Most adults go on vacation to get away from the stressors that plague our everyday lives. Brian Boneau, on the other hand, actively seeks it out.
In his 28 years, Boneau has spent his precious vacation time at Disney World over the course of some two-to-three dozen trips. He’s mastered the art of meticulously planning his days down to the ride to ensure he and his family make the most of their time actually doing stuff and not waiting in line. That oftentimes means booking Fastpasses online 30 days in advance (or 60 if he’s staying in a Disney Resort hotel) or getting to the parks as soon as they open.
“This is not a relaxing vacation,” Boenau, who lives in Washington D.C., says. “My boyfriend, who is from San Diego, he knows Disneyland. What he told me this past trip is ‘Wow, this is really stressful.’”
Boneau grew up watching the classic Disney films, though his love for the brand came from visiting the parks as a kid. During high school alone, he and his family vacationed at Disney World an average of three times a year. He subscribes to Disney vloggers on YouTube and keeps up with brand-related podcasts. His knowledge of Walt’s empire runs deep—he’s been to a behind-the-scenes tour of Magic Kingdom and knows insider secrets, like what rides have the shortest lines at what times. And though he just returned from a Disney trip in late October, Boneau, a season pass holder, promptly booked another voyage to the happiest place on earth for January.
“I’m a Disney park geek, not a Disney movie geek,” he says. “It’s about the attraction. I’ve talked to multiple cast members where I know more facts than them. They’re like, ‘You should work here.’”
Boneau is not the only childless adult to develop a strong relationship with all things Disney.
A recent emotion-based brand report revealed that Disney took top honors as the theme park with the most “brand intimacy,” or emotional connection to the brand, especially with millennials and women, most notably due to the nostalgia associated with the films, parks, and merchandise. This trickles down to the ways people interact with Disney, too: Because of the parks’ no costumes rule for attendees over the age of 14, grown humans have turned to donning Disney-inspired outfits within the amusement confines, a trend called Disneybounding. Additionally, every two years, the D23 Expo, an event organized for Disney fan club members, entices an estimated 65,000 Disneyphiles to the Anaheim Convention Center with the premise of gaining access to exclusive sneak peeks into entertainment and resort updates.
“Fandom that starts in childhood can be associated with high levels of brand loyalty, or at least brand awareness, in later life,” says Dr. Mark Duffett, a professor in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester and author of “Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture.” “For some, children’s entertainment becomes associated with family activity – viewing at home together, going to the movies together, visiting Disneyland as a family unit. Children then attach positive memories to such family experiences.”
Pair that warm nostalgia with the escapism brought on by the onslaught of immersive details Disney painstakingly and subtly weaves throughout their park and resort experiences and you’ve got a recipe for obsession. Because who’d want to come back to the real world when living in Walt’s world smells, looks, and feels so much better?
36-year-old Joe DeCarolis grew up with the average American Disney exposure—watching the movies and heading to Orlando on vacation with family—but he didn’t feel a real emotional attachment to the amusement destination until he returned as an adult with his then-girlfriend. The unreality of it all resounded enough for he and his wife to regularly make the trek from New Jersey to Florida for the last 15 years.
“It’s its own sequestered part of the planet where the street signs look different and there’s music everywhere and everyone’s nice—and you’re aware that it’s because of their job – but it still has the intended effect on me,” DeCarolis says. “[At home,] I miss that pleasantness where there’s no sarcasm and ironic detachment. It became this place where it’s my mental escape from the anxiety of real life.”
Walt Disney World resort in Florida encompasses over 40 square miles and consists of four theme parks—Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom—two water parks, about three dozen hotels, four golf courses, a wedding pavilion, and a shopping and entertainment complex called Disney Springs. Any locale on property grounds is easily accessible via monorail, bus, and water taxi. From Magic Kingdom’s pastel-hued Main Street area to Epcot’s expansive and intricately detailed World Showcase, it’s a place designed to feel like everywhere and nowhere, all at once foreign and familiar, fantastic and ordinary.
More than 70,000 people work at the Florida parks, helping keep it spotless and maintaining the delusion of happiness that visitors have come to expect from employees, affectionately called “cast members.” Between the Disney College Program, a five-to-seven month paid internship, to the cutely named Imagineers (park, hotel, and attraction engineers), potentially working at Disney inspires the same kind of hope and mysticism as visiting the parks.
“The brand is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, in the whole world in the most categories—merchandise, movies, music, vacation destinations, you name it, they’re leading it – so no matter what you want to do in life, it seems working for such a company would give you a huge advantage,” says one current cast member.
Another employee, who works at Disney Springs, turned her familiarity for the brand—her family’s yearly vacation was to, unsurprisingly, Disney and her mother had worked at the Disney store in their local mall—into a career launchpad. Right out of high school, Brittany, now in her late twenties, joined the college program and began working at the Emporium, the largest gift shop in the Magic Kingdom. The magic-making moments, like doling out pins and stickers or choosing a kid to prep an in-store Cinderella figurine for the ball were some of her fondest memories, but that Disney sheen wore off over the years.
“Guests are evil sometimes,” Brittany says. “I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been yelled at for little things that I can’t help, like we’re out of a size shirt.”
Working at Disney Springs offers her the opportunity to continue her career under the Disney umbrella, but with a more relaxed atmosphere. She could dye her hair blue if she wanted, she says, and now feels like she has the best of both worlds by working in the shopping and entertainment area. She’s worked for the brand for over six years, and like many other fans and employees of Disney, has a deep familiarity with the parks and films.
“It all goes back to the roots of the company,” says Michael Vargo, the vice president of D23. “It’s very unique in that the fans gravitated towards this really awesome creative content and really high quality work that Walt put out there in the market.”
Bringing these experiences to fans, regardless of their proximity to a park has also proved successful in Disney’s approach to multidisciplinary fandom. Aside from the biennial D23 Expo, the fan club also hosts events year-round, like studio tours and early movie screenings for D23 members.
Perhaps the most memorable of Disney experiences is matrimony. Katy Capper and her husband, who live in the U.K., got engaged at Disneyland Paris, and immediately knew they wanted to host the nuptials at a Disney property. They briefly considered a Disney resort in Hawaii but ultimately decided on Disney World in Florida. Weddings, like the perfectly manicured and curated theme parks, are planned just as carefully and efficiently. Despite living an ocean away, Capper was in constant contact with planners in Florida and her November 2016 wedding Disney’s Wedding Pavilion at the Grand Floridian and reception in Epcot’s France (opposed to the real France where she got engaged) went off without a hitch. A year later, she gets direct messages from strangers on Instagram inquiring about Disney weddings.
“They must do so many [weddings] that it’s really a well-oiled machine,” Capper, 28, says of the wedding planning process. “They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s quite nice when you’re planning from so far away and you have to be able to trust them.”
Ultimately, that trust that Disney will deliver on dreams—childhood memories, escapism fantasies, nostalgia-fueled aspirations—is what keeps adults returning to the property, attending events, and buying into the brand. It’s a life lived through Disney-colored glasses that Boneau admits has informed most of his cultural reference points.
“Everyone says I relate everything to Disney,” he says. “I was at Niagara Falls for the first time a couple months ago and I was like, ‘This kind of looks like Epcot’s Niagara Falls.’ It all goes back to Disney.”