A few months ago, as my dental hygienist poked, scraped and made one-sided conversation, she asked where I was taking my kids on vacation this year.
"Disthnee Wold," I gurgled through a mouthful of spit.
She pulled the scaler out immediately.
"Disney World? You are going to have … so … much … fun. I can't tell you how many times I've been there."
Actually, as it turned out, she could. After some prodding and poking of my own, she finally copped to a number: 16. And counting.
She's hardly the only one who gets excited whenever the word "Disney" comes up. Google the words, "Disney addict" and you'll get 11 million hits. The Walt Disney World Resort Facebook page has 14 million fans, with nearly a half-million hailing from Canada. While the company does not release specific attendance or demographic figures, books such as the Disney Institute's Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service states that 70 per cent of people who visit Orlando's Disney World are return guests.
"We are very lucky. We have a lot of very loyal fans, that's for sure," says Marlie Morrison, managing director of marketing and sales for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Canada in Toronto.
That's putting it lightly. Disney fans memorize the best months to visit the parks. They are on the phone at midnight making dinner reservations exactly 180 days in advance. They wear Mickey ears around the house, and have "theories" about Dole Whip pineapple dessert. They can recite the entire monorail safety spiel. In Spanish.
There's even a term for dressing up as favourite characters to visit the park: "Disney bounding." And yes, we are talking about adults.
I get it. Kind of. My husband once caught me checking ride wait times using a smartphone app – from our home in Guelph, Ont. But my fandom is nothing compared with couples who marry on the monorail or visitors who attempt to spread ashes of loved ones on Disney rides.
"People get fanatical about Disney. I don't think 'obsession' is too strong a word," says Susan Veness, Orlando-based author of The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World: Over 600 Secrets of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. "But it's the ones who see hidden Mickeys in their garden that worry me."
So what drives the fanaticism? Veness says part of it can be chalked up to competitiveness, especially in the online Disney fan community. Knowing the best way to handle Main Street crowds at the end of the night? Now that's street cred.
"There's such a glut of information about Disney that people want some little tidbit that they can throw into a conversation that no one else knows," she explains.
That competitiveness rears its head in other ways. The extreme fans I interviewed said they hate relaxing beach vacations. Racing to Magic Kingdom before the 9 a.m. rope drop warrants insider status: It's a high.
Kristi Fredericks, a mom with two young sons living just outside Denver who created the blog disneyworldenthusiast.com, has been to Disney World and Disneyland more than 50 times. She cops to an A-type personality and plans her trips months in advance. (She also sounds like a Disney princess, which is equal parts unnerving and adorable.)
"I've already got my MagicBands, my FastPass+ booked and dining reservations made for my next trip. I'm kind of obsessive about my Disney planning. I've got the play-by-play of what we're doing each day."
No doubt some world-weary Disney fans simply want to immerse themselves in fantasy. As one dad standing in line with his two preteens at Disney's Hollywood Studios this past spring put it: "It's a different world here. You can leave your troubles at home and just have fun." He was wearing a lanyard bejewelled with Disney pins.
Ryan Lieu, a dad from Vancouver who has been to every Disney park in the world, says Disney vacations are just easier than risking a trip in the real world, especially with kids. "It feels safe and you don't worry about getting mugged on your way to the restaurant. Your mind is at ease."
Teresa Pitman, from Guelph, has visited Disney parks 31 times. Two of her sons even worked at Epcot and met their wives there. The upside to knowing the parks so well? No pressure to have the perfect vacation. After all, they'll be back next year.
To an outsider – particularly someone who would rather travel to China, Norway, Mexico or Germany than visit the country pavilions at Epcot – spending all that cash to revisit a theme park makes little sense. After all, there's a whole world out there.
"Disney is expensive," Pitman concedes, "but travelling to Paris is more expensive."
Maybe. I ran the numbers in June and booking then for early August would have cost a Toronto-based family of four $6,726.71 for flights, five-day tickets and six nights at the on-site Polynesian Resort. Flights to Paris and a central, four-star hotel for the same time ran $4,818.39, leaving more than $1,900 for entertainment. (Neither price includes food.) If anything, it's a wash.
Even so, Paris is not for everyone – particularly parents who cringe at the thought of spending a day with surly toddlers at the Louvre. And staying outside the park or driving to Florida certainly lowers the cost of a Disney trip.
But the fact is, money is not a huge factor for most Disney enthusiasts. Ultimately, Disney's genius lies in its ability to tap into adults' yearning for play and a release from cynicism. (Someone calls you a princess when you're 41, you're going to be secretly thrilled, trust me.) The real world usually suppresses these traits, says Disney's Morrison.
"Where else are you going to see grown men – maybe they're bankers – walking around with Goofy ears on?" she says. "It's an environment where if I want to act silly, I can."
ARE YOU A DISNEY ADDICT?
- You know you love Disney when …
- You can tell the difference between an official Disney trading pin and a counterfeit, even though they’re both made in China.
- More than half of your wardrobe sports a Disney logo.
- You want to pull over and talk to the person in front of you driving the car with a Disney bumper sticker.
- You can translate the following sentence: “Let’s try out 7DMT with out FP+ before hitting BOG because our ADR isn’t until 7.”
- You use “Disney” as a verb.