Susan Murphy is passionate about Virtual Magic Kingdom. She was an original beta tester for VMK when it launched in spring 2005 and she's been playing ever since--along with her kids. Today, she's helping lead the cause to save it. She's one of the organizers behind this morning's scheduled rally outside Disneyland to draw attention to the online community/game Disney will be closing on May 21st after a three-year run. Many VMK users are up in arms about the game ending and are staging various protests, online and off, to make their voices heard. Their goal is to convince Disney to change its mind and keep VMK alive, an outcome few think is likely.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Murphy by phone Friday night, intending to focus mostly on the rally and the attention it was receiving from the public and the media. There was so much more of the VMK cause she wanted to talk about though. Unarguably determined and sincere about representing the children who couldn't be at the rally, Ms. Murphy was likewise rambling, misinformed at times, and prone to hyperbole, equating VMK's online demise to that of an apocalyptic act that wiped out an entire Japanese city.
Susan Murphy, protest organizer and de facto VMK Kids Unite spokesperson, in her own words:
On what VMK's closure really means to fans:
It’s more than just about VMK the game closing. It’s more about the children and the whole community that’s left behind at the expense. They’re trying to get their message heard and across that it’s more than a game, it’s part of the Disney family.
We understand it was done as a promotion of the 50th birthday of Disneyland the park and it had in-park tours where people met and played from all over the world. It’s more than virtual. It’s become real. Now the children, after three years of coming to the parks, going on the tours, doing the quests in the parks and in the game, buying the merchandise, buying the Disney videos, movie rewards to get in-game prizes and things like that, it’s being closed. And Disney is telling them it’s kind of like life.
The kids, even though we know people do die, and you do move and change where you live and you do have to say good bye to friends, this particular venue, or game, is so safe that it’s very difficult, other than the outside fan resources and sites such as (MiceChat). A lot of kids are not there. Parents don’t understand that some of them are safe and moderated in the same manner. And so, not everyone can stay in touch. So kids are going around the Kingdom, which is exactly Disneyland, which is what Walt built and in the Hub. They’re saying to Walt in VMK speak, “Why?” and “Save the Kingdom” and to Millicent the Dragon, “I love you” and “Good bye.” They’re wearing black and they’re standing with their backs to it and they’re not dancing.
On the magic of Disney and the VMK community:
As parents, we’re all trying to figure out—we all grew up with Disney—I had the first official birthday in Disneyland with Walt and Mickey because they wanted to promote families together. The first opening day, I think they realized that they had a good thing and probably didn’t need the promotion any longer.
Like many, we grew up believing “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” “Happily Ever After,” you know, “Once Upon a Time.” The children that I’ve had come through my life as a foster parent and in real life, and the ones that I’ve known through them, and other parents and other children, meeting kids and families in the park, we firmly believe that there’s a community of Disney and a family of Disney. And we all believe that we’re related in the circle of life, brothers under the skin, you know, and this is what Walt has taught us and the legacy he has left behind.
We understand we’re always growing and always changing, but we don’t leave the past behind or what we’ve built upon. So this community has taught us to share, to care and to grow. You can see how much we care in the fact that we’re here begging for Disney to listen to the children. They don’t want to be penguins. They don’t want to fight Pirates. They don’t want to fight anything. They want to learn and grow in the Happiest Place on Earth, the child in all of us.
On how the campaign to save VMK started:
It grew from the day that they announced VMK, Virtual Magic Kingdom, would be closing. We’ve come to this point. There have been a lot of YouTubes. There’ve been a lot of kids talking, begging their parents. A lot of media. Letters being written. So we’re here. I’m representing all the kids that I’ve known and the child that’s in me. And the dream that Roy and Walt and all the Imagineers had and taught us through the movies and through the books and through the example that we all want to be the "Happiest Place on Earth" all the time. And it’s the perfect Kingdom to network and to have friends and to buy the movie and go to the park to win all the special things that you want. This is the way the world is going, just as Disney.com is a new division. And we’re sorry that we know that the makers and creators of the game have moved on and it’s very difficult today with the contracts and negotiations and different departments trying to handle.
I remind her that VMK was created under the Parks division:
Correct, because Parks did the tours. Since I did Beta, I also went to Walt Disney World and Disneyland with my kids the entire 3-year period and did all the promotions. And, you know, you would come and you would sign up and you would get on the tour and the tour guide would take you on some of the rides and you would be asked questions and you’d win prizes and then the kids could enter the codes and they could learn to type and they could learn to spell and, you know, kids can’t go out and play any longer, and so, you can’t go up to someone in real life or in the virtual game and say, “Hi, you’re rich. I have nothing. I want your stuff. Give it to me.”
On VMK's ability to teach children manners:
You can’t go up to someone and say, “Are you taken? I need a boyfriend.” “I found first. Get out. He’s mine” and have an argument. And so, some of these social skills are not taught. And they’re certainly not taught in PlayStation or DS games. And I’m not sure that they’re taught in the worlds of Cars and Fairies because Cars don’t have the same manners that people do or children do. And, of course, when you go into the Blue Bayou, you have to have restaurant manners. And when you go into the Sci-Fi Drive-In you have to have drive-in manners and so, where else can you practice as well as in the park and go on an Alice ride or a Peter Pan ride and say to the person, “Oh no, ladies first. After you.” You know it’s the simple little things that are being taught so well. And so I realize that for a while it was under a different division and it kind of kept changing and they closed down the in-park side. But for a while it was under, or at least in its final breaths, it seems to have gone under Walt Disney Imagineering Group, WDIG, because . . .
I correct her by saying Walt Disney Internet Group, and I'm about to note they still don't officially manage VMK when . . .
Right, I have a lot of the merchandise that came through Mickey’s of Glendale: the hats, the lanyards, the pins. In fact there were pins, virtual, in the game that they started producing in real life at a $10.95 or $11.95 value that everyone in the game—can you imagine 200,000 people wanting these pin sets that they didn’t even get a chance at? And I know there’s a card game they were putting in a kiosk upstairs at Innoventions with new signage and six new computers and they were going to have a card game like—well there’s a million card games, you know--on the Internet of all kinds and it was going to give virtual prizes. So they had seemed like they were going full force into running it, you know, and then whatever circumstances happened.
On what Disney is and what it could do next:
So, everyone has begged that they want pay for play and I think the program would have to be rewritten. And so there’s a large boycott I see coming where a lot of people don’t want an annual pass anymore because there’s not park tours. And they think that Disney is only about the money and that’s not true. There’s so many different divisions, you can’t even say “Disney.” You can’t even say “Walt” anymore. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts. What it is about is magic, and the people and the kids. And they’ve always said that whatever we can do to make your experience, let us know. We’ll try. The show must go on. You know, it’s about the magic. It’s the Year of a Million Dreams.
So, these kids are asking to be heard. To keep it open. Or to have a place or somehow that they can stay in touch with their friends, or a magic place Disney will make eventually for a community that can’t get to the park that has, for whatever reason—I mean we all can’t live in the park 24/7, but through this community we could. And what it teaches and what it represents to so many is important.
I ask if it was realistic to expect Disney to continue VMK indefinitely:
Well, you know, that’s interesting because I have a psychology and sociology background as well as being an educator and a lot of different talents. But, it’s very, very interesting because I see the world kind of going into that virtual world. And that’s one reason why when Disney says all this community, go and join our other communities, they don’t feel secure that there’s an allegiance, that those communities want to end. And then where will they be again? And as adults, I mean it’s easier to accept this reality than it is for children. The game was made, I think, for somewhere between 8 and 13-year olds, and there’s kids playing at 6. And so it’s difficult for them. So, what do you do? Do you not play Pirates of the Caribbean because it’ll end? Do you not play Toontown because it’ll end? Do you not join Second Life because it’ll end? I mean, do you not go out the door and drive your car down the street because this reality will end?
You don’t expect them to close Disneyland because they opened California Adventure. Nor do you expect them to close Disneyland in Paris because they opened Tokyo. As so we thought that it was viable. We were buying movies. We were buying pins in-park. We were going and staying in the hotel to get the Stitch hat. I was going to Disney World with my kids. I was coming down every holiday because every holiday was a special holiday quest for special things that they earned because they got good grades. And so it was very effective. If they could’ve branched out into other products and other rewards like they do, I see, with maybe Penguin or Toontown or some of these others. They’re going to Target rewards cards now so they get their virtual stuff.
So, evidently, I mean, there’s going to be a change of concept for people when they have invested heavily in a virtual world and it does close down. This is one of the first big communities maybe to do it.
Trying desperately to get the interview back on track, I asked her where the cause to save VMK sprang from and how they decided staging a protest at Disneyland was the right move:
I’m speaking to you because I’m helping with this event. I didn’t create the website. I’m trying to be a voice of the kids who can’t come here and what they’ve asked me to do and the kids that I represent. Why this came to be, it was kind of grass roots. The very day they announced the closing, everybody skedaddled to see what we could try to do to save it. So then these alternate, offshoot websites sprang up. And so (vmkkidsunite.com) is a website and an offshoot. There’s a letter writing campaign. There’s a campaign to make an avatar and mail it in. There’s a YouTube campaign.
And then she drops the bomb:
They’re trying to organize in the game at the same time. They’re going to have an in-game support where they’ll wear black and they’ll turn their backs and show support for the community that . . . [chokes up] it’s an interesting . . . well . . . for a community that’s going to die. In a way, it’s kind of like Hiroshima. You know, they dropped the bomb and now there’s people living and they went on. And the day after, we will go on.
Historical Note: The atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people in an instant and as many as 200,000 in the aftermath . . . all in real time.
And it’s kind of sad, because in the Disney company you kind of see a lot of creative talent that kind of go off on their own and later Disney has to go and bring them back and buy them back in. So maybe this will be one of them. It looks like there’s going to be an offshoot, another “kingdom” (Virtual Family Kingdom) that everyone will join and try to use the same titles and things that they’ve had so that they can find their friends that they consider family. And those people, if it goes pay to play, they’ll make a lot of money. And it won’t be Disney, which is sad because worldwide it’s a known brand to families everywhere. That it’s for kids of all ages. That it’s safe. That it’s graphically and visually outstanding, which this was. If you look at any other video gaming program, even Disney, nothing compared to the reality of this. How you could dress and you could change the way you looked. You could be green or purple or black or brown or Asian or, you know, facial hair. It was just amazing and the laughter and the memories and the creativity and the bonding and the sharing and the kids with disabilities and the people with terminal illnesses. It was just quite amazing. There’s no other place like it except, I believe, in Disneyland, California. This is the true park that Walt did build and we are all family and we all grew up here and we come back here so for me I’m lucky. I can still go into Disneyland and play VMK. It’s just kind of a real virtual world.
Summing it up:
We are aware that there isn’t a lot of glimmer at the end of the tunnel for there being a "happily ever after to this story." We want (Disney) to know that there’s a need for this, and they’ve done it and they can do it again and we ask them to please consider us, consider the children, the dreams, the wishes and the magic and keep it going virtually and really.
The interview ended as I tried to conference in Christopher Douglas, the founder of the VMK Kids Unite movement, on another line. I lost the call and was unable to reach Mr. Douglas for further comment.
I also contacted the Walt Disney Internet Group (WDIG) for a comment on VMK and today's rally at Disneyland. Reiterating an official statement previously made by Disney, WDIG said:
Nearly all of Ms. Murphy's comments were unedited for this article. VMK was created as an online promotion for the Disney Parks’ Happiest Celebration on Earth, which celebrated Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary, and it exceeded our expectations in terms of performance to the point that we left it open much longer than originally anticipated. All good promotions must come to an end, so we have decided the time is right to close VMK. We plan to offer free online promotions that will continue to engage our Parks and Resorts guests in new and entertaining ways on the Web. Fans can also visit Disney.com for access to hundreds of freegames as well as immersive interactive worlds including Club Penguin, Disney’s Toontown Online, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and soon Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow.