It has been 214 days since Disneyland closed, and Stacey Major is struggling.
“I haven’t been to Disneyland in seven months,” said Major, a 32-year-old high school teacher. “This has been my longest stretch since 2012.”
She’s not alone. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the park to close in March, it left thousands of its fervent fans — annual passholders who spend $400 to $1,500 a year to visit the park on a weekly basis — without a beloved escape from reality.
“Being a single mom and a teacher means I have a lot of adult responsibilities,” said Major, who visits Disneyland at least once a month and even toured the park in a wheelchair when she was eight months pregnant. “I am a very Type A personality and can’t relax. For me, Disneyland is a stress release. It’s very freeing for me to be there for a day. I can watch parades and be with my friends and not feel any pressure.”
On Oct. 7, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that although Walt Disney Co. had to lay off 28,000 domestic employees, he is in no rush to open California theme parks. A week later, Newsom announced that he was sending a team to Disney World in Florida, as well as other theme parks, to learn what they are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 since reopening in July.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic, it’s easy to understand why people miss Disneyland. For more than 60 years, the theme park has been the ultimate social and fantasy experience. It evokes warm memories of simpler times and allows us to experience childlike thrills regardless of our age.
But now that many of us are working from home and self-quarantining, those thrills are difficult to find amid the fear of the coronavirus, economic distress and prolonged isolation.
For Disneyland enthusiasts, the thrill is gone. The park is closed. The magic is missing. How to keep going when the “Happiest Place on Earth” is closed?
“I’ve been watching videos of Disneyland parades on YouTube and crying,” Major said.
“I’m having a real identity crisis because Disney was such a huge part of who I am,” one worker said.
In other words, fans are coping by finding creative ways to keep the magic alive: consulting Disney-inspired cooking blogs, participating in Disneybound costume challenges on TikTok and Instagram, watching Disney+, hosting outdoor movie nights and stay-at-home Disney Days.
People miss theme parks because they produce “psychosocial engagement and it keeps us on a high and our blood pumping,” said Orange County certified life coach Anita Kanti, author of “Behaving Bravely: How to Mindshift Life’s Challenges.”
“Being surrounded by crowds is exciting and makes us feel like we are part of a group and a community,” she said. “It produces temporary endorphins and instills happiness that’s hard to replicate. Disneyland checks every box when it comes to human sensory needs and desires — the smells, tastes, sounds and experiences. You can get all of that in one environment.”
Still, for the tens of thousands of visitors who flock to Disneyland every month, the park is more than just Mickey-shaped delectables, Pirates of the Caribbean and “Fantasmic!” fireworks. There are Dapper Days and swing dances. High school marching band performances. Birthday parties and anniversary celebrations. You can even get married at Disneyland. (Scattering cremated ashes, a misdemeanor, is not allowed in the park, although it is rumored to be a popular covert activity.)
“Disneyland is a community,” said Cameron Keaggy, a 30-year-old Apple salesman who visited the Anaheim theme park 123 times last year. “The people are what makes it magical. Everyone loves Disneyland for different reasons — nostalgia and magic. At Disneyland, you are transported into a story. You become a part of the story.”
Before the park closed, Keaggy visited Disneyland three or four times a month. During quarantine, Keaggy has kept himself busy by making “Star Wars” videos (he is certified to represent the Storm Troopers as a member of the volunteer 501st Legion), hosting Disneyland trivia nights on Zoom, and transforming his backyard into a Jungle Cruise-meets-Adventureland hangout (think fire pit and bamboo fencing).
“Since we have to be home, why not bring some of the Disney magic here?” Keaggy asked.
Creating Disney magic extends to Disneybounding, a subtle costume trend of dressing like a Disney character using clothes from the closet. (Disneyland does not allow guests 14 and older to wear costumes.)
“It’s definitely a creative thing,” said Sophia Hotchkiss, who is 15 and loves to dress up as Stitch and Ariel, among other characters. “It’s a really cool way to express something that you love.”
Another Disneybounder, Lauren Gabourel, 29, showcases her outfits on her popular @dressesandcapes Instagram account. “It’s a creative outlet for me,” she said. “When I heard that the new Ariel would be a black princess, I cosplayed her immediately. There is a very active Black nerd Disney community that I am a part of, and I am trying to inspire others. I want everyone to know that they can be a Disney princess. When I was growing up, I didn’t have that.”
For Gabourel, Disneyland is where she socializes with friends and decompresses after a stressful day at work.
“Normally, I would go at least once a week or twice a week,” she said. “On my way home from work, I’d often stop at the park and meet a friend. I miss the days of riding one ride, getting some popcorn and a churro, and leaving after the fireworks. Just being there makes me feel safe and happy. I attribute that to the cast members.”
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Gabourel said Disney employees, among the most cherished talent pool in the service industry, contribute to the park’s enchantment. “They are the magic makers,” she said as she fondly recalled the time a cast member performing as Jack Skellington gave her an Honorary Citizen of Disney badge.
“It’s something they hand out when people are representing Disney in a positive way,” she explained. “It is so heartwarming to be seen as part of the Disney community. The relationships that you make with other people are amazing. It’s a beautiful community.”
Because cast members are “on the front lines,” Gabourel said she understands why the park is closed. “I would prefer that people are safe,” she said. “I was worried about them.”
Parents may be unable to pull off weekend trips to Disneyland during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t bring Disneyland home.
Creating new ways to pretend and play, Kanti said, can help kids who are companionless and sequestered at home with their parents. “If we teach our children that it’s a time to innovate, that tells them that good things are coming. I think what we have to do is step back and realize that we have other choices to help us manage our anxiety and still have fun.”
High school teacher Blaine Corlew, 40, started to see the negative effects of the quarantine on his family after months of juggling work, distance learning and parenting. He decided to create Disney Days at home as a way to add fun to his family’s stay-at-home routine.
“I put together a Disney playlist and found all of the parades and fireworks shows that I could think of on YouTube,” he said. “I used the Disney food blog and made eggs benedict and ham and hash browns just like at the Carnation Cafe. For a snack, I made banyan beef skewers and churro bites and Monte Cristo sandwiches from the Blue Bayou. We found Mickey ice cream bars at Target. We would wear our Mickey Mouse ears, and our daughter would wear her costumes.”
Kanti views Corlew’s Disney Days concept as the “social bridging” we all need in uncertain times. “Keep in mind that while we are social distancing, we have to make a commitment to social bridging with others,” she said. “We need to continue to make plans for the future and create opportunities for joy and purposeful work. It shifts you from a victim mentality to one of empowerment.”
Added Corlew: “We need to be fun parents right now.”
As the single father of two daughters, 10 and 17, Tony Tirado misses having Disneyland as something to look forward to.
“It was a wonderful activity for us,” said Tirado, who works as a personal trainer and visited the park at least twice a month. “It’s a fun thing for us to plan ahead. It’s a distraction, and it brings us joy and allows for family time. You can get so busy working, and the family time you share becomes limited. Disneyland allows you to connect and be a kid again.”
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Tirado laughed as he pointed out that “acting like a kid” also means being able to demonstrate vulnerability in front of your children. “My dad is scared of Goofy’s Sky School,” said Tirado’s younger daughter, Sofia. “It goes too fast for him.”
Brianna Simpson knows that if things were different, she would be eating corn dogs on Main Street, cracking jokes with cast member Dr. Facilier and creating content for her Eat See Magic online platform.
She started her Instagram and vlog because she did not see a lot of Black creatives who looked like her. But during the last few months, Simpson said her community has grown as a family. “We do movie-night events and not just for people of color. It’s for everyone. Disney is a big melting pot for me. I want to spread joy to others who can’t travel here.”
Recently, she recorded a freestyle rap, “I Miss Disneyland,” for its 65th anniversary and co-hosted a food challenge on Instagram that combined Disneybounding with dishes from specific movies.
Despite pressure from company officials as well as politicians and the tourism industry, no one knows when visitors will be able to return to Disneyland.
Even so, fans know that the magic of Disneyland can continue as long as, to quote Walt Disney, “there is imagination left in the world.”
“It’s an adjustment, but we all have to make adjustments right now,” Simpson said. “I can’t wait to get on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride again, but until things return to normal, I’ll just have to keep the magic of Disneyland alive at home.”