11/17/2009 10:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Real Man Traded for Cartoon Rabbit

Getting people to change their opinion of you is tough - especially if you are a rodent who has generated billions of dollars and has become a global icon like Mickey Mouse.

Mickey wasn't Walt Disney's first star creation, that was another big eared little mammal, Oswald the Rabbit. Oswald was taken from Walt by his employer, Universal Studios. Disney soon left Universal to start his own company. Since he didn't have the rights to Oswald, Disney shortened and rounded Oswald's ears and created Mickey Mouse, one of the world's most enduring fantasy characters.

Over 70 years later, Mickey is going through a "re-imagining", animators, marketers and executives from different Disney divisions will re-imagine a cartoon character who was imaginary in the first place. They are considering all aspects of the sacred Mickey: how he walks, talks, interacts with kids and even what his house is like.

If you aren't an imaginary, but an actual person who would like to re-imagine yourself but don't have a staff of corporate marketing experts or animators to help you, there is still hope. Virtual worlds such as, and allow participants, or "residents", as Second Life calls them, to create avatars of themselves as the main characters in a virtual fantasy world of their own design. You can look however you want, wear whatever you want and change as often as you want. Virtual worlds have become a multi-billion dollar business involving millions of people worldwide. The fantasy of having complete control over one's life must be very appealing to individuals who find the real world so complex and confusing.

"Make dreams come true. Let your imagination run free in a magic kingdom where life is a fairy tale and dreams really do come true." This is the pitch from the Disneyland website.
Second Life's website describes itself as "Socialize like never before. A place to connect. A place to shop. A place to work. A place to love. A place to explore. A place to be different. Be yourself. Free yourself. Free your mind. Change your mind. Change your look. Love your life." Love your life as long as you become an animated character in a fantasy world rather than who you really are. Virtual world sites walk the thin line between fantasy and delusion.

The real distinction between Disneyland and these virtual worlds is, Disneyland is for kids. The main audience for Second Life is adults. According to Quantcast, an internet data base that tracks website demographics, 70% of the audience for Second Life is from 18 to 49. The audience of 13-17 year olds is the same as the audience of those over 50, 13%.

That's a lot of adults who may have given up on the American Dream in reality and instead, invest time and money in a fantasy world. The good news, at least for the developers of these virtual worlds, is that the recession has been very good for them. Each of these worlds has their own currency. Second Life has Lindens, has Therebucks which you buy with real U.S. dollars. Between $1 and $2 billion in the U.S. and $5 billion worldwide was spent last year buying virtual goods.
"Everything fits; things don't wear out. The virtual world represents a different value proposition," according to Mike Wilson, CEO of Virtual goods are great for the sellers because the cost of manufacture is almost zero and the goods have no value at all except within the confines of that particular online world - certainly a "different value proposition".

Disney represents a fantasy land in the real world. Second Life, and the others represent a virtual fantasy world, unique for its member's ability to constantly re-imagine and change who they are. Members retreat from the real world as they sit alone in front of a computer screen acting out artificial social experiences in a world that only exists online.

Mickey Mouse is being re-imagined and rebranded to show Mickey's darker side. That makes him more modern, he doesn't hide his nastiness anymore. Unlike the original Mickey, who took the imagination of one man, Walt Disney, to create and bring him to market, the new Mickey will undoubtedly be the result of hundreds of people, focus groups and probably millions of dollars before Mickey is fully realized.

The real and imagined worlds collided as this was all coming together. Disney, who owns ABC wanted to have Oswald the Rabbit back from Universal, NBC, as a key element of the upcoming "Epic Mickey" game. ABC traded sportscaster Al Michaels, an actual person, for the rights to Oswald, a cartoon rabbit. The gap between reality and fantasy is disappearing.