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Monday Mouse Watch: DIMG departs from the standard Disney playbook

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Monday Mouse Watch: DIMG departs from the standard Disney playbook

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Let’s say that you had this great idea for a theme park ride. So you write your idea down and then ship it off to The Walt Disney World Resort. Care to guess what happens once your new ride proposal arrives in Orlando?

As soon as the cast member who works in Guest Relations (they’re the department at that Resort which deals with letters from Guests) reads enough of your letter to realize that it’s a proposal for a new ride, show or attraction, they’ve been instructed to immediately stop reading and then put your letter back in its original envelope. The Guest Relations cast member then sends your ride proposal (along with a detailed report which explains when exactly this letter was opened, who read your ride proposal, how far this cast member got before they stopped reading, etc.) off to Disney Legal. Who then sends your ride proposal back to you along with a stern letter which explains that The Walt Disney Company does not accept unsolicited material.

I bring up this well-established corporate policy (which Company officials have been following for decades at this point) because … Well, over at the Disney Interactive Media Group, they seem to be working off an entirely different playbook these days. Especially when it comes to Virtual Worlds like Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow and Disney Club Penguin, DIMG not only listens to their subscribers’ suggestions, they actually act on them.

Disney's virtual world based on fairies, Pixie Hollow
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Take – for example – the new Animal Friends program that was rolled out at Pixie Hollow back in late March. This online effort (which allows Disney Fairies subscribers to drop by Beck’s Nursery & pick out a baby firefly, ladybug, dragonfly and/or hummingbird which they can then raise as a pet) came about as direct result of Disney Online staffers responding to subscribers’ e-mails & phone calls. Which had repeatedly asked for something to play with / care for.

That’s also why – just last week – Pixie Hollow began allowing its subscribers to create boy fairies. As in: creating a "sparrow man," a non-female avatar that they can then use to explore the Disney Fairies online realm. And all of this came about because Disney Online staffers began listening to what this Virtual World’s subscribers were saying (more importantly, were already doing. As in: creating taller, thinner girl fairies with short hair and then giving them ambiguous names like Jamie or Cam) and then moved as quickly as possible to make boy fairy avatars an option in Pixie Hollow.

Now I have to tell you that – early on – Disney Online did follow the official corporate playbook. But all of that changed in August of 2007 when The Walt Disney Company acquired Club Penguin and Lane Merrifield – the Co-Founder & General Manager of Club Penguin – then became Executive Vice President of the Disney Interactive Media Group.

Lane Merrifield, Executive Vice President of Disney Interactive Media Group
Lane Merrifield, EVP of DIMG. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And once Lane entered the Mouse House … Well, much in the same way that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull (once The Walt Disney Company officially acquired Pixar Animation Studios in January of 2006) began retooling Walt Disney Animation Studios so that it ran more like Pixar, Merrifield pushed for Disney Online to become more Club Penguin-like. And given that Club Penguin had always made an effort to listen to what subscribers were saying and then giving them the exact sort of play experience that they were looking for … Well, that’s the sort of corporate culture that Lane began encouraging at DIMG.

Which – given that there are now more than 25 million Disney Fairies avatars flitting about online – means that balancing subscribers’ needs for a greater degree of freedom (EX: allowing them to visit & explore the previously-off-limits Pixie Dust Tree) while still meeting parental expectations that Pixie Hollow will be this fun, creative and safe online environment for their children to explore & experience is a pretty tall order. Which explains why the Disney Interactive Media Group has been hiring like crazy lately.

Mind you, DIMG isn’t just looking for people to read e-mails and/or answer phone calls (According to Merrifield, Club Penguin typically gets 5,000 – 10,000 messages from its worldwide subscribers every day). They’re also looking for additional staffers to watch over Disney’s Virtual Worlds.

Disney's newest virtual world, the World of Cars
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And a lot of these new hires can expect that they’ll be going to work for the World of Cars. This Disney Online Virtual World appears to finally be reaching the end of the road in regards to its Beta testing. And with any amount of luck, World of Cars will finally go live sometime later this summer.

I know, I know. Given that Disney launched World of Cars back in October of 2008, it’s taken quite a while for DIMG to take the characters & settings from Pixar’s Summer of 2006 release and then translate all that into a Virtual World. But the developers at Disney Online feel like they learned a lot during the Test Track phase of this project. And now they’re just rarin’ to go.

More importantly, DIMG’s been very careful with the World of Cars Virtual World project because – to be blunt – over the past 4 years, the Cars franchise has turned into this enormous money maker for The Walt Disney Company. To date, the sales of “Cars” merchandise has generated more than $5 billion for the Mouse House.

Disney Pixar World of Cars Online logo
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And given that Mickey would (obviously) like to keep this money machine rolling along … Well, that’s probably why John Lasseter recently took a far more hands-on approach towards “Cars 2: World Grand Prix.” Working beside (or possibly pushing aside, depending on who you talk to) Brad Lewis, this project’s original director. So that John can personally make sure that this highly anticipated sequel makes its previously-announced release date (i.e. June 24, 2011). More importantly, that it doesn’t stall out at the box office.

But what do you folks think? Do you like how active & aggressive the Disney Interactive Media Group has become when it come to incorporating subscribers’ suggestions? More importantly, would you like it if the rest of The Walt Disney Company adopted this sort of attitude when it came to customer comments and complaints?

Your thoughts?

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  • Here's a suggestion for DIMG:  Bring back Virtual Magic Kingdom.

  • I agree with Moonliner. But for Jim Hill: would you please do a Why For on VMK, specifically what really happened vs. Disney's official reason for closing it down. It'd be nice to know if they've learned anything from VMK, too.

  • I think it's wonderful that this particular arm of Disney is listening and responding to their Guests' ideas.

    On the other hand, I do not want my fellow Disney Geeks dictating what Imagineering does in the parks.  No one had to tell Walt what to build in Anaheim, and if he had listened to those who did try we would have had Eisner's California Adventure in 1955 (minus Soarin')!

    In a previous comment, Moonliner suggests that The Company bring back VMK.  That's what you get when you listen to AP's demands... more of the same.

    Surprise me.

  • VMK was one of the biggest online hits that Disney has ever had. Why was it closed? The Fans want to know!

    I don't think anybody is necessarily wanting to dictate to Imagineering what they should do, so much as they just want to see them do their best whenever they do build something. Sometimes they seem to make decisions that don't make any sense  like shutting down VMK, changing Imagination, etc.

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