The Rise and Fall of DisneyChannel.com

From the late '90s through the early 2010s, Disney offered up clever online games based on the network's most popular TV shows.

by Allison McClain Merrill
Lais Borges/Inverse; Disney; Getty

In August 1998, you could turn on the Disney Channel and catch an episode of Aladdin: The Series or the reality show Bug Juice. But the most important thing happening on the kid-friendly channel that summer revolved around a quirky group of animated robots called the Zoogs.

Created to promote a new block of tween entertainment called Zoog Disney (which would eventually include Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens), the Zoogs existed in a space between TV and the internet called the Zeether. “We’re swimming in the data stream, between the TV and computer screen,” the robots would sing over a funky, industrial beat. It all made sense, in an extremely late ‘90s way that helps explain why Y2K was such a big deal less than two years later.

“We're going to gate the entire site with a piece of technology that, if parents don't download it for their kids, they can't get in.”

The only problem? If the Zoogs were the connective tissue linking the Disney Channel and the internet, then Disney needed loads of new content to fill up DisneyChannel.com. Previously, the Disney Channel’s web presence was limited to programming schedules and photos from shows and movies, but the channel-specific site would soon become a place where tweens could go to get the full Zoog experience and so much more.

“We called it convergence at the time,” says Mary Bourke, lead Zoog Disney producer and the third new media employee at Disney Channel in the late ‘90s. “It was an online, on-air experience. And the focus was TV You Do.”

In other words, DisneyChannel.com was an interactive experience based on popular Disney Channel shows.

“It was an online, on-air experience. And the focus was TV You Do.”


Beginning in the late ‘90s and lasting into the 2010s, DisneyChannel.com was the ideal destination for Disney Channel fans. (At one point, fans were actually going to ZoogDisney.com instead, but the basic concept was the same.) What began as a place to download photos and videos of new shows and check TV schedules evolved into a virtual hub full of fun, creative, and often bizarre minigames. It wasn’t the metaverse, but for Disney diehards, it was pretty close.

Almost three decades later, as Disney prepares for its biggest push into gaming ever through a $1.5 billion investment in Fortnite-maker Epic Games, Inverse revisits the rise and fall of DisneyChannel.com through interviews with eight developers, producers, and designers who helped bring the experience to life.

The Dream of the ‘90s

Their Mighty Ducks game was a Pong knockoff.


One year before the Zoogs, prominent Silicon Valley tech executive Larry Barber met with Stephen Wang and Patrick Lee, the co-founders of a software startup called Design Reactor, in Las Vegas during the COMDEX computer expo trade show in 1997. He connected them with his daughter Cara Barber Hamm, who was working as an online producer at Disney.

“They were really looking for new talent to help on the interactive side,” Wang tells Inverse. Design Reactor rose to the occasion and worked over Thanksgiving to develop sample materials. “We just, on spec, designed a couple of websites and some minigames for Disney Channel to potentially use for the holiday season.”

Fresh out of college, Wang and Lee were inspired by the Nintendo and Atari games from their youth. Their Mighty Ducks game was a version of Pong, designed with an algorithm so the computer would compete against the player. To create a Lion King game, they downloaded official images from Disney’s website and used audio clips from the film.

A skateboarding game based on the 1998 Disney Channel original movie Brink!


Disney Channel and Design Reactor agreed to a year-long deal for 1999 in which the firm would create two games a week. The need for weekly Disney Channel games was strategic. With the launch of Zoog Disney in 1998, new programming would air each Sunday afternoon, but executives needed a way to keep their audience engaged during reruns.

Interactivity was the key. Give viewers the tools to connect with the characters they saw on TV. Those characters were the Zoogs. David Fremont, who was working at Colossal Pictures at the time, created designs for these characters. He gave the creatures human, robotic, and animal traits. Meanwhile, their theme song borrowed from a surprising ‘90s icon.

“At the time, Beck's album Odelay was a big deal.”

“At the time, Beck's album Odelay was a big deal,” says Fred Graver, former executive producer for Disney and ABC Cable. The 1996 album mapped out a sonic world borrowing from technology. “All of the sounds that are associated with your computer that a kid would hear should figure into this song in the way that all these other samples figure into Beck's album. Like, it should just lay in there all the way through.”

The Zoogs’ identities were technological. In Twitch’s Arcade, the character greeted visitors with the message, “Hey, Zoogers! You could see your Zoog name and high scores on TV.” Gatherer’s Warehouz had Zoog toys, images, sounds, and printables. The Zeether Features page displayed a friendly, animated Joe Zoog pointing to sites for Disney Channel shows, including The Jersey, Movie Surfers, Bug Juice, and more. So Weird’s protagonist, Fi Phillips, had her own site called “Fi’s So Weird Webpage,” an extension of that show’s lore. Disney Channel’s In Concert specials gave fans a closer look at some of their favorite groups. NSYNC, Sugar Ray, 98 Degrees, and SHeDaisy all participated in live chats with fans online.

Fi’s So Weird Webpage expanded the show’s lore.


Disney Channel and DisneyChannel.com worked together to keep fans engaged for as long as humanly possible, explains producer Mary Bourke.

“Kids were playing games on the website, and then we'd run their screen names — not their real names — and their scores on TV in a ticker, and I was a part of that,” she says.

“Well, think about that slogan, TV You Do. That is a very different concept in a very specific frame of time in history. TV, up until then, was always very passive, with the exception of dial-in telethons,” says David Watson, former senior producer for Walt Disney Internet Group. Zoog Disney presented a “paradigm of affecting what’s on TV.”

The site later hosted games inspired by Disney Channel Original Movies like Alley Cats Strike and Cadet Kelly. These games were built for “efficiency” and “speed,” Watson says, and coincided with each movie’s launch. Disney Online employees and the team at Design Reactor each supplied games with mechanics that could be “re-skinned” for a new movie without having to start from the ground up.

“I can't tell you how many dance party games we made for different brands.”

Everything changed with the arrival of Brian Bowman.

“Brian was the big champion of Flash animation,” Watson says. “That was huge, and that allowed us to do so much original animation online for creating an experience that was just phenomenal.”

Bowman, who was hired as Disney Channel’s director of new media, recalls facing an uphill battle to transition Disney Online to what was then a pretty new invention.

“You can imagine the concern of the executive team when we said, 'Oh, we're going to gate the entire site with a piece of technology that, if parents don't download it for their kids, they can't get in,’” Bowman says. “I had confidence in it, and then once we saw what it could be, it exploded in a good way because the core user experience was then completely interactive.”

The 2000s and Bobblehead Gaming

Pizza Party Pickup was a Pac-Man-inspired game based on the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.


In the early 2000s, Dawn Boughton was the executive producer and program manager at Smashing Ideas, a Seattle-based creative agency that helped shape DisneyChannel.com.

“The Disney Channel team always had a very specific vision on what they wanted to do,” Boughton tells Inverse. “But as it all evolved, I would say there was not a big strategy at that time. It was totally iterative and depending on the performance of whatever would happen.”

Boughton says that her team “ended up doing the front-end design for all of DisneyChannel.com,” along with various new promos and features released on a weekly basis. This included titles like Raven Pinball, which combined elements from the show That’s So Raven (like Raven Baxter’s psychic abilities) with a simple minigame format.

Raven Pinball incorporated the series protagonist’s psychic powers.


Another Seattle-based developer, Jet City Studios (now Cricket Moon Media) also contributed a steady stream of games and sites to Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney. It developed extensive Lizzie McGuire interactive content, including webpages all about Lizzie, Miranda, Gordo, and Matt, along with various minigames.

“I can't tell you how many dance party games we made for different brands,” says Nate Conlan, previously a lead animator and artist for Jet City Studios.

In Lizzie McGuire Outfit Design, fans could dress up Lizzie and Miranda in platform flip-flops and clogs to match their 2000s wardrobe. Other games like Lizzie McGuire Dance Party and Master Matt’s Kung Fu-Rama featured characters with enlarged faces (copied from licensed Disney Channel assets) placed on smaller, animated bodies.

Lizzie McGuire Outfit Design

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This “bobblehead” look also appeared in Pizza Party Pickup, which put the characters from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody into a Pac-Man-inspired experience set within the show’s iconic Tipton Hotel. (Eventually, DisneyChannel.com would even release a game based on the show Cory in the House that was literally called Bobblehead Run.)

John Say, CEO of Say Design, had been developing Flash games since 1999. His firm had two weeks to create Pizza Party Pickup.

“On that project, I was game designer, producer,” he says. “I had another support game designer and producer, and we had, I think, one coder and one artist, and then somebody doing the sound, and that was it. Besides trying to keep everybody on task, I was in Photoshop putting little pepperonis and little bell peppers on pizzas.”

“I was in Photoshop putting little pepperonis and little bell peppers on pizzas.”

Like their live-action counterparts, Disney’s animated shows also got their own minigame spinoffs. This included games featuring characters from The Proud Family, along with many interactive experiences inspired by the popular spy action-comedy Kim Possible.

Nate Conlan worked on two Kim Possible games: Ron’s Freefall and Kim Possible: Shopping Avenger. There was also a multi-part narrative game released to coincide with the 2003 film Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time, in which players could take Kim through her past, present, and future.

“You just wanted to be there,” Conlan says of the games’ mid-century modern style. “You get to live and breathe that world for so long, and you get so familiar with the characters.”

The late 2000s: Disney Channel Grows Up

In Lilo and Stitch: 625 Sandwich Stacker, players had to catch catch meat, cheese, condiments, and stinky boots dropping from the sky.


By the late 2000s and early 2010s, Disney Channel stars like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers had all been rendered as Disney Channel digital bobbleheads. Maze-like and story-driven games including Camp Rock’s Rock ‘N’ Run and Wizards of Waverly Place’s Maze of Destiny flooded the website.

Boughton says the Disney Channel team “deserve credit for doing more user-generated content innovation than almost anybody.”

Her agency, Smashing Ideas, worked with the channel on eventized programming like the annual Disney Channel Games competition and 2007’s Happy U Year. This WebAward-winning New Year’s Eve event featured Disney Channel stars in webcam-style windows as they encouraged kids to vote for their favorite episodes online and upload homemade videos that might be broadcast on TV.

Boughton eventually became the senior manager of product strategy, emerging platforms, and partnerships at Disney. For the global launch of the Disney XD network in 2009, she managed the Hero Rising project, turning a fictional game from the series Aaron Stone into a real alternate reality game online where players could compete against the undefeatable Aaron Stone.

As always, the goal was synergy between TV and the web.

“Codes were given out on air to unlock content on the site,” Boughton says.

The 2010s: The End

While new games were still produced in the 2010s, a structural change at Disney shifted the entire online experience.

“Probably a year after I started working there, the corporate transition came in and handed all digital production of games and websites to Disney Online,” Boughton says.

The daily work of the website was no longer conducted by Disney Channel’s department of producers. Eventually, DisneyChannel.com ceased to exist. The address redirects to Disney Now, which has a handful of games based on more recent Disney Channel properties, the majority of which are related to Disney Junior.

But over two decades later, Boughton’s still proud of the work she did for Disney Channel and how it shaped our understanding of the internet, creating a “cultural collective experience” that continues on to this day.

“That work had an impact on the millennial generation and beyond around their expectations of interactivity and user-generated content and what you would expect from being able to interact with a show or with a channel,” Boughton says.

Even if we didn’t completely grasp the philosophy of “TV You Do,” it’s exactly what we did — and that seemed to be the point.

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