Disney hopes virtual park delivers real-world results

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Looking to break out of its traditional marketing methods with some alternative media, Walt Disney Co. is launching a multi-player online game this spring called Virtual Magic Kingdom intended to drive kids to the real thing.

The move is part of a massive 18-month global marketing campaign tied to the 50th anniversary of Disneyland that aims to build traffic at Disney resorts, which remain below levels seen before Sept. 11, 2001. Disney's push, kicking off in January from Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, Chicago, includes a TV blitz that shows its signature characters arriving for a gigantic party. Virtual Magic Kingdom will have a dedicated campaign, as well as exposure in the anniversary-centric media.

The virtual game comes as the entertainment giant, in its quest to captivate tech-savvy tweens and hip up its image, delves further into high-tech products.

built-in bounce

Virtual Magic Kingdom, aimed primarily at 7-to-12-year-olds, has built-in bounce back from the Internet to Disney's theme parks, with players able to win special perks and head-of-the-line passes for rides in return for completing online challenges. Players who go to the parks also can compete in on-site games to win swag for their online personas.

"This isn't like a print ad or a TV commercial-it's an immersive environment," said Paul Yanover, senior VP-general manager of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online. "It's a whole different avenue to bring someone into the franchise."

"We want to develop one-on-one relationships with consumers," said Michael Mendenhall, Disney Parks & Resorts exec VP-global marketing support.

Park attractions like the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain act as the multi-player games, where kids can play against any number of opponents.

"They're eroding that division between online and offline for a generation that will appreciate it," said Lucian James, brand strategist at San Francisco-based Agenda. "When kids like something, they expect it to be available in every medium."

The site is an extension of what Disney does best, Mr. James said. "They really excel at creating a branded environment," he said.

There may be corporate sponsor branding on the site, though details are still coming together. Disney has long-term relationships with marketers like McDonald's Corp. and Visa International.

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