A Virtual Theme Park for Kids Explores Life's Wonders

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, September 27, 2009

"I think this is educational," observes my 8-year-old stepson, about half an hour after logging on to Wonder Rotunda, a Web site aimed at kids that was recently launched by a Washington area dad.

I wonder briefly if the jig is up, but he continues to explore the virtual theme park, intrigued by the prospect of winning and spending the game's "wonder dollars" to buy virtual food and loot with which to decorate his virtual treehouse.

I'm not sure whether he'll be playing next week -- who ever knows these things? -- but for now he's intrigued enough to sit still through discussions about how the human digestive system works and which presidents appear on U.S. currency.

Wonder Rotunda, the creation of former international trade lawyer Eric Garfinkel, opened for business online in August. Parents pay $45 for a year-long membership, or "park pass" at the site, a two-dimensional virtual world based in part on some of the Great Falls resident's earliest memories as a kid growing up in Queens and attending the 1964 World's Fair.

Thanks to that subscription fee, the site doesn't have the advertising that blankets most kid-oriented sites, and there's a pleasant, old-school look to the thing. Garfinkel paid an animation team and a programmer for some of the work that went into the site, but Wonder Rotunda, two years in the making, is largely a one-man show.

"I was the chef, cook and bottle washer for this project," he said.

This isn't Garfinkel's first foray into the kid marketplace. In 1992, he made a major professional switch, from a career in law and public service, to start a toy company. Back to Basics Toys launched with the idea of bringing back classic items such as Raggedy Ann dolls, tin robots and Lincoln Logs -- stuff from an era before movie tie-ins and Happy Meal promotions were standard fare. Amazon.com bought the company for an undisclosed sum in 1999.

Garfinkel's new site is a tiny player in what has recently become a fiercely competitive market as kids spend more time online. In 2009, an estimated 9.7 million children and teens in the United States will regularly visit virtual worlds, according to research firm eMarketer. By 2013, the firm projects that audience will grow to more than 15 million.

The breakout successes in this market can be mind-boggling. Take Club Penguin, for example. The kid-oriented social-networking site was started by a few dads in Canada who wanted to build a safe, ad-free interactive world for their kids. A year after it launched, the service had 2 million users -- and a year after that, in 2007, Disney came along and bought the site for $350 million.

Naturally, every kid-friendly company from Mattel to Lego has sought to stake a claim online. Wonder Rotunda isn't the only offering with an educational component, either. Last year, Knowledge Adventure's chief executive described to me one educational title it had in the works as "World of Warcraft for 3- to 10-year-olds."

Garfinkel said he didn't do a lot of market research as he was developing Wonder Rotunda; he mostly came to this space as a concerned father. "My daughter was spending time on Webkinz and Club Penguin," he said. "They weren't as constructive as I thought they could be."

Where Club Penguin is social networking for the kid set, Wonder Rotunda is more like an educational CD-ROM that happens to be parked on the Web. There aren't any chat rooms, and kids don't "friend" other players.

So far, Wonder Rotunda's few write-ups have been favorable: Common Sense Media, which reviews kid-oriented products from a parent's perspective, gave the site its top ranking of five stars.

Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer who follows kids and online trends, took an instant liking to the site last week. "Something like this really makes sense," said Williamson, who has a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old.

Williamson said it makes sense to have an offering for younger kids that doesn't push social-networking features. "I think that's really smart, in terms of appealing to parents of younger children," she said. Kids past 10, on the other hand, will probably clamor for a more socially engaging experience, she said.

Not everybody was as enthusiastic about Wonder Rotunda's prospects, however. Chris Byrne, an independent toy industry analyst, said that kids typically use the Web as an outgrowth of their TV-watching habits: If they watch a lot of Cartoon Network shows, that's the site they go to when they get some computer time. Sites such as Cartoon Network's have a lot more marketing muscle and aren't handicapped with a mission of trying to tuck in educational content.

"This looks like a good idea from a very well-intended place," he said, "but it's got an uphill battle against it."

Byrne pointed out the Healthy Eating Super Coaster, one virtual ride he spotted after a look at Wonder Rotunda. Educational, sure -- but could that possibly be any fun?

"There's a reason Candy Land is 'Candy' Land and not Vegetable Valley," he said.

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