Net effect: More at play than just Penguins

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NEW YORK -- Club Penguin, acquired this month by the Walt Disney Co., might be getting the headlines among the kid-targeted virtual worlds, but the site is only the tip of the iceberg in the space.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Club Penguin's unique audience has grown 286% in the past year to 4.2 million visitors in June. The site, which targets kids ages 6-14, has seen 47% growth since January.

In addition, the British Columbia-based Penguin, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in which users interact and play games using penguin avatars, has 12 million registered users. And 700,000 of its users pay anywhere from $5.95 a month to $59.95 a year for the service.

These numbers, combined with Club Penguin's creative approach to the space led to interest from Disney and Time Warner's AOL. Although AOL reportedly bid $500 million for the brand, Disney eventually won out, agreeing to pay $350 million upfront and as much as $350 million more over the next few years based on performance goals.

But Club Penguin is not the only virtual world targeting kids with traffic in the millions.

Ganz's Webkinz, a virtual world based on stuffed-animal avatars that also is based in Canada, has seen its unique audience grow a projected 1,442% in the past year, reaching 5.5 million visitors in June, NetRatings said. The site barely reached the NetRatings reporting cutoff in June 2006, with only 358,000 visitors.

IAC/InterActiveCorp. also is making inroads into the virtual worlds landscape. It was reported last week that Barry Diller's Web company is investing $5 million in TV advertising to promote Zwinktopia, an online world targeting kids that has 8 million users.

Mattel's Barbie Girls site also has seen its numbers explode. The site, which presents a virtual-world spin on the traditional Barbie doll, said this month that it had signed up 4 million members in the three months since its launch at an average of 45,000 per day.

Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis, which launched in beta in March 2006 and officially opened its doors in January, had almost 4 million users and 14 million visits as of June. Viacom also owns the kid-targeted Neopets, which has a reported 143 million accounts.

The Finland-based Habbo Hotel, owned by Sulake Corp., said that as of July it had 78 million accounts worldwide and 7 million unique visitors per month. The Sweden-based Stardoll, which features avatars of celebrities that appeal to young girls, reportedly also sees millions of visitors each month.

Nielsen//NetRatings is owned by the Nielsen Co., parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.
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