Two Disney parks go virtual

The Baltimore Sun

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Visit Disney's theme parks here and in Orlando, Fla., beginning today, and you might see kids paying more attention to their video games than to Mickey Mouse or the teacup ride.

In its latest move to connect its myriad businesses with consumers, Walt Disney Co. is launching a virtual "treasure hunt" that lets kids with Nintendo DS portable video game players and Disney's newest Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End game roam the park and wirelessly download electronic "booty."

While Disney and other entertainment giants are famous for their movie tie-ins - just try avoiding Capt. Jack Sparrow, Shrek or Spider-Man in the cereal aisle or at your local fast-food restaurant - the high-tech electronic treasure hunt is a new idea.

Look for more like it. Not long ago, Disney's interest in high tech was low. Now one of its biggest corporate objectives is using technology to create stronger relationships with kids and their parents.

"There's incredible value to that ... and we're using technology in many ways to do it," Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Iger told a group of business journalists here yesterday.

Three months ago, Disney completed a major makeover of its Web site to let kids customize their experience based on their favorite Disney characters, their age or their gender.

In March, Disney launched a separate Web site,, to let stay-at-home moms create virtual groups to discuss tips about parenting and to blog about child care ideas, among other topics.

And through Disney's site, visitors can now set up personal "MyESPN" profiles based on their favorite sports teams and interests.

Laura Kampo, vice president of production at Disney Interactive Studios, said the new wireless treasure-hunt game is the first of many ways her group wants to better blend Disney's Internet, video game and theme park businesses.

"This seemed to be sort of a perfect opportunity ... but the sky's the limit," Kampo said.

In addition to creating better relationships with customers and fans, Disney's high-tech efforts also are aimed at getting more information from users - such as their personal interests and their vacation, spending and viewing patterns - to market more stuff to them.

In a discussion with the Society of American Business Editors and Writers here yesterday, Iger said he realizes there are limits to that sort of data mining.

"We aim to use that information very carefully," he said. "It's really powerful ... but you can quickly overexploit that technology."

While bullish on technology in general, Iger acknowledged that Disney has made some missteps in its move into some high-tech areas.

Last year, for instance, Disney's ESPN unit launched a much-publicized cell phone aimed specifically at sports fans. Along with telephone service, the phones delivered sports clips, news and other features.

The phone failed, Iger said, because Disney made some bad retailing and marketing mistakes.

Still, "I'm proud of the fact we tried it," he said. "We learned a fair amount."

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