Virtually Condemned

What do you do when your virtual retreat becomes just as stressful and uncertain as real life? I difficult and thorny question, and one which I know many of us have asked in frustration about Second Life. However, what if that question were far more immediate? What if the CLOSING FOREVER sign were hung on Caledon or Winterfell or all of Second Life?

Would we fight? Would we sue? I am not sure, but that is the situation facing the longtime members of a virtual world created by Disney and it seems that quite a few are not willing to go quietly, even facing the media muscle of Disney. I for one say More Power To Them.


The following is reposted from The Wall Street Journal.

Fans Resist End of Virtual Disneyland


For Walt Disney Co., the task of opening a virtual version of Disneyland on the Web was relatively easy. Closing it, though, is proving to be quite a bit more difficult, thanks to the wrath of obsessive fans of Disney’s theme parks.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in 2005, Walt Disney launched a free online game called Virtual Magic Kingdom whose look and layout mimics Disneyland’s. Users created avatars and explored the online park’s various regions, such as Tomorrowland and Main Street; chatted with other users; and participated in online promotions that crossed over into real-life activities at the company’s resorts in California and Florida.

Disney’s notoriously obsessive fans got deeply into this. Using their online personas, fans of Virtual Magic Kingdom — VMK to aficionados — accumulated points by playing games and completing tasks inside the world. These points could then be used to buy in-game objects like animated hats, pins and furniture to decorate their virtual private rooms. Points could also be accumulated in the real world through purchases of Disney movie DVDs and the like.

When players tired of the online world, they could keep playing VMK as they visited Disney’s theme parks. There, they could go on scavenger hunts tailored specifically to them — and use their rewards to purchase special Virtual Magic Kingdom items that increased their status among fellow gamers.

On Wednesday night, however, Disney plans to throw everyone out of VMK and lock the gates — erasing their online profiles, lives and collections of virtual trinkets and real estate. Disney says it never intended the 50th-anniversary promotion to run this long, but money is also a factor: Virtual Magic Kingdom is free, and full access to Disney’s other online game sites — like Club Penguin and Toontown — costs as much as $9.95 a month in the case of Toontown.

This has unleashed a loud outcry from VMK patrons, and some of them are throwing themselves in front of Disney’s virtual wrecking ball. One slick Web site created to help save VMK has gathered nearly 20,000 signatures on its online petition, while blogs maintained by the Disney faithful continue to decry the company’s move. A real-life protest to sway the Burbank, Calif., entertainment company’s thinking largely fizzled, though. Only about a dozen die-hard fans picketed outside Disneyland’s main gates on May 10, carrying placards and a banner riffing Disney’s “Year of a Million Dreams” campaign that read, “Year of a Million Broken Dreams.”

Disney says VMK’s life extended well beyond what was supposed to be a roughly 18-month celebration of the theme parks. “We never want to disappoint a guest at any time, but in this particular case, we said this was a great product and it was extended due to popular demand, and we had to take this action to move forward with our portfolio of franchised products,” says John Spelich, a spokesman for Disney’s Internet Group.

The situation shows how sticky things can get when free, nonrevenue-generating gimmicks blossom into hits. In 2006, Disney boasted that one million avatars had been created inside VMK, though the company declines to say how many users the site actually has (individuals can create multiple characters). The site, which operates from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Pacific time, still boasts a few thousand daily users.

Disney says that despite fan interest, VMK’s popularity is dwarfed by that of its other games, including “Club Penguin” and the “Disney Fairies” Web game based on Tinker Bell. Since the Fairies site was launched in January 2007, users have created close to six million avatars there, the company says. The game still isn’t fully operational and so far is free, but Disney plans to start charging a fee for portions of the game later this year.

Virtual Magic Kingdom shows that Disney’s games aren’t just for kids. To be sure, it attracts children, whose parents are drawn to the family-friendly alternative to very adult virtual worlds like Second Life. VMK users can only “chat” using words from an approved dictionary; numerals, names and email addresses are forbidden; and anyone trying to circumvent the rules using clever word substitutions is warned or kicked off the site by moderators.

But many of VMK’s users are adults who just happen to love Disney. Such fans can be vocal and dogged when things don’t go their way. In 2004, they were instrumental in rallying behind former board member Roy Disney’s attack on the leadership of then-Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner.

Nicholas Bourne, a 22-year-old student, is a longtime Disneyland fan who says he visits the park about once a week using his annual pass. Now, he is one of the forces behind a Web site, Mr. Bourne found the game the first week it appeared online in May 2005 and got hooked fast. He says he spends two to three hours a day there, largely chatting with friends. But his investment of time and interest also allowed him to become a “Community Leader,” responsible for helping other members and organizing events.

Mr. Bourne latched onto VMK after being unsatisfied with other online games like EverQuest, which he felt was not only too expensive because of its monthly fee, but also too intense. “I really just liked VMK’s environment and how it not only recreated elements of the theme parks, like Splash Mountain, but also had this great interactive element that allowed you to create your own version,” he says.

As they face eviction from their favorite game, some Virtual Magic Kingdom residents are preparing to move on. “I’ve been playing for almost two years, and I’ve made really good friends and had really good times,” says 13-year-old Grant Hale of Naugatuck, Conn. “I was really sad and really mad when I found out they were closing VMK.” His family is grudgingly preparing to renew its subscription to Club Penguin, which it had planned to cancel.


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