Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom
Disney's online virtual theme park has potential, but will it find success or end up closing its digital gates?
Written by Joe Lane
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Sunday, July 3, 2005
Disney's latest theme park venture is bringing the Magic Kingdom to a new setting: cyberspace.
In the vein of massive multiplayer online role-playing games, Virtual Magic Kingdom gives Disney fans an opportunity to create an online avatar and visit an electronic version of the Magic Kingdom--free of charge.
The Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) is a joint project between Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online and Sulake: a Finland-based game developer behind the popular Habbo Hotel.
Unlike many MMORPGs, VMK is a live community where you can interact with other players and play games in the form of popular Disney attractions. Playing these games can net you credits which let you buy furniture for your own personal guest room or clothes for you character.
And that’s the basics. In its simplest form, VMK is a game of collection: collecting credits, pins or just community recognition.
At its most complex, VMK becomes a game of half skill, half luck. Whether it’s trying to get high scores on the Castle Fireworks Game or being in the right place at the right time during an official contest.
Perhaps the biggest draw for VMK is its accessibility. VMK runs on Shockwave, a common internet program that’s free and safe to download. After a quick registration with Disney, you’re in the game.
The build of the Virtual Magic Kingdom draws a little bit from every Magic Kingdom, mostly from Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but with nods to Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland. The lands include Main Street, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.
Credit collecting comes in the form of hunting down special VMK park characters or playing games. Currently, there are four games to choose from, each inspired by a particular Disney attraction, like Jungle Cruise or Pirates of the Caribbean. Some games guarantee a certain amount of credits for completion, while others will have you competing against other Guests for prizes.
Then there’s the Hidden Mickey Quest. Most park goers are familiar with the Hidden Mickeys at the Disney parks. In VMK, you’ll find faint, tri-circle symbols hidden in the backgrounds. Completing the quest will grant you more in-game rewards.
As mentioned earlier, the game is completely free. But if you really want to stand out in the VMK, the best way to draw attention is to get your hands on special items. Some clothes that you buy at the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland come with codes that can get your virtual avatar a matching shirt or hat. Disney is also holding a promotion with Kellogg’s so that Guests who get codes from select cereals can get special magic pins themed to the Pirates of the Caribbean (the magic pins, of course, having magic spells associated with them and therefore making them more valuable than the regular pins).
Just when you think you’ve done all you can in VMK, there’s stuff to do outside the game. Disney has live scavenger hunts that take place in the Magic Kingdom at WDW and Disneyland. For correctly answering the questions on each quest, you can win new prizes, like furniture or pins. And the quests are no walk in the park: they truly are challenging. Even the most seasoned Disney guru might be stumped.
The target audience includes 8-14 year olds, although the game is open to kids of all ages (including those of us who are kids at heart).
Disney is very serious about internet safety, so to police individuals and the information that kids can give out, the programmers have created a dictionary of words that are acceptable for use within the virtual world. Numbers, proper names and swears and slang appear flashing red when typed and are replaced with “###” when entered. Even punctuation is monitored to prevent people from counting with periods.
VMK is not without its faults. During the Beta stage of testing, many users were frustrated with the chatting restrictions presented by the dictionary. VMK became a place were Disney fans couldn’t discuss their favorite parks and rides. Even some Disney characters’ names weren’t available to type. To the credit of the designers, Guests can send word suggestions in for consideration to be added to the dictionary.
There’s also the incredible number of young gamers who insist on turning VMK into an online dating service. There are Guest created rooms where people can find virtual “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.” All these rooms are monitored by VMK staff, however. And for those who are harassed by other individuals, the VMK staff has a kind of 911 service where ill-behaved Guests can be reported.
Don’t be surprised if Cast Members at WDW or Disneyland have no idea what VMK is. For all the promotion Disney put into the game, not all the Cast Members have been properly informed by management about the game, and therefore are not particularly helpful with the live quests.
After a good month of game play, VMK will likely become boring to even the most seasoned gamer. Although new games and quests are in the works, the process is a long one. Add to the fact there isn’t a single authentic Disney character walking the virtual streets and you can see that improvements are necessary.
That said, VMK certainly has a lot of potential, and future growth will determine whether the game will become a successful facet of the Disney company or just another flash in the pan.
The VMK population is made up of mostly gamers from the U.S. The game runs on hours just like park hours, from 10:00 am to 1:00 am EST and 7:00 am to 10:00 pm PST, although there are already rumors that, with success and popularity, the hours may extend to full time.
There’s a wealth of information on the VMK website, and informative FAQs for both players and parents. Visit www.vmk.com for more information and pictures.
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