Friday, June 27, 2008

In Overhaul, Seeks a Path to More Fun

LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Company, concerned that its main Web site is not entertaining enough, is moving once again to overhaul

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Walt Disney Internet Group

Among the changes on the new, visitors can use a cellphone
to create a butterfly pet for an avatar in Pixie Hollow, a virtual
world built around the character Tinker Bell.

It will be the second recent
makeover for the company’s marquee site, which is still the top
Internet destination for children’s entertainment but faces increasing
competition from players like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and WebKinz.

The changes, scheduled to take place over the next few months,
will introduce more free video to the site (including full-length
movies like “Finding Nemo”) as well as more games and things for
visitors to do with their cellphones. For instance, little girls (or
bigger ones) who create fairy avatars in a virtual world called Pixie
Hollow will be able to use their cellphones to create pet butterflies
for their fairies.

“I’m going to want to use my phone to feed
and love my butterfly all the time,” said Larry Shapiro, executive vice
president for mobile content. “That kind of emotional vesting is what
we’re after.”

No longer will the site ask youngsters to navigate
through categories like “Movies,” “TV” and “Live Events.” New options
will include “Games,” “Videos” and “Characters” and will emphasize how
to find immediate entertainment.

It is also no accident that
video search pages will look similar to those of YouTube: Disney
designers worked to incorporate certain YouTube hallmarks, figuring
that kids had grown accustomed to viewing Web video in that manner.

“It’s a repositioning of our digital front door,” said Paul Yanover,
executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.

effort, code-named “Project Playground,” is the second retrofitting of in as many years, reflecting both the difficulty the media
giant has encountered online and the whiplash-fast pace at which the
medium is evolving.

The previous changes, a much more complex
effort that first appeared in January 2007, was intended to capitalize
more fully on hot franchises like “
Hannah Montana” while making the site easier to navigate.

modifications, which included the addition of social networking
capabilities, have been considered a success, increasing monthly unique
visitors to by about 40 percent, according to the Internet
audience measurement company comScore
Media Metrix. In May, attracted about 28.4 million unique
visitors, enough to rank as the No. 1 Web destination for children and
family-oriented Web sites, albeit by a slim margin.

But the
effort was too modest, particularly in the area of Web video, says
Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group. “Our
initial instincts were right,” he said. “We just need to take it much

Of particular concern for Disney is how long the
average visitor spends on its site. In May, the average user spent 44.9
minutes on, according to comScore. In comparison,
Nickelodeon’s cluster of family and child-oriented sites kept May
visitors busy for 79.8 minutes, mostly because of the game site

the changes, Disney is trying to position its Web site more as a place
that entertains and less of one that exists to promote Disney wares.
Video is the central component of the effort. Two weeks ago,
started streaming one free full-length movie a week and holding special
events, like Monday’s streaming of “Camp Rock,” the latest Disney
Channel musical. (Disney said that “Camp Rock” broke a company record
for unique visitor traffic.)

Until now, the site has mostly
offered video clips and episodes of television shows. But more original
video is on the way. For instance, recent visitors to saw a
humorous video of the retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin clowning around with a Buzz Lightyear doll.

Wadsworth and his team are also working harder to link cellphones and So far, the company’s mobile offerings for youngsters —
notably constrained by the slow adoption of next-generation handsets in
the United States — have centered on casual games or personalization
items like ring tones. But Disney now sees an opportunity to create an
immersive experience that spans from the Internet to the cellphone.

Pixie Hollow, an expanding virtual world on that is built
around Tinker Bell. (Visitors create a fairy avatar and then mingle
with others in a fantasy world, playing games and decorating
make-believe houses.)

In the coming months, children will be
encouraged to log on to Pixie Hollow with their cellphones, which they
can use to create butterfly pets for their avatars — which they can’t
do online.

Scott A. Ellison, an analyst with IDC, a Virginia
market research firm, said that mobile offerings like those would help
Disney gain a competitive edge. “I think what they’re doing is really
advanced and will be very compelling to the target demographic,” he

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