It’s only nine in the morning, and the temperature is already flirting with oppressive. My stomach is loaded full with every breakfast food imaginable, and I’m already overwhelmed by the mass of people pressing around me. There’s dancing and singing and confetti and tears welling up in my eyes. There’s a big, joyous grin on my face.
This is exactly where I’m supposed to be: the Magic Kingdom.
I am twenty-seven, and I’ve found the magic again.
I remember middle school as an increasingly awful, awkward gauntlet, filled with catty gossip, judgment and those first pangs of adolescent self-awareness. “What do people think of me? Am I wearing the right thing? Saying the right thing, acting the right way…?”
I bring this up because middle school is where my love for Disney got stuffed in a box, taped up, and pushed back into the closet (with a number of other things. HEY-O!). It wasn’t “cool” to like Disney, to see Mulan in theatres or wear a Mickey t-shirt. That was for kids, for babies. My peers had collectively decided to move along to boy bands (which is ironic, since one of *NSYNC’s major breaks was a Disney Channel concert special), Abercrombie & Fitch and South Park. As a totally self-conscious, shy, chubby kid, I did everything to keep up with the crowd.
When I was little, I dreamed of becoming a Disney animator. My dad, the softie that he is, tells the story of how he cried as he saw my six-year-old face light up when passed through the tunnel and into the Magic Kingdom for the first time. My uncle and I had a tradition of seeing all the big Disney animated features together in theatres. I owned the whole series of Learn-to-Draw Disney character books. I made my mom cart me around town to different McDonald’s and Burger Kings so I could collect all of the Happy Meal toys for The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules (possibly a reason why I was chubby).
To compartmentalize, to silence that part of my identity—I felt like that was my only recourse in trying to fit in. I’d see Disney movies with my family, but I’d never talk about them with anybody at school.
At some point, there became an unspoken rule about Pixar movies being “okay” to see as a teenager, and so I did, but that’s as much Disney as I allowed myself to publicly “like.” Eventually this suppression, this pretending to be mature, turned into a reality—I lost that pure, immersive appreciation for Disney. Maybe Disney was for kids.
I first became consciously aware of the ascension of geek culture during, of all things, my high school’s Model United Nations Day. Until that point, reading comic books and enjoying science fiction and fantasy was something insular, something you did quietly by yourself for fear of humiliation (or, at least, resigned disappointment) if you were ever exposed. But this Model UN Day happened to be the same Friday in May of 2002 when the original Spider-Man film released into theatres, and there was—suddenly—a flurry of open, expressed excitement amongst my peers over a guy in red and blue tights. During each break, people would chat about when and where they were catching the film.
Spider-Man when on to set a slew of records at the box office, the first film to ever make more than $100 million in the first weekend. The X-Files and The Lord of the Rings films may have cracked the basement door open for geeks, but Spider-Man swung it wide open. A decade-plus of celebrating the obscure, the niche, the mythological and the nostalgic began to unfurl.
It was in this climate that I returned to Walt Disney World after a ten-year absence. Instead of heading to Cancun or Miami, my college roommate and I spent our spring break in Lake Buena Vista, riding e-ticket attractions and participating in the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. We chose Disney World not ironically, but earnestly, an acknowledgement of the shared cultural memories of our childhoods.
The appreciation for Disney I once repressed and subsequently forgot under the bed for years, was growing, breaking through the shell of cynical adolescence and twenty-something airs of maturity. It was okay, encouraged even, to celebrate my inner geek, to revel in what made me who I was, to put my mouse ears back on.
My partner, Lance, and I are sitting toward the front of the one of the ferries out of Wilderness Lodge, on our way to the Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. It’s the second time we’ve been to Disney World in 2012, and only a month and a half since we’d visited the Tokyo Disney Resort. In the span of a few months, what’d been my fondness for Disney was returning to childhood levels of obsession.
Not a small amount of credit goes to the Internet and its vast network of Disney fan sites, which turned planning my first Disney vacation with my husband into a rabbit hole of park histories, trivia and background loops. They were fuel for the fire, the thousands of fans who so deeply love the Disney Parks. After that trip, I bought a dozen books on the Disney Parks, from Designing Disney to The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I couldn’t get enough.
Sitting near us on the ferry is a little kid, maybe five or six. He’s rocking some Agent P mouse ears and is bouncing lightly on his heels as looks out over the Seven Seas Lagoon, a pure smile across his face.
“I know this is just a big corporation, out for money,” I say to Lance, feeling at that moment not that I have to justify my adult love of Disney so much as define it. The years I lost just make this renewed love of Disney, though complicated by age and cynicism and critique, all the more worthwhile. Does this make me a “manboy,” retreating into the past, a lost boy who doesn’t want to grow up? No, I think my love for Disney has that much more weight because I have the experience to really understand it, what Disney meWans to me. “I know that, but this company has given me such entertainment—and joy!—over the years…”
And I trail off. That’s all that needs to be said, all that can be said, because coming into view is Cinderella Castle.