It all started with a mouse-shaped pretzel. When a mother saw a young woman in “very SLUTTY shorts” buying the snack at Walt Disney World, Florida, she logged on to Facebook to post a passionate, if slightly deranged, rant. “People without CHILDREN need to be BANNED!!!!!” she wrote. “It pisses me off TO NO END!!!!!” Her viral volley inspired another – a New York Post article entitled “Sorry, childless millennials going to Disney World is weird”.
“Millennials are in an unhealthy relationship with Disney, having granted control of their leisure time and personality to a single, enormous corporate entity meant for children,” wrote the author, Johnny Oleksinski. He complained that my generation are “constant 12-year-olds”, guilty of “self-infantilisation” and “lifelong immaturity”.
At night, I dream of the Happiest Place on Earth. I see myself walking through Disneyland, riding roller coasters, eating ice cream, and watching fireworks. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I wake up craving a visit to the parks. Yet in a way, I can’t help but agree with Oleksinski, who – judging by the intensity of his scolding – is now my new dad. I agree that “a single, enormous corporate entity meant for children” has taken over my generation and, somehow, my unconscious brain. But Dad, they started it.
Why do millennials love Disney World? Baby boomers are too busy sending us to bed without any supper to ask why (according to a survey of over 2,200 American adults) 75 per cent of childless millennials want to visit a theme park in the next year.
There are several sociopolitical factors you could argue are at play. Bethany, a 29-year-old theatre worker from Highbury, north London, has visited Disney parks five times as an adult – aged 21, 24, 26, 27, and 28. “We are a generation who are never going to own our own homes, who live in a state of precariousness when it comes to work and the economy, and who can’t afford to have children to take – so why not fill life with nice experiences?” Bethany (whose name has been changed) suggests. She believes that our current political turmoil means personal escapism has greater appeal. “All of us are doing what we can to find the good bits in a scary world – and for some people, that’s Disney.”
But Bethany isn’t convinced by her own argument – she notes that her mum, born in the 1950s, also dreamed of going to Disneyland. “She grew up with Walt Disney’s TV programmes about the parks,” she says. And there, I think, lies the truth. I don’t dream of Disney World because the decline of religion means I have to replace a gold crucifix around my neck with glittery mouse ears on my head. I don’t love it because ridiculous house prices mean I’d rather take up temporary lodging in Cinderella’s castle. I love it because Disney is an “enormous corporate entity” that has wired me, since the moment of my birth, to worship at the altar of the Mouse.
As a child, my family holidays were a one-hour-and-seven-minute drive away from our home in North Yorkshire. Every year, we stayed in a caravan park in the Lake District, went on rainy walks, played Monopoly at the plastic kitchen table, and counted red squirrels. Woe wasn’t exactly me – never underestimate the joy of using a bag of hazelnuts to entice rodents to surround you – but when term time rolled along, I seethed with jealousy at my Disney-visiting pals.
Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to Disney World adverts every time I turned on the TV, and as I became older, both I and the adverts went digital. Since the late Noughties, Disney has offered YouTubers and influencers free or discounted trips to the parks, which are repaid with online posts that encourage new visitors. Disney Parks spends a lot of money deliberately cultivating millennial audiences – it offers manicures, themed cocktails and after-hours events for adults.
“Being a Disneyland-specific influencer is something that can now pretty much be your full-time job,” says Lex Croucher, a 27-year-old from London who has nearly 130,000 YouTube subscribers. Although Croucher isn’t paid for her posts, she now has her own Disney-themed Instagram account with more than 2,000 followers. She has been to Disney theme parks 12 times, and has another visit planned for next year.
“The magic for me started more as an adult,” she says, noting that watching other vloggers attend the parks inspired some of her trips. “It genuinely feels like stepping into an entirely different world where you get to be a kid again.” Croucher, who has anxiety, says that a breakdown last year meant she began to fear death and ageing, and since then, she has begun going to Disneyland more frequently. “From my experience of other Disney influencers, a lot of them do seem to have had a rough time or experience mental health issues like I do, so I think Disneyland offers a feeling of escape.”
It’s perhaps not an argument that boomers would like. A few weeks after Oleksinski’s article, the Washington Post published a piece arguing that millennials shouldn’t demand “safe spaces” to help protect their mental health because they didn’t fight in the Second World War. “American millennials have a lot of complaints about their lot in life. So here’s a question for them: When is the last time you had to walk through a sewer waist-high in human filth?” the article began, without a hint of irony.
If boomers berate us as if we’re children, then why not act like children? How can anyone argue it’s a bad thing when the horrors of war are replaced with mouse-shaped pretzels? I first visited Disney World in 2012, when studying in America. In the next few years, I plan to go to Disney parks in California and Hong Kong. It might be, as Oleksinski argues, a bit “weird” – but I have no doubt which of us will be having more fun.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy