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Playing Games With Disney

We are now 30 days into the beta of Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) brilliant Virtual Magic Kingdom game. Given that it's intended to be a free community-based experience that Disney hopes to parlay into real-world theme park experiences, I've been impressed with what I have seen so far.

After a painless registration process, online users are whisked to a simulated Magic Kingdom, where they deck out their avatars with garb and a collection of pins, prizes, and abilities that they accumulate along the way. Not much has changed since the site was launched last month. Tomorrowland and Frontierland are still under construction. The three available games have grown to four. It's in beta, so it's still a little buggy here and there.

However, user innovation has improved. Despite the cumbersome text interface (it is Disney, after all -- quite a few common words are off-limits), it didn't take long for guests to take matters into their own hands. For example, the online experience gives users the ability to create their own room and stock it with things like posters and furniture. Some have taken that a step further, manipulating furniture to host a game of musical chairs, or inviting fellow Disney fans to gather around for Disney trivia. Winners get to trade some of their virtual goodies for new ones.

It's a bit like Stock Advisor recommendation Electronic Arts' (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) The Sims and a bit like Disney's own Toontown Internet-based game. The difference with Virtual Magic Kingdom, for now at least, is that it is completely free.

That's why it was a shame to see just a little more than 700 participants strolling about last night. That number may increase next month, when Disney plans to integrate the game with actual kiosks at its theme parks. Real-life visitors will be able to complete quests to collect virtual goodies. It could be the start of a spectacular online venture that marries the theme park experience with the Web, helping to subsidize a rich and viral online playing area while heightening excitement about the company's real-world attractions.

It's also an example of Disney hitting where most of its rivals can't. Can you imagine Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) rolling out an online simulated community that immerses guests in the regional park operator's various rides and attractions? Where interactive missions would result in real-world gratification at its parks? The theory is sound, but the reality rings hollow.

Until now, parks have used the Internet mostly as a reference tool. Some have used it for online promotions, like naming contests for new rides or tapping eBay to auction off first rides, but little else. It's a lost opportunity, because an amusement park's target audience is probably spending plenty of time online in the off-season too.

Holiday World in Indiana is on the right track with its Holiblog journal. There, endearing behind-the-scenes stories are shared with the site's visitors. Hints about the park's 2006 expansion plans are also being dispersed in magnetizing spoonfuls.

Sure, there are companies like General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) , and Inside Value pick Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD  ) with deep enough pockets to invest in online applications of their amusement parks. I wouldn't wait for that to happen, though.

It's great that Disney is breaking new ground with Virtual Magic Kingdom. It's just too bad that on the same night that the actual Magic Kingdom is entertaining tens of thousands of guests, a very cool beta test is only drawing a few hundred.

Some more magical headlines:

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz spent two weeks in Central Florida earlier this month. He prefers the real thing to the virtual version, but he will take what he can get. He owns shares of Disney and Six Flags.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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