Virtual Magic

If you think that you need to trek out to Anaheim or Orlando to see Cinderella, engage enemy pirate ships in a cannonball fight, or go on a Jungle Cruise safari, click again. Last week, Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) began beta-testing its new Virtual Magic Kingdom online experience.

Think of it as The Sims -- the popular role-playing simulation by Stock Advisor newsletter recommendation Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) -- with mouse ears. You simply register, flesh out your character, and then explore the dozens of animated areas throughout the online theme park.

Is it buggy? You bet. It's still in beta. However, it's easy to see how this new multiplayer adventure has a ton of potential. Sure, Disney has tried its hand at virtual communities before. Its Toontown software won Computer Gaming World's award for the best massively multiplayer online role-playing game in 2003, and Disney's Blast has incorporated Disney characters into a premium subscription service for young Internet users since the 1990s.

Disney continues to support those early services, but Virtual Magic Kingdom is where the real cyber-promise lies. For starters, it's a Web-based experience that also promotes its theme parks. So even if the Jungle Cruise game feels an awful lot like all the other video games where players accumulate points and gadgets by exploring various lands, user familiarity is almost the point. It extends the theme-park experience past the turnstiles and onto the computer screen.

The real beauty of Virtual Magic Kingdom hasn't even kicked in yet. Next month, the company will roll out VMK Quest, which takes the online-offline synergy a step further. By completing challenges at Disney's real-life theme parks, visitors will obtain secret codes to unlock online goodies. VMK players will be encouraged to visit the parks, while tourists may decide to sign up for the game once they are exposed to it at Disney's attractions.

The convergence of theme parks and the online experience has been coming slowly. Last year, Disney offered a free online game in which successful participants received a free front-of-the-line pass at the new Tower of Terror thrill ride at Disney's California Adventure. Marrying old-school thrills with new technology will be a major catalyst for amusement parks in the future. That's why I argued that Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) was making a huge mistake by putting its amusement parks on the bidding block earlier this year.

A multiplayer headline for a multiplayer:

You can also share your thoughts on our Disney discussion board, and check out some of the other stocks making the cut these days in our Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoyed playing VMK, but he prefers the real thing. He owns shares of Disney.The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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