In Defense of Disney Adults


Growing up, going to Disney World was what I imagined being invited to the Met Gala. My dad was booking the trip to Orlando months in advance and we were going shopping for flowery shirts at Marshalls in anticipation of the sticky Florida heat. I was making a list of all the characters I wanted autographs for – Stitch, Pluto and Mickey were non-negotiable. My uncles and my grandmother came from Mexico to meet us and we spent a weekend indulging in the theme park, riding roller coasters, petting robot animals and eating cotton candy on Main Street . While the trip may seem like a sweet memory, for Pa being able to take us to Disney World was a huge source of pride. It was his way of giving us the kind of childhood he could only dream of.

These are some of the warmest, most carefree memories I have of our early years in the United States. meaning, was worth it. The theme parks buzzed with the feeling that there were no limits to what I could dream up and taking pictures with characters was like meeting long lost friends. At Disney World, I didn’t have to worry about what anyone would think of my thick Spanish accent or my “smelly” lunches — I could just be a kid.

Of course, in real life, Disney is far from a beacon of love and acceptance: the franchise has, more than once, been accused mistreating its employees. They were also recently embroiled in the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill controversy in Florida, but seem to be try to do the good thing.

Disney’s genius lies not in anything real, but rather in its ability to appeal to a base level of human desire that wants to believe that anything is possible. But that fantasy is also why, like many adults, I’ve outgrown anything Disney and its theme parks. It all seems too contrived for my taste. That wasn’t the case for many of our immigrant childhood friends, many in their 20s and 30s, who still make the pilgrimage to the Disney parks every year without fail and faithfully document them in their IG stories.

They are what we are now derogatory call “Disney Adults”, a term that conjures up images of virgins in their forties, wearing glasses and wearing glasses. Disney’s adult slander has come to a head on social networks recently; something about seeing adults wearing Mickey Mouse ears in front of Magic Mountain apparently makes us deeply uncomfortable.

But as fun as it is to hate Disney adults, there was a time in my life when the idea of ​​Disney was so inextricably tied to assimilation and American exceptionalism that, to some degree, I feel for them. The psyche of non-white, immigrant Disney adults seems a bit more nuanced and complicated than the idea that they’re just adults with Peter Pan Syndrome. And so I decided to explore their love for the culture and why non-white Disney adults idolize the brand so much.

Disney represented the American dream

For starters, Disney is arguably synonymous with the American Dream. You can trade Disney’s brand image with how the United States sells itself to the rest of the world, especially to immigrants: The Most Magical Place on Earth. Beyond that, Disney is obsessed with tales of the underdog and the idea that if you dream hard enough, you can make it happen. It’s the reason my parents and many other immigrants leave places like Mexico, where corruption makes most aspirations dead on arrival.

Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, her husband and friends at Disney World in 2018

This sense of boundless optimism is at least part of the reason why Disney stories can be so intoxicating for immigrants. “While traditional fairy tales and cultural fables largely function as cautionary tales, Disney films are success stories. They highlight the victory and triumph of its protagonists against overwhelming odds, a singular theme that has become all brand,” Josiah Teng, a New York-based therapist, tells me. “Messages like ‘wish for a star,’ ‘live happily ever after,’ and ‘dreams come true’ all resonate with minorities or individuals from backgrounds underprivileged who are striving to succeed in this world. In other words, Disney is repackaging capitalist notions of the American Dream and making them cozy and comforting. For immigrants who have already taken the plunge and settled in the United States, such illusions can be much-needed sources of hope.

On that note, I wondered if adults at Disney actually felt like Disney was helping them imagine possibilities outside of their immediate situation. For Adalyss Ruiz, a 22-year-old Latinx administrative assistant living in New York, Disney films were one of the few ways of escape. “As a kid, we couldn’t afford much, but we had little fun watching VHS tapes of Disney movies and watching them with my siblings,” she tells me. But not being able to afford to go to the parks until she was 15 was a source of frustration, she says, and perhaps the reason why she is now making up for lost time.

Not all immigrants and people of color can have idyllic, carefree childhoods, and returning to Disney as adults can be a way to seek out that bygone joy. “For adult viewers, if their on-screen protagonist can find victory and success despite their traumatic upbringing, maybe they can too,” Teng tells me.

Disney offered flawed but early representation

Yet there was a central contradiction in my mind about POC adults loving Disney, a franchise with a incredibly racist story and whose fan base is cataloged as painfully white. “For better or worse, when I think of the Disney adult stereotype, I think of a blonde white woman with beach waves buying a ton of merchandise to resell online, and that’s definitely not me”, Maya Marlette, 28 years old. -former publisher of children’s books, tells me. “While we are seeing a change in representation, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. So maybe I like Disney, but I don’t feel like Disney likes people like me. Bria Sadler, a 21-year-old historian, told me that this racism is why Facebook groups like “Black Girls at Disneyare needed – to essentially be the representation they want to see in the brand.

Maya Marlette in Disney World

But this is also where things can get a little complicated. While most non-white people are aware of the racism of the franchise (the Siamese cat scene in lady and the tramp still gives me nightmares), Disney movies were also the first time many of us saw ourselves portrayed, even if that portrayal was more than a little screwed up.

Chyana Deschamps, an aboriginal Canadian writer, surprised me when she told me that Pocahontas was his favorite Disney movie. “It was the only depiction in Disney movies of Native Americans at the time, except for Tigerlily in Peter Pan,” she tells me. “It tapped into my culture, it made me feel seen and it was beautiful.”

Mulan had an equally strong impact on West Asian communities, whose representation in pop culture was limited to Kung Fu films and Vietnam War films. “The moment I consciously fell in love with Disney with all my heart was when Mulan came out. Although she was of Chinese descent, I identified with her so much because she was the most close that looked like me,” Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, a 28-year-old Asian American business owner, tells me. For me, Mulan was that movie, too.

Disney World offered a protective bubble of the “real” America

Regardless of what our childhoods were like, there’s a part of us all that longs for a time when our naivety made us believe in the possibility of things. When my own family immigrated to Dallas from Mexico, I believed we were coming to the Promised Land, the happiest places on earth. What I found instead was a country teeming with xenophobia, racism and queerphobia. Disney movies and theme parks were the few places where the America I dreamed of still existed, a place where being different made you truly magical.

Eventually I moved to New York and was able to find a diverse community that accepted me. I recognize that others are not so lucky. Before talking to these adults at Disney, I assumed they would be childish, in denial, or even somewhat delusional. What I found instead was a group of people who were acutely aware of their place in this country, but who chose to keep the promise offered by Disney. Some people might think that’s childish on its own, but I think there’s something admirable about it. Disney allowed them to dream in a society that robs them of that luxury in many other ways.

“Going to Disneyland takes us back to the happy times in our lives when I could take a break and escape the heaviness of being an Asian-American immigrant daughter,” Aurelio-Sagui tells me. “Disney was where my parents let their kids’ imaginations run wild and were part of the stories we loved so much.”

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