& & by Mike Corrigan & & & &

If you have kids, chances are you're already acutely familiar with the hot toys of the 2000 Christmas season. They let you know in subtle ways, don't they? (Sure, subtle as a used car salesman trying to sell you a '76 Pinto.) Those of us who don't actually live with toy-hungry young'uns but still need to buy for one are in need of a quick crash course in what's hip. That is, unless you don't mind being thought of as terminally out of touch and lumped into the same category as Aunt "socks again" Hazel.

What are kids pining for right now, as we speak? Oh, let's see... What kid-targeted movies have graced the silver screen this past year (hint: Toy Story 2)? What toys keep popping up in newspaper ads? What toys are featured on television commercials at peak kid-viewing times? If you can satisfactorily answer these questions, you're well on your way to identifying this year's crowd pleasers.

The good news is that there is, as usual, an astounding variety of toys to choose from, running the gamut from shamelessly entertaining to deceptively educational. Of course there are the real clunkers out there that will end up in the discount areas at Target by the time January rolls around. To avoid such erroneous toy buys, you must read on.

So what's new and hot? Well, I thought you'd never ask. Interactive electronic toys are leading toy sales this year. Diva Starz Glam Girl Alexa ($25 at K-Mart) is part of a four-doll sisterhood of hip, cool-talking teens with monstrously large heads and feet. Alexa is the trendy mall rat that lives for shopping, fashion and the latest hairstyles. She speaks in broken sentences to her human friends, interacts with other Diva Starz dolls and is prone to such life-affirming statements as, "Oh, I don't feel like wearing my black capri pants today" and "Ouch."

Tekno the Robotic Puppy ($40 at Toy R Us) leads the pack of animatronic computerized canines. The manufacturer describes the toy as "an authentic robot friend who does everything a puppy can do... and more!" I was hoping for less, if you get my meaning. Nevertheless, this silver pooch (also available sheathed in Dalmatian skin) barks, whines, whimpers and walks just like a real puppy. He can even perform simple tricks that you teach him and can respond to voice commands as well as touch. Comes complete with faux titanium bone.

Instead of reinforcing only the most base aspects of your child's developing personality, why not stimulate his or her creative side with a "smartie" toy? For aspiring engineers and mad scientists, you can't get much cooler than Lego's Mindstorm series of building sets. With the Robotics Discovery Set ($150 at Whiz Kids), kids can create -- with more than 387 pieces -- an endless assortment of robot servants to do their bidding. Each invention is powered and controlled by the "Scout," a microcomputer that acts as the robot's brain, capable of delivering more than 3,000 different commands. The Scout even allows your robotic minions to communicate with each other -- thus helping to set the stage for the future robot takeover in which all of humanity will become enslaved. Too cool!

Erase all illusions of personal privacy in your home by outfitting your secret agent wannabe or infernal busybody with the Spy Tool Kit ($24 at Whiz Kids). It includes a listening device with earphones, a telescope/microscope, penlight and notebook all storable in an attractive spy attach & eacute; case -- perfect for covert operations and endless hours of shameless snooping.

Zowee, those newfangled scooter things are everywhere. The Razor Scooter ($100 at Toys R Us) supports riders up to 224 pounds, is constructed of shiny dent-resistant aluminum alloy and folds for easy transport and storage. It's fast too, making it one of the most popular urban assault scooters on the market. Jump on one, scream "Cowabunga" at the top of your lungs and just watch the pedestrians scatter.

For that game freak/Simpsons geek on your list, The Simpsons Trivia Game Tin ($15 at Toys R Us) will provide hours of entertainment for those harboring such arcane knowledge from the show as Homer's work locker combination and the number of times Smithers entertained erotic fantasies about Mr. Burns (okay, maybe this isn't for the really young).

Reissues and updated versions of classic '50s and '60s toys are everywhere. Consider one of the tops in the "I can't believe they still make that" category, Tinkertoys. The Classic Colossal Builder Set ($40 at Toys R Us) contains 142 pieces stored in the good old silo-like canister and comes with instructions for 50 projects. But as any kid with a thimble-full of imagination knows, with these wooden construction parts, it is in leaping past the pre-formulated designs where the real fun begins.

Also holding their own in reissue land are the Toymax creature factory products based on similar (and much more dangerous) Mattel versions from the 1960s. The Original Creepy Crawlers Workshop ($23 at White Elephant) has the potential to entertain several generations of bug makers. And why not? After all, you get to play god. Just squeeze your choice of colored "Plastic Goop" into the metal bug-casting molds, cook in the child-safe oven for nine minutes, let cool, pop the creatures out and presto -- an army of slimy, slithering crustaceans, insects and arachnids at your command!

The Incredible Edibles Fright Factory ($22 at White Elephant) takes that one step further with -- you guessed it -- the ability to create disgusting toy life forms that you can actually eat. Yummy nums.

For adults still in touch with their inner child or suffering from a full-on regression, actual toys from yesteryear may be the things to elicit silly grins and exclamations of "Wow, I had one of these when I was a kid!" Be ready for that one, should you wrap up a classic toy for your Peter Pan complex-afflicted beloved.

Next to the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, Starsky's red Gran Torino coupe with the crazy white stripe is probably the most recognized vehicle from the heyday of both muscle cars and those TV "buddy" cops shows. Yep, there may be more sophisticated remote-control rods out there today, but for sheer flashback potential, you won't find anything better (or in nicer condition) than the 1977 radio-controlled Starsky and Hutch Ford Torino by Galoob ($65 at Marcus' Junk & amp; Collectibles, 1806 E. Sprague). It's from the good old days when all the toys came "Made in Japan."

With plastic army men at the top of many a boy's Christmas list in 1964, the toymaker giant Marx decided girls needed plastic figures to play with as well. Thus was born the "Campus Cuties" ($100 per set at Marcus' Junk & amp; Collectibles). The careful collectible toy buyer should be wary of reproductions of this item. You can spot the originals by the date and the name "Louis Marx" on the bottom. But the biggest clues are the pink color of the figures and the wonderfully oily feel of the plastic itself. Though originally marketed to young girls, these vaguely sexist plastic vixens are currently collected and treasured almost exclusively by adult males.

Remember those early hand-held electronic games featuring LED displays and shrill, piercing and entirely impossible-to-keep-from-your-teacher sound effects? Well, if not, let me jar your noggin with this blast from your past, the original Mattel Electronic Football game ($30-$70 at eBay.com). Now that you're all grown up, you can score electronic touchdowns to your heart's content.

The Fab Four sang "All You Need Is Love." Well, McFarlane Toys is betting that all you Beatles fanatics will need this Christmas is the Beatles' Yellow Submarine action figures ($8.50 at 4,000 Holes) based on the characters from the1968 animated feature film of the same name. These are new toys that are sure to fill fans and ex-flower children with psychedelic joy. Each jaunty lad from Liverpool comes paired with another figure or fantastic machine from the movie: John with the blathering, effeminate "Jeremy," Paul with the hideous flying "Glove," Ringo with the cruel "Blue Meanie" and George with the Yellow Submarine itself. They're also available with the Beatles dressed up as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Most groovy.

Merchandise from good, weird children's programming has always been a pretty reliable method of winning favor on Christmas morn. The Krofft Superstars figure series including Sigmund of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and that lovable but strangely ineffectual mayor and title character of Living Island from H. R. Pufnstuf ($10 each at Boo Radley's) will land thirtysomethings in nostalgia city. They'll also appeal to the legions of brand new fans charmed (via recent video releases) by these fantastical creatures created for late '60s Saturday morning television.

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