A screenshot from Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom.

Revisiting the Forgotten World of Disney’s VMK—Virtual Magic Kingdom

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As COVID has stretched on longer and longer in the U.S., one beloved staple of normal existence that has become a hotly debated topic is Walt Disney Parks. There’s been absolute outrage from some about the fact Disney World is open. On the flip side, other people are desperate to escape from the doom and gloom of daily quarantine life. While everyone should stay safe, wash their hands, and socially distance, I get the appeal of going someplace magical (especially now).

On Twitter, one user, @Camandcompany_ lamented a possible compromise back when all this began. To appease all fans, Disney could revive an old, nostalgic creation: Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom.

(Camancompany_ is the editor-in-chief of TheLostBros, which makes theme park and pop culture apparel.)

This sentiment is also shared by Inside The Magic senior editor and writer Kelley Coffey. In her OpEd, “Disney Needs to Bring Back VMK”, she talks about all the old games from the site, the community that grew around VMK, and how it really brought young Disney fans together.

So, for anyone who missed the 4-year craze, what was VMK?

In 2004, Disney created the massively multiplayer game as a promotional piece to commemorate 50 years of Disney Parks. This game was a miniature recreation of favorite park rides, landmarks, and even some beloved Disney scenes, from Space Mountain to Scar’s “Be Prepared” set. Much more than Disney expected, the game blew up in popularity.

Though it was originally only meant to last a few months, it went on to survive on Disney’s site for 4 years. They had frequent events, quests, and community games that kept fans engaged. Players could collect trading cards, participate in “Cute or Boot” or “Musical Chairs” games (yes, they are exactly what they sound like), enter room-decorating contests, or go on park-wide scavenger hunts.

Overall, VMK was a bit of an anomaly on the internet—at least, as far as free, multiplayer games go. It was open to all, but its audience was so exclusively young (ages 8–14) that the site didn’t just have tons of mods, but even a bedtime. The website only ran from 7am–10pm PST. For me, a little Midwestern baby, I was gifted with having the game from 10am–1am, so you bet I spent some late nights making my mark on the virtual kingdom.

Past the family-friendly Disney veneer, of course, part of the fun was kids finding ways to be weird kids. As an old super-fan, I remember exactly what it was like there. There were endless contests, mild judginess, fake internet dating, and finding ways around the mods. Words like “bench” or “beech” were tossed around on the regular, especially if you were a troll who liked standing in the single-tile bridge in the Lion King hyena area, blocking everyone from going through. (Like me. I was one of those little jerks.)

You could visit people’s rooms, make friends, demolish people in games, rack up points for that perfect tiki torch for your room … You could be social, competitive, goofy, or troublesome. The game completely changed depending on what you took from it.

Once, in a single day, I remember picking up a blue-faced “boyfriend,” winning a fancy chair from a musical chairs game, finding my “boyfriend” cheating on me, breaking up with said “boyfriend,” meeting up with my friend and trolling the hyena room, getting banned from the hyena room for an hour, getting my friend to find and “date” said blue boyfriend, showing up on their “date” to cause a scene, both of us calling him names until we were kicked from that room, and then going to The Haunted Mansion game to be Ghostbusters.

To say we loved it would be an understatement.

VMK was a sheltered kid’s dream. Everything about it attracted squeaky clean youngsters who could barely convince their parents to let them on the internet. But Disney? With some puppy dog eyes, that was something a lot of us could persuade them to allow. Disney was something safe and trustworthy, right?

To be fair, in comparison to other internet spaces, VMK was definitely safe and tame. But that didn’t mean we didn’t find ways to bend the rules.

Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom screenshot.

However, despite the absolute joy it brought a lot of people, Disney finally put their long-lasting promotional game to death in May, 2008. People spent one final day enjoying the sights and earning some final commemorative items before Disney closed its doors forever, saying they would never be opened again. Many fans have asked, even signing petitions, but Disney’s version of VMK has been dead now for over 12 years.

Right after VMK closed, copycat sites were quick to try to claim its audience. The most notable (in 2008) was Virtual Family Kingdom (or VFK). This was a sort of colonial, historical fiction version of the Disney Parks game. It was fresh and somewhat buggy at the beginning, so without Disney behind it, it did struggle somewhat to get on its feet. I admit that I made a VFK account myself, but after about a half-hour of less populated, less Disney-fied gameplay, I never looked back.

Do not blame VFK for me being a top-tier fickle 12-year-old. If anything, they were better off without me.

Over the years, VFK seems to have found its own audience, as it is still running to this day and just had a ton of exclusive item events for Thanksgiving. So, congrats to them, and (if you’re the colonial type) please feel free to check them out.

VFK didn’t end up being the successor VMK deserved, but it wasn’t the only piece of VMK’s legacy. Disney may have happily laid VMK to rest, but VMK lives on across multiple pieces of media.

Firstly, Disney’s own Kingdom Keepers book series used VMK to communicate and hold secret meetings throughout their stories. When the site closed, it was a marked change in the stories and a big deal for the characters.

Furthermore, fans like Cam and Coffey clearly think VMK still has a place in the world for devoted Disney fans. Why else would they tweet or write about it?

Perhaps most important, though, is that VMK copycats didn’t end with VFK. In 2013, MyVMK released. MyVMK was a down-to-the-texture copy of VMK. It had fan-favorites like the Pirates of the Caribbean game, the Blue Bayou, and Maleficent’s dungeon (and by fan-favorites, I mean MY favorites). I even made my own little avatar to check it out!

MyVMK version of Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom screenshot.

While the game is still unfinished (their Animal Kingdom isn’t quite fleshed out, so I couldn’t troll around the hyena room like I used to), it is a beloved hub for fans of the game who still exist, and any new ones who might like to join. Granted, nowadays you need to be 13 or older to join … as far as the checkbox knows, at least.

For me, the most exciting part of exploring MyVMK was flipping through the world maps and feeling this overwhelming wave of nostalgia. I saw rooms I forgot even existed, and it felt like a dream. It was like I was in fifth grade all over again, finding my own slice of Disney magic on the internet. Even though, back then, I was humiliating fake internet boyfriends and being a tiny, dragon-loving troll, it was a small little pocket of freedom where I got to enjoy Disney and be, well, a kid.

Disney may have pulled the plug on VMK, and likely will never go back on that choice, but its legacy lives on. So, if the pandemic is making you feel a little nostalgic and lonely, pop by MyVMK (and follow their Twitter account) to make new memories to go with the old ones. And me? I may or may not have convinced my friends to hold our virtual Friendsgiving there.

Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom screenshot.

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Stephanie Roehler
Stephanie Roehler is a writer, advocate, gamer, and classic novel enthusiast. She's an eclectic super fan, loving comic books, movies, TV, anime, and books. Though writing articles is her day-job, she moonlights writing novels and fanfiction. She’s always looking for bold stories everywhere. Nick Carraways need not apply.