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Frantic dash for holiday toys off to an early star

The jack-o'-lanterns have just been carved, and nobody has started buying cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Yet some toys expected to be scarce this Christmas season are already sailing off the shelves.

It seems parents _ some of whom had to play tug of war over Tickle Me Elmos last year _ are buying earlier this year to avoid unseemly scenes over Sing & Snore Ernie, this year's expected hit among the preschool set.

Supplies of the Ernie doll, as well as Microsoft's Actimates Barney, Star Wars figures and virtual pets, already are running thin.

"People, having been caught last year in that mad rush, are shopping earlier this year," said Joanne Oppenheim, a toy consultant in New York. "They don't want to be part of that mess again."

Or it could be toy speculators who are doing their shopping early, hoping to make big money on their investment when parents get desperate to fill Santa's sleigh with that one hard-to-find item.

Who's buying the toys may not be clear, but a picture of which toys are likely to be hot sellers already is emerging, fueled by "hot" toy picks from magazines and trade publications.

After Family Fun magazine last week picked the Ernie doll as one of its top toys of 1997, sales shot higher and are now running about 10 times what they were in early October. The Sesame Street character sings "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" before it fades off to sleep and begins snoring.

To meet demand, Tyco already is flying in Ernie dolls from its factory in China.

The Ernie doll has been popular at Kay-Bee Toys at Countryside Mall, manager Jeff Jacobs said. So has Microsoft's Actimates Barney, a high-tech version of the purple dinosaur that costs $100 and sings songs and plays interactive games.

Jacobs' 13-month-old daughter, Hannah, the store's toddler toy tester, gurgled in the background, playing with one of the toy dinosaurs during the interview.

"He's wonderful," Jeff Jacobs said, adding he had just finished singing the "Head and shoulders, knees and toes" song.

Then there is the perpetually popular Holiday Barbie. On many toy store shelves throughout Tampa Bay, white versions of the doll are scarce. This is the 10th anniversary of the holiday edition of the fashion doll, and the doll is expected to change next year, said Jacobs.

You won't find any Holiday Barbies on the shelf at the Wal-Mart store in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg. Any Holiday Barbies that come in are sent directly to the layaway area. Customers are directed back there where they can buy the doll on a first-come, first-served basis, if any are in. Waiting lists are not kept.

"That keeps the fistfights out of the aisles," said Randy Hagman, a clerk who helps stock the toys.

_ Information from Associated Press was used in this report.