Disney Adults May Be Making a Difference

Melissa Tierney has more than 400 pairs of Mickey Mouse ears. As an annual pass holder living in Los Angeles, she travels to Disneyland several times a month. She and her husband have Disney decorations in every room in their home. Their dog Leia is a living (and adorable) reminder of her love for Disney's Star Wars franchise. Internet trolls call her a "Disney adult," and she proudly agrees.

"I definitely don't think [the controversial label] has a negative connotation," the 31-year-old marketer said. As a part-time influencer with more than 200,000 Instagram followers, Tierney enjoys a host of perks, including free merchandise and sometimes even paid vacation. Sure, her Disney post received hate comments, but she remained undeterred.

Other fans had different feelings. "I've never heard of another activity or interest described as 'fill in the blanks' for adults," says Kate*, a 30-year-old data scientist from Florida. She called her 2019 wedding at an Orlando resort the "peak of Disney adulthood," but she didn't identify herself because "the phrasing made the interest seem inherently childish," she said. Or listen to Ryan Gosling, who, according to John Stamos, once told him, "I'm obsessed. I'm a Disney adult. I go there by myself. I wear headphones .I went for a ride."

In fact, among non-fans, the term is often used pejoratively, becoming a weapon to lambast adult Disney fans for everything they do, from dressing like the characters (arguably harmless) to the rebranding of Splash Mountain Cry to distance itself from its racist roots (which deserve criticism).

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While the 18-and-older fan base is largely viewed as alien by outsiders, a 2018 Disney World demographic study found that only about one-third of visitors come from families with children. What about the other two-thirds? Isn’t Disney just for kids?

Actually, wrong. Walt Disney himself was inspired to create the first park after a disappointing visit to Los Angeles' Griffith Park, where his two young daughters rode a carousel while he sat on the sidelines. He explained in a 1963 interview that he wanted to create a place where "parents and children could have fun together."

This kind of fun doesn't come cheap. According to reports, a trip to the park can be more expensive than a European vacation — a five-day visit for a family of four costs an estimated $6,033 — and prices at the destination outpace inflation. So how do you justify going multiple times a year, let alone once a month? Do adults at Disney experience some kind of "magic" that the rest of us don't?

Disney knows what it's doing

The park's architecture was created using psychological principles, from visual landmarks to the way visitors line up to ride rides, to keep visitors coming back for more. "[Walt] Disney and his Imagineers created an immersive world in which every moment is part of a larger narrative," customer experience expert Jennifer Clinehens writes in her 2020 book Choice Hacking wrote . “The stories make visitors feel like they are part of the magic.”

Additionally, Disney must appeal to adults: For families with children, parents have the purchasing power. "Disney is a marketing machine," registered psychologist Amber Sargeant tells Bustle. What is its main driving force? Nostalgia, “a chemical reaction in the brain that causes the release of dopamine and serotonin, the happy hormones.”

Advertisements that show grinning children on teacup rides appeal not only to children but also to adults eager to recapture the innocent happiness of youth. And those oft-mocked meet-and-greets between adults and costumed characters? These people don't really believe that their favorite princesses and anthropomorphic animals have been resurrected - but it can transport them to the time they were resurrected. Case in point: Tierney had two of her favorite childhood characters, Mickey and Minnie, appear at several of her wedding events. She said the car cost her $2,070 but was "worth every penny."

Disney revives core memories and helps create new ones

Not that all therapy is like that, but yes, everyone has an inner child, and many of them long for the safety and innocence that Disney provides. "When our needs are not met in childhood, it's not uncommon for us to try to meet those needs as adults," Sargent said.

Tierney has seen this firsthand. “A lot of Disney adults I know had very difficult childhoods,” she said. "Disney is like an outlet for them to feel like they're having a childhood that they didn't have."

Sometimes people just want to recapture the magic of Disney memories, and that was the case with Tierney. "I grew up with Disney because my parents loved taking us there. Those are some of my best vacation memories," she said.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, "[Disneyland] is one of the few places you can go back to," she said. “You can actually recreate that nostalgic feeling within your control.” It’s an experience that seems to stand still in time—you may grow older, but the music, the people, and even the smells remain essentially the same. Change.

This nostalgia isn’t limited to childhood memories. Tierney always associates the Disney Resort in Hawaii with her engagement, the Orlando parks with her (sponsored) bachelorette party, and Epcot with her wedding reception. When the time comes, she wants to have a baby shower at one of the parks. "It makes sense. Every milestone is there," she said.

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It's a sweet escape

For some, Disney can also be a beneficial distraction. Victoria Wade, 30, has loved movies and parks since she was a child, but became a true enthusiast in 2012 while interning at the Disney Institute program.

“I lost my mother and a lot was going on in my home life,” said Wade, a Baltimore travel agent and theme park influencer. During her internship, Wade lived in Disney-provided housing and worked in a restaurant at Hollywood Studios — a job she called a great experience. “College classes helped me take the time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted to do next.”

Wade admits that some Disney adults are leaning a little too hard into the brand's escapism. After her internship, she was one of them. "[I relied on] it to fill in the gaps of issues I didn't want to face, including personal trauma," she said. She said that with time and therapy, her relationship with Disney has become healthier, though she still appreciates the escapism of it.

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But for many Disney adults, the escapism doesn't run that deep. They have work, bills and to-do lists at home. There's a temptation to spend time in a place, whether in the real world or on screen, where those responsibilities aren't paramount. “I work full time, so Monday through Friday is pretty stressful,” Tierney said. "At the park, [I'll notice] I have 30,000 emails and I'm like, 'Okay, I need a Mickey pretzel to calm down.'"

Limited edition products, however, are a different story. “There are some items that become must-haves, [like] the Disney 100 [items] or the Disney Designer Series ears,” Tierney said. Tierney, a self-proclaimed "shopaholic," doesn't have much of a budget for these purchases. "With Disney merchandise, it's more of a space issue than a financial issue."

Passionate fandoms create in-groups…and out-groups

For Anmari Pagtalunan, a 23-year-old creator living in California, one of the most magical aspects of Disney is the community it provides. “For a long time, I felt very isolated in my interests,” she says. “When I was 18, I started a Disney social media account and now interact with a lot of people who share the same interests as me.”

Sargent believes this sense of community is a major factor in turning Disney-loving adults into Disney- loving adults. "Humans are social animals by nature and we thrive in groups," she said. “Sports, for example, create close-knit communities, as do fans of pop stars like Taylor Swift.”

Disney Adults is no exception. "I think it's very healthy when they find someone they can relate to and not judge them," Zuckerman said.

These connections can be very strong. Esteban Valerio, a stage manager who has been with the company since 2011, made some of his closest friends while working as a tour guide. "We're like family. We travel together. I'm going to someone's wedding," he said. Earlier this month, he explored Japan with one of his friends, visiting two parks in one day due to the time difference. "I spent two hours at Tokyo Disneyland, leaving Tokyo at 4:45 p.m., arriving at LAX at 11 a.m., and then going straight to Disneyland." (He has a tradition of hanging out on the swings at the park after flights.)

But wherever there is an in-group, there must be an out-group. Valerio believes people who judge Disney adults just haven't opened their eyes to the magic. “Once they get into our parks or understand why we love this place so much, they understand,” he said.

Side-eyes may also be related to subconscious jealousy, Sargent says. “Human beings don’t enjoy things we don’t understand and feel threatened by things that fall outside the norm of social expectations.” Hate to break it to the haters, but maybe, deep down, we all secretly wish we had the confidence to be so public and unabashed devotion to a hobby.

That's probably why critics don't usually stop passionate fans. "People are afraid to admit they like Disney because they think it's childish," Tierney said. "But when you're an adult, it's childish to hide what you like. You should just be yourself."

*Last name omitted for privacy reasons.


Amber Sargeant , registered psychologist, director of Sunshine Club Australia

Jaime Zuckerman , Psy.D., clinical psychologist