Well, this could (have) be(en) a one-liner: Sulake makes Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK, Habbo alike online world) for Disney, for Disneylands 50th birthday (2005), promotion ends (2008), and now here’s some screenshots. If just there weren’t a few notes to add…
A first one being, there was a ‘Virtual Magic Kingdom’ being developed at Disney 1996-97, pre-Sulake existence. 3D Concept designer Thom Schillinger has five blogposts up with awesome sketches (lots of details and explanations to be found there). In his words, it was the biggest project of that moment and planned as “originally a 7 disc DVD full game they were working on. We had 9 producers [think Office Space TPS], and an inhouse team of over 59 artists as well as two outside studios, including Karen Johnson Productions from Racine WI. I started as a Concept guy and got the job as 3D Art Director so I oversaw the 3D design and production. The original idea had the happy endings ripped from the fairytales book in Fantasyland, and the villains take over the park land by land. We had 2D characters in fully rendered [not real-time] 3D environments.” Full project didn’t see a release: “there was a limited Fantasyland carnival game released [single disc only].”
Having entered a new milennium, Disney noticing Sulake and its Habbo Hotel (or maybe it was Coke Studios), VMK gets revived, in a very different way, and being assigned to Sulake, to recreate it as a virtual world, chat with gaming elements. We do know the core of Sulake’s crew being involved in VMK as their main thing (full team 20+ people, but these responsible for design and coding, the actual goods ;):
Miha Rinne (2008): “It was a MMOG that was commissioned from Disney Online to Sulake. They sent me beautiful drawings of different NPC characters, and I ruined them by turning them into stiff and lifeless 3D models, haha. I also hid Donald Duck to walk behind the window, because the idiots at Disney online refused to include any classic characters as ‘they were not popular enough’. I didn’t tell anyone until it was too late. We also hid all kinds of sinister inside jokes there, as a revenge against our producers (such as animated text on the train LCD display: ‘Preparing to destroy Disneyland!’, complete with flashing missile images… no one ever noticed).”¹
He laughs at that now: “My only real grievance with Disney and Sulake was that we were not allowed talk to anyone that we worked on the project, we did not get any credit at all, and were not allowed to post our work we did for VMK in our portfolios, which I think is a hell of a way to treat any artist or developer, really! Thus my snarkiness in that old interview.”
Closing reasons for VMK are a bit speculated on also. Rumor says the deal Sulake signed, shortly before announcement, with Paramount Studios has something to do with it. But was Sulake still involved with VMK at the time, was there an ongoing business relationship (still) ? Well, there seems to be a small tech team involved even then - whole project was not intended to grow when it comes to features, but had to be expanded with new furniture/rooms/pins while it lasted. John Frost at the Disney Blog² goes with the official announcement, promotion had to end some time, but deepens it by pointing out Disney, the company, is being devided into subdivisions operating on their own. They hire and pay eachother for services. Disney Parks division was done with promotion and stopped funding VMK, which they hired Disney Online for. Disney Online in itself had other priorities and decided to put a halt on it. Sounds plausible to us, though maybe not a wise decision for Disney as a whole (which is also argued by John Frost - pretty good article). VMK was the perfect online vehicle to promote anything Disney, but instead it got deleted. With that a community got deleted and an unknown amount of - desirable - trust in the Disney company.
You can still get a feel for what it was like at VMKRevisited (has all the music/animation/feel of playing). As close to being able to walk around as it goes, good for reviving memories and/or feel sorry you weren’t there/born (or anything in between) at the time.