Meet The World's Most Intense Disney Fans
They create their own costumes, they move their families to be near the parks, they spend thousands a year, and they’re just like you. A weekend's journey into the heart of a massive fandom.
The magical Snow Queen recently gave up gluten. Dairy and caffeine too. Her new diet has helped big time with migraines, which had been plaguing her for years.
The Frozen monarch is eating veggie sticks and nacho chips in the main hall of the Anaheim Convention Center at the D23 Expo. D23 is the gigantic celebration of all things Disney that is thrown by the company every other August, and just about every one of the 45,000 superfans in the building is wearing at least one piece of character apparel, if not a full-blown costume.
Princesses roam free, and they are joined by more obscure characters and mashups, like a Doctor Who–Mickey Mouse combination that is gloriously geeky.
It's an oddball parade. You'll spy a lady dressed up as Buzz Lightyear pushing a stroller, a mash-up of the Marvel character Deadpool and the Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia fighting with lightsabers, and probably the first and only sexed up Scrooge McDuck that the world will ever see.
The Snow Queen — Cassie, age 26 — is wearing a curly blonde wig and an intricate, shimmery blue dress she made herself, with icicles that dangle from the bodice. The SoCal native has been an annual passholder at Disneyland for the last decade, and she bubbles up with anecdotes from family trips to the park.
Disney's potent combination of fantasy wish fulfillment and customer service add up to one of Cassie's favorite memories. In a classic bit, during the Sword in the Stone show, an actor playing Merlin picks a big burly guy to pull Excalibur from the rock. Of course the big guy doesn't have the "strength" to do so, and a lucky kid is then picked from the audience for the final flourish.
One year, Cassie's dad was that unfortunate foil. "After the ceremony, my sister and I went up to Merlin for autographs," she says, telling the 15-year-old story like she just met the wizard yesterday. "He looked at my sister and then my dad and said, 'Don't worry, sir, it sometimes skips a generation!'"
A year later, Cassie's sister was chosen to remove the legendary blade from the stone and take the throne.
"Merlin looked at my dad and said, 'See? I told you it could skip a generation,'" she says, building up to the magical climax. "The next year after the ceremony I went up to Merlin and said something along the lines of, 'Oh… I've always wanted to pull the sword out of the stone, it's been my dream.' And Merlin promptly let me know that there was another show at three. By four, I was Queen of Disneyland. I just love that they work so hard to make dreams come true."
Now, she's working hard to make her own Disney-inspired dream come true. With the talent and time now dedicated (the Snow Queen gown alone took 23 hours) she's started selling custom dresses and outfits to other fans. She's got a website called Glimmerwood.com and an Etsy page that showcase some of her creations, many of them princess gowns and others "princess-inspired."
Being self-employed in the Disney business has its own kind of benefit; Cassie and her friends joke that the park is health insurance too: "Bad Day? Go to Disneyland!"
D23 serves as a giant hype machine for the company's upcoming productions and consumer products, a big shopping center for the stuff they already have out, and a central meeting spot for fans and fan-vendors from around the world. It has two main constituencies: the hardcore Disney fans — D23 is also the name of the company's official fan club, with 23 signifying the year Walt Disney moved to Hollywood and founded the studio — and members of the press who brave the traffic to Anaheim to write about the the studio's movie presentations. The event is like Comic-Con, but with fewer snarky fanboys and more family-centric fare.
The people who attend are all regulars, with season passes to the parks and plenty of Disney cruises under their belts. D23 is designated the official fan celebration, a call to all the truly passionate believers to make a pilgrimage and unite with their mouse-eared brethren. There are no rides, but the frills are hardly the point. This is like a conclave of the most devout, a journey to the font of exclusive knowledge and opportunity. Yes, fans pay around $50 a day to attend, but Disney is celebrating them, so to be there means access to a special club: You can go to Disneyland any and every day of the week — and many do — but D23 only happens once every two years.
Fandom is hardly an obscure phenomenon, now that the Whedonites, Trekkies, Cumberbitches, and a zillion other subgroups have broken out into the mainstream consciousness. But Disney fans have largely gone ignored, even though the company may have the largest sect of hardcore adherents within its sizeable ranks of casual admirers. Other fandoms celebrate specific artists or franchises; Disney, on the other hand, has created an entire world to celebrate. Their fans are not loyal to just one actor or TV series, but an entire behemoth of a corporation.
It's a top-down way of disseminating popular culture — if Disney produces it, it is worth embracing and buying — and it's been peerlessly mastered since that first Mickey Mouse short in 1928.
On Thursday night, Disney holds a special media preview event for the expo. They've brought out some classics, like the original layout model for Disneyland, Abe Lincoln's animatronic head from the Hall of Presidents, and costumes and correspondence from the production of Mary Poppins. A line of people wait to take a photo with a guy dressed up — officially — as Captain America.
I bump into Jeff at a small display featuring photos and plans for the Hong Kong theme park. He is tall, lanky, and bespectacled, and greets me warmly — we've spent the last week trading messages about the event on Facebook after I found him on MiceChat.com (that sounds like a weird rodent version of Grindr, but it's actually a gigantic Disney fansite). Jeff lets me tag along right away, because he is one of the nicest people I've ever met.
"My grandmother and my mom took me to Walt Disney World for the first time when I was 5, and ever since then, I was hooked," Jeff tells me.
"As I got older, I was fascinated by the fact that, 'Holy crap, people made this place,'" he says. He's been to Disney World at least once a year since he was a child, and used the local library to feed his obsession. "And of course, now I'm living 20 minutes from Disneyland, which is even better."
A few months ago, Jeff moved to Anaheim from New Jersey, with his fiancée, Martina, and her 10-year-old son, Alex, in tow. The initial pull came from a job opportunity as an (unofficial) park tour guide — he'd teach tourists the kind of stuff only an expert could provide — but the arrangement fell apart soon after his arrival. Now, he's working as a social media manager at a nutrition company. On MiceChat.com, he writes columns and stars in a bunch of podcasts, with audiences tipping toward 100,000 listeners per week.
Persistence and obsession pay off; all those hours Jeff spent in the library have resulted in his own book, which he wrote with Rolly Crump, a legendary Imagineer (Disney's name for the people who design all the rides and attractions for the parks). Crump used to work with Walt himself, which is becoming a pretty rare boast these days; Disney died in 1966 and had a tight inner circle, so at this point, it's really like saying you were at the base of the mountain when the Ten Commandments were hot scrawls on a tablet.
The guy who published Jeff and Rolly's book has a wild reputation thanks to his own efforts at authorship. A few years back, Leonard Kinsey released The Dark Side of Disney, which right from its cover — a tattoo-covered porn star holding a bottle of Jack Daniels and wearing mouse ears — was an assault on the utopian image that is the company's bedrock foundation. The book dealt the dirt on how to score illegal tickets to the parks, and where to smoke weed, have sex, and stage other debauchery; basically, it was a guide for getting a happy ending in the Happiest Place on Earth.
The company couldn't have been too pleased with the tome, but there were plenty of angry fans, too. The kind of fans who hate Kinsey for writing this edgy guide are generally known to the fan community as Pixie Dusters, after Peter Pan's Tinker Bell and her golden magic detritus. Pixie Dusters believe wholeheartedly in the purity of the Walt Disney Company and that it represents the peak of goodness and family values; and that to sully or criticize Disney is an act of heresy, punishable by non-stop harassment on the internet.
The Amazon reviews for Kinsey's book can be mined for little capsules of indignation:
"As a former Cast Member of the Walt Disney World resort I'm appalled by this kind of book; what's the point of buying a park ticket to a land of magic & fantasy to then ignore all the wonderful attractions and carefully crafted Lands to spend all your time trying to trespass behind the scenes, have sex without being discovered or engage in scams?" one reviewer wrote. "I'm not sure of the Authors motives, why does he want to destroy the Magic?"
On the other end of the spectrum are the grumbling, get-off-my-lawn obsessives that are called Frothers or Foamers (as in frothing from the mouth) because they criticize everything Disney does for not being as good or respectful of its glory days. The time period the company is failing to honor, of course, depend on the era in which a fan grew up. No new ride or park exhibit or cartoon can compare to the old classics, even if they were just big, dolled up versions of herky-jerky country fair attractions.
Newer shows in the parks, like the nightly "Magic, Memories, And You!" extravaganza enraged these people because it projected fan photos on Cinderella's Castle; one segment called it a "magical Powerpoint" presentation. So did tweaks made to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride meant to reflect the hit movies. Technology has caught up to Tomorrowland — they're even making a movie about it — but these fans still prefer yesteryear.
Even at this holy place, there are disagreements about how to worship.
"I officially don't give a crap about Planes," says Jose, a guy who has his finger in several major fan pies. Tall and still holding on to some baby fat at 23, Jose has flown in from Florida for D23 and a few trips to Disneyland. Sure, he loves the straight-to-DVD Tinker Bell movies ("That's one of my deep secrets," he laughs) but he's no Pixie Duster; within the same breath of that confession, he dismisses the studio's latest animated feature.
Growing up in Florida lent itself to frequent trips to Disney World, but it was his discovery of the fan community back in 2006 that provided an entry point to a more focused enthusiasm. One of Jose's sites, Walt Disney World News Today is a competitor of Jeff's site — and when we pass Jeff, who waves, Jose squints and asks me, "Is that the guy from MiceChat?"
But he doesn't really need my confirmation, I don't think.
There are rivalries in the fandom, subcommunities that race to get news first and snipe at their different approaches to appreciating Disney. MiceChat has an older staff that takes deep dives into the company's history, while WDWNT is a more fast-paced outfit concerned with the newest and latest, with photo reports documenting the parks' minutiae. The site bills itself as "D23 Expo Central" and is a lifeline to those that cannot make it to the event.
(Full disclosure: I have a tangential connection to the WDWNT guys; in 2009 or so, I found the site while doing work research. Curious and impressed, I got the bright idea to write a story about its proprietors, so I offered to help them out with social media in order to gain their trust. The arrangement lasted just a few weeks — during which I was incredibly unhelpful.)
Like many Disney bloggers, they incessantly push to know what the Mouse will do next, turning their obsession into a sometimes-cagey relationship with publicists, though it has warmed in recent years. Being at D23 is essential, as Disney higher ups present first looks at new attractions, movies and products, with each announcement earning its own post.
In 2011, the expo was criticized by fans for overcrowding and long lines. Jose laments that it "looks like they're making some of the same mistakes again." That said, it hasn't stopped him from enjoying his time here, or the burger he digs into after a four-hour movie presentation.
Jose works for several sites, including his own network. A Wild Podcast Appears (wink, Pokémon fans) is his personal sounding board, an outlet for the range of his geek obsessions, including tech, comics, video games, and My Little Pony. Yes, Jose is a Brony, and proud of it. The Venn diagram between Disney and Pony fans has a decent-sized center, though few are as willing to talk about their appreciation of Twilight Sparkle and her colorful mare friends.
Joining him on the trip from Florida are WDWNT writers Erik, Pam, and Patty; another guy, Tim, is a local. They all have full-time jobs, making the site a passion project; there are a few sponsors that can cover web hosting fees, but the enterprise is not generating any real profit. I sit down with the group, and they adopt me right away; they're incredibly friendly and generous.
Patty is a professional web designer and volunteers those skills for WDWNT; she started out on Jose's shit list — "she took my job!" he laughs, referring to Patty's position at the site — but she ultimately killed him with kindness. These days, they hit up Disney World together. It's a story that happens with dizzying regularity: Friends meet online through Disney fan sites, then become best friends IRL, and cement their bond on Splash Mountain.
Patty, by the way, just moved down to Orlando from New Hampshire, making the leap to what was her family's annual vacation spot, just three years after graduating college. Tom, WDWNT's founder, just moved to Orlando, as well. A staggering number of transplants migrate to either Orlando or Anaheim; some moving across the country so they can take jobs at the parks, while others do it just so they can buy an annual pass and go every single day. Tom's glad to be done with his New York City to Orlando commute.
Relocating your life into the orbit of a Disney park sounds sort of nuts. At first. But people transplant their lives for careers and romantic relationships all the time — and no job or significant other can guarantee a happily ever after like the Magic Kingdom can.
That kind of certainty doesn't come cheap. The annual park admission rate just jumped up again, to $744 for a resort-wide pass, though it gets sliced down to $621 for in-state Florida residents.
"They do it because they can and we'll still pay," Patty and Pam say, almost in unison.
Jose just shrugs. "It doesn't matter, because we're not going to stop going to Disney. They keep getting record attendance, so they say, 'Oh, we can raise our prices and people will keep going.' … They could charge $8,000 a ticket and people will still go to Disney."
In 2011, there were 17.1 million visitors to the Magic Kingdom in Florida — Disney's three other parks in Orlando each hosted about 10 million visitors — while Disneyland brought in 16 million attendees.
Much like a day at one of the parks, a good chunk of time at D23 is spent waiting in line. There are slow, snaking queues for shows and presentations, as well as long trains of fans eager to scoop up new branded merchandise from three large stores on the premises.
Besides the Disney merchandise, there are partnerships galore: Sephora's Little Mermaid-themed compact mirror for $85. Huffy is selling Mickey and Minnie bikes that look like something out of the 1950s. WDWNT's Patty buys a print of a painting featuring every Disney ginger, while Jose has his eyes on some special D23-exclusive collectibles, which are half the reason to visit the expo at all.
Why do fans want all this stuff in the first place?
"It's something that has triggered something special in them, whether young or old or just a moment in time, that has made them want to come back and back," says Michelle Harker, the communications manager for Disney Parks merchandise. (Michelle is a Disney fan too, though her favorite movie, Lady and the Tramp, is woefully underrepresented in the memorabilia catalog, despite her best efforts.) "I think it's what the company as a whole represents. You hear the news, you see what's going on in the world, and at the end of the day, people want things that are going to make them happy."
But just like park ticket prices, the company's tchotchkse are not inexpensive, and some of the more voracious fans spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on the unending supply of memorabilia and collectors' items. The Collectors' Forum — a huge wing in the back of the first floor showroom — is like a carnival of old merchandise, where small businesses deal pins and Vinylmations (currently, the two hottest Disney collectors items), and fans can purchase old artifacts from the parks, which sometimes reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Several people tell me that they have seen friends driven into debt by the financial toll of keeping up with the constantly updating catalog of merchandise; like anything else, it can become a compulsion.
"If you're not careful, you can really go into deep debt," one fan says. "People spend and spend."
Still, a free market assumes rational actors, and there is no nicotine or any other addictive additive in mouse ears; any company would love to have a product this in demand.
As she picks at her plate of nacho chips (they're corn, so no gluten involved), Cassie laments that her Snow Queen dress isn't up to snuff. It's a notion that her friend Nina finds straight-up ridiculous. "You must be smoking something!" she scoffs.
A few minutes later, Nina — who is in plain clothes but will later join the gang as the sea witch Ursula — springs up when she notices another of her pals, Traci, in a potentially sticky situation. There's some drama that might be going down near the frozen yogurt stand, and she needs to provide backup; a whole lot of jealous haters are gunning for Traci now that she's a big YouTube sensation.
A petite redhead best known for her work impersonating Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Traci Hines is dressed as Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, and wearing a pretty legit-looking blue harem outfit and black wig.
"Some people think I'm just obsessed with being a pretty pretty princess, but I have just as much fun becoming Peter Pan or a grotesque zombie as I do in becoming something glamorous," Traci says. "It's all about the transformation, and expressing myself without limitation."
Traci is wearing darker makeup to look more like the character, about which she's heard some grief, but Traci insists that she just really likes Jasmine, and most people have been quite kind. Turns out that there was no confrontation — all concerned can breathe easy. The buildup around her was just a bunch of curious fans hoping for a photo and a quick word and maybe a quiet gawk.
She says she's been a Disney fan since she saw 1989's The Little Mermaid at age 4.
"I think the first Disney costume I ever wore was a Snow White dress that my grandmother made me," Traci says. "I was so anal about the accuracy and detail of a costume, even then as a little kid, that I got my oil-based crayons out and drew the little red teardrops on the sleeves that she left off. I basically ruined that beautiful dress, but I was satisfied because it was no longer missing a single detail."
Her obsession with detail has helped Traci build a major Instagram following — currently sitting around 39,000 and climbing — for her costuming, which she hopes acts as a bridge to a career in music. Until then, she makes rent by juggling an exhausting schedule of semi-related hustles, like voice-over acting and TV commercials, joined by more independent work that includes designing for her own T-shirt line and handcrafting made-to-order character wigs.
The Disney connection is starting to provide a glimpse of a payday, too, starting with the opportunity to sing a Phineas & Ferb song for the mobile game Tap Tap Revenge. Last December, she introduced the world to a live-action music video for her cover of the Little Mermaid standard "A Part of Your World," which has become her sort of unofficial anthem. In the clip, she beckons and smiles coyly, tossing her long blood-red hair in ways that suggest things that animation cannot. It is Lady Gaga as a Disney princess, sans irony or the dubious and tired recontextualization. The video has nearly half a million views on YouTube.
And here is an unexpected side of D23: It's a place for celebrity fans to greet their own audience.
Later Traci — dressed as her trademark Ariel — takes pictures with eager expo attendees. And elsewhere in the vast showroom, former Snow Queen Cassie poses as Tinker Bell in her own unplanned meet-and-greet. Things can get perilous; one fan asks Cassie to pose with her legs spread toward him, a request she rightly tells him where to shove. Traci is similarly tough in the face of creeps.
"I'm not a huge fan of photographers at conventions who try to tell you how to pose, and ask for certain poses or facial expressions that the cosplayer may not be comfortable with — I don't budge on things like that," she says. "I'm not shy about letting them know I'm uncomfortable with the situation. Just because someone is in a costume doesn't give people the right to treat them any differently, or with any less respect."
Saturday evening, MiceChat sponsors a big shindig for bloggers and fans at the hotel where Jeff and his family are staying. It is the eve of the last day of D23, and the last two days have provided a lot to discuss — though Jeff's stepson-to-be Alex just mostly wants to talk about Dog With A Blog, the Disney Channel show with the most direct title of all time.
Jeff often has Alex channel his prodigious monologue talents into his own special segment on a podcast; it brings the new family together. In Just Ask Alex, fans send in questions about Disney Parks for him to answer with his precocious fifth-grade enthusiasm. In one episode, he professes his love for the Pirates ride and its new, movie-related elements, which would put him at odds with Pixie Dusters.
Rolly the Imagineer holds court at the party, continuing to be treated like a ghost whisperer and living legend. A handful of Disney employees spend their downtime as civilian fans, dishing small bits of gossip from behind-the-scenes. Trips to the park are planned for the next day and the coming months. Business cards — every fan blogger has one — are passed around, as are photos of a puppy just adopted by one of the forum regulars.
At some point, I step back and soak in the scene. The attendance is teetering on triple digits, drinks are being passed around, glasses clink, and beer goes down in between laughs. You wouldn't know they're there to talk about Disney — save for some of their T-shirts — and it's almost irrelevant; they talk a lot about the fandom being a community, and that's what I'm seeing here.
This is why they come to D23.
"I love the stuff I uncover, I love talking to the old guard of Imagineers, and I love writing about it," Jeff tells me. "But I love being a part of this community as well. A lot of them have become like family to me. This is what brought us together; even though we have a lot of interest outside of Disney, if it wasn't for this Disney community, we would have never become friends."