If you’ve ever cared for or encountered Webkinz, the plush stuffed animals and their online counterparts that were all the rage in the mid-2000s, you may on occasion wonder: Are my Webkinz still alive?
To that, the Webkinz Twitter account has a succinct response: “Webkinz don’t die.”
Turns out this is true, as Webkinz — both the creatures and the virtual pet simulator itself — is as alive as ever. Now through March 30, Webkinz is offering the complete, deluxe experience for free. That’s right — no expensive plush toys, no sneaking onto your family computer to spin the Wheel of Wow. The pet simulator of the mid-2000s is waiting for you to remember it.
The major difference between Webkinz and Neopets, another virtual pet simulator, was the stuffed-animal aspect. When you bought a Webkinz, you didn’t just buy a cute plush animal. Each plushie came with an online code which granted admittance to an explorable web-based world. Unlike the more rainbow-swathed fantasy realm of Neopets, Webkinz — at least in its inception — was based in a world akin to Disney’s Zootopia. The Webkinz locale was a town like any other on Earth, except all the residents were animals. Pets could attend school, get jobs, walk on treadmills, cook fancy meals, and delve into mines in search of gems to complete the legendary Crown of Wonder.
Each plush animal unlocked more online credits and items, and guaranteed you access to the Webkinz site for a year. People rarely just bought one — after all, the more you had, the more items you unlocked. And the more items you had, the more you were invested, so you were more likely to hold onto your account longer. Plus, they were just so darn cute. As someone who had nine pets in my heyday (and a 10th fished out of a bargain bin a few years ago by my nostalgic mom), I often yearn for the simpler days of internet yesteryear, when the word “discourse” was reserved for academia, I hid my real identity behind the oh-so-clever username “petragirl,” and Facebook didn’t control the world. Webkinz was one of my first tastes of being online, and it harkens back to the halcyon days of youth.
Last September, Webkinz announced its plan to close accounts that haven’t been active for over seven years. Fortunately, that last gift from my mom meant I was able to recover my account. But anyone just thinking about their childhood Webkinz and hoping to recapture the collectible magic is out of luck — the older accounts, much like old LiveJournal logins and DeviantArt pages, have passed on into the Great Internet Beyond. Here’s the thing, though: Webkinz don’t die, at least in the spiritual sense.
As of summer 2012, you no longer need to purchase a plush animal to get Webkinz; you can sign up online for free. Since Flash player is disabled by default in a lot of browsers (with full support ending at the end of 2020), you have the option of downloading the full experience on desktop, or a slightly watered-down experience on mobile.
Signing up for a new account gives you an option of some default free pets. All are solid choices, but if you want to specifically recreate your earlier arsenal, you can shell out some real-world money for pet options. While the free pets give you six options, if you specifically want the Cocker Spaniel you had at age 12, you can buy it for $8.49 on the Webkinz store. Compared to the pricey plushies, which started at $11 for mini-versions but went up to $25 for deluxe editions (with some rare toys occasionally auctioned for obscene amounts of money), it’s a steal. (And hey, even though Ganz, the company behind Webkinz, discontinued the current plushes, it has plans to roll them out again, so once they’re back in stock, you can also get a plush!) Not only does purchasing a pet give you more options, it also unlocks a “full membership,” which gives you more content than a free one.
But if you want all the perks of Webkinz, you can pay $5.99 a month ($.99 for the first month) for the Deluxe membership. The pros and cons of each one are outlined on the Webkinz site. Until the end of March, Webkinz is giving everyone Deluxe memberships. Rolling out a free Deluxe membership trial gives those turning to Webkinz a perk — and gives Ganz access to new or returning fans who’re interested in sticking around.
Revisiting my old pets feels like flipping through a photo album. The extensive house I curated meticulously at age 11 is undisturbed. My pets are doing exactly what they were doing when I last logged off some years ago: sitting in empty bathtubs, sleeping in beds, or watching a television that hasn’t been turned on in half a decade. It’s calming, but in an oddly haunting way. I see the ghost of my past captured in this Webkinz house, and wow, apparently I thought it was cool to combine the “Jungle” and “Funky Girl” bedroom themes.
Webkinz has greatly expanded since I was a kid. There are new activities ranging from games and collectible quests to new shops, which are all more expansive than the site I once knew. There’s the Adventure Park, which as far as I can tell is a sort of exploration-based game where you complete quests. There’s the Magical Forest, which contains minigames and collectibles. There’s the Style Boutique, which is somehow different from the Style Outlet. The full panel of activities is a bit overwhelming, honestly. There’s just so much going on. I just wanna play with my animals.
Which is why the mobile app is perfect for casual nostalgia. It has a limited amount of activities: you can explore your home, shop for items, visit the arcade, and care for pets. Sure, it doesn’t have the Curio Shop or the job center, but it’s a cute pick-me-up in the midst of a work day. I can walk my pets around, feed them, and dress them up. I can spin the Wheel of Wow and play a quick game of Cash Cow. It’s not the same as the full Webkinz experience of the desktop app, which is as close to the original web application as it could be. But the mobile app is a modern, streamlined take on Webkinz, one more fit for the slightly nostalgic adult than for the actual target demographic of children.