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These days even a passing interest in Disney seems to descend into an obsession that overtakes not just a millennial's social media feeds but, in a way, her entire life. Trips to Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World are a given, of course. Then come the Disney-inspired podcasts, trendy clothing lines, and non-cheesy jewelry collections. The arrival of Disney+, the entertainment conglomerate's new streaming platform, was such a success that more than 10 million people signed up within 24 hours of its launch. Instagram influencers have swapped photo shoots on the streets of New York or L.A. for grid-friendly moments in front of princess castles and haunted mansions. In their comments and captions you'll see inside jokes about straws and old Disney Channel promos, and there’s a lilac-hued wall in Florida so popular that Disney sells $50 windbreakers in its likeness.
But falling down the Disney rabbit hole isn’t just an homage to Alice in Wonderland—it’s an inevitability spurred by how absolutely massive the brand has become. From nostalgic live-action remakes to theme parks that offer a place for flush millennials to go beyond ice cream museums and matcha tea cafés, it’s a boom time to be an adult who loves Disney. And while the conglomerate declined to provide any concrete numbers to Glamour, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) reports that destination theme park attendance rose nearly 4% last year (the largest gain in three years). More important: IAAPA says spending at parks like Disney World and Disneyland is projected to increase to $20.7 billion by 2023.
A large part of that is owed to the social power of the Disney community. While it's not surprising that women who grew up watching films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid might carry their fandom into adulthood, it's another thing to see it in action. These women don't just connect through social media, you see; they'll meet up throughout the year at the parks as well as the big event: Disney’s biennial fan club convention, D23 Expo. This August tens of thousands of Disney obsessives descended upon a convention center blocks from Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, to watch never-before-seen trailers of new Star Wars films, purchase collectible merchandise, and witness theme park news breaking IRL. I was one of them.
It’s a “let those freak flags fly” kind of vibe at D23 Expo—no one’s the odd woman out here—but the women I spoke with are also open about their life outside Disney. They're entrepreneurs, artists, inventors, and teachers. They run marathons and plan girls' nights with friends. They’re definitely more than, as one woman yelled on the Internet, "childless millennials" who "throw away their money" on Mickey pretzels. They're proof that loving Disney as an adult isn’t weird, as the New York Post contended. It can be deeply meaningful.
Take Sami Isidro, for example. The art teacher flew from Hawaii—with a sewing machine in tow, no less—just to experience the convention in a full-scale re-creation of a limited-edition Princess Jasmine doll that she’d sewn herself. She says her fandom really ramped up at 20, after she moved to Orlando to participate in Disney's College Program.
Patty Holliday, who’s attended three D23 Expos now, says her first visit to Walt Disney World was on her honeymoon—but after the loss of her son Jacob in 2005, the resort took on a deeper meaning. For her, visits to Orlando help keep his spirit alive. “It's the last place that my entire family can be together, in a sense,” she explains. “I cherish the park visits with the kids because of those early visits with Jacob.” Now a full-time Disney blogger, Holliday is particularly passionate about the seasonal RunDisney events through Walt Disney World. She’s completed nearly two dozen and credits running through Cinderella Castle as her motivation. “Disney means pretty much everything to me,” she says. “It's where the stories are told, the memories are made, and my bravery was found.”
When I talked with Lisa Basilio, she was wrapped in swaths of sea foam green tulle in homage to Moana’s Te Fiti. It was so elaborate I found it hard to believe she’s never done this before; Basilio has always been a fan—she even got married at Disneyland—but D23 Expo 2019 was her first foray into wearing intricate costumes in public. “It’s such an amazing place where people feel safe,” she says of Disneyland. “They let go of their stress from the real world and adults become kids again. It’s an amazing transformation, and I love to be a part of that.”
For these women, and most people at D23 Expo for that matter, being a Disney fan is more about friendship, community, and sisterhood than any love of the mouse. Below, we talk with more women at the fan convention who break down why Disney is so important to them. Turns out it’s not such a small world after all.
Sarah Sterling and Tiff Mink
Best friends and fixtures of the Disney community, Sarah Sterling and Tiff Mink are an example of how Mickey and Co. have helped women discover their creative outlets as well as a chosen family. Shortly after they met five years ago, the two collaborated on a YouTube channel called ThingamaVlogs—a play on The Little Mermaid’s underwater trinket collection—which featured a mix of planning tips, comedy videos, and travel vlogs that clocked more than 70,000 subscribers. ThingamaVlogs is no longer active, but the women now have their own individual YouTube channels devoted to all things Disney.
The two are like anthropologists of post-’90s Mickey Mouse culture, and they do so flawlessly. "Instagram truly changed everything for the Disney community," Sterling says, crediting the platform’s explosive growth and easily accessible format for making Disney cooler than ever before. “Park culture,” as she calls it, has snowballed in turn, yielding its own trends, styles, and subcultures. The more the merrier, Sterling says. “All I ever wanted in middle school was people to talk to about Disney Parks, and now there’s hundreds of thousands of people,” she adds. A lifelong goal was finally realized earlier this year, when she began working for Walt Disney Imagineering on the Star Wars global portfolio.
Mink, a content creator, says she didn’t visit the theme parks frequently when she was growing up but held a prevailing passion for all things Disney, including an obsession with Disney Channel films that extended through college. "Ride-or-die Disney fans," as Mink puts it, these friends say they love every aspect of Disney: the history, lore, design, animation, all of it. At D23 Expo, Mink even served as something of a litmus test for in-the-know fans. She dressed as legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter, complete with rolled-up ride blueprints in a leather satchel. While we talked, several stopped her to rave about her appliquéd mustache and Imagineering hard hat. Others strolled past without a word.
Though it's not exactly niche to be an adult who's into Disney anymore, Mink and Sterling still feel some judgment come their way. “People just think it’s weird because they have this idea that Disney is for children,” Mink says. But for her, it's no different than a football fan traveling to see the Super Bowl in person. “Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean it's weird.”
Ultimately, both have seen their fandom pay off in dividends across all aspects of their lives—especially in their connection to each other. “We have such a deeply rooted passion for the same thing,” Mink explains. “I feel like Sarah is truly my sister. She’s my best friend, I would do anything in the world for her, and we literally only met because we were both obsessed with Disney.”
Sterling echoes this. “The word magical is so corny, especially in a Disney context, but it truly is magical that I have these lifelong friends just because people love Disney,” she says. “The power of fandom is really, super-overwhelmingly emotional for me. I don’t know what my life making Disney content and participating in fan culture would be like without [Mink].”
With steadfast originality and an open commentary on anxiety and mental health, Keshia Sih-Tseng is part of a crop of Disney style influencers, like Chelsea Watson and Tanya K. Olivarez, who are doing things on their own terms. Sih-Tseng scours secondhand stores, resale shops, and Rent the Runway’s $159 monthly unlimited subscription to piece together environmentally friendly Disney-inspired looks that she posts daily at @KeshiaSih. For D23 Expo this year, she went all out with Mulan through the decades, which she wore to each day of the event.
“I feel like it’s literally consumed my entire life,” Sih-Tseng says while dressed as a ’70s take on Mulan, her favorite princess. “All day, every day, I’m thinking about Disney.” Keshia has a full-time job in educational sales, but she hits Disneyland each Saturday and Sunday with a backpack full of looks and her husband, Kevin, on camera duty. It’s a slog, but she says it's worth it.
“I think I’ve just been so blessed,” she says. “Everybody who follows me and I’ve become friends with on Instagram is so supportive and so nice, and I think part of that helps keep me going and wanting to do more and create more.”
It’s a sentiment proven true moments later, when Sih-Tseng cheerfully greets her friend Dolly Genovese at the expo. The two grew up in the same neighborhood and have mutual friends, but they became close only recently because of their mutual interests. “Through this whole Disney community we reconnected,” says Genovese. “Now Keshia's like a baby sister to me.”
Lauren Puga, Mal Smith, and Jenna Walker
Lauren Puga, Jenna Walker and Mal Smith grew up in the “Disney Renaissance”—aka the ’90s, when basements had VHS tapes of animated Disney films piled as high as the stuffed animals at the local mall's Disney Store. Because they are self-declared theme park people, the Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment and Star Wars by way of Lucasfilm only increased their love for the brand.
The trio say they don't go to the parks to relive their youth, though. Smith, Puga, and Walker all have successful careers in creative industries and approach Disneyland like a city’s downtown rather than a family-friendly vacation resort. They're not alone: With a rotating offering of seasonal Instagram-ready treats, celebrity chef partnerships, and a record for being the single largest employer of sommeliers, Disney’s Parks & Resorts have a lot to entice adults with money to spend. To Internet savvy, culturally involved guests like these three, Disneyland provides the same experiences they’d have elsewhere, only better. (Case in point: Carthay Circle Restaurant’s famed martini.)
When asked about the stigma attached to adult women visiting the parks, they shut it down. As these three see it, everyone’s a fan of something—why should enjoying a roller coaster through space in an intergalactic Tomorrowland be so different? “People are always going to judge no matter what,” says Walker. “You just have to sort of own what you love and be proud of that. Maybe they’ll never understand, but they’re missing out on something pretty special, and that’s okay. More for us in the long run.”
On the surface you might just see a group of friends attending D23 Expo in regular clothes. Look closer, though, and you'll notice they're dressed as Toy Story characters. That's the beauty of Disneybounding, the concept of melding personal style with a Disney character's essence for a look only true fans will understand. Like a secret handshake but with clothes. Not costumes but a lifestyle—one that originated from Leslie Kay, an entrepreneur based in Canada. It started with themed Polyvore flatlay sets nine years ago; now it's a full movement that boasts more than a million Instagram hashtags. As the co-owner of Cakeworthy, a ’90s pop-culture-inspired clothing and accessories line producing officially licensed merchandise, she’s parlayed her love of all things Disney into a business whose items are sold on the company's own website.
Kay also met friends Alyssa Swann, Erika Kurzawa, Alisa Wong, and Colette Vignocchi through the online Disneybounding community. The five dressed as Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Forky, Jessie, and Bo Peep at D23 Expo this year.
When I ask about their devotion to Disney, the women say seeing themselves onscreen via the increased diversity in Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel films has only grown their attachment to the brand. Swann, for example, says she didn’t see herself onscreen in a Disney film until 2017’s Coco. “Growing up, you didn’t see Mexican culture [onscreen],” she says. “It feels good to see that representation. This is how people live.”
Wong agrees, “There’s something that speaks to everybody, especially now, and I think it’s getting better and expanding.”
Still, it’s embodying those characters through Disneybounding that brings this group the most joy. They say the community has encouraged each to improve in their own way, whether it’s breaking out of a shell, forging connections and friendships, or expressing oneself through fashion. For Kurzawa, discovering a place she fit in was tantamount. “I’ve always felt like a bit of an oddball, even when I was little,” she explains. “But then I found this community of people who are just like me [and thought], Wait, maybe I’m not so odd after all.”
Essentially, Disneybounding isn’t about dressing like a character but rather finding a distinct personal style. “It’s very inclusive in that regard,” explains Vignocchi, who says she Disneybounds throughout her daily life, even on trips to the grocery store. “Nobody can say that you being you is wrong,” says Kay. “We’re all so different yet all best friends, and it’s because of this.”
These women have found a way to feel happy, accepted, and themselves through Disneybounding. “I’m enjoying life because I’m enjoying Disney,” says Kurzawa. “It’s cool to see a powerhouse woman [like Kay] create this Disney empire with clothes,” adds Swann, “and to see that bring happiness to all these people through clothes.”
Originally Appeared on Glamour