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For some adults who love Disney, it's like a religion

Chanée Hill, dressed in an homage to Donald Duck, in a room in her house lined with displays of hundreds of dollars' worth of Disney merchandise.
Chanée Hill
Chanée Hill, dressed in an homage to Donald Duck, in a room in her house lined with displays of hundreds of dollars' worth of Disney merchandise.

In Chanée Hill's house, there is an entire room dedicated to The Walt Disney Co. Shelves display hundreds of dollars' worth of Disney merchandise. A vanity contains Disney makeup collections. An accessories station is decked out with Mickey Mouse ears and character jewelry. The walls are papered with Disney backdrops for making TikToks and taking pictures.

@itsnaturallynay Disney withdrawals are real 😭 #disneyadult #disney #disneyland #blackgirlmagic #bhm #disneydecor #disneyprincess #disneyears #fyp ♬ original sound - E.LaBella

Hill, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works as a medical assistant, is a Disneyland pass holder and makes the six-hour drive to Anaheim, Calif., multiple times a year.

"It just makes you feel magical," she said. "You can just let yourself go, immerse yourself in the experiences that Disney gives you."

Hill, 37, is a self-proclaimed "Disney adult," a term colloquially used to describe an adult who loves all things Disney and spends vast amounts of money and time on Disney-related products and experiences.

A story about a Disney-loving couple's wedding went viral last week when a Reddit user asked if they were wrong for forgoing catering in order to afford appearances from Mickey and Minnie Mouse at their reception.

The original Reddit post was taken down, but the viral tweet caused a hate storm, with the couple in the story being propped up as a prime example of Disney adults being "the absolute worst."

It seems a new article or post about a Disney adult goes viral every few weeks, and the comments are always the same, telling them to "grow up," get a real life or use their money to travel abroad instead. They're a beloved subject of hate online — the hashtag #disneyadultsaretheworst has almost 7 million views on TikTok.

James Demetriades, an attorney in Connecticut, has heard all the criticisms of Disney adults. Demetriades, 28, has been to Disney World in Florida more than 30 times.

In 2021, he took three trips to Disney World. Each trip, he estimates, costs about $2,000. Nowadays he visits with family or his boyfriend, but he used to go alone in college or law school if he couldn't find a companion.

"As an adult, it's about having that escape and having those pieces of nostalgia that you can go back to," he said.

Jodi Eichler-Levine, a professor of religion at Lehigh University, researches Disney and its connection to religion: how world religions intersect with Disney and how Disney itself functions as a religion.

One of the ways that Disney is like a religion to some, Eichler-Levine argues, is as a pilgrimage of sorts.

"People see their trips to Disney in a very reverent light," she said. "People will go there and talk about being transformed or making crucial memories. And they'll go to mark particular lifecycle events, like announcing a pregnancy or after they've gotten through treatment for an illness."

For Demetriades, a large part of his love for Disney is the connection with his family. He grew up going to Disney World in Florida every year and said Disney movies have been a way for him to connect and bond with his sister, who has autism.

Chanée Hill at Disneyland in 2021.
/ Chanée Hill
Chanée Hill
Chanée Hill at Disneyland in 2021.

Hill's childhood memories are tied to Disney movies, which were more affordable for her family than trips to Anaheim or Orlando. Hill, who has a chronic health disorder called hidradenitis suppurativa, said watching Disney movies brings her great comfort when she's stuck in bed with pain.

Demetriades and Hill are two of many Disney adults who have meaningful connections to Disney that go beyond basic fandom.

Eichler-Levine, who has spoken out as a defender of Disney adults, says those connections are "tremendously misunderstood."

The vitriol directed toward Disney adults often relies on personal attacks of their character, and often their sanity, with the word "crazy" being thrown around particularly often.

"They're normal. They're not crazy. People who hate Disney adults often aren't taking the time to understand why this is so powerful for so many," she said.

Hill said she often faces questions from her co-workers about going to Disney alone, but she brushes it off. "I might be weird to somebody, but it doesn't matter. I'm confident in my love for Disney."

Eichler-Levine urges those criticizing Disney adults to "lead with empathy."

"Are there structural critiques to be made of the Walt Disney Co.? Sure. But just because something is capitalistic doesn't mean it's entirely tainted. Something can make money but also bring people great joy and meaning."

Hill and Demetriades both expressed the same sentiment: If it doesn't hurt anyone, then it shouldn't be bothering anyone.

"It's something that simply makes us happy," Hill said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deanna Schwartz
Deanna Schwartz is the summer 2022 Digital Platforms and Curation Intern at NPR. She has previously worked for the Boston Globe and GBH News.