How many places in the world can you watch a horde of adults wearing limited-edition Mickey Mouse ears push through a crowd of children to get a better view of the same Festival of Fantasy parade they saw last month?
After spending two days at Disney World with a friend, I witnessed this notorious phenomenon in real time: there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of adults who really love Disney.
Urban Dictionary, the best alternative to a legitimate dictionary, defines a “Disney adult” as “a millennial adult, with or without kids, that can’t stop talking about Disney, including the movies and the parks … One of the most terrifyingly intense people you’ll ever encounter.”
“Disney adults” are a well-known target of internet commentary that often teeters the line between satirical comedy and straight-up cyberbullying. Special attention is often given to the most extreme-of-the-extreme Disney fanatics. Spreading a loved one’s ashes at the Haunted Mansion (which are immediately cleaned up) and attempting to give birth at Disney World in hopes of obtaining a lifetime free pass (that they never give out) are two of the most outrageous behaviors that continue to infatuate the internet.
These ridiculous, almost legendary stories have created a culture in which “Disney adults” are simultaneously hypervisible and mythologized. They receive almost constant attention from the digital world, and yet we hear very little about how these behaviors come to be.
Realistically, the vast majority of adult Disney-goers are not spending their days sneakily spilling out ashes or going into labor while riding “It’s A Small World.” With over 58 million visitors annually at Walt Disney World alone, most “Disney adults” are more along the lines of what I witnessed: bedazzled Mickey ears, cheesy graphic tees, magic in their hearts and FastPasses in their Apple wallets.
The sheer presence of this demographic at Disney parks points to the breadth of this puzzling phenomenon. From a marketing standpoint, Disney has spent decades finding ways to quietly yet firmly encourage adult engagement to the point of obsession. And as for the adults themselves, the natural human attraction to nostalgia, idealism and escapism provide the perfect setup to create a universe in which spending the equivalent of in-state tuition at the University of Michigan on theme park admission feels relatively commonplace.
The Most Magical Corporation on Earth
As the quintessential pioneers of what we now perceive to be “children’s media,” The Walt Disney Company has spent the last century rendering itself into an increasingly pervasive staple of American culture. Pieces of the Disney enterprise can be found virtually anywhere: shopping malls, movie theaters, cable television, streaming services, Broadway theaters, cruise ships and many other mediums that I, even as an avid Disney fan, have never even heard of.
What initially sets Disney apart from typical organizations of such massive size is their relentless pursuit of not just financial capital, but a dedicated form of emotional capital. According to Dr. Joseph Chytry, their ability to make money is inextricably tied to their ability to conjure up four primary emotions: optimism, contentment, excitement and happiness.
This emotional link is an iteration of the “experience economy,” in which companies are selling more than a product; rather, they are selling, or at least claiming to sell, memories. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, the economists who first coined this term, attribute its beginnings to the work of Disney.
“If entertainment, education, escapism, happiness, and explicitly aesthetic rewards were brought together into a single setting, any plain space could be turned into a space appropriate for ‘staging an experience,’” Pine and Gilmore wrote.
Thus, there came the birth of Disneyland, Walt Disney World and the many ventures that followed. Disney has created its empire on the basis of conjuring human joy from every angle possible, even for the more developed tastes of adult audiences.
Beyond the general notion of the experience economy, Disney first began explicitly catering to adults over a decade prior to the opening of Disneyland. In the midst of World War II, the company created cartoons teaching viewers about everything from additional wartime income taxes to the horrors behind the creation of Hitler Youth — all of which were sponsored by the U.S. government.
In Disney’s earliest stages, these cartoons represent the drive to be much more than a children’s media company; it aimed to directly intertwine itself with American ideals and culture.
As Disney moved into its physical spaces, the “Disneyfication” of American history became a key piece of the theme park experience. Main Street, U.S.A., and Liberty Square in Magic Kingdom provide a sanitized version of Revolutionary America and its emphasis on patriotism.
Though these areas are often not the primary focus of Disney adults, they still communicate the fact that these parks exist for more than just children’s enjoyment.
They also signify Disney’s connection to the American dream, in which upward social and economic mobility are possible with hard work — and maybe a little bit of magic.
“The more Disney’s products played to the narrative of who and what Americans wanted to be, the more popular they became,” Museum Specialist Bethanee Bemis wrote in her discourse “Mirror, Mirror for Us All.”
This beautification of the American dream also appeals uniquely to middle-class adults, who are the demographic most committed to their Disney fandom. In the “Disneyfication” of the American economic world, adults are able to see Disney not only as a temporary escape, but as a set of idealistic aspirations. In Disney’s representation of the American dream, upward mobility and individual success are the cornerstones of a glamorized, simplified history.
This notion continues outside of explicitly American content. As Disney grows, it seems to discover increasingly pervasive ways to allow adults to financially and socially commit to their “magical” way of life.
Most notoriously, there’s “Club 33,” a set of exclusive lounges within the parks that cost an absurd $60,000–70,000 dollars for your first year and around $20,000 for every subsequent year. The first of these private dining areas appeared in 1967, and have since become an extreme method of pledging one’s Disney allegiance. Even with its absurd price range, membership waitlists continue to grow. In tandem with the American dream, Club 33 allows Disney adults to “rise up the ranks” and prove themselves to be the most devoted of fans.
Beyond just the parks themselves, Disney has begun advertising the concept of Storyliving, in which fans can live in a neighborhood owned and operated by Disney. These neighborhoods, marketed as “Disneyfied” utopian societies, are meant to incorporate “the Disney touch” into everyday life.
Not only do these communities sound like a really good topic for a new “Black Mirror“ episode, but they also further communicate Disney’s interest in their dedicated adult fanbase. In the creation of these neighborhoods, Disney encourages adults to deepen their connection to their fandom by making it the centerpiece of their existence. If a company you already follow borderline religiously gives you a chance to essentially live within it, the idea of these communities may not feel so outrageous.
Disney’s pervasive marketing toward adults encourages a lifetime commitment to the most magical corporation on Earth. Though most adult fans are not members of Club 33 or potential Storyliving tenants, the normalization of these options makes it easier to fall down a financial and lifestyle rabbit hole.
You’re Never Too Old To Be Young
When considering the psychological backing of adult Disney fandom, we can begin by looking at three primary stakeholders: nostalgia, escapism and an appreciation for meticulous detail.
The concept of staying in touch with one’s inner child is complicated; at one point or another, we are indirectly asked to abandon our relationships with imagination and fantasy in pursuit of “real world” goals. For many (myself included), this abandonment feels overly constricting, limiting our interactions with the idealist magic of our younger selves. For a child-at-heart, Disney is one pathway for providing continuous engagement with the imaginative pieces of ourselves we are often encouraged to disown.
Disney’s unabashed focus on providing a lifetime of magic directly markets to adults in need of an outlet to express their inner child in a world that often diminishes the relevance of imagination. To aptly quote “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”: “You’re never too old to be young.”
For adults, Disney fandom provides a sustained connection with a more magical and idealistic universe than the harsh realities they may face elsewhere. Outside of the mundane nature of everyday life, Disney promises a temporary reversion to a simpler time and place — with some obligatory magic sprinkled in.
“Disney, to me, represents a safe, magical space where the weight of the world and its problems disappear,” a self-proclaimed Disney adult told Buzzfeed.
A similar sentiment was shared by a fan interviewed by PopSugar, who said her frequent trips to Disney allow her to dream like a kid again, regardless of her age. Though Disney adults are often ridiculed for their engagement with their former child, Disney is only one of many ways adults seek comfort and nostalgia in their everyday lives. Some of the people destroying Disney adults online could be spending their free time flying across the country for the NCAA championship game or following around their favorite presidential candidate on their campaign trail. At the end of the day, the only thing that truly sets Disney apart from other obsessions is its open, unapologetic attachment to childhood pleasures.
However, in contrast with typical perceptions of Disney adults, there is more to the obsession than a simple longing for revitalized childhood magic. In a University of Leeds study, the highest number of adult respondents (378) said their main reason for enjoying Disney films was to “understand/appreciate (hidden) jokes/references/storylines.” The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Film found a similar pattern; of their 700 respondents, over half “indicated an appreciation of jokes, references, or content that they had not understood or been aware of as children.”
This appreciation for the layered detail of Disney films is a common thread throughout the fandom. Hidden messages and details within the films, parks and more are a central focus of Disney adults. Online resources such as Disney Food Blog, Inside the Magic and The Mouselets provide an endless stream of “Disney secrets” targeted toward and curated by adult megafans.
“I think the motivation is kind of an intellectual one,” psychology professor Irving Biderman wrote. “What they’re sensitive to and trying to understand is the brilliance of the design.”
The meticulous attention to detail is, of course, no accident. Part of Disney’s charm is that it’s clear just how much effort was put into every shot of a film or inch of a theme park. Not only is this appealing to the natural human disposition for adventure and discovery, but it provides an elevated level of planning and comfort that real life simply cannot.
“Your brain comes into a place where another brain has done all the organization, all the super cohesiveness that your brain is looking for,” former Imagineer (Disney Engineer) Joe Rohde said. “So it’s like surfing on a wave instead of surfing out to sea against it.”
The detail-oriented approach of fans also translates to a high regard for Disney’s relentless focus on “world-class service” in its hospitality and tourism-based ventures. Disney’s customer service philosophy operates under four “keys” to success: a positive image and energy, courtesy and respect to all guests, staying in character and playing the part, and going “above and beyond.”
Though these parameters sound relatively standard, they require all “cast members” (a more humanizing alternative to employees) to create an illusion of perfection for every customer they communicate with.
“You’ll never watch a lackluster Disney movie, have an OK time at Disneyland, or meet a so-so Disney employee,” PopSugar editor Brinton Parker said. “Everything they do is top-notch, and it shows. In other words, Disney fans appreciate good things.”
This attention to detail, though, may not be as wholesome as extreme fans may perceive. As a corporation, Disney’s “pure at heart” branding gets lost in the undeniable fact that its primary goal is to profit off the love and devotion of those who idolize them.
Disney’s practice of pumping space-specific scents into the air — the musty gunpowder smell of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the artificially sweet scents of Main Street, U.S.A., being the most well known — is not equally magical to all. For the most passionate fans, these scents can be purchased in the form of candles, encouraging park-goers to bring the manicured magic of Disney home.
In these types of highly immersive marketing practices, Disney is able to transform itself into more than a brand; it’s a set of ideals to aspire to and, for some, a way of life. The common appreciation for detail among Disney adults can be easily linked to a desire to make “Disney magic” a part of their everyday lives. In encouraging fans to become emotionally and economically invested in the Disney experience, the human desire to “achieve” happiness and the company’s unquenchable financial thirst become one. The widespread love and appreciation for Disney are not made invalid by their profit focus, but rather elevated. Dedicated people grow fond of Disney’s promise of a magical childhood dreamscape in real time, and those people enjoy (or at least submit to) funding the continuation of those experiences.
Humans, by nature, are goal-oriented. We need something, anything, to latch onto in order to set aside our fears and doubts about the developing outcome of our lives. Sports teams, music artists, even political commentators can give us the guidance, structure and hope that ordinary life often struggles to. For some, this guiding light winds up being Disney.
At the end of the day, Disney is one of many things humans find intriguing and interesting enough to pour their hearts and minds into. Are there some people who take it too far? Absolutely. Should those people stop trying to bury their loved ones in a theme park? I would think so. But deep down, the motivations of “Disney adults” are not so different from any other obsession or fascination. They’re just lucky to have an obsession that has its own cruise line and hundreds of sets of Mickey ear headbands to choose from.
It’s fun to laugh at the absurdity of a grown person wearing a shirt that reads “I like long romantic rides on the Monorail” or “Hakuna Moscato” (that one actually made me giggle). The overwhelming majority of Disney adults are just people finding their own ways to make a stressful world that much more bearable. So if entering the gates of Disney World every other weekend is what keeps you moving, remember to drop a coin in the Miss Piggy fountain and make a wish.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at email@example.com.