Starting a business on a Disney cruise, taking a honeymoon in Disneyworld Florida, running a Disney marathon in a dress made of fast passes: a Disney Adult’s dedication to the cause can be threaded through many facets of life.
2023 marks the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney arriving in California and securing a distributor for his series of “Alice Comedies”. Throughout the year, over-18s who are fans of the brand will be celebrating life milestones in its theme parks, bingeing its films and collecting its anniversary merchandise.
Dom Hodgson, 36, is among them. He has taken part in 20 Disney running events, including a marathon in which he wore a dress made of the parks “fast passes” collected from other Disney fans, has visited the parks tens of times and has a room full of Disney memorabilia.
Grown-up millennials and Gen Xers seem to dominate the Disney Adult community that’s collected some 1.8 billion views via the hashtag on TikTok. The enthusiasm with which some adults approach Disney has gathered online controversy, with critics suggesting its unbecoming for men and women to obsess over a world that was created for children – this has sparked a mini-industry of YouTube commentators ridiculing the Disney Adult.
However, the cultural phenomenon is understandable when you consider that these age groups were raised on increasingly sophisticated Disney productions. The late eighties and early nineties cartoons such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Lion King to the first computer animated film (Toy Story in 1995) to today’s Marvel Studios output. Double entendres, pop culture references and knowing looks to camera litter Disney films in an effort to appeal to adult fans (and parents).
Among the Disney Adult community’s many unofficial celebrity representatives are the actor Rebel Wilson who proposed to her girlfriend at Disneyland last month (US publication The Cut described the engagement as a “Disney Adult’s Dream”). Another is Janette Manrara, professional dancer from Strictly Come Dancing and host of the UK’s Biggest Disney Fan.
She says: “I’ve been to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida 43 times, the first time when I was aged one, and I even managed to get my husband onboard by putting an annual Disney Parks visit in our wedding vows before we honeymooned in Disneyland Paris! I chose Disney as my specialist subject on Mastermind.”
Hodgson would surely be equally qualified to ace the subject. His dedication to Disney began in 2012 on an all-adult trip to the Florida branch and led to him starting a business on a Disney cruise (which he runs according to Disney’s principles of customer service).
“We over planned that trip as a bunch of geeks do, we had spreadsheets with weather and times to go.”
“We loved the atmosphere, the people there: there is a different feeling at Disneyworld – one of I’m here to have a good time – it’s almost palpable in the air”.
Hodgson’s wife hadn’t wanted to go but was soon won over. “She cried on the plane home because she loved it so much”.
Indeed, they’ve since taken a 3,800-mile road trip from Disneyland California to Disneyworld Florida, collecting Disney-related souvenirs at each state along the way.
Disney resorts appear to invoke strong emotions among many of their fans. Carrie Bradley, 47, is a regular visitor to the Orlando parks. She had her first experience of Disney aged three when she visited Florida with her parents and grandparents.
“I’ve got the tiniest memory of being on the carousel,” she says.
She’s since had many trips to the resorts with just her husband and others as a whole family, including her daughters, aged 11 and eight.
“We’ve collected little things like memorabilia, the park maps, the photos and [my daughters] love flipping through my phone. I’m hoping when they’re older that they’ll treasure these memories like I do from going with my grandparents”.
Bradley runs a website dedicated to visiting Orlando with children and a desire to pass on expertise is common among Disney adults. Hodgson shares tips with family and friends, including those friends that he’s made through his visits to the park, participation in 20 Disney running events and organising his family’s annual “Disney garden” – a display of around 30,000 lights outside their home in Leeds through which they raise money for a children’s hospice.
Hayley Cooke, 34, who grew up on family holidays at Disney World Florida, also says her knowledge of Disney helps her to make connections.
“Friends come to ask me for help planning their trip or what to look out for”.
Cooke’s first trip as an adult was after finishing her degree, when she saved up money and went to Disney World Florida for two weeks with a friend and, last year, went on a Disney cruise for the first time. On Disney Cruise Line’s ships, passengers can expect character themes throughout the cruise, from soaps in the cabin bathroom to the restaurants.
On the Disney Wish, there are adult-only areas, including a pool section, restaurants and a portion of Disney Castaway Cay, the line’s private island.
“There were hidden Mickeys everywhere in the décor”. Hodgson and Bradley also mention this insider’s phrase, which refers to a Mickey Mouse representation that’s been subtly included in a spot around Disney’s parks and ships.
It’s a game even adults can enjoy. “You’ve always got a smile on your face at a Disney theme park,” says Millie Woodman, 27.
In fact, she and her husband have enjoyed their Disney trips so much that they’re taking their honeymoon in the Florida resort. They are most looking forward to drinking and eating around the world at Epcot and Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre restaurant.
From Star Wars to Marvel, fictional universes attract both child and adult fans to the parks and other Disney attractions. Take the Disney Hotel New York – The Art of Marvel, which has 350 original Marvel artworks. Or the culinary festivals in Orlando, such as the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Food and Wine Classic and the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.
Woodman, who took her first Disney Cruise last year, says: “It’s the same feel that you have in the park: everyone is very friendly and attentive and it doesn’t matter what age you are you can get that classic childhood feeling back”.