Disney is shutting down its SoapNet channel, and entering the competitive 24-hour preschool TV arena.

Disney Junior, aimed at tykes aged 2-7, will launch in 2012. Channel replaces SoapNet, currently seen in 75 million homes.

Decision to shut down SoapNet came as a surprise to most — including the channel’s soap fans, traditionally a passionate — and easy-to-anger — bunch. But insiders noted that the writing may have been on the wall for some time.

Last year, for example, SoapNet had several projects in development, and was expected to make a decision on ordering a few to series — but ultimately didn’t pick anything up.

By 2012, SoapNet’s distribution deals and many programming deals will have expired, allowing for the switch. Two years is still far away, but news of the switch began to leak as Disney began preliminary discussions with cable operators.

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, said the launch of Disney Junior reps the “next step in our global preschool strategy, which began 10 years ago with the premiere of our first dedicated preschool channel in the U.K.

“The decision to ultimately transition SoapNet to accomplish this was not arrived at lightly,” she said. “SoapNet was created in 2000 to give daytime viewers the ability to watch time-shifted soaps, before multi-platform viewing and DVRs were part of our vocabulary. But today, as technology and our businesses evolve, it makes more sense to align this distribution with a preschool channel that builds on the core strengths of our company.”

Disney/ABC TV Group had spent time growing SoapNet in recent years, adding original fare to the mix, such as “Being Erica,” an acquisition from Canada, as well as original series such as “General Hospital: Night Shift” and “MVPs.” More recent unscripted fare has included “The Bank of Mom and Dad” and “Holidate.”

But SoapNet is still known mostly for its repurposed sudser lineup — consisting of ABC’s “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital,” as well as Sony’s NBC soap “Days of Our Lives” and CBS series “The Young and the Restless.”

It’s unclear whether those soaps will eventually be shopped to another cable home — or if a video-on-demand and online strategy will be employed instead. In the case of the Sony shows, the studio could always add them to its GSN (and redub it the “Games and Soaps Network”) channel. Or Sony could perhaps, in the case of “Days,” partner with future NBC owner Comcast in an on-demand model.

Disney and Sony originally discussed launching a soap opera network as a joint venture — but when those negotiations fell apart, announced separate plans to create their own sudser channels in 2000.

But Disney made faster inroads with SoapNet, and Sony eventually scrapped its plans to launch “SoapCity.” Sony eventually struck a deal to place “Days” on SoapNet in 2003, and “Young” in 2006.

The same-day SoapNet airings were seen as a way for both ABC and Sony to squeeze additional revenue out of the daytime dramas, which don’t fetch the same kind of network revenue they once did. Soap operas have been on TV’s endangered list for some time, as CBS last year canceled “Guiding Light” and this year is about to end the run of “As the World Turns.”

ABC Daytime prexy Brian Frons has overseen SoapNet since late 2007.

SoapNet reps the latest channel to disappear from cable systems as congloms realign their strategies. Scripps recently dumped its Fine Living Channel in exchange for a new Cooking Channel, while News Corp. axed Fox Reality in favor of NatGeo Wild.

As for Disney Junior, the channel enters a field that has gotten crowded in recent years. Nickelodeon operates the 24-hour Nick Jr. preschool channel, while PBS Kids Sprout is a joint venture between Comcast Corp., HIT Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop. The digital channel Qubo, an alliance between Scholastic, ION Media Networks, NBC Universal, and Corus Entertainment, also targets the preschool crowd. And BBC Worldwide America has been looking to distribute a U.S. version of the kiddie channel CBeebies here.

As for Discovery’s upcoming joint venture with Hasbro, dubbed “The Hub,” that channel will be geared toward a slightly older kid audience.

Disney already operates a preschool block on the Disney Channel, called “Playhouse Disney.” That brand will be renamed “Disney Junior” in early 2011. Disney plans to rename its 22 Playhouse Disney channels and blocks outside the U.S. as well, starting in 2011.

According to insiders, the name change was made in order to make it more clear to consumers that “Disney Junior” offers programming that is younger-skewing than the Disney Channel.

Disney Junior won’t run advertising, but will follow the Disney Channel model of including promotions and other programming material between programs. Rival Nick Jr. also doesn’t accept advertising, while PBS Kids Sprout does — but only for products geared toward parents, such as diapers, household items and reading programs.

Carolina Lightcap, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, will oversee Disney Junior, while Playhouse Disney senior VP Nancy Kanter will continue to head up the preschool programming (reporting, in turn, to Disney Channel Worldwide entertainment topper Gary Marsh).

Current Playhouse Disney offerings that will make their way to the new channel include “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Handy Manny,” “Special Agent Oso” and “Imagination Movers.” Features from the Disney library, such as “Aladdin,” will also be included.

Disney Channel’s preschool block will continue to co-exist with Disney Junior (as Disney Channel is available in 99 million homes).

Disney Junior will offer video on demand, a high-definition network and a Spanish lingo SAP feed, the company said.

“(Parents) trust our commitment to entertaining and helping their preschoolers, kids and tweens grow through engaging, relevant programming,” Lightcap said.