Grownup Disney fans say the park provides a break from ‘adulting’

Mickey Mouse at D23 Expo 2019
This year’s D23 Expo, or Disney convention, took place at the Anaheim Convention Center from Aug. 23 to 25.
(Image Group LA/The Walt Disney Company )

Several times a month, Hailee Zarate often tells her 3-year-old daughter Jasmin that they’re going to “the park.”

But the Riverside mom doesn’t mean a place with swing sets, sandboxes and slides.

She’s talking about a park run by an iconic mouse with a castle as its centerpiece — a place where her and her daughter’s imaginations run wild.

 D23 Expo
Hundreds of D23 Expo attendees wait in a two-hour line to gain access to the Disney Store, which sold exclusive dolls, clothing and collectibles at the Anaheim Convention Center on Aug. 23 through Aug. 25. The line for the shop was consistently up to three hours per day throughout the weekend.
(Photo by Brittany Woolsey)

Zarate, 29, now takes Jasmin — named for the princess in “Aladdin,” but with a slightly different spelling — to Disneyland about “two to three times every other week,” she said, which allows her to bond with her child and share a magic she didn’t get to experience in her own childhood.

“I have always been a Disney fan but grew up on a farm in Idaho dirt poor,” Zarate explained. “The only vacations we took were going to the mountains to go camping.”

Zarate doesn’t just go to Disneyland for her kid, though. She’s a bonafide fan herself and has gained a social media following from her Instagram, Boundingonabudget, where she shares inexpensive ways that adults can “Disneybound,” or dress as Disney characters in everyday clothing.

Hailee Zarate is on Instagram as Boundingonabudget, sharing tips for how adults can "Disneybound," or dress as Disney characters. She takes her daughter Jasmin to Disneyland about “two to three times every other week” with their annual passes.
(Courtesy of Hailee Zarate)

Though a Disney spokesperson said the company does not share details on visitor demographics, it’s telling that the biennial D23 Expo, the Disney convention that took place last weekend, was filled with adult fans.

Some began lining up for the expo as early as Aug. 21, two days before the convention opened, to gain access to more than 1,100 new and exclusive items, as well as 215 presentations, panels, concerts, demonstrations, photo opportunities with celebrities and sneak peeks.

The convention’s three big shops — the Disney Store, Disney Dream Store and Mickey’s of Glendale — regularly had waits of up to three hours.

And while some of this year’s hottest sellers were exclusive Disney dolls, the $200 figures weren’t purchased by children; they were bought by adults who either wanted to add to their own personal collections or profit off of reselling them online.

Recently, adult Disney fans have become the subject of online debate when a mother’s angry rant on social media — about how people without children should be banned from Disney World — went viral.

But that criticism, which is now, of course, a meme, also garnered passionate defenses.

Cindy Hoang, an elementary school teacher who lives in Westminster, likes to visit Disneyland a few times a week to escape the stresses of adulthood.

The 31-year-old considers visits to the park and D23 Expo opportunities to push a “reset button” from her everyday life.

Cindy Hoang, 31 of Westmister, hugs Chewbacca at the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge area of Disneyland.
Cindy Hoang, 31 of Westmister, hugs Chewbacca at the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area of Disneyland.
(Courtesy of Cindy Hoang)

“There’s just something about the atmosphere at the Disney parks that literally transports an individual back to happier and carefree times,” said Hoang, who slept overnight on the convention center floor during the D23 Expo to make sure she got into exclusive previews.

“Walking down Main Street in the mornings and listening to instrumental renditions of movie songs uplifts your spirits and puts you in a happier mood,” she continued. “Just knowing that Disney is literally 20 minutes away from where I live is very convenient and beneficial to my health. Instead of staying at home and binge-watching TV shows and movies, I can just go to Disney and walk around, enjoy a churro, go on a few rides or just people watch.”

Indeed, people are looking for ways where they can cease “adulting,” even for a moment, said Dr. Bobbie Jean Way, a San Diego-based marital and family therapist.

“We didn’t use that word even 10 years ago, but I think people are starting to realize they want to be able to have that escape from reality in real life,” she said. “Disney’s very good about marketing on that. They marketed ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ like being able to go to a place where you can find joy. Happiness is a journey, not a destination, but Disney has marketed happiness as a destination.”

When Hoang was in her early 20s, she collected memorabilia, such as pins and vinyl figures. Now, with a bigger income, she empties her pockets for more coveted, expensive merchandise such as jewelry and designer handbags.

The Disney fandom is international. A visitor snaps a selfie while wearing Minnie Mouse ears and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, eating a mouse-ear-shaped ice cream bar at the Disney Resort in Shanghai, which opened 2015.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

Since integrating Marvel and “Star Wars” into the parks — with the former expected to open a themed land next year and the latter opened earlier this year — adult Disney fans say they’ve found even more reason to visit.

Galaxy’s Edge is also home to Disneyland’s first public bar with alcohol. Disneyland’s sister park, Disney’s California Adventure, serves alcohol park-wide, but previously, guests were only able to drink at Disneyland in the exclusive Club 33, which is usually only accessible for members who have shelled out thousands of dollars for access.

Dave James, 50, who owns a record shop in Costa Mesa, considers himself a big “Star Wars” fan. He said that Galaxy’s Edge — where visitors can board as crew members of the Millennium Falcon in a motion simulator ride called Smuggler’s Run — is a welcome addition to the Anaheim park.

“The new ride is geared more toward millennials who want an interactive experience,” he said.

Dave James and his wife Lisa had their first date at Disneyland in 1992 and had a Disney-themed wedding in 2018.
(Courtesy of Dave James)

James said Disney has played a pivotal role in his and his wife, Lisa’s, relationship.

The couple had their first date at Disneyland in 1992 and had a Disney-themed wedding, culminating with a trip to the park in 2018.

“It’s kind of our second home,” said James, who collects vintage Disney merchandise and purchases Lisa a plush animal on their near-weekly Disneyland visits. “It’s a very romantic place for us, unless the park is packed to the gills. It’s a nice place to go and step out of the real world for a few hours and just enjoy being with each other.”

“What’s not to love [about Disney]?” said Zarate, who wasn’t introduced to Disney until her grand aunt took her at 9. “It’s a place where I feel happy and welcome, and after getting my [annual] pass and starting my Instagram, it’s a place of community and friendship. My daughter and I have made so many friends in the Disney community that we can hardly go to Disneyland without running into someone that we know.”

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