Melissa Tierney owns more than 400 pairs of Mickey Mouse ears. As an annual passholder living in Los Angeles, she visits Disney parks multiple times per month. She and her husband have Disney decor in every room of their house. Their dog, Leia, is a living, breathing (adorable) reminder of her love for Star Wars, a Disney-owned franchise. Internet trolls call her a “Disney adult,” and she proudly agrees.
“I definitely don’t see [the controversial label] as a negative connotation,” the 31-year-old marketer says. As a part-time influencer with more than 200,000 Instagram followers, Tierney enjoys tons of perks, including free merch and sometimes even a comped vacation. Sure, she receives hate comments on her Disney posts, but she remains undeterred.
Other fans feel differently. “I’ve never heard another activity or interest be described as ‘fill in the blank’ adult,” says Kate*, a 30-year-old data scientist from Florida. She calls her 2019 wedding, which was held at the Orlando resort, “peak Disney adult,” but stops short of identifying herself as such since “the phrasing makes the interest seem inherently childish,” she says. Or take it from 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 go on rides. I have a mixtape.”
Indeed, among nonfans, the term is often used derogatorily, a weapon to lambaste grown-up Disney lovers for doing everything from dressing like the characters (arguably harmless) to sobbing over Splash Mountain’s rebrand to distance the ride from its racist roots (worthy of criticism).
And while the 18-and-older members of the fandom are largely considered an anomaly to outsiders, a 2018 Disney World demographics study found that only about a third of visitors came from households with children. What’s up with the other two-thirds? Isn’t Disney supposed to be for kids?
Actually, wrong. Walt Disney himself was inspired to create the first park after a disappointing visit to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where his two young daughters rode the merry-go-round and he sat on the sidelines. He wanted to create a place where “the parents and the children could have fun together,” he explained in a 1963 interview.
That fun isn’t cheap. A park trip can reportedly be more expensive than a European vacation — a five-day visit costs an estimated $6,033 for a family of four — and the destination’s prices outpace inflation. So how does one justify going multiple times per year, let alone per month? Do Disney adults experience some form of “magic” that the rest of us don’t?
Disney Knows What It’s Doing
The architecture of the parks was created using psychology principles to keep visitors coming back for more, from the visual landmarks to the way guests line up for rides. “[Walt] Disney and his Imagineers created an immersive world where every moment is part of a bigger narrative,” customer experience expert Jennifer Clinehens wrote in her 2020 book, Choice Hacking. “Stories make visitors feel like they’re part of the magic.”
Plus, Disney has to appeal to adults: For families with children, the parents have the purchasing power. “Disney is a marketing machine,” Amber Sargeant, a registered psychologist, tells Bustle. And what primarily powers it? Nostalgia, “a chemical reaction in the brain that causes the release of dopamine and serotonin — happy hormones.”
Those commercials showing children grinning on the teacup ride appeal to kids as well as adults who are eager to recapture that pure bliss of youth. And those oft-ridiculed meet-and-greets between adults and costumed characters? It’s not like these people actually believe their favorite princesses and anthropomorphic animals have come to life — but it can transport them to a time when they did. Case in point: Tierney had two of her favorite characters from childhood, Mickey and Minnie, show up at a couple of her wedding events. It cost her $2,070 and was “worth every penny,” she says.
Disney Revives Core Memories — And Helps Create New Ones
Not to get all therapy-speak, but yes, everyone has an inner child, and many of them crave the safety and innocence Disney has to offer. “When in childhood we don’t get our needs met, it’s not uncommon for us to try and meet those needs in adulthood,” Sargeant says.
Tierney has seen this firsthand. “There are a lot of Disney adults I’m friends with who had really rough childhoods,” she says. “Disney is like an outlet for them to feel like they’re having the childhood they didn’t get to have.”
Sometimes people just want to recapture the magic of their Disney memories, which is the case for Tierney. “I grew up with Disney because my parents loved bringing us there. Those are my fondest vacation memories,” she says.
According to clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., “[Disney parks are] one of the few places you can go back to,” she says. “You can actually recreate that nostalgic feeling within your control.” It’s an experience that seems to stand still in time — you may grow up, but the music, the characters, even the smells remain largely the same.
This nostalgia isn’t limited to childhood memories. Tierney will always associate the Disney resort in Hawai’i with getting engaged, the Orlando parks with her (sponsored) bachelorette party, and Epcot with her wedding reception. When the time is right, she wants to have her baby shower in one of the parks. “It makes sense. Every milestone has been there,” she says.
It’s A Sweet Escape
For some people, Disney can also be a helpful distraction. Victoria Wade, 30, grew up liking the movies and parks, but became a true devotee in 2012, when she did an internship with the Disney College Program.
“I’d lost my mother, and there was a lot of stuff going on in my home life,” says Wade, a Baltimore-based travel agent and theme park influencer. During the internship, Wade lived in Disney-provided housing and worked at a Hollywood Studios restaurant — a job she calls a great experience. “The college program helped me take time to figure my life out and what I wanted to do next.”
Wade acknowledges that some Disney adults lean a little too hard into the brand’s escapism. After her internship, she was one of them. “[I relied] on it to fill gaps for issues I didn’t want to face, including personal trauma,” she says. After time and therapy, her relationship with Disney became much healthier, she says, although she still appreciates its escapist fun.
But for many Disney adults, the escapism doesn’t run that deep. They have jobs, bills, and to-do lists at home. There’s an allure to spending time in a place, either physical or on-screen, where those responsibilities aren’t front and center. “I work full time, so my Monday through Friday is pretty stressful,” Tierney says. “At the park, [I’ll notice] I have 30,000 emails, and I’m like, ‘OK, I need a Mickey pretzel to just calm down.’”
However, limited-edition products are another story. “There are certain items that become a must-have, [like] a Disney 100 [item] or Disney Designer collection ears,” Tierney says. As a self-described “shopaholic,” Tierney doesn’t have much of a budget for these purchases. “It’s more a space issue versus financial when it comes to the Disney merch.”
Passionate Fandoms Produce In-Groups… And Outsiders
For Anmari Pagtalunan, a 23-year-old creator based in California, one of the most magical aspects of Disney is the community it provides. “For the longest time, I felt very isolated in my interests,” she says. “At 18, I started my Disney social media accounts and now can engage with so many people who love the same things I love.”
Sargeant believes this sense of community is a major factor that turns adults who like Disney into adults who love it. “Humans by nature are pack animals, and we thrive being in groups,” she says. “Sports, for example, create close-knit communities, as do fans of pop stars like Taylor Swift.”
Disney adults are no different. “When they find people who they can relate to, who don’t judge them, I think it’s extremely healthy,” Zuckerman says.
These bonds can be incredibly tight. Esteban Valerio, a stage manager who’s worked at the company since 2011, met some of his closest friends when they were all tour guides. “We’re like family. We travel together. I’m going to be in someone’s wedding,” he says. Earlier this month, he explored Japan with one of these friends, and — thanks to the time difference — visited two parks in one day. “I spent two hours [at Tokyo Disneyland], left Tokyo at 4:45 p.m., landed at LAX at 11 a.m., and came straight to Disneyland.” (He has a tradition of swinging by the park after flights.)
But where there’s an in-group, there’s bound to be an out-group. Valerio theorizes that people who judge Disney adults simply haven’t opened their eyes to the magic yet. “Once they enter our parks, or see why we love this place so much, they’ll understand,” he says.
The side-eye might also be linked to a subconscious envy, Sargeant says. “Humans do not enjoy what we can’t understand and can feel threatened by things that fall outside the norm of societal expectations.” Hate to break it to the haters, but maybe, deep down, we all secretly wish we had the confidence to love a hobby so publicly and unabashedly.
That might be why critics don’t usually deter passionate fans. “People are afraid to admit that they love Disney because they think it’s childish,” Tierney says. “But when you’re an adult, what’s childish is hiding what you enjoy. You should just be who you are.”
*Last name has been omitted for privacy.
Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist