By all reasonable definitions and standards, I am a Disney Adult. I have seen all of the movies multiple times, and enjoy most of them at least a little bit. I have strong opinions on various developments in the theme park ecosystem: the rebranding of Splash Mountain (staunchly pro!), the new exorbitantly priced Star Wars resort (con), the new Genie + ride reservation system (con, and which I feel more passionately about than most voting-reform legislation). And I’ve adopted a strategy of Germanic efficiency toward conquering the massive crowds and wait times at the U.S. parks. I’m one of those people who scream “Bob and weave! Bob and weave!” when trying to navigate my family through the swells of humanoid mozzarella sticks on Main Street, so we can make our 6:30 dinner reservation at the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a $17 oversalted margarita.
On the internet, however, being a Disney adult is nothing short of an embarrassment. A Disney adult is someone who lives and breathes the brand, buying limited-edition mouse ears and popcorn buckets and branded fitness trackers the moment they drop, constantly posting free advertisements for the park in the form of Cinderella’s Castle and Purple Wall selfies (so named for the violently mauve wall in Tomorrowland) whilst wearing rose-gold mouse ears. To declare oneself a Disney fan in adulthood is to profess to being nothing less than an uncritical bubblehead ensconced in one’s own privilege, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, raised on a diet of wasp-waisted princesses and talking-animal sidekicks and dancing candelabras, refusing to acknowledge the grim reality that dreams really don’t come true.
At no time was this distaste drawn into sharper relief than earlier this month, when a post on Reddit’s Am I the Asshole forum went massively viral. The post, which was reportedly written by a bride who had opted to pay for Mickey and Minnie to appear at her wedding rather than feed her guests, was, like most things on Reddit, anonymously written and poorly sourced. Yet it hit a nerve with exasperated internet denizens, who posted thousands of comments excoriating the author before moderators shut down the thread. The reaction was swift and vicious. “People were saying Disney fans are a plague upon society, that they will be the end of Western civilization,” says Jodi Eichler-Levine, a professor of religious studies at Lehigh University who studies the intersection of Disney and religion.
Is this accurate? Do Disney adults truly signal the end of Western civilization? Or are they simply just mildly annoying stans with an insanely high threshold for expensive mixed drinks? To find out, and to learn where the concept of the “Disney adult” comes from in the first place, I talked to a slew of academics, internet culture and fandom experts, and, yes, Disney adults.
The Cringe Factor
In my discussions with other Disney fans and experts, the word that kept coming up was, simply “cringe.” On its most basic level, it strikes outsiders as deeply embarrassing to throw oneself into a subculture ostensibly aimed at children — despite the fact that the Disney parks, as Walt Disney first conceived of them, were very much intended for people of all ages. “A lot of people see it as very naive. It’s a lot of escapism, and if that works for you, then it works very well. And if it doesn’t, it has the opposite effect,” says Sabrina Mittermeier, a Disney fan and postdoctoral researcher and lecturer of American cultural history at the University of Kassel in Germany.
With its emphasis on selling “magic moments” and “making dreams come true,” Disney sells a rather unsophisticated version of wish fulfillment to consumers, who willingly spend thousands of dollars on an authentic emotional experience that they know, at least on some level, isn’t really authentic at all. “One of the reasons people find Disney adults so abject is that they decide to live in this world because they can, if they pay enough money or buy all the merch; it almost signals a break from regular society or real life,” says Idil Galip, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who studies memes and fandoms. “It’s very commercialized and engineered and focus-grouped; there’s a whole lot of work that goes into selling this sort of experience. So it’s sort of all perpetuated in this sickly capitalistic cycle.”
Adding an extra layer of repulsion to outsiders, Disney adults’ ability to escape into this fantasy is almost entirely dependent on their ability to afford it. Given how expensive merch, park entry, and resort reservations are, with vacations costing thousands of dollars at a minimum, it requires a great deal of economic capital to devote oneself to the fandom. As a result, “you probably have a lot less white middle- to upper-class women in any of the other fandoms,” Mittermeier says. “There’s more Karens in the Disney fandom than others.” This overwhelming representation within the fandom is not lost on many Disney fans of color, who are well aware of the company’s roots in white, Judeo-Christian Middle American values, and often feel alienated from the rest of the community.
“When Disney first had media events, that’s all you saw: white women in their early-to-late twenties enjoying the parks, who adhered to a certain cookie-cutter mold,” says Victoria Wade, a content creator who goes by @pineappleprincess340 on TikTok. “Disney has gotten better with who they invite to help them promote new park offerings. But most of the time it’s the white millennial female, and as a content creator it makes me feel like ‘Am I being heard, am I being seen, am I not being chosen for some opportunities because of my race?’”
The Origins of the Disney Adult
The phenomenon of adults enjoying the theme parks has existed for decades, says Lehigh’s Eighler-Levine. As early as the 1990s, coverage of Disney’s fairy-tale weddings programs prompted plenty of sarcastic headlines about why grown people would want to get married in the vicinity of a cartoon mouse. But the term itself is a somewhat new construction, according to Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends at XX Artists and a so-called “meme librarian” who previously worked at de facto internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme.
Brennan identifies the microblogging platform Tumblr, the beating heart of internet fandom culture, as the origin of the Disney adult. Specifically, it was a blog documenting “Disneybounding,” a term used to describe informally cosplaying as a character at the parks using the color palettes inspired by that character, which she IDs as one of the first adult-driven Disney trends to capture the attention of the mainstream. (Adults wearing Disney costumes at the parks is strictly forbidden.) Tumblr also originated the sparkly, ultra-feminine aesthetic currently associated with the Disney adult — the glittery Cheshire Cat GIFs and tongue-in-cheek princess memes that combine nostalgia with a more winking millennial perspective.
“Millennial” is a key word here, as most of the current discourse around Disney adults centers on that specific demographic, Brennan says. Indeed, the entitled “childless Disney millennial” became a meme in 2019 following a mom’s irate Facebook post accusing non-parent visitors of depriving her child of a Mickey pretzel, prompting a trolling New York Post headline, “Sorry, childless millennials going to Disney World is weird.” Part of this is a function of timing, as millennials came of age during the Tumblr era and were the first generation to embrace online fandom. But it also intersects with a very specific, mid-2010s-era criticism of millennials as entitled and fiscally irresponsible, says Galip. (Think all of the pearl-clutching about millennials spending money on avocado toast instead of a mortgage.)
“There’s a real moralistic judgment of Disney adults,” she says. “It’s like, ‘How dare you, instead of putting all this money into buying a house or raising a family, put [it] into fleeting experiences?’ But that probably corresponds with changing cultural expectations for young adults.” Whereas boomers and Gen X’ers would probably have felt uncomfortable buying Toy Story alien popcorn buckets or freely professing their horniness for the Robin Hood cartoon fox, millennials feel more of a “freedom to follow their own obsessions,” she says. “There is a generational difference here, where millennials are allowed to be more juvenile. But now all of a sudden they’ve become sort of cringey. You’re expected to grow out of it in a way, or at least hide it.”
Of course, harboring niche pop-cultural obsessions is not specific to millennials or Disney fans. But there is something about loving Disney specifically that rubs people, even those in other fandoms, the wrong way. Brennan draws a line between “prescriptive” fandom — people who are obsessive about learning everything they possibly can about the canon of their obsessions, such as Star Wars fans — and “transformative” fandom, which is less focused on facts and details and more on feelings and self-expression (think: people who focus on writing fan fiction or drawing fan art). She places Disney adults firmly in the latter category: “A Disney adult is all about the experience of the park. It’s an all-encompassing thing and a lived fandom, almost.”
But this has, ironically, led most people to conceive of Disney adults as female and to bring their accompanying stereotypes along with it, even though the fandom is pretty evenly split gender-wise. “People think of Disney as feelings-oriented. Thinking about the experience of the park, it’s mushy in a way that other ways of consuming fandom are not,” Brennan says. “It’s emotion-driven — with these fans, there’s so much emotion wrapped up in all of this, so it’s perceived as a very feminine activity. And there’s still an element of female fandom that is looked down on in a certain way.”
From the Tumblr years, Brennan says, we started to see a slow trickle of content on the internet aimed at poking fun at Disney adults, such as a 2014 Bustle listicle called “9 Things to Never Say to an Adult Disney Fan” and a 2017 viral CollegeHumor video called “Adult Disney Fans Are Weird.” With the exception of the video, which features a male Disney fan on a date with a woman, most of the opprobrium was directed at young, child-free women, which was part and parcel with the backlash against the wider female-driven indie fashion trend overtaking net culture at that time. “From an internet-culture perspective, that era was very twee, I associate that with the ModCloth era,” says Brennan, referring to the then-popular retro fashion brand that popularized things like Mary Janes, owl necklaces, and patent-leather headbands. “There was a lot of judgment on women who participated in that kind of activity. It was like, ‘Oh, you’re enjoying this fun thing that I consider childish? I’m going to make fun of you.'”
Although anti-Disney adult sentiment had been circulating during that time, the term “Disney adult” didn’t actually enter the vernacular until about January 2020, when a Reddit post surfaced with the headline “Disney adults are worse than any other ‘cringe’ group of people.”
“Everyone talks about kpop stans or teens who are obsessed with any artist in general, but we never talk about Disney adults,” the caption read. “You’re 30 you don’t have the spirit of cinderella inside you.” This was followed by a July 2020 post on the Tab in the U.K.: “Disney adults are the most terrifying people on the planet and they need to be stopped.” It received the ultimate harbinger of internet relevance, an entry in Urban Dictionary, in August 2020.
Timing Is Everything
It’s telling that the anti-Disney adult phenomenon peaked in 2020, at the apex of the pandemic, when the Disney parks were not even open. But that appears to have been kind of the point: At the time, many Disney fans were openly mourning the loss of the parks, and some were even starting to campaign for them to reopen. And in the context of a pandemic that had, at that point, killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, that sentiment struck many as tone-deaf. “Everyone was more online, and there was discussion about Disney’s labor practices because of the pandemic,” says Mittermeier, the German researcher, referring to the layoffs and questionable Covid protocols that took place when the parks did ultimately reopen that fall. “People were saying, ‘How can you still defend this company while all of this is going on and people are dying?'”
It’s a fair point, considering that the list of things the company has done wrong is arguably longer than the list of things it has done right. More recently, newly appointed CEO Bob Chapek waffled on making any form of public statement about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Don’t Say Gay bill, before ultimately issuing a statement coming out against the bill under pressure from LGBTQ employees, which led to tremendous backlash from fans on all sides of the political spectrum. In the same month, it was also reported that Disney had pressured Pixar to remove a same-sex kiss from Lightyear, only to advocate for putting it in following the Don’t Say Gay fracas.
For politically aware Disney adults, such missteps — combined with the company’s irrefutable historically white, middle-class, conservative values — keep adding up, making it increasingly difficult to justify their love for the brand. In the wake of the Don’t Say Gay uproar, Wade, who is bisexual, was angry enough at the company’s handling of the controversy to let her annual pass lapse, and she has yet to buy any more merch. To an extent, she is still embedded within the company; she works part time as a Disney vacation planner, and still makes Disney content. But the past few months have been a “rough time” for her fandom, she says. “They could do a lot more to be inclusive and show I’m more than just a dollar sign.”
Nonetheless, to a large degree, allegiance to the brand and the specific kind of escapism it offers keeps people coming back for more. As Matthew Parrish, co-host of the Disney fandom 3028 podcast, puts it with a laugh: “Do I feel bad [supporting Disney]? Not really. They keep putting out stuff I like. Yes, it’s a big soulless corporation. And yes, I still love it. Because they make things that touch me.”
Over the past year or so, the viral moments mocking Disney adults keep accumulating, piling one on top of the other like a twentysomething dilettante’s LSAT prep books. There was the TikTok video of the woman tearfully seeing the Magic Kingdom for the first time; and another of a woman tearfully hugging Goofy for the first time. Earlier this month, a video went viral of a Disneyland Paris employee interrupting a man trying to stage a proposal at the park; although the company issued a statement saying it would discipline the employee, the uproar largely focused on the lovestruck man himself, with many wondering why he would choose such a venue for the most romantic moment of his life.
All of these viral moments have had the effect of creating an image of an emotional, hysterical fandom, driven by nostalgia, capitalistic values, and an illogical suspension of disbelief. But none of this backlash has quite captured that the reasons behind this emotionality might be more complex than simply worshiping a cartoon mouse. Eichler-Levine says she has heard from countless people who go to Disney parks for any number of reasons: to grieve lost relatives, to reveal a pregnancy, to celebrate being cancer-free. For them, Disney is just a lens through which they view the wide range of human experience.
When she visited the parks through her work, she says she was struck by the sense of “collective effervescence,” a phrase coined by the philosopher Emile Durkheim that describes when people achieve the sacred through community interaction. “The highly ritualized behavior, the collective energy in the parks, that you feel as if you’re in a sports stadium,” she says. “We also see that in religious worship — any kind of collective religious organization can produce that effervescence. And Disney just has so much of it.”
When the Am I the Asshole thread went viral in early June, Eichler-Levine stepped in with a thread urging people to “stop pathologizing” Disney adults. The thread was not so much a defense of Disney adults as it was contextualizing the phenomenon through the lens of religion studies, arguing that “by its power in people’s lives, then Disney is as much a religion as anything. It is at the very least a site of meaning and human fellowship, even you hate it.” She was promptly ratioed, with many interpreting her tweets as a defense of the corporation or of the bride’s selfish behavior. (The author Roxane Gay had a one-word reply to the thread: “Girl.”)
But her larger point was that sure, the Disney fandom is inherently hyper-capitalist — but then again, so is everything. “We shouldn’t blame consumers for being consumers,” she says, adding, “when we pathologize these people, we are calling normal joy and grief and the human experience something that is diseased. And Disney fans are not diseased. She refers to the fandom as “a place where meaning and ritual and capitalism all come together, just like MLB, just like Star Trek. Name your fandom.”
‘Hesitant’ to Be a Fan
A huge part of being a Disney adult is separating oneself from other sectors of the fandom who may be less self-aware. In every single one of my conversations with adult Disney fans, they were quick to tell me that the bride from the AITA post was not representative of the community as a whole (though they were also quick to acknowledge that there are Disney fans who fall into that category), and often hesitant to self-identify as Disney adults proper.
Brennan, the meme researcher, was one of them. “For me, the common thread is the selfishness — [the idea that] ‘I want this experience in a very specific way, ‘building a fantasy and not wanting to settle for a different one,'” she says. “[The] lack of understanding of community doesn’t sit well with me as a person … I’ve come to a place in my relationship with fandom, but here I am hesitating to say I’m a fan of something because it feels so deeply not who I am.” I ask her why. “I don’t know!,” she says, laughing. “I just went to Disney and barely posted about it. I didn’t want to be perceived as one of these people.”
The impulse to be viewed as distinct from other members of a specific cringe community is one I could strongly identify with. But when I consider the roots of my affection for Disney, I think it ultimately comes down to two things: an appreciation for the artistry involved in creating a fantastical experience for people, and also my own memories of the time spent there with my family. At Disney, no one worried about who was getting what grades or who was sick or whether anyone had an eating disorder or even whether we’d have trouble getting back to the hotel for dinner. It was the one place where we didn’t fight, where we could abandon our overactive critical faculties and let the experience of total sensory overload — there’s a giant winged purple dragon! There’s an audio-animatronic 19th-century man talking about technological progress in a bathtub! Here is what it was like for President Lincoln to get a haircut — completely take over.
I am not, and never have been, a person for whom joy really comes in consistent supply. But at Disney, it’s nothing less than an IV in my arm. Even the meticulous planning of the daily schedule gives me more of a sense of satisfaction than I feel in my everyday life. And considering how hard joy is for me to come by, I feel no need to apologize for that. Ultimately, neither does Parrish.
“There’s an expectation for Disney adults of what kinds of feelings they should have in the park,” he says. “People who think Disney is only for kids, they’re not thinking of how our sense of joy can evolve over time. And I think there’s an element of jealousy toward the Disney adult, that they are able to live so freely.”