Disney World somehow allowed immigrants and other non-white Americans the room to dream in a society that robs them of that luxury.
Growing up, going to Disney World was what I imagined being invited to the Met Gala must be like. My dad would book the trip to Orlando months in advance and we would go shopping for flowery shirts at Marshalls in preparation for the sticky Florida heat. I’d make a list of all the characters I wanted autographs from — Stitch, Pluto, and Mickey were non-negotiables. My uncles and grandma would fly from Mexico to meet up with us and we’d spend a weekend indulging in the theme park, riding roller coasters, petting robot animals, and eating cotton candy on Main Street. While the trip might seem like just a sweet memory, for Pa, being able to take us to Disney World was an immense source of pride. It was his way of giving us the type of childhood that he could only have dreamed of.
These were some of the warmest and most carefree memories I have of our early years in the U.S. As a feminine, Chinese-Mexican immigrant kid who struggled to understand his place in suburban Texas, Disney made me feel like coming to America, in some cosmic sense, had been worth it. The theme parks buzzed with a sense that there were no limits to what I could dream and taking pictures with characters felt like meeting long lost friends. At Disney World, I didn’t have to consider what anyone would think about my thick Spanish accent or “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 of treating its employees poorly. They’ve also recently been embroiled in Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill controversy, but appears to be trying to do the right thing.
The genius of Disney doesn’t lie in anything real, but instead 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 the reason that, like many adults, I outgrew all things Disney and its theme parks. It all just feels too artificial for my taste. That wasn’t the case for many of our immigrant childhood family friends, many in their 20s and 30s, who still make the pilgrimage to Disney parks every year without fail and faithfully document them in their IG stories.
They are what we now disparagingly call “Disney Adults,” a term that conjures images of big-gummed, prescription glasses-wearing, 40-something-year-old virgins. Disney adult slander has reached a fever pitch on social media recently; something about seeing grown-ass people wearing Mickey Mouse ears in front of Magic Mountain apparently makes us deeply uncomfortable.
But as fun as it is to hate on Disney adults, there was a point in my life in which the idea of Disney was so inextricably linked to assimilation and to American exceptionalism that, to some degree, I feel for them. The psyche of non-white and immigrant Disney adults feels just a little more nuanced and complicated than the idea that they’re just grown-ups 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
To start, Disney is arguably synonymous with the American Dream. You can interchange Disney’s branding with how the U.S. markets itself to the rest of the world, especially immigrants: The Most Magical Place on Earth. Beyond that, Disney is obsessed with underdog narratives and the idea that if you dream things hard enough, you can make them happen. This is the reason my parents, and many other immigrants, leave places like Mexico, where corruption makes most aspirations dead on arrival.
This sense of boundless optimism is at least part of the reason that Disney narratives can be so intoxicating for immigrants. “Whereas traditional fairy tales and cultural fables largely operate as cautionary tales, Disney films are success stories. They emphasize the victory and triumph of its protagonists against all odds, a singular theme that has become its entire brand,” Josiah Teng, a New York City-based therapist, tells me. “Messages like ‘wishing upon a star,’ ‘living happily ever after,’ and ‘dreams do come true’ all resonate with minorities or individuals from underprivileged backgrounds striving to make it in this world.” In other words, Disney repackages capitalist notions of the American Dream and makes them cooshy and comforting. For immigrants who already made the leap and moved to the U.S, illusions like these can be indispensable sources of hope.
On that note, I wondered if Disney adults actually felt like Disney helped them imagine possibilities outside of their immediate circumstances. For Adalyss Ruiz, a 22-year-old Latinx administrative assistant living in New York, Disney movies were one of the few means of escapism. “As a child we could not afford much but we had little pleasures of VHS tapes of Disney movies and watching them with my siblings,” she tells me. But not being able to afford going to the parks until she was 15 years old was a source of frustration, she says, and perhaps the reason that she’s now making up for lost time.
Not all immigrants and people of color can have idyllic, carefree childhoods and reverting to Disney as adults can be a way of searching for that bygone glee. “For adult viewers, if their onscreen protagonist can find victory and success despite their traumatic upbringing, maybe they can too,” Teng tells me.
Disney offered flawed but early representation
Still, there was a central contradiction in my mind about POC adults who love Disney, a franchise with an incredibly racist history and whose fanbase is typecast as being painfully white. “For better or worse when I think of the stereotype of a Disney adult I think of a blonde white woman with beachy waves buying up a ton of merchandise to resell it online, and that's definitely not me,” Maya Marlette, a 28-year-old childrens’ book editor, tells me. “While we've been seeing a shift in representation it's obvious that there's a long way to go. So I might love Disney, but I don't feel like Disney loves people like me.” Bria Sadler, a 21-year-old historian, told me that this racism is the reason that Facebook groups like “Black Girls in Disney” are necessary — to essentially be the representation they want to see in the brand.
But this is also where things can get a little messy. While most non-white people are aware of the franchise’s racism (the Siamese cat scene in Lady & The Tramp still gives me nightmares), Disney movies were also the first time many of us saw ourselves represented, even if that representation was more than a little fucked up.
Chyana Deschamps, an Indigenous Canadian writer, surprised me when she told me that Pocahontas was her favorite Disney film. “That was the only depiction in Disney films of Native Americans at the time, with the exception of Tigerlily in Peter Pan,” she tells me. “It tapped into my culture, it made me feel seen and it was stunning.”
Mulan had a similarly strong impact on Asian communities in the West, whose representation in pop culture was confined to Kung Fu movies and Vietnam War films. “The moment I consciously fell in love with Disney wholeheartedly was when Mulan was released. Although she was of Chinese descent, I identified with her so much because she was the closest character 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 from the “real” America
Regardless of what our childhoods were like, there is a part of all of us that longs for a time in which our naivety made us believe in the possibility of things. When my own family immigrated from Mexico to Dallas, I believed that we were arriving at the Promised Land, the happiest places on earth. What I found instead was a country teeming with xenophobia, racism, and queerphobia. Disney films and theme parks were the few places where the America as I had dreamed it still existed, a place where being different actually made you magical.
Eventually, I moved to New York and was able to find a diverse community that accepted me. I recognize that other people aren’t so lucky. Before I spoke to these Disney adults, I assumed that they would be childish, in denial, or even somewhat delusional. What I found instead was a group of people who were keenly aware of their place in this country, but chose to hold on to the promise that Disney offers. Some people might think that’s childish in itself, but I think there’s something admirable about it. Disney has allowed them the room to dream in a society that robs them of that luxury in many other aspects.
“Going to Disneyland takes us back to the happy moments in our lives where I could take a break and escape the heaviness of being an Asian-American daughter of immigrants,” Aurelio-Sagui tells me. “Disney was where my parents would let their children's imagination run wild and be part of the stories we loved so much.”