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Okay, so if you have any contact with American girls between the ages of 5 and 25, you probably already know that Pixie Hollow is where the Disney Fairies live. And now the other three of you know, so we can move on to details.

Disney are nobody's fools. You don't get to be the number one name in family entertainment, shaper of copyright laws, and owner of several of the world's most famous icons and most profitable movies, by ignoring trends in consumer behavior. While other entertainment companies were lamenting the rise of Internet file-sharing, DVD piracy and the death of the movie theatre, Disney were actually laying the groundwork for a reinvention of the entire empire. They saw Harry Potter selling billions of copies, and kids reaching around the bookstores for anything even remotely like Harry, and they reacted appropriately by investing heavily in the publishing arm of the company, putting out more and more titles under the multiple imprints that they own and seeking out recognized authors to revamp old brands.

One of those brands was Neverland. The reinvention of Neverland started with a series of Peter Pan prequel books published by Hyperion (the imprint Disney uses for its “independent” or upmarket books) in 2004 and on. It continued with the the brand-new Disney Fairies franchise. The first Fairies story, “Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg” by Gail Carson Levine, came out in 2005.

(Coincidentally or not, at right around the same time Disney was working up new adventures based on J. M. Barrie's characters, the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the rights to Barrie's work and characters, also commissioned a new Peter Pan novel. The result was “Peter Pan In Scarlet”, by Geraldine McCaughrean. There is no connection between “Scarlet” and the new Disney series, and it's not entirely clear that Disney actually had the right to use the characters of Peter Pan or Tinker Bell in new books. This hasn't stopped them from making millions from them, but it has made them cautious about entering direct conflicts with GOSH – Disney's Peter Pan books are prequels and will probably not continue into the timeline covered in Barrie's work, and Peter Pan is hardly ever referenced in the Fairies books, coming on stage for only one brief scene in “Tink, North of Neverland”.)

Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg was a high-quality hardcover novel on a middle grades reading level, written by a Newberry Award winner and beautifully illustrated in an old-fashioned, Rackhamesque style. The Disney Fairies chapter books that followed, starting with “The Trouble with Tink” and continuing through at least a dozen others, are much different. Their stories and vocabulary are simpler, and their illustrations are still pretty, but very different, switching delicate watercolors for a more vibrant style with manga influences. It's also worth noting that these books are produced as work for hire, without any author's byline on the cover.

Not to say that the books are bad. On the contrary, Disney have produced a very slick series with a consistently high level of craftsmanship. My daughter devours these books, and after reading a few of them to make sure they weren't complete junk, I feel quite safe letting her buy new ones whenever they come out. The messages in the Fairies books are consistent with what our family ideals. These fairies are all about diversity, loyalty and, most importantly of all, girl power. You never see the male fairies (usually known as “sparrow men”) stepping in to rescue the girls, and every important character in the books is female. If anything, the books are too PC, but not obnoxiously so (see Serendipity for an example of political correctness gone mad).

With the inevitable release of the Disney Fairies toys and other tie-ins, the Fairies brand has become one of Disney's best sellers worldwide. But there's one other important factor in this capitalist fairy tale. That factor is Pixie Hollow, an online world that has made Disney Games the Web's number two destination for online gaming 1.

Pixie Hollow is a sort of elementary-school MMORPG, where girls (I doubt that any school-aged boy would be caught dead in the Hollow) design their own fairy avatars, participate in quests handed out by Tink and other characters from the books, collect various magical ingredients and, of course, shop 'til they drop. It features drastically limited chat options designed for maximum child safety, and has two tiers of involvement. The first tier is free to use, and allows players to play all the mini-games and participate in quests, but not to shop. The second tier works on a monthly subscription, and opens up the shops for your blossoming mallrat. Without the subscription, customization options are quite limited.

There's also a “third tier” where players can pick up special items by buying toys and accessories in the real world. Disney gets money from players buying the toys, and players spend more time on the site, driving other sprogs insane with jealousy until they go out to buy those same toys. This is a well-oiled money machine we're dealing with here.

Fortunately, the games are all still available for free, and they're pretty cool. Most of them are match-three puzzles and similar games, but there's enough variety in them to keep a kid's interest for a while. One game, where you have to divert drops of dew running down the lines of a spiderweb, was quite addictive for my daughter and me. Pixie Hollow isn't as good at the games as, say, Puzzle Pirates, but it's not bad. The appeal wears thin after a while, but it will definitely interest kids for longer than the adults.

All in all, the Pixie Hollow game and the Fairies books are proof that, even if their animation division is losing ground against competitors like Dreamworks and other studios, Disney isn't about to go away. Far from it, Disney have proven that they can still compete. This is one entertainment conglomerate that has what it takes to survive in the 21st century environment and continue to dominate the pop culture landscape.

If you want to know why this might be a bad thing, even though I've endorsed the books and the MMOG, consider this: not only do the characters of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell not belong to Disney, but Pixie Hollow doesn't work with Linux.

  1. “Pixie Hollow Surge Drives Disney Online Growth”, Virtual Worlds News, 2/16/09

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