More at play than just Penguins

Disney-owned virtual world highlights red-hot kids sector

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 part of a booming sector.

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 only one of the kid-targeted virtual worlds with traffic in the millions.

Ganz's Webkinz, a 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 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 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.

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