaza had sold all of its Webkinz, she threw herself on the floor and cried, right there in the store.
"She had been to three different stores," said owner Sheri Bell, recalling the girl's tears. "They save up their allowances for them. I can't even tell you the devastation on their faces. It's horrible."
A lot of grade-schoolers feel like crying when they learn that stores are virtually Webkinz-less at the moment, all sold out of the tiny, $11 stuffed animals made by Canadian toymaker Ganz. Some stores don't expect new shipments until the end of April, if even then.
This isn't a weird plush passion. Though a lot of Webkinz just went on spring break with their owners, the toys aren't the entire draw.
Each comes with a secret code granting access to the interactive Webkinz World of virtual reality.
That's where the toys come alive in cartoon form. Kids adopt them, then build lives for them _ feeding them, dressing them, furnishing rooms for them.
"You can do lots of stuff with them," said 8-year-old Katharine Chester, a third-grader and proud owner of three Webkinz.
Not since Beanie Babies have parents and retailers seen a craze like this. Ganz reports sales of more than 2 million Webkinz since April 2005. Some of those Webkinz cats, dogs and frogs showed up in Easter baskets around town earlier this month.
"It seems that everybody has one now," said Melissa Goldenberg in Leawood, Kan., whose three daughters own about a dozen Webkinz. "You go to a birthday party and that's what people are giving and getting."
Retailers had no idea they were about to ride a wave of hysteria when they put Webkinz out last year. Last August at Apricot Lane, owner Bell had a basket of them. They sat, unsold, for weeks. She soon thought about donating them to charity.
Then, before Christmas, sales picked up, and they soared higher after the holidays.
"If I knew then what I know now ..." said Bell, who calls Ganz every day to track her next shipment.
About a month ago, the phone started ringing at Ferrell's Hallmark Gold Crown store in Lenexa, Kan.
Do you have Webkinz?
"We've had an order in for over a month, and we can't get them in," manager Lola Belknap said. "The demand is bigger than what the factory can take care of."
Katharine Chester was the first student that computer teacher Chris Trotta saw playing with a Webkinz.
"What is that?" Trotta asked as Katharine started spending after-school computer club time playing the games at webkinz.com.
It was a new virtual world for kids, joining the already popular Club Penguin, where kids play with virtual penguins. Today, the Webkinz and Club Penguin sites each boast more than a million visitors every month.
In Webkinz World, kids earn virtual Kinz cash to spend on their pets by playing arcade games, answering trivia questions and taking jobs from the Employment Office.
Seeing how engaged Katharine became in Webkinz World, Trotta, like other teachers around town, bought some for the school. Tommy Boy the cat, Jumper the frog and the others live in a bin marked "Webkinz" in the computer lab.
"I'm always looking for things for girls," Trotta said. "Around the age of fifth grade, it seems that girls tend to lose interest in just-fun computer things.
"They still use computers for schoolwork and such, but they don't just use it for fun activities. And boys are involved forever in computer games."