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24 February 2024

The “Disney adult” industrial complex

The grown-up Disney superfan has become a much-mocked phenomenon online. But creating these consumers was always part of the corporation’s plan.

By Amelia Tait

Before Sarah Rachul was a Disney adult, she was a Disney baby. “I don’t really ever remember a time when the Disney movies or characters weren’t a part of my life,” says the 29-year-old account director, who is based in Ohio. When Rachul was a toddler, her parents and grandparents began taking her to Disney theme parks; today, she holidays there regularly, usually with a pair of mouse ears atop her head. Sometimes, she subtly dresses up like Disney characters, which is known as “Disney Bounding” (full-character costumes are banned inside the parks, so guests aren’t confused with employees). She even hosts her own podcast about Disney, The Pixie Dust Project.

Rachul is a proud “Disney adult” – a nebulous and often pejorative term for a grown-up who is a fervent fan of the Walt Disney Company. In the popular imagination, a Disney adult is a childless, self-infantilised and overly excitable millennial; someone who lacks both self- and social awareness. People have said as much to Rachul. In 2022, 2.2 million people watched a video of her breaking down in tears upon meeting a Goofy mascot at a Disney park – many commenters told her to “grow up”, but others told her she was “pure”.

Whether Disney adults are embarrassing or enchanting is largely a matter of opinion. What is missing from endless comment sections is the fact that they are a creation of the Walt Disney Company – a character constructed just as carefully as Elsa or Donald Duck. Disney does not hide its desire to create lifelong consumers. In 2011, Disney representatives visited new mothers in 580 maternity wards across the US, gifting them bodysuits and asking them to sign up for DisneyBaby.com. In 2022, the company announced plans to build residential “Storyliving” communities across America, with special neighbourhoods for those aged 55 and up.

Rachul grew up in the 1990s, during the so-called “Disney Renaissance”, when Disney debuted a string of critically successful films and re-released its earlier classics on VHS. Merchandising reached new heights: 7,000 products were released to promote 1997’s Hercules alone. It was, Rachul says, “almost like you couldn’t avoid having [Disney] as part of your childhood”. She wept when she saw Goofy in the parks because the anthropomorphic dog was her late grandfather’s favourite character, and her grandfather was her best friend. For Rachul, hugging Goofy was like having “this little piece of my grandpa back”.

Over the past 100 years, the Walt Disney Company has entwined itself with our families, memories and personal histories. In many ways, Disney is a religion that one is born into, the same way a 15th-century English baby was predestined to be baptised Catholic. Choice doesn’t necessarily come into it – we see Mickey Mouse around us like our ancestors saw the cross; a symbol that both 18-month-olds and 80-year-olds recognise. But if we accept that Disney adults were created, rather than spontaneously generated, then why are we scrutinising the congregation instead of the church?

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In late January, I surveyed more than 1,300 self-identified Disney adults from around the world. These respondents were either members of unofficial Reddit and Facebook Disney fan pages or followers of Disney influencers and blogs. A third said that they first engaged with the company as a baby – one respondent clarified that they originally went to a Disney park while in their mother’s womb. When asked, “Do you think you will be a Disney adult until you die?”, 91 per cent said yes.

In 1996, the Walt Disney Company released a promotional vacation-planning video, “A World of Magic Without the Kids!”. After the empty fuzz of VHS, a happy couple begin: “We told our friends we were going to Disney, they couldn’t believe it!” Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” soundtracks a montage of smiling, childless adults. “We’re here on our tenth anniversary, we’ll be here on our 20th anniversary,” one husband in a Goofy shirt says before kissing his wife. Another middle-aged man says, “I can be a child again for a day,” before doing a Donald Duck impersonation.

From the very beginning, Disney was never just for kids. A few short years after Mickey Mouse was created, he was being sold on watches that were advertised in the 1930s as a “unique gift for a boy or girl, man or woman”. Walt Disney himself said that his company created “a believable world of dreams that appeals to all age groups”. Yet from the 1980s, the company began explicitly encouraging Disney adulthood in earnest.

We’re promoting merchandise to adults as well as little girls,” said the company’s director of licensing in 1987, referring to products that had been created for the 50th anniversary of Snow White. (Someone dressed as the princess even visited the New York Stock Exchange as part of the campaign.) In the early 1980s, Disney was struggling with its reputation and earnings, so in 1984 the former Paramount president Michael Eisner was appointed as CEO. Contemporary critics soon noted that Disney’s new films were geared towards both “boomers and their babies”, tapping into the nostalgia adults felt towards the animations of their youth. Screenings of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast were even scheduled for as late as 10pm.

Eisner clearly understood the power of adult spending – under his governance, Disney debuted its own cruise line, with a restaurant reserved for adults and a stop at a private, adult-only beach. In 1989, Disney even opened a nightclub complex near Walt Disney World, “Pleasure Island”.

The drive for Disney adulthood was in full swing three decades ago; the company even pre-empted the kind of ridicule that Disney adults experience today. One 1995 advert for Disney World was entitled, “They’re so weird.” A white-collar worker kisses his wife and asks if his parents have safely arrived at Disney World. “I still can’t believe they went by themselves, they’re getting so weird,” he says. His wife disagrees. “I think it’s cute.”

The adults in Disney’s 1996 video were racially diverse couples mostly wearing polo shirts, but who are Disney adults really? AJ Wolfe, a 45-year-old Disney blogger from Dallas who is currently writing a book on Disney adults for Simon & Schuster, says our understanding of them is currently “limited to a bunch of Urban Dictionary definitions”. It’s difficult, she says, “to get through all the noise of stereotypes”.

According to my survey, the majority of Disney adults (71 per cent) are aged between 25 and 44, and 80 per cent are female. Well over half (61 per cent) are married or in a civil partnership. My survey was limited to English speakers and was shared on websites and accounts popular in the West, so its results are undoubtedly skewed. Nonetheless, I found that 84 per cent of Disney adults live in North America and 88 per cent are white. Around 45 per cent are Christian but 36 per cent identify as atheist or agnostic.

Disney adults are well-educated, with almost 62 per cent having either a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Just under half (49 per cent) identify themselves as left wing politically, while a further 9 per cent are centrists. Eighteen per cent are right wing, including 1.5 per cent who said they are far right. Around 10 per cent of respondents said they “don’t care” about politics.

Defenders of Disney adulthood argue that the fandom can be psychologically beneficial and that it provides community – one of Rachul’s bridesmaids is someone she met through the online Disney fandom. Yet she notes that some people tried to defend her Goofy video by arguing that she was likely suffering from childhood trauma, which Rachul tells me is not the case. In fact, when asked what they like the most about the Walt Disney Company, only 28 per cent said, “It helps me deal with mental health issues.” Just 21 per cent of respondents selected, “It helps me make friends and find community.”

Far more common answers include: “it makes me feel child-like” (43 per cent) and “it helps me and my family bond” (52 per cent). The second-most common response was the most simple, straightforward and seemingly harmless: 77 per cent of Disney adults said the company “makes me feel happy”.

Why does Disney want to make adults happy? Disney adults themselves aren’t naive about the wish the company’s heart makes. Fan Rachul sometimes worries that “the golden age of storytelling is giving way to consumerism”, while survey respondents wrote in that the company “[promotes] consumerism and overconsumption”, “prioritise[s] profits over anything” and has a “capitalist mentality” of “growth and profits over all”. Disney adulthood is inseparable from hyper-consumption – 58 per cent of Disney adults I surveyed spend between $1,000 (£787) and $10,000 (£7,876) with the Walt Disney Company annually, while only 2.8 per cent spend less than $100 (£78).

And indeed, almost everyone is now technically a Disney adult – or at least, it seems hard to find an adult who has never given any money at all to the corporation. From Marvel and Pixar to 21st Century Fox and Searchlight, Disney now owns an eye-watering number of media companies. In that sense, if you watch The Simpsons or Star Wars, you are a Disney adult. Maybe you are a Disney adult if you consume National Geographic documentaries.

Disney’s grip on film media means that the company can not only make everyone a Disney adult, but also discourage criticism of the conglomerate. In 2017, the company briefly banned Los Angeles Times film critics from attending advance screenings of its films because, the paper claimed, it had published an investigative series about the subsidies and tax breaks that Disney received from the city of Anaheim, the location of Disneyland Resort; the paper also suggested Disney’s political spending influenced local elections (Disney defended its role in the city as a “job creator and economic engine”). Disney reversed the ban after threats of a boycott from other outlets, but it set a disturbing precedent.

Disney is in a unique position where it can – via its films – create the culture that enables us to accept its questionable business practices. The problems with the Disney profit machine are well known. It is not news to many that its park employees have considered themselves “grossly underpaid” and regularly strike for fairer wages; that it has previously used child labour to produce its toys, until cutting ties in 2016; or that it has a history of lobbying politicians and trying to prevent the construction of affordable housing in Anaheim to keep, as a Disney spokesman told the New York Times at the time in 2007, new housing out of an area originally planned for its resort development.

The company releases annual corporate social responsibility reports, and according to its website is committed to “respecting human rights” and “reducing the environmental footprint of the supply chain”. In March 2023, after around eight months of negotiations, Disney World employees in Florida received a pay rise, while Disneyland workers may be due a boost in pay after a California appellate court ruled last summer that the theme park had been avoiding a living-wage law. (Disney declined to provide a comment for this piece.) Disney adults are not uncritical of the corporation: 52 per cent of those I surveyed believe it does not pay its employees enough. But Disney’s own messaging does not equip critics with power; instead it encourages the values that secure its own existence.

The cultural critic Henry Giroux, author of The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), believes that Disney is a “teaching machine” that articulates “strategies of escapism and consumerism that reinforce an infantilised and utterly privatised notion of citizenship”. Disney films, by and large, are not about shared responsibilities, the social contract, human rights struggles, democracy, protests, boycotts or the evils of shopping too much. “Disney cultivates a kind of agency that fits into its market plan,” Giroux tells me. When the company does tackle social issues, it often favours tales of hyper-individualistic heroism over collective action. “Saving people always comes in the form of superhuman powers.”

Giroux believes that Disney purveys a wholesome image while “shaping the identities, desires and subjectivities of millions of people across the globe as ardent consumers and deskilled citizens”. Some might argue that Disney films should not be concerned with social issues – after all, they’re for kids. But who placed these limits on our children’s imagination? Disney did, when it sanitised the dark and gruesome fairy tales that have entertained youngsters for centuries.

When asked what they liked most about the Walt Disney Company, the second-most popular answer in my survey was it “makes me feel happy”, but the first was far more telling. By far the most common answer – selected by 81 per cent of respondents – was, “It offers an escape from an increasingly troubled world.”

“What is going on in both the UK and the United States that makes entertainment one of the few places left that people can escape into?” questions Giroux. “People’s lives are so fraught with anxiety, with poverty, the lack of housing, and debt,” and that the only way people have to relieve their troubles is to use the services of companies that may have contributed to those problems in some way.

If Disney adults – by their own admission – are seeking escape from a troubled world, then who told them entertainment, not collective action, was the best option? Who told them to seek escapism instead of an escape?

Almost 30 years after Disney created a VHS tape to promote Disney adulthood, thousands of similar videos do the same job online every day. There are currently nearly 600,000 videos with the hashtag #DisneyAdult on TikTok – some are created by ordinary people sharing their vacations, others by “Disney influencers” who are gifted trips by the company in exchange for their content.

Social media paints a skewed picture of Disney adulthood because algorithms reward extremes. For example, 11.5 million people have watched a 2023 video of a TikTok user screaming and falling to her knees upon seeing the Disney castle for the first time since Covid. Commenters were quick to mock – but this video is actually a parody, posted by a creator with the words “I am never serious” in her bio.

The high of moral superiority means that many online are quick to take skits and satire at face value; the blogger AJ Wolfe notes that people who take this content as genuine are consuming just as uncritically as the Disney adults they mock. Equally, it’s hard to deny that the algorithm also incentivises over-the-top reactions and attention-grabbing hyper-consumption.

Blake Silva is a 28-year-old Disney influencer from LA with 700,000 followers on TikTok. Since childhood, he has had a “deep-rooted” love of Disney – he grew up a few hours away from Disneyland California and his parents would sometimes wake him up early, pretending his mum had an appointment to get to before school, before revealing that they were actually taking him to the theme park. In 2011, Disney encouraged this kind of surprise trip, creating adverts that stitched together real clips of parents telling their children they were going to Disney. “Has a moment ever hugged you and never let go?” the company asked.

Like Rachul, Silva was born into the world of Disney. “I grew up in a household where we had VHS tapes of all the Disney movies,” he says; in particular Silva fell in love with Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh. “I just resonated with him as a young kid because he was comforting and a good friend.”

In 1998, when Silva was a toddler, the Washington Post reported a peak in Pooh merchandising. “There are dolls and toys and games, bedding and clothes and chairs, watches and earrings and backpacks, pillows and throw rugs and piggy banks, soap dispensers and toothbrush holders,” wrote reporter Mary McNamara. The Disney products spokesman John Singh was quoted as saying: “Pooh belongs to everybody.”

“I always had Winnie the Pooh bedrooms as a kid, my parents would paint clouds on the walls and give me the bed frame with honey pots on it,” Silva says, “I had the bedding and the sheets.” Today, Silva has an extensive Pooh collection, including figurines, plushies, keychains, pins and more than 45 Pooh-themed backpacks. Coming home to his collection gives Silva nostalgia and comfort, especially after a tough day.

Silva has found community by sharing his love of Pooh online, and after he got laid off from his graphic designer job in 2023, content creation is now his full-time job. He has worked directly with Disney, which has hosted him on free trips to its resorts, and he has collaborated with Disney+ and National Geographic. Other brands pay Silva to promote their Disney-licensed products, and he also earns through TikTok’s monetisation scheme, which rewards the views he gets on his videos.

Even when he is not directly being sponsored, this monetisation model encourages Silva to consume Disney products. In some of his videos, he excitedly goes from Disney shop to Disney shop seeking out “mystery pins” – the company sells blind bags of enamel pins so that consumers don’t know which character they’re going to get, and thus often end up with duplicates and have to buy more bags to get the pin they want. A single bag can cost $40 (£31). Before becoming a Disney creator, Silva was a “pretty casual collector” of pins, but when he realised how much the audience enjoyed this content, he started buying them more and more, sometimes spending $300 (£236) in a single video. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy them… but I don’t think that I would have indulged or cared as much about pins were it not for the success of my videos.”

Blogger Wolfe largely believes that Disney adulthood can be a happy, passionate and healthy hobby but she worries it can be “toxic” if people spend money they don’t have. In her twenties, she herself ran up credit card debt to visit Disney parks because, “I was really unhappy with where I was living and with my life.” She notes: “Disney can be a great alleviator of symptoms, but it isn’t a cure for personal or mental concerns.”

Does Silva worry about influencing his viewers to over-consume? He tries to be honest with his audience that his situation is unique – that he is spending money to make money and will sell unwanted pins after filming. He has challenged himself to go on spending breaks in the past and has filmed these breaks for his followers.

For Silva and others like him, being a Disney influencer means that loving Disney becomes a feedback loop. “I probably collect way more than I would if I were not a creator,” Silva admits. “You sort of are encouraged to like it even more than you maybe did before, because you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what people want to see.’”

Those who mock Disney adults suffer from the same misconception as Disney adults themselves: they believe the Disney adult phenomenon arose by accident, and therefore gleefully judge and mock those who they believe to have inferior tastes. As Giroux wrote: “We are losing the ability to recognise, let alone resist, the corporate control of time, space, bodies, and minds.”

Disney is a company that has created research facilities to track how people respond to ads. It has hired psychologists and anthropologists to monitor boys aged six to 14 to draw them into the Disney orbit. It is currently planning its own cloistered communities where Disney adults can extricate themselves from the harsh realities of society and mix only with the middle classes. In these neighbourhoods, Disney promises to put “you at the centre of everything”.

I am a Disney adult – not simply because I watch The Simpsons and read Vice, but because I have visited its theme parks multiple times and want to do so again. I regularly listen to The Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack and consider the song “Hellfire” to be a genuine work of art. But I am also a Disney adult because Disney poured millions of dollars into making me one. “It’s hard to criticise something that you love so much,” Silva says. He has to be “realistic” about the fact that “this is something that I’ve loved for my almost 30 years on this Earth. I can’t just wake up one day and say I hate it.”

Fan Rachul believes she will “always” be a Disney adult. “Eventually when my parents aren’t here any more, that will always be something that ties me to them,” she says. Yet at the same time, she admits that she became “burned out” from creating Disney content; she went on ten Disney trips in 2023, largely for the benefit of social media. She has recently found herself asking, “Can I be creative… but does it always have to be Disney?”

Disney has monopolised culture in such a way that makes it very difficult to escape, or critique. Giroux used to regularly give talks about Disney, but “stopped doing it because people would stand up in the audience, open their shirts, and have [Disney] tattoos on their chests”. “In criticising Disney in the way that I did,” he says, “they didn’t know what to do. They had no language to really understand Disney beyond simply being a form of entertainment. They could not imagine Disney was a corporation that was basically commercialising their children’s fantasies.” Giroux sees infantilisation as a form of depoliticisation. “You infantilise people so they can’t think, so they can’t act.”

The Disney adults of the 1990s raised the Disney adults of the 2020s, and the Disney adults of the future are currently being born. In January 2023, the Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che joked that Disney had plans to install a maternity ward in the Magic Kingdom – he was kidding, but Disney caters to every other major milestone. Its adverts have shown Mickey Mouse inspiring a baby’s first steps; its characters adorn trinket boxes where parents can store their children’s first teeth. The company encourages engagements, weddings, anniversaries and family reunions to take place on its property.

Disney has even obliquely suggested that it can save you from divorce – in one 2001 advert, a woman lays awake and tells her husband they’re drifting apart and complains that he never talks to her “in that special way”. He sighs, turns to her with a smile and tells her he loves her – in Donald Duck’s voice.

As of last year, you can now use an app to track the growth of your foetus via Disney references – at 28 weeks, your baby is “as big as Aladdin’s magic lamp”. There is only one milestone that Disney has not yet conquered. In 2017, the company refused the request of a grieving Maidstone family that hoped to put Spider-Man on their four-year-old son’s grave – a representative said a policy dating back to Walt Disney himself prohibited the use of the company’s characters on headstones, to “preserve the innocence and magic” of its output. Instead, the boy’s family were offered a personalised shot of the superhero on a celluloid sheet. While Disney has historically been reluctant to associate itself with death, in 2020 the company did change its policy; it now permits artwork to be affixed to some memorials, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Might this be the start of something? It remains to be seen whether Disney will one day trade in the only aspect of life that it has so far left untouched: death. 

[See also: The sexual revolution that failed]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain