Does Disney “Get” Virtual Worlds?

Second Life is looking for it’s Second Wind. There.com isn’t quite there yet. The media hype that surrounded virtual worlds just a year ago has ratcheted way back. Real world companies who came in not understanding what they were getting into quickly faded away after they didn’t get what they were expecting.

But one demographic seems to be doing quite well in the virtual space: Kids. If you have one of these living under your roof, you probably know that they are actively participating in online virtual/social networking spaces. They are joining online social networks at increasingly early ages (pre-school in the case of Club Penguin) and in those spaces, they are forming relationships that are very real.

This high level of participation has made kid-oriented worlds like Habbo, Gaia Online, Neopets, Webkinz and Nicktropolis more successful that adult oriented virtual worlds. Disney’s launched Virtual Magic Kingdom in 2005 with a target audience of 8 – 14 year-olds. Seeing business opportunity in the virtual space, they paid $350 Million to acquire Club Penguin last year. This year, Disney launched Pirates of the Caribbean Online to attract a somewhat older, but still teen aged audience (mostly boys) and Pixie Hollow (targeted at girls) is set to be launched later this year. The longer range plan, according to Mike Goslin, VP of Disney’s Virtual reality Studio, is to “have a large number of virtual world for a range of different audiences… sort of like a theme park.” The strategy also includes making the different worlds “feel like a common experience” including the ability to move your social contacts between virtual experiences.

Last Week, Shel Israel posted an fascinating video interview with Goslin and other senior team members from Disney’s Interactive Studios.

In the interview, the Disney team talks about the differentiators that they bring to the game. The most interesting one for me was the idea of Context. Like physical playgrounds, Disney sees their virtual worlds as socializing environments. In them, kids are learning collaboration skills, communication skills and social skills, but as with most everything Disney does, these interactions and communications are done in the context of a story. Disney believes creating social environments and communities around a context adds value to both consumers and business. On the customer side, building environments around a theme drives engagement by communities of interest who are passionate about that theme (think “ESPN Fantasy Football”). This leads to large communities that are defined by their common interest as opposed to the relatively small number of people that may be in your friend list. Those large communities with common interests provides a context for a business model like advertising. Because the community is all there for the same reason, they will likely engage in predictable ways (i.e. minimize random and inappropriate behavior).

Conspicuously absent from the interview was any mention of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (“VMK”). VMK was launched in 2005 as part of the Disneyland 50th year celebration. In it, participants create rooms themed after Magic Kingdom attractions, play mini-games, collect inventory and make friends. Just seven months after launch, Disney announced the game surpassed one million players and over 1.3 million personalized in-game rooms. Last month, with no advance notice, Disney announced that they would be shutting the doors on this virtual theme park on May 21. Predictably, the outcry from the “community” has been loud and is growing as the date approaches. A number of petitions have collected thousands of signatures, boycotts are being threatened and one group, VMK Kids Unite, is organizing a protest at the gates of Disneyland on May 10 which may be covered by CNN and CBS. Obviously, adults are helping to organize these efforts, but the kids are the driving force. Kids who are already comfortable with the participatory web and who want to have their voices heard.

So here’s my takeaway. From the interview, its clear that Disney understands the business opportunity in Virtual Worlds & Social Networks. The also have a pretty good idea how to build communities through contextually engaging virtual experiences. On the other hand, Disney’s decision to shut down VMK demonstrates that perhaps they don’t really get the “social” component. In these social environments, Disney’s role is to provide the frameworks (architectural, security and creative) and the context, but the real content is created by the participants. In shutting down VMK, they aren’t just closing an amusement park attraction. They are throwing away the work of the thousands of dedicated, passionate kids who have spent countless hours building and sharing wonderfully imaginative experiences, and in the process, will be alienating many of their most dedicated and influential advocates.

What do you think? Is closing VMK “just business”? Will the kids get over it? Is this consistent with Disney’s brand?

Update: Per my daughter’s advice, here are links to http://www.savevmk.com and http://www.savevmktoday.com

Update #2:  My daughter wrote a song and created a video about saving VMK.  Check it out here.

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31 comments so far

  1. Save VMK! : VMK Blog on

    Does Disney “Get” Virtual Worlds? – NextUp…

    Second Life is looking for it’s Second Wind. There.com isn’t quite there yet. The media hype that surrounded virtual worlds just a year ago has ratcheted way back. Real world companies who came in not understanding what they were getting…

  2. IsadoraQ on

    Visit Savevmk.com to sign our petition and to read how important the friends we have made on VMK are to us. Please look at the thousands of comments from kids, including the disabled, minorities, and others who were just lonely, who are very upset at having their social supports taken away. By Disney.

  3. geekmommy on

    Rather stunned that you left out WebKinz. Despite the fact that they don’t get tech support or customer service at ALL – Ganz has done the Virtual World for kids (and adults) better than anyone else.
    Disney could take a tip or two from them.

    As a parent of a very savvy 5 yr old with her own computer – we’ve spent time on a number of sites of this order, including Disney’s fledgling Fairies site.
    At the moment, daughter loves the ‘dress up, create the room’ aspect of the fairies, but not the ‘social’ component… because I’m not letting her participate in a non-secure environment.

    But Ganz has it down. Including the monetization aspect.
    Disney is missing a huge opportunity if they don’t study up on how to create a successful virtual social environment that incorporates with their real world offerings.

    Yeah, they’re making a mistake on closing down the VMK. We don’t use it – but it’s NEVER good customer relations to say “hey, come get used to this space, make yourself at home, make friends, oh… but we might just pull the rug out from under you at any time.” :(

  4. Alan on

    Which game will Disney close next? Disney does not get the online community and needs to learn to keep there hands out if they only intend to close their doors on people. I am personally done with Disney Games as it is only about money and not about the relationships. Good Luck Disney!

  5. Grace on

    Webkinz is great, but for the most part, it’s just a virtual world. Since the chat is so restricted, you can’t form real bonds within the game like VMK players have.

    It’s scary to think that they don’t get it since they’ve got so many kids wrapped into their products. The way that they closed VMK really does show a not-so-good side of the company and I would seriously think twice before participating in any of their other games.

    Obviously these games can’t stay open forever, it’s how you go about closing them that’s the important part- and it certainly shouldn’t happen when a game is as popular and promising as VMK.

  6. Tyler (Your Daughter, duh) on

    Hey Dad, two things. You should really put the links to Save VMK sites in here… http://www.savevmk.com and http://www.savevmktoday.com oh and just so you know, the person that posted a comment with the name isadoraq is who is heading up the big petition. Umm… yeah thats it.

  7. [...] Meacham examines the Walt Disney Company’s efforts when it comes to Online Virtual Games. He also wonders why Disney is closing [...]

  8. diana on

    chain me to a tree, glue me to a post do any thing but don’t take vmk away from the ones who love it and love the ones in it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Caroline (CRAZY_SUMMER) on

    Okay, no one really knows why they did it. I don’t care about “50th Anniversery” or “We couldn’t hold the sight up because of tight severs or even “We had to cause the staff was tired”. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH! Who cares VMK programmers? Disney, this was the only game you ever made that was fun. And guess what? You closed it like garbage! AS if you never cared… Which the VMK players have recently learned you never did! How could you take away thousands of kids joy just for “Oh we didn’t have room for it anymore”? Who do you guys think you are! Guess what? If you don’t open up VMK in the next month i’m gonna tell all my friends what you did and why you did it. I’m gonna make commercials about not going to WDW! I’m sorry guys but, you gotta stop. Just keep VMK and keep us all from getting tempures like I just did.. GO NOW! OPEN VMK FOR OUR SAKES!

    • Allie on

      omg i sooo agree! i actually cried wen they closed it

  10. Alex on

    I HATE YOU DISNEY!!! THANKS FOR MAKING IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR OUR VOICES HEARD – bursts out crying – THANKS FOR CRUSHING OUR HEARTS!!

  11. Alex on

    how can the staff be tired?!?! they went to vfk O_o

  12. Alex on

    y vmk?? y…

  13. malteasegirl on

    why did you had to close it why anyways why are your making pixie hollow if you closed down vmk

  14. malteasegirl on

    :cry: i feel sad

  15. BeeBz on

    I am really upset that they closed vmk. I LOVED it and now they made VFK how stupid. I really don’t care if they only had it for the 50th anniversery. COME ON! Have you seen how many people played on it! THATS CRAZZZYYY!!!

    Come on Disney Walt would be ashamed if he kenw about this!
    Luv,
    BeeBz >:-(

  16. BeeBz on

    It was supposed to say knew at the end not kenw…. sorry lol :)
    Still Walt would be upset and NEVER do this to us. Why should Disney!!! NOT COOL

  17. cindy on

    im over the vmk closing thing. but stilll they should have kept it going for at least 5 years….. not 3…. i mean come on i only got to experience vmk for 3 years… its totally not cooliooooo

  18. cindy on

    i meant 3 months

  19. puppyluver on

    why did vmk have to close! that was one of the best sites i had ever been on! :( pirates online is another fun virtual game… plz dont close that one two!!! :(

  20. joe on

    Tootsville is an online interactive virtual world with tons of kid games where children can safely hang out, chat, play games and explore. Toots are stuffed animal elephants that comes to life online in Tootsville. Tootsville provides a fun and highly unique environment where kids can be kids.

  21. Adriana on

    i cant believe they did that i LOVED vmk did you see how many they conect in vmk thousands i like to report you every time i am very sad ok I HATE YOU GUYS for closing vmk if you do another game i am sure they wont play to much like vmk

  22. [...] Meacham examines the Walt Disney Company’s efforts when it comes to Online Virtual Games. He also wonders why Disney is closing [...]

  23. Luvin Disney Vacations on

    I don’t care what anyone else says but Walt Disney was the man! Disney will ALWAYS be MAGICAL!

  24. drocker on

    I think that the people that cloesd vmk are just idiots!! Why would they cloes down the best game i have played and I only got to expereince the magic of vmk for 1 year they should have kept it going. If they open it again i will go on it no matter what peolpe say:) SO JUST OPEN THE DANG GAME AGAIN COME ON PEOPLE HOW COULD U GO ON SITES THAT SPONSER VMK WHEN VMK IS CLOSED!!!!!!!!

  25. Miranda on

    Disney only closed vmk down because it was a free game and they tons of people on there and it wasn’t making any money for them. They care only about money these days and all the tears and cries of people who played this game fell on Disney workers deaf ears. That’s why they put pirates of the Caribbean on there and club penguin and pixie hollow. They wanted the money. They could care less what we thought or wanted. I don’t play Disney games anymore. I play Elf Island. that’s free and most of the people who played vmk are on there. I wouldn’t trust Disney. They don’t care or acknowledge anyone but themselves.

  26. sophie on

    I never played VMK but today i tried to but it got closed down. What happened everyone said it was an awsom game i keep trying but nooo they had to close it all down. DISNEY is not the one i trust anymore they just want money and thats it. MONEY MONEY MONEY!!!! All they care about you filthy rich losers. What are you guys gonna do with the money. Its just a wast. you should be happy of what you got. NO body is gonna start playing DISNEY games anymore because they pay money and they just cant afford it more than one year. Why do DISNEY People only care about money they should care about people too. Duhh there people too> I hope they know that. THey need to think about the millions of people who cried about this game that got closed down. UGGHHHHHHHHH. I never ever even played it!!

    • Allie on

      ik wat u mean sophie…. it was a wonderful game! and disney had enough stupid money! and ur rite ppl cant afford the payment into the game…. but vmk was a free, safe, good, game that ppl could just go away and be free :)
      it used to be this >>> :)
      but no its >>>> >:(

  27. Allie on

    WE WANT VMK BACK!!! THATS ALL WE WANT!!! LOOK AT YOUTUBE THE BLUE SHIRT VMK!! RACHEL ( IN THE VIDEO ) GOES EVERY SATUDAY TO DISNEY WEARING A BLUE SHIRT THAT SAYS SAVE VMK!! LOOK AT ALL THE OTHER SAVE VMK VIDEOS THERE R EVEN ONLINE PITITIONS!! thats how bad we want VMK back! DISNEY.. DO U NOT GET?!?!
    VMK WAS “THE THING” AND STILL IS BUT NO U HAD TO CLOSE IT!
    all im saying is that… DISNEY! U LOST ALOT! OF FANS BCUZ U CLOSED VMK and im not joking… we ( ppl who want it bak) might not be aduts or grown ups but we can STILL FIGHT for wat we want! and u kno wat we want??? VMK BACK!! reopend no one cares if they lost all there stuff on there just open it bak up!!!!

  28. aaronnrj on

    Hey everyone!

    You should check this site out: http://fbliker.net …it pretty much lets you like anything you want on facebook. Kinda cool!

  29. Kids Virtual Worlds on

    The disney acquisition of Club Penguin definitely helped Club Penguin make it to the top of the virtual world list.


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