How 'Disney Adults' Became the Most Hated Group on the Internet

By all reasonable definitions and standards, I am a Disney Adult. I have seen all of the movies multiple times, and enjoy most of them at least a little bit. I have strong opinions on various developments in the theme park ecosystem: the rebranding of Splash Mountain (staunchly pro!), the new exorbitantly priced Star Wars resort (con), the new Genie + ride reservation system (con, and which I feel more passionately about than most voter reform legislation). And I’ve adopted a strategy of Germanic efficiency toward conquering the massive crowds and wait times at the U.S. parks. I’m one of those people who scream “Bob and weave! Bob and weave!” when trying to navigate my family through the swells of humanoid mozzarella sticks on Main Street, so we can make our 6:30 dinner reservation at the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a $17 oversalted margarita.

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On the internet, however, being a Disney adult is nothing short of an embarrassment. A Disney adult is someone who lives and breathes the brand, buying limited-edition mouse ears and popcorn buckets and branded fitness trackers the moment they drop, constantly posting free advertisements for the park in the form of Cinderella’s Castle and Purple Wall selfies (so named for the violently mauve wall in Tomorrowland) whilst wearing rose-gold mouse ears. To declare oneself a Disney fan in adulthood is to profess to being nothing less than an uncritical bubblehead ensconced in one’s own privilege, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, raised on a diet of WASP-waisted princesses and talking-animal sidekicks and dancing candelabras, refusing to acknowledge the grim reality that dreams really don’t come true.

Nowhere was this distaste drawn into sharper relief than earlier this month, when a post on Reddit’s Am I the Asshole forum went massively viral. The post, which was reportedly written by a bride who had opted to pay for Mickey and Minnie to appear at her wedding rather than feed her guests, was, like most things on Reddit, anonymously written and poorly sourced. Yet it hit a nerve with exasperated internet denizens, who posted thousands of comments excoriating the author before moderators shut down the thread. The reaction was swift and vicious. “People were saying Disney fans are a plague upon society, that they will be the end of Western civilization,” says Jodi Eichler Levine, a professor of religious studies at Lehigh University who studies the intersection of Disney and religion.

Is this accurate? Do Disney adults truly signal the end of Western civilization? Or are they simply just mildly annoying stans with an insanely high threshold for expensive mixed drinks? To find out, and to learn where the concept of the “Disney adult” comes from in the first place, I talked to a slew of academics, internet culture, and fandom experts, and yes, Disney adults.

The Cringe Factor

In my discussions with other Disney fans and experts, the word that kept coming up was, simply “cringe.” On its most basic level, it strikes outsiders as deeply embarrassing to throw oneself into a subculture ostensibly aimed at children — despite the fact that the Disney parks, as Walt Disney first conceived of them, were very much intended for people of all ages. “A lot of people see it as very naive. It’s a lot of escapism and if that works for you, then it works very well. And if it doesn’t, it has the opposite effect,” says Sabrina Mittermeier, a Disney fan and postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in American Cultural History at the University of Kassel, Germany.

With its emphasis on selling “magic moments” and “making dreams come true,” Disney sells a rather unsophisticated version of wish fulfillment to consumers, who willingly spend thousands of dollars on an authentic emotional experience that they know, at least one some level, isn’t really authentic at all. “One of the reasons people find Disney adults so abject is that they decide to live in this world because they can, if they pay enough money or buy all the merch; it almost signals a break from regular society or real life,” says Idil Galip, a PhD candidate in sociology who studies memes and fandoms. “It’s very commercialized and engineered and focus grouped; there’s a whole lot of work that goes into selling this sort of experience. So it’s sort of all perpetuated in this sickly capitalistic cycle.”

Adding an extra layer of repulsion for outsiders, Disney adults’ ability to escape into this fantasy is almost entirely dependent on their ability to afford it. Given how expensive merch, park entry, and resort reservations are, with vacations costing thousands of dollars at a minimum, it requires a great deal of economic capital to devote oneself to the fandom. As a result, “you probably have a lot less white middle to upper class women in any of the other fandoms,” Mittermeier says. “There’s more Karens in the Disney fandom than others.” This overwhelming representation within the fandom is not lost on many Disney fans of color, who are well aware of the company’s roots in white, Judeo-Christian middle American values, and often feel alienated from the rest of the community.

“When Disney first had media events that’s all you saw: white women in their early- to late-twenties enjoying the parks, who adhered to a certain cookie cutter mold,” says Victoria Wade, a content creator who goes by @pineappleprincess340 on TikTok. “Disney has gotten better with who they invite to help them promote new park offerings. But most of the time it’s the white millennial female, and as a content creator it makes me feel like: Am I being heard, am I being seen, am I not being chosen for some opportunities because of my race?”

Is galactic starcruiser a failure? #galacticstarcruiser #letsdiscuss #starwars #disneyparks #waltdisneyworld #disneyresorts

♬ The Force Theme (From “Star Wars”) – Piano Version – Patrik Pietschmann