We need to talk about Disney adults. But not for the reasons you might think.
Disney adults — grown-ups who enjoy Disney parks and films without children — are a frequent and predictable target on social media. Most recently, Twitter erupted because a Reddit poster shared that she and her spouse hadn’t provided food for their wedding guests so they could afford to have Mickey and Minnie present for their photos.
Obviously not everyone wants to go there to experience these big life cycle events — but as long as they aren’t starving their wedding guests, what harm are Disney adults doing?
The outrage over this decision quickly spiraled into hatred for Disney adults more generally. The bride had defended the decision by saying Disney was an “important part” of not only their life “but also our marriage.” Many critics thought this was crazy, and definitely not a good thing. “Disney adults will cause the downfall of this nation, mark my words,” wrote one disparager.
To be clear: The original poster and her husband were supremely inhospitable to their guests. It was no “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding or Polyphemus eating Odysseus’ men. It was, nonetheless, a serious betrayal of the guest-host relationship. The characters’ appearance cost over $5,000 that was originally intended for the catering budget ($5,000 doesn’t buy much at Disney but it would certainly buy a lot of Dole Whip).
But calling this couple insane overlooks a world of profound practices that happen at Disney. Since 2019, I’ve been researching how the Walt Disney Company intersects with religion. What qualifies as a “religion” tends to be in the eye of the beholder — but Disney is most certainly religion-adjacent. The opening day consecration of Disneyland in 1955 reflected a “tri-faith America” with its Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains (albeit mostly Protestant, as only that chaplain spoke). Ever since, many people have referred to their Disney trips as a “pilgrimage.”
Once there, thousands participate in rituals, like wedding proposals, birthday celebrations and pregnancy announcements. The Disney fans I’ve observed in the parks and online find immense meaning there. People don’t just celebrate at Disney. They mourn lost relatives at Disneyland. They go to Disney World to mark surviving cancer. They go there for one last trip before they die.
For some people — both those who have another “traditional” religion and those who don’t — the promise of magic at Disney and the feelings they get there are powerful. I’ve seen people cry at the fireworks. Many times.
Obviously not everyone wants to go there to experience these big life cycle events — but as long as they aren’t starving their wedding guests, what harm are Disney adults doing? (And for the record, in studying Disney adults, I have not come across evidence that they routinely stiff their guests more than other people.)
Yet the Reddit post — even if it was fake, as some have speculated — led to viral vitriol directed at Disney adults as a whole that reveals our discomfort with joy, play and schmaltzy sentiment, especially those that are associated with women and children.
If we want to have empathy for other humans — or at least reserve judgment until we know more — we should strive to understand what makes them tick, whether it’s a theme park, a church or a bit of both. That’s why scholars of religion have been taking Disney seriously since the early 1980s. Religion, after all, isn’t just about belief; it’s about a “network of relationships between heaven and earth involving people of all ages as well as the different sacred figures they hold dear,” according to religious studies scholar Robert Orsi. Religions are practices in which people “intensify joy and confront suffering.” That happens in Disney parks — and on the TV screens of Disney fans — every day, all over the world.
When I argued this point on Twitter, there was a mountain of backlash. One common criticism was that perhaps I was right — Disney is a religion, or near to one — and that’s bad, either because corporations are exploitative or because if something is tainted by commerce, it’s not a “real” religion.
Yes, Disney’s immense cultural power is an example of capitalism on steroids, and the company’s track record has some problems. But it is also a story-telling company, which is why people invest so much in its worlds. One of the reasons religions are powerful is because people tell these stories over and over, across generations. Even people who don’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible often find great emotional resonance in stories of exodus and liberation, for instance.
Just because Disney fan practices are deeply capitalistic does not mean that they aren’t also deeply meaningful — and at times spiritual. That Disney’s creative works have made money doesn’t prevent fans from being genuinely moved by “When You Wish Upon a Star” or crying when the family comes together at the end of “Encanto.”
The corporation has also been considered as an organization through which people forge their identities, one that can be understood using the intellectual toolkit of religious studies — and Disney, whose training course for new employees is called “Traditions” and revolves around “Four Keys,” is a rich example. It’s like the Five Pillars of Islam or the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, but for a company.
The criticism of Disney adults doesn’t only stem from their heartfelt devotion to a megacorporation, however. Disney is dismissed because its fandom is often gendered as female (or effeminate) or caricatured as obsessive, limited and perversely childlike. Disney adults are mocked as “overgrown children” or for being overly emotional women. Think pieces on Disney adults also frequently focus on women. Check out the website Etsy, where a woman’s Disney-themed shirt says “Best day ever” while the man’s says “Most expensive day ever,” implying that the man is footing the bill for female obsession.
There is something serious going on here — something that demeans women, who have been infantilized quite a bit throughout American history. As I’ve written elsewhere, we are quicker to pathologize women’s habits (or those of anyone nonbinary) than men’s. We are quicker to condemn fandoms understood to be “for women” or girls than others. (Beyond the male/female binary, the hate gets even louder.) Sports — coded male — are certainly criticized, too, but they are also taken so seriously that the winners of major sporting events are invited to the White House.
Does religion — or fan adoration — excuse bad behavior? No. I’m glad I wasn’t at that wedding. But I want to understand it, and other weddings like it, and why people, including many women, love Disney so much that they build their lives around it.
So, criticize people for not feeding their guests — by all means. No one would have complained about Mickey and Minnie if they also got a churro. But the next time you hate on Disney adults, think twice about the source of that hatred.