Eight weeks after her youngest son was born, Cari, a 47-year-old educator who lives in Chicago, made the 30-hour-long drive to California to spend three days at Disneyland. “Very little will keep me from Disney!” Cari told me in an interview in June. She estimates she’s been to Disneyland more than 25 times and said that during that one of her many trips, she “carried [her son] around with a wrap over [her] shoulder, nursing him as [she] walked.”
Last year, she made the trek with her family to Disney World in Florida three separate times. For two of the trips, she and her family “basically drove straight there,” spending about 20 hours in a car to enjoy three nights exploring the Magic Kingdom. During another drive to the Orlando-based amusement park, the family spent two extra days there, though the fun didn’t come without a bit of worry. “I agonized over whether it was the right thing to do, but those trips really helped get us through the year,” she said. “I have some guilt around the fact that the pandemic hit people so hard and we were able to do that.”
“At the time, I felt like the whole world was very black and white — ‘stay home or you are a bad citizen!’ or ‘go out and live your life!’ she said. “I was in between. There were certain risks I would take, and others I wouldn’t. We traveled by car and we’re comfortable with how Disney handled things, and knew that our trips did help people go back to work.”
Cari belongs to a subsection of the population known as “Disney adults.” They aren’t just adults who like the brand; they are aficionados, obsessives, people who have forged a specific and unshakeable connection with the late Walt Disney’s sprawling empire.
“All that mattered was that I was going to Animal Kingdom — with or without him.”
“I once took an Elsa doll with me to Disney World and carried it with me the entire time,” 32-year-old Kendra told me, referencing a trip she took when she was 24. (Some last names have been withheld throughout this piece to protect sources’ privacy). Craila, another Disney loyalist in her early 30s, once prioritized going to Animal Kingdom over “reconciliation with [her] boyfriend,” saying the two broke up midway through a vacation. “As devastating as that was, all I could say and all that mattered was that I was going to Animal Kingdom — with or without him.”
But the unbridled joy grown Disney enthusiasts revel in is not always understood by other adults. Some feel that the “Disney adult” designation is, as the kids say today, “cheugy.” Others consider house of mouse fans “terrifying,” as writer Tom Haynes did last year, saying, “Disney is designed to appeal to people of all ages, but it’s for children and the adults who still obsess over it desperately need to acquire a kink, or at least a hobby.”
Scroll through Twitter after searching for the term “Disney adults” and there’s no shortage of jokes and would-be origin stories about the polarizing fandom. My own colleague, Scaachi Koul, tweeted last year about her disdain for them. “is it now socially acceptable to publicly hate disney adults?? IS IT?????” The tweet went viral, with a mix of folks condemning it and others spouting some form of the oft-employed phrase when they believe something is above critique: “Shhh, just let people enjoy things.” One thing is for certain: Adults who have made Disney part of their personalities are fascinating.
Last month, I published a callout asking Disney adults to explain themselves, and more than a thousand people responded. They ranged in age from 19 to 72 and lived all over the world — Greece, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and China. Talking to them helped me understand why Disney has such a vise grip-like hold on them — and their pockets; a general admission single-day ticket to most Disney parks costs at least $100.
Tim and Carissa Helmer, 35 and 32, respectively, have visited the Disney amusement parks hundreds of times, though Tim said “the bulk of those 300-plus times are hers.” Carissa and her family often visited Disneyland about three times a year for vacation when she was growing up, but when she moved to southern California for college, the allure of Disney became even more apparent. The Disney park was about a 30-minute drive from her university. “So every single Friday for five years, I went to Disneyland, because I grew up going there so often. It was home to me,” she said. Tim said his relationship with Disney was similar to that of other children, mostly visiting select parks — Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom — “sporadically.” Though Carissa’s love of Disney had long been solidified, the couple arguably reached full Disney adult status together when they honeymooned at Disney World in 2016.
The Helmers thought about going someplace tropical and Hawaii was briefly at the top of their list, but the plane ride to the other side of the country was a little daunting for the Virginia-based couple. Instead, they decided to indulge in another side of Disney, the side with “gourmet dining and upscale hotels and things like that, that I think a lot of people don't know about and don't think that Disney World had,” Carissa said.
Falling in love with a Disney obsessive appears to be a common gateway into becoming a full-fledged, unabashed Disney adult. “My husband literally did not understand it at all when we first met and actively was one of those people who was like, ‘I love everything about you, but if I could eliminate this one part my life would be made better,’” said Jessie, a 30-year-old who works in tech and splits her time between California and Colorado. They’ve now been together for almost six years, she said, and he’s somewhat of a convert. “He always randomly says, ‘Oh, you know, I could really be in Disney right now.’ Or like, ‘Oh, I miss this park’ or, ‘Oh, I really want to try this restaurant.’ I think once you expose people to that world they realize that there is so much for adults to enjoy about it,” she said. Not only does her husband now have a greater appreciation for Disney, but he also proposed to her at Epcot with a grape soda bottle cap, a nod to the much-loved Disney/Pixar film Up.
For Jessie, whose interest in Disney has grown gradually, the appeal lies in its escapism. “Disney, to me, represents a safe, magical space where the weight of the world and its problems disappear,” she said. “If I'm stressed at work, I listen to Disney instrumentals in the background and everything seems lighter.” Jessie’s sister, Missy, 37, is an even bigger fan, she said. Between the two of them, the sisters estimate they have spent at least $60,000 to $75,000 dollars per person going on trips to Disney, though they suspect it’s probably more. Missy told me that Disney’s parks and resorts are a sort of go-to for her as well, especially on a hard day. “Like, when I have my children and I'm up nursing in the middle of the night and I'm exhausted, I turn on Disney videos and YouTube and watch people walking through the parks,” she said.
Jessie believes a common misconception about Disney adults is that they aren’t people who are well-traveled, but she has visited more than 50 countries; the parks still come out on top. “Many of the best memories of my life were spent at Disney World,” she said. Her sister corroborated this with a story. “I remember Jessie was in [Zimbabwe] on a trip, and I remember her saying to me, ‘It's amazing, and it's incredible in so many ways, but I really, really miss Animal Kingdom right now in Disney,’” Missy said. “I feel like that's something that any other person would hear and think that we were absolutely crazy. We probably are.”
There are certainly people who think adult Disney fans are a little off. Disney adults, especially millennials, have been criticized for flocking to Disney parks and making them more congested. And increasingly, it seems that a good chunk of those people go to amusement parks without children, a fact included in a 2019 New York Post article blasting child-free millennials for going to Disney parks, calling the activity “weird” in a headline. “The same people that think it's bizarre to spend thousands of dollars and a lifetime dedicated to something ‘cult-ish,’ like Disney, are the same folks tuning in to watch their favorite sports teams for hours every single week and spending thousands of dollars on merchandise, tickets, clothing,” said Jessie, who is partnered but has no children. “The same folks curse at a television screen when athletes they've never met and never will meet drop a ball or miss a shot hundreds of miles away. To me, that's asinine. So to your question, I say, to each their own.”
It’s natural to want to defend something you enjoy, especially when it seems like other people don’t have the same reverence for it or if they seem to want to make you feel bad for liking it at all. (As a lifelong Mariah Carey fan who has had to weather lots of criticism about my unwavering love for the singer, I get it!) There’s something about Disney adults that makes them easy targets, possibly because of the idea that they have Peter Pan syndrome, but they’re fully self-aware about the brand they go up for. Because honestly, what makes a Disney adult any worse than an avid Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings fan?
Reid Salomonsky, 36, who will have served in the US Navy 11 years this August, has been to Disney World at least 10 times since 2016. The husband and father of two said he is known as the “Disney guy” in the workplace; he’s decorated his entire office based on different lands within the Magic Kingdom park at Disney World. But he doesn’t let any reactions to his interest in Disney get under his skin. Sometimes colleagues will comment on his commitment to Disney. “I go all the time and it brings me joy like no other,” is what Salomonsky said he tells them.
John Blackham, 32, is a technical writer for a software company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Growing up, he wasn’t really indoctrinated into Disney. “My parents, they're not exactly Disney skeptics per se, but they're much more [into] Jack London than they were ever Walt Disney,” he said, telling me they would often go on adventures exploring the outdoors, visiting historic sites around old Sacramento, and venues where Mark Twain once lectured. Blackham grew up watching Disney films, but wasn’t particularly loyal to the brand until he took a class trip with his choir to Disney World when he was 17. He didn’t have high expectations, thinking it would be similar to what he had experienced at other amusement parks. “Six Flags, where it's very utilitarian,” he said, as an example. “Like here's the roller coaster, here's another roller coaster.” But Disney was an overwhelming sensory experience, from the smells to the bright signs and distinctive sounds. A fan of design and construction, he was taken with the turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture on Main Street, the road leading up to Cinderella Castle, and the mid-century modern view of what the future would look like — as interpreted by people from the ’60s — in Tomorrowland.
Disney has had quite an effect on Blackham, who even interned at Disney, where he eventually met the woman he would marry. (Naturally, they honeymooned at Disney World.) He said that Disney is also responsible for exposing him to identities outside of his own, a big change for someone who grew up in Nevada County in California, also known as “Clorox County” because of how white it is.
“Believe me, most of us are well aware of the negative sides of Disney,” said Blackham. “And yet we see something in it that we have undiminished love for.”
Blackham recognizes that Disney adults take a lot of heat for the brand they have embraced, and he believes some of the criticism lodged against the company is justified. “There's lots of multitudinous factors, and I understand most of them,” he said. In 2018, a Disney janitor experiencing homelessness was found dead in her car, and the tragedy has frequently been brought up as a critique of Disney’s poor wages for its employees. He also cites the idea that Disney is “this mega media corporation that has bought up all these smaller ones, like some sinister, evil empire that's slowly taking over all forms of media and trying to indoctrinate our children to being loyal customers to a degree — there is some truth to that.”
But he also thinks the hatred can be disproportionate. “I think sometimes in our society, in particular with pop justice, pop morals, if I can use those terms, there's sort of this like Curie litmus test where there's not a lot of room for nuance, not a lot of room for messy contradictions where we want everything to be neat, ordered, and structured,” Blackham said. “So it's like, ‘Disney has bad facets to it, ergo Disney is bad. How can you still like it? You must not know these things or you must also be like, morally reprehensible in some way or a slave to the corporate marketing stuff.’” Essentially, Disney adults want you to know that they don’t have on rose-colored glasses. “Believe me, most of us are well aware of the negative sides of Disney,” said Blackham. “And yet we see something in it that we have undiminished love for. Let people love what they love, and [do] not assume that they need waking up.”
Most Disney adults I spoke with were relatively unfazed by the criticism of their fandom. If anything, they’re proud of it. “You know, people can have their opinion. I don't really pay a lot of attention to it, to be quite honest,” said Dan Grossman, a 36-year-old father and account manager for a software company in Connecticut. He has a sleeve of colorful tattoos — which he conservatively estimated cost him around $7,500 total — based on one of his favorite rides: The Haunted Mansion. “I'm successful in my own right, in my own job. I take care of my family and my kids and that's what we enjoy doing and spending our money [on],” he said. “Don't tell me that at the end of the day if I want to throw on, you know, Aladdin or something that I enjoy, that I'm crazy.” ●