Can Jesse Schell Save Toontown?
Although its registered users are not as strong as many other online virtual worlds, the news that Disney was closing Toontown caused an immediate uproar on the World Wide Web nonetheless, with numerous petitions requesting the media giant to change its decision. Aware that such efforts would probably not lead to the intended results, fans of Toontown became more optimistic when word began to spread that Jesse Schell of Schell Games, located on the South Side of Pittsburgh, was interested in purchased the website. Schell is a strong advocate of educational and family-oriented video games and—more importantly—he was the Creative Director at Walt Disney Imagineering who oversaw the construction of Toontown back in the early days of the Twenty First Century.
Despite the intriguing possibility of Toontown being transported to the Steel City, there is unfortunately no evidence that Jesse Schell ever actually announced an intention to acquire the online community. In fact, when specifically asked of the possibility on Twitter, he replied, “I have heard that others have tried to buy it, but that the legal hassles prove too much.” Of course that does not mean that Jesse Schell is not trying to keep Toontown open. In addition to encouraging followers on Twitter to sign a petition aimed at changing Disney’s mind, he also reportedly sent an email to YouTube vlogger ToonTracer that was open-ended when it came to the subject of purchasing the website—“Don’t get your hopes up but I’m certainly going to explore the question of whether there is anything I can do to give Toontown a future.”
According to a “written documentary” posted on ToontownNation, Jesse Schell was hired in 1995 by the Walt Disney Company to design theme park rides but turned his attention to the World Wide Web when the media giant was having difficulty constructing an Internet strategy. He and fellow Virtual Reality Studio team members first pitched an online theme park based around the 2001 animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was in development at the time, but the Disney marketing department was against the idea. Schell and his colleagues then decided to build a more family-friendly MMORPG centered on the animated community from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The concept not only worked, but an entire generation has basically been raised within the virtual online community of Toontown.
“I think Toontown is unique in that its long-time users literally grew up with the game,” virtual worlds researcher Nick Yee told CNN. “It’s a little like me telling someone that they’re tearing down Sesame Street. Or that they’re tearing down the neighborhood playground where you used to play.” The family-friendly aspects of Toontown, meanwhile, have enabled families separated geographically to interact and stay in touch. “Most people know eight-year-old boys don’t want to talk on the phone,” Mike Kahn likewise explained to CNN after a divorce separated him from his young son. “Toontown has become the solution for us to spend time together. We can log in—my son in Florida and my daughter and I in Idaho—and all play together while talking, laughing and spending quality family time together.”
Odds are that the Walt Disney Company will indeed shut down Toontown on September 19, 2013, despite the best efforts of Jesse Schell and the thousands of online supporters of the virtual community. Disney is still keeping its popular Club Penguin operational, and hopes that subscribers to Toontown will migrate to that virtual world when the end finally arrives. Despite such an outcome, Jesse Schell can still take pride in not only his creation from a decade earlier but the ten years’ worth of memories the online community has provided its real-world residents.
Anthony Letizia (August 24, 2013)