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Disney Virtual Kingdom shutdown creating real angst

May 21, 2008 |  7:35 am

With the aid of a special mouse pad and an on-screen keyboard, Madison Reed has found a way to venture beyond the protective confines of her home in suburban Columbus, Ohio, and play with other children in a Disney theme park.

Madison, who suffers from a severe neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, gravitated to Walt Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom, an online game that recreates aspects of the company’s theme parks. It was in this online world that she took her first steps. She rode a ride without being held or sitting in a wheelchair. And, at the age of 11, she celebrated her first birthday party with friends in February.

“This is huge for an 11-year-old girl who has never been able to have a birthday party with friends because of the risk of getting sick,” said her mother, Annette Reed.

Now, Madison faces the loss of her connection to the real world. Disney plans to close the Virtual Magic Kingdom today. The company says the game was created in 2005 as part of an 18-month promotion for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, and that celebration has long ended.

“It never achieved scale,” Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group, said last month in response to questions at the EconSM conference. “It was promotional. There was no business model attached to it. It had a small but passionate audience.”

But the decision ...

... has provoked outcry from its thousand of users, who say they never knew the game was some sophisticated marketing gimmick. One 13-year-old from Richfield, Utah, who goes by the online name of Isadora Q, started an online petition that has attracted more than 20,000 signatures. Others say they’ve written letters to Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, imploring him to keep their community open.

The closure of one of Disney’s earliest ventures in online gaming comes at a time when the Burbank-based entertainment giant is investing heavily in virtual worlds and interactive play. In addition to its pioneering Toontown Online, which was the first multiplayer game for kids, it acquired Club Penguin last August for $700 million, launched an online game inspired by “Pirates of the Caribbean” last fall and plans to debut Disney Fairies, a virtual world built around Tinker Bell and her friends, this summer.

Industry executives who have talked to Disney said the company wants to relocate the loyal users of Virtual Magic Kingdom to its other online worlds before they grow bored with the theme-park game. Others speculated that Disney wasn’t interested in nurturing a cyberworld that wasn’t invented in Burbank. The Virtual Magic Kingdom was built, developed and maintained by Sulake Corp., best-known as the creator of the two-dimensional Habbo Hotel.

Disney insiders said the decision came down to a question of resources. Should the company maintain Virtual Magic Kingdom, which peaked at about 1 million users, or invest in a richer portfolio of online worlds that incorporate advanced graphics and storytelling and appeal to a broader audience?
Nonetheless, they said the decision was as painful as closing a classic ride at a real-world amusement park and that Disney was considering ways to allow community members to stay in touch.

“At Disney, we’d rather do anything in the world than disappoint a guest,” said John Spelich, a Disney Internet Group spokesman. “But we hope our VMK players will choose to sample some of the other ways to engage with Disney online through or through virtual worlds.”

-- Dawn Chmielewski and Alex Pham