Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Club Penguin, which Disney acquired in… (Jeff Bassett / For The Times )
Walt Disney Co. believes that World of Cars, its new subscription-based online community aimed at boys and based on the Pixar movie "Cars," won't get lost in the traffic of virtual worlds.
Things are already a bit congested. Some 200 virtual worlds target children under 12. Each competes for a slice of the 10 hours and 45 minutes a day the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that kids spend viewing media, simultaneously vying for screen time against a growing number of portable media players and smart phones that offer their own diversions.
That's not deterring Disney, however, which is testing World of Cars for rollout this summer. The game will allow kids to create their own car persona and rub hubcaps with characters from the movie, such as Mater, the bucktoothed tow truck, or play online games such as tractor-tipping.
The launch marks the latest exercise in corporate cross-branding for Disney, which hopes it can leverage the movie's popularity into monthly subscription payments from boys and their NASCAR dads in advance of the release of "Cars 2" in summer 2011 and the Cars Land attraction that opens in 2012 at Disney's California Adventure theme park.
"We look at anything we can do online as a way to deepen and extend [people's] relationships with the characters," said Steve Wadsworth, president of Disney Interactive Media Group. "That only helps elevate the mind-share of that property or franchise with our audience."
World of Cars is modeled after Club Penguin, the online game of scarf-wearing penguins and igloos aimed at the juice-box crowd that Disney acquired in 2007. The site had 12 million active players and 700,000 subscribers when Disney bought it, although over the last year U.S. visitors to Club Penguin have leveled off, according to research firm ComScore Media Metrix.
Its global reach is broader, with Club Penguin attracting visitors from 190 countries as the site has been translated into Portuguese, Spanish and French. Kzero Worldwide, a British consulting firm, estimates that Club Penguin reaches as many as 35 million users globally, ranking it among the top five virtual worlds for children.
Disney will not release updated subscribers figures for Club Penguin -- Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said in a recent analysts call that it had recorded gains -- but the subscription site is facing growing competition from toy makers seeking to extend their brands online.
Mattel Inc. made a leap online in 2007 with Barbie Girls, a site Kzero Worldwide estimates attracts 22 million players around the world. Hasbro Inc. partnered with video game maker Electronic Arts Inc. to launch Littlest Pet Shop Online in October, and toy giant Lego created Lego Universe, which debuted last month.
Established media companies with powerful children's programming, such as Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon, are similarly chasing their young audiences onto the Internet. After acquiring Neopets in 2005, Nickelodeon last May opened a spinoff virtual world, Petpet Park, which has attracted about 1.7 million registered users, according to Steve Youngwood, Nickelodeon's executive vice president for digital. It's in development on another virtual world, Monkey World.
The trick, however, isn't inventing a virtual world, but designing content that keeps children clicking back.
"Kids have notoriously short attention spans," said Steve Prentice at Gartner, a technology information and consulting firm. "They are intrigued by novelty, but unless there's an enduring reason for them to come back, they won't."
That's the challenge for Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Club Penguin, who oversees Disney's virtual worlds.
Pixie Hollow, the virtual world in which players flutter around with Tinker Belland other characters, has grown since its 2008 debut to 1.6 million monthly users in December, up from 1.3 million a year earlier. Toontown Online, one of the first virtual worlds, saw usage spike in the summer -- but the number of visitors in December fell below year-earlier levels, according to ComScore.
Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, the multi-player computer game that was launched in 2007, is taking on water. The number of online visitors fell below 192,000 in December from 500, 000 a year earlier, ComScore estimates.
"It's no secret it had some technical issues. There were some hurdles there," said Merrifield, who has been working to retool the game. "There were big downloads, and a lot of machines couldn't carry it."
Merrifield worked with the development team in North Hollywood to apply some of what he learned with Club Penguin. Players needed to be able to dive quickly into Pirates and play the game as soon as they launched their browser, he said, instead of waiting for a time-consuming download.