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 / Updated  / Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Teri Goldberg

OK, the Dear Santa letters have gone out. It’s now time for parents to start scrambling for this season’s hot toys. So which toys do the experts predict will generate the most buzz this year?

Many of this season’s must-haves must have more than just “play value,” says Jim Silver, co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, which has featured a “hot dozen” toy list for the last five years. Which toys made this year’s roster largely depends on the toy’s “entertainment value.” Is it linked to a movie or TV show? Also important, says Silver, is “the wow factor” — how far it pushes the electronic envelope.

This year’s electronic plush Elmo has both. Every year since Fisher-Price.com introduced Tickle Me Elmo in 1996, “consumers look for the new Elmo,” says Silver. Elmo’s entertainment value comes from his celebrity status on “Sesame Street.” “He’s the most popular character on the show,” says Silver. As for the wow factor, the bright red plush creature doesn’t simply do a chicken dance — like last year’s Elmo — but he shakes it all about in an electronic rendition of the “Hokey Pokey.”

Touch the bright red creatures’ hand and to the tune of the “Hokey Pokey,” he puts his hand/foot in, he puts his hand/foot out, he puts his hand/foot in and shakes it all about. Then he turns himself about. That’s what it’s all about.

Almost two months before Christmas day, Elmo was dancing off the shelves at the 110,000 square-foot Toys ‘R Us in Times Square, the theme-park like store in mid-town Manhattan that has a 60-foot indoor Ferris wheel at its center.

“There’s something about him that’s addictive,” says Christina Patilis, who couldn’t decide which Elmo to buy for her 2-year-old daughter. “I pride myself on being an individual… but I’m running with the pack,” says Patilis about this year’s hot pick, which retails for $24.99 but recently was on sale for $19.99.

Patilis plans to buy an Elmo toy for her daughter not because he’s hot but because it will make her happy and he’s educational. “‘Sesame Street’ is a well-respected show,” she says. Elmo also has a special appeal. “He’s happy go lucky. I want to squeeze him,” she adds. Patilis only wishes that Fisher-Price made a bilingual Elmo that speaks English and Greek for kids like her daughter who is learning both languages.

Elmo seems to have made everyone’s list this year. The cuddly monster also appears on national retailer KB Toys’ list of 20 must-haves and received one of 22 2003 T.O.Y (Toy of the Year) awards from FamilyFun.com magazine, where more than 900 kids across the country test and vote on the toys.

Care Bears, made by Play Along Toys for ages 3 and up, also shows up on all three lists. “Care Bears are all about loving and caring,” says Silver about the pastel-colored plush bears that made their debut in 1983, as he snuggles one in his Manhattan office.

Bedtime Lullaby Bear—which plays a lullaby when hugged and comes with a night light — made Toy Wishes’ hot list. The talking and singing Sing-A-Long Friends Bear shows up on Family Fun’s list. Both bears retail for $24.99.

Also on Family Fun and Toy Wishes list is the Bratz Formal Funk Runway Disco, which retails for $99.99 and targets kids ages 9 and up. The pricey plastic play toy is expected to be a hit simply because of its association with the ever-so popular Bratz dolls, which sport “hip, urban and edgy” clothes typically worn by pop culture celebs.

Bratz are popular because they represent “everything the girls are not supposed to be,” says Alexandra Kennedy, vice president and editorial director of Family Fun for the last 12 years.

The highlight of MGA Entertainment’s funky runway disco is the motorized runway with flashing lights. There’s also a backstage make-up counter, a dressing room and a “smoothie bar,” where Bratz sip smoothies before or after hitting the runway.

This year, though, there’s not only competition on the runway but also in the battle stadium. Hasbro.com introduced a remote control top with a launcher for its popular Beyblade series. Kids put the Beyblade tops in the launcher, pull a ripcord and drop the tops into a plastic stadium. “The idea is to bang each other around and knock ’em down,” says Silver.

The new top with launcher lets kids control the tops by remote after they are in the stadium. Individual Beyblade tops sell for $6.99-$7.99; the new top with launcher retails for $34.99; and stadiums, which are sold separately, run about $7.99 to $16.99.

Parents concerned about their children’s future will be happy to know that three learning toys made Toy Wishes’ hot list. Fischer-Price’s PowerTouch Learning System targets the littlest ones. The interactive toy, designed for ages 3 to 8, teaches kids how to recognize words and pictures in a book mounted on the toy. Kids use their fingers to navigate through the system, which retails for $49.99. Additional books cost $14.99.

Leapfrog.com LeapPad Plus Writing Learning System takes the learning experience to the next level. Kids, age 4 to 8, use a stylus to navigate the system, priced at $59.99. The toy teaches reading, writing and math. Leapfrog.com also makes Leapster Educational Game System, a handheld system similar to a Game Boy, which reinforces basic skills. Designed for ages 4 to 8, the toy sells for $79.99.

Silver claims more than a 90 percent success rate. Last year, 10 of the hot picks sold out before Dec. 5. Here’s the rest of the 2003 “hot dozen,” which totals 13 this year:

Barbie “Cook With Me” Smart Kitchen, KIDdesigns, ages 3 and up, $129.99;

Barbie of Swan Lake, Mattel, ages 3 and up, $19.99;

BTR (Built To Rule!) Transformers, Hasbro, ages 6 and up, $7.99 to $29.99;

McFlurry Maker, Spin Master, age 6 and up, $24.99;

My Little Pony Celebration Castle, Hasbro, age 3 and up, $39.99; and

Neopets Interactive Talking Neopets Plushies, Thinkway Toys, age 4 and up, $29.99-34.99.

None of the hot toys would make the list without marketing muscle, admits Silver. A great little toy that nobody ever heard isn’t going anywhere, he says. It took five years and a multi-million advertising campaign to bring Cabbage Patch dolls into the limelight.

Chris Byrne, a.k.a. The Toy Guy, agrees. For a toy to be successful, “it has to have strategic marketing behind it,” says Byrne, who helps judge which toys will make Toy Wishes “hot dozen” list. “Kids are consumers of media as much as adults are,” he says.

On the other hand, Family Fun staff tries to bring toys into the mix that kids will not see on television commercials, says Kennedy about Family Fun’s contest methodology. As a result, the list includes some unusual toys, such as a board game from Front Porch Classics, Old Century Dread Pirate and a lower price-point play kitchen from Mattel.com Barbie Mixin’ Magic Real Food Kitchen. The Mattel kitchen only costs $29.99, compared to the toy kitchen on Toy Wishes’ list.

Look for sales on all these toys at neighborhood toy stores or major retailers such as KBToys.com, amazon.com (toyrus.com), target.com or walmart.com.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com