Pop HISTORY

One Name, Two Games: Virtual Magic Kingdom

| 21 Oct 2021

From 1996 to 1998, Disney Interactive embarked on a project that would make or break its very existence. Millions of dollars and hundreds of staff members were put to one task – to develop the most ambitious children’s adventure game ever made – and it almost completely shut down.

But from its ashes rose a whole new era for Disney, as an entity built on nostalgia.

And within six years, its name would be revived for an MMO game so successful, that despite being shut down for overstaying its welcome within Disney itself, it’s been kept alive by fans to this day.

The name was Virtual Magic Kingdom. The game that reached retail shelves was Disney’s Villains’ Revenge.

I loved the idea of VMK so much, that all of us and another fifty people would have given up chunks of our – well, we did give up chunks of our lives – to try and get it out the door.

Roger Holzberg

This feature is months in the making, but it happened almost by accident.

Disney’s Villains’ Revenge was one of many PC games I had growing up. It’s designated for ages 8 and up, but I was playing it as young as 4, when it came out. I was also raised on a plethora of Disney VHS tapes, including an anthology of theatrical shorts called The Spirit of Mickey. That VHS introduced me to my favorite song – “I’m Gonna Fly” from the trailer to Kiki’s Delivery Service – as well as to the Disney Animation Research Library, listed in the credits of both the VHS tape and Villains’ Revenge.

I was a bit too late and too distracted to hear about Virtual Magic Kingdom, the MMO park simulation, when it was new. Even with Toontown Online, whose commercials I enjoyed seeing, I wasn’t allowed to subscribe to any game like that.

Years later, by the time I felt ready to contribute to DVR‘s Wikipedia article for the first time, I was under the impression that the purpose of DVR – like that of Spirit of Mickey – was primarily to educate kids on Disney’s rich animation history, especially from before the debut of Disneyland. After all, history told me that home video reignited interest in the golden age of animation. It was a cynical take that followed naturally from broader Disney discourse I subscribed to.

Then I looked around for people who remembered working on it. Some names from the credits, some that weren’t. Michael Cukar’s blog and resume finally gave me a vital clue: “Ending my work there with a Co-Design Director position on a 3D project called Virtual Magic Kingdom. Ultimately released under the name: Villian’s Revenge (sic).”


I then started reaching out to people I was confident enough to approach. William “Chip” Beaman, credited as production supervisor, replied enthusiastically and offered to formally introduce me to more of the core contributors.

Ultimately, this led to four scheduled interview sessions with six people, and a recommendation to the Video Game History Foundation to preserve the artwork and documents they had kept after nearly 25 years. Full transcripts of these interviews are being posted on our Patreon, and clips of extra anecdotes from them are being posted on YouTube.

This article is, in part, celebrating the legacy of Walt Disney World for its 50th anniversary, just as the final Virtual Magic Kingdom was launched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland. There’s much more left to bring out from this project than could fit in five parts.

As such, this is not the final word on Villains’ Revenge and Virtual Magic Kingdom. In fact, I assured everyone who contributed their stories that this would only be the beginning.

For now though, I’ll step back behind the veil and let the story tell itself.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Chip Beaman, Michael Cukar, Tim Decker, Terry Dobson, Roger Holzberg, and Thom Schillinger for their participation. Their statements do not represent those of Disney or their current employers. Special thanks to Andy Fisher, Wil Panganiban, the staff of MyVMK, and the community members of Gaming Alexandria.

This feature was made possible in part by a grant from the Video Game History Foundation.