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Disney Dialing Up Kids Again

Elizabeth Woyke


August 20, 2008

No one can forget the poignant moment in Peter Pan when the impish character urges rapt audience members to clap their hands to bring life back to his favorite fairy, Tinker Bell.

Now Disney is hoping that Tinker Bell--along with a collection of pirates and other Disney characters--can help breath life back into its mobile phone services for kids. Beginning in September, Disney plans to roll out a grab bag of goodies for young cell phone users, including a mobile storefront, instant-messaging chat system and virtual world widgets.

The mobile market for children and 'tweens looks like pure gold to the likes of Disney. For uber-connected 9- to 14-year-olds, who can't yet drive and might not have their own computers, cell phones are a lifeline to their best friends, favorite music and videos and chosen brands. Market researcher MultiMedia Intelligence says the U.S. had more than 16 million teen mobile subscribers in 2007, up 12% from 2006.

Disney executives suspect the sweet spot could even be younger: Larry Shapiro, executive vice president of business development and operations for the Walt Disney Internet Group, estimates that more than 50% of 10-year-olds in the U.S. own phones. And Disney, Shapiro declares, wants to "own" those mobile customers.

Disney is hardly new to the tricky mobile market for kids. In June 2006, the company became a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, by leasing airwaves from Sprint. Eighteen months later, it shuttered the effort. "We ran into trouble with logistics and distribution," concedes Shapiro. Translation: Disney couldn't find enough stores to sell phones sporting images of Winnie The Pooh and Steamboat Willie.

Even so, the company continued to field a few mobile offerings, including selling games and ringtones in more than 70 countries, mostly through partnerships with mobile carriers. In Japan, cellular service provider Softbank carries a line of phones with Mickey Mouse decorations. "We always believed mobile would take off to the mainstream--that there would be eventually be more robust devices, better discovery and improved access," says Shapiro.

Last fall, the company tiptoed back by launching a Disney-branded mobile Web site. The site is a clearinghouse for information on all things Disney, from its TV shows and radio channel to its theme parks. Disney also started experimenting with mobile marketing at special events, such as promotions with Target for the June premiere of Camp Rock, a Disney Channel movie.

Now Disney aims to synch its mobile site with its online offerings. In September, it will debut a registration system that will allow users to access their profiles automatically via their cell phones. A digital storefront--a one-stop online market for purchasing Disney games, ringtones and wallpapers--will follow. (Purchases are added to the buyer's cell phone service bill.)

Disney will also port its "Speed Chat" messaging system, which is a feature on, to cell phones. Users will be able to send instant messages from mobile to mobile, as well as mobile to PC. In a nod to safety, the feature can be programmed to show only pre-approved words, essentially nixing slang and curses from the chats.

The plan also calls for mobile games and widgets that play off Disney brands and franchises. A mobile widget called "Fairy Friend" puts an animated butterfly fairy on users' phones. Think of it, suggests Shapiro, as a virtual pet or Tamagotchi for 6- to 12-year-old girls. Players will have to feed and care for the fairy on their phones. The widget will eventually link to a yet-to-launch Disney virtual world about pixies.

A mobile game connected to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online virtual world is planned for September or October. Players will engage in short "battles" and earn virtual coins that they can spend online at

A number of other products are waiting for a green light, including real-time mobile polls and trivia questions for 'tweens watching Disney shows on TV, mobile phone in hand. Another idea: virtual scavenger hunts. Parents could use a phone's GPS capabilities to whip up a mobile map that could lead to a special spot. GPS could also enable Disney to detect which users are present at a particular event, such as a Hannah Montana concert, and automatically send them exclusive content, such as a new song.

Disney hopes some of its customers will literally cut their teeth on its mobile products: Inspired by the success of multimedia toys from companies like Baby Einstein, Disney is considering making mobile applications for preschoolers. Shapiro notes that young children love to play with cell phones and busy parents may want a mobile "digital pacifier" to entertain them while on the go.

Bill Ho, research director of wireless services for market researcher Current Analysis, says the applications sound age-appropriate but could worry parents on a tight budget. "Will these features incur data charges?" he asks. "Disney has to tread lightly on anything that will add to the family phone bill."

That's one reason Disney is proceeding slowly with mobile video even though it has a full library of TV and film clips from hits like the Jonas Brothers and High School Musical. Shapiro says Disney hasn't surveyed its customers to learn details about their service plans but assumes most are on family plans.

Carriers have started offering their own safeguarding features. On Monday, Verizon announced usage control features, which let parents restrict data use and messaging on their children's' phones and create lists of "trusted" phone numbers. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile already offer similar services. Parents looking for more specific programs can sign up with kajeet, a kid-focused MVNO that uses Sprint's network, or Firefly Mobile, which makes kid-friendly phones that run on AT&T.

Shapiro says Disney welcomes the development. "The more comfortable a parent is with putting a phone in a kid's hand, the better off we are," he says.

Disney is trying to stay ahead of another trend among tween cell phone users: upgrades to more advanced phones. "In 2005, kids would take any phone," notes Shapiro. "Now they want the iPhone and smartphones." That's prompted Disney to offer its own iPhone applications. A card game featuring Disney characters was released in July. Several more are in the works, along with an iPhone-specific version of the regular Disney site.

Ultimately, Disney's mobile efforts are designed primarily to strengthen Disney's other sectors. Says Shapiro, "It's about creating a connected media world. If you want to reach tweens, you need mobile."

Clap your hands--and open your wallets--if you believe.






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