I'm standing in front of Space Mountain worrrying I won't be able to find the Neverlanders Social Club. It's an ordinary Sunday in Disneyland in November—sunny and beautiful in that Californian way and packed to the gills with tourists—and I'm concerned I'll miss them in all the hubbub. They told me they'd be decked out in their Disney gear, but a lot of people here are wearing park-themed merchandise. Then I see them coming and realize there was no way I could have missed them.
There are more than 30 Neverlanders moving toward me as a pack, cutting a path through the crowd. They're wearing handmade mouse ears and hats, and many of them are covered in tattoos—they look like one of the minor gangs from The Warriors, or some cult in a postapocalyptic wasteland where Mickey Mouse is worshiped as a deity. Each member has a patch of a character that represents his or her personality—the 30-something couple who founded the club, Angel and Cindy Mendoza, are Donald and Daisy Duck.
Everyone is staring as I walk with them to It's a Small World, a boat ride at the tip of Fantasyland. As we round the Matterhorn Bobsleds, "regular" park-goers snap photos of the Neverlanders as if they're celebrities. People point; parents tell their children to take note; jaws drop. Angel says with a shrug that they're used to this commotion by now. When you're the biggest Disneyland fans in the world and wear that love on your sleeve—literally—you're bound to get some odd looks.
Today is a special day for the Neverlanders, because they're going to invite two new people to join their club. Membership is exclusive, and the application process involves months of hanging out with the Mendozas and the other 50-plus members at the park. They have to determine that the newbies will be a good fit and that they're devoted enough to Disney—which, as you can imagine, is a pretty tall order.
Sara and Taylor, the young couple, have passed the vetting process and, Cindy whispers to me, will be "proposed to" at the Mad Hatter Tea Party later that night. The couple doesn't know this yet, and they're quieter than the rest of the crew, clearly on their best behavior in hopes of getting a vest with a big back patch, which will mark their official induction into the Neverlanders.
But before the serious business of accepting new members, they do what they do twice a month as a group and dozens of other times as individuals: enjoy Disneyland. I sit between Angel and Cindy in an It's a Small World boat, and as the ubiquitous song blasts at us from all sides in who knows how many different languages, they tell me how much they love Disneyland and, mostly, how much they love Walt Disney.
Angel tells me that Walt built something anyone, no matter his or her age, can enjoy—it's a place where he can let his imagination run free. Walt once said, "We believed in our idea—a family park where parents and children could have fun—together," and the Neverlanders believe in Disneyland's egalitarianism too, no matter how many odd looks they get. Angel says he aspires to be like Walt himself—an amazing businessman and a great husband and father. Going to Disneyland means Angel can make memories that he will replay in his mind forever. To some the park may seem expensive or crowded or cheesy or corporate, but for social clubbers it really is the happiest place on Earth.
There have been die-hard Disney obsessives for decades, people who compulsively collect pins, memorize trivia, form online communities, and attend the D23 expo, the annual convention for fans. But the phenomenon of Disneyland social clubs—groups of superfans who organize frequent trips to the park and think of it as their second home—is relatively new.
The Mendozas say that the Neverlanders, which they formed in 2012, were the first-ever social club. At that time they were already taking their two young daughters to the park multiple times a week—a luxury they could afford thanks to Disneyland's Annual Passholder program, which gives steep discounts to Southern Californians who want to visit the park many times a year. (Angel, a manager at a Toys"R"Us, told me he's gone to the park nine days in a row before.) Their inspiration came when they were listening to a fan podcast devoted to Disneyland that mentioned a public outcry in response to a new monthly payment plan Disney had announced. The program would make it easier for low-income people to afford the passes and thus possibly bring "unsavory" people to the park.
"They spoke about tattooed people, younger people," Angel said. "It hit the wrong chord with us, because we are payment-plan users and tattooed. Disneyland was created to provide entertainment for anyone who wanted it, no matter class, race, financial status, political party, or religion. So we talked about bringing strangers through social networking together, with a common interest in and love for the park, Walt, and all things Disney."
They soon created their matching denim vests and began connecting with other regulars, via Instagram. Very quickly other people wanted to join, and the Mendozas developed a system for bringing in new Neverlanders. The club now looks for people who, like them, are active park-goers who post often to Instagram and other social-media platforms. Current members communicate with the wannabes online for a while, invite the ones they like to hang out with them at Disneyland, and give the lucky few who are accepted a Neverlanders vest. This system might seem overbearing to outsiders, but the club is serious about its love for Disney. Neverlanders follow a member-created itinerary on the days they roam the park together and are sticklers for following the rules, so making sure new members measure up is paramount. (So far, they haven't kicked anyone out, but they would if they had to.)
The strict application process actually helped fuel the growth of other social clubs. The Main Street Elite, whose members dress similarly to the Neverlanders and espouse a similar philosophy, was formed by Michael Stout, a 25-year-old who thought the Neverlanders were too exclusive. Other social clubs of various sizes and seriousness include the Wonderlanders, Black Death Crew, Pix Pack, Jungle Cruisers, and the Hitchhikers. All in all, there are more than 90 social clubs, ranging from a small family of four to a group with over 100 people.
Not everyone loves that there are a bunch of mostly young, mostly tattooed fans roaming Disneyland, covered in patches and buttons. A cast member who has worked at the park for more than a decade told me that he isn't a fan of the social clubs and doesn't understand the need to represent one's fandom in such an exclusive and intrusive way. He said he and his coworkers think the Mendozas and others like them are living out a fantasy meant for kids, and in his view the clubbers' infatuation with the park can come off as creepy—many park guests have asked if the social clubs are gangs, and parents often wonder if they should be worried.
"I know for a fact that security keeps a close eye on them, and I think they should treat them [as having a] gang mentality, since they run in huge packs," he said, adding that Disneyland often keeps plainclothes security officers near the social clubs.
A recent long piece in OC Weekly (which was being reported and written while I was working on this story) contained allegations from a frequent park visitor that some of the gangs jump the lines and smoke weed before going on the rides. It also noted that some Disney fans who aren't part of an official social club have started copying the crews' look without adhering to the same code of good clean fun. "Thanks in part to the unrestricted founding of new clubs, some Disney-goers began wearing vests while adhering to much less stringent codes of conduct and embarrassing the movement in the process," wrote Charles Lam.
There are also Disney fans who hate the clubs—either because of their alleged bad behavior or for complex, internet-beef-related reasons—and often troll and insult them on social media. In September, an anti–social club Twitter account called WigWagsSC started a rumor that a couple of crews had gotten into a brawl at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port, a restaurant in the Tomorrowland section of the park.
"Our friends in Disney security shared an interesting story with us about two rival Disneyland social clubs that will remain unnamed. Turns out these two clubs had a fight, yes a real fight, over whose turf a specific location belonged to," the account said over the course of several tweets.
The leaders of the social clubs object to stories like this, which they say are untrue, as well as the insinuation that they are anything but perfect park guests.
"There was a rumor that we fought another club. There have been rumors that we wear our vests outside the park, and that people think we are excluding people," Michael of the Main Street Elite said, dismissing all of those accusations.
The Main Street Elite and the Neverlanders both say they obey the rules of the park and even warn park employees if they see any other guests cutting in line or otherwise acting funny. They claim to see Disneyland as a second home and treat it as such.
In the comments section of the OC Weekly story, a reader claiming to be a former Disneyland cast member defended the groups as well. "Many of these social club goers were the nicest guests I ever had interactions with," the commenter wrote. "[They] always made a point to stop and say hello to ask how my shift was going so far, or to just talk about anything Disney. Yes, their 'look' is unconventional for Disneyland, but their love of Disneyland is their best quality. Don't let the negative actions of a few social club members skew your view of all social club members."
When I asked Angel about conflicts between social clubs, he carefully told me that there had never been any issues like those that the WigWagsSC tweets described. He reminded me that the clubs are made up of intense Disney fans who are focused more on having fun in the park than on arguing with each other. He said he has personally tried to get to know every social club leader and form bonds with them, which makes sense—if your hobby is covering yourself in symbols that express loyalty to fictional characters created by a giant media company and strutting around an amusement park, you probably have a lot in common with the people who do the same thing.
Though some park employees may grouse in private about the crazily costumed fans, Disneyland officials seem to approve of the social clubs publicly.
"We are fortunate to have guests who share such a strong affinity for Disneyland Resort," said Disneyland spokesperson Kevin Rafferty Jr., who said the park was aware of the groups.
Michael said that the social clubs participate in Disneyland charity work like the CHOC Walk in the Park and help keep the park clean by picking up trash. Jessica Teague, the 22-year-old founder of Walt's Wonderers, a club for out-of-state fans, told me she loves participating in do-good Disney events as a social clubber.
"[Many] clubs have created bonds in and out of Disneyland," she said. "We also have come together to try and help the communities around Anaheim—we most recently raised money for Toys for Tots."
After spending time with the Neverlanders, I've begun to see the criticism of the social clubs as misguided, if not outright mean-spirited. Their obsession with an amusement park is strange, their outfits are outlandish, and the amount of time they must devote to crafting their vests boggles the mind. But the bonds between them are real. Writing about the process of being initiated into the club on the Neverlander blog, new member Sara said, "While my whole journey was long, it was never just about becoming part of a club. It was gaining friendships that I know I'll cherish forever and gaining the courage to be myself." That might be a little corny, but so are a lot of Disney movies—that doesn't make them any less powerful.
The social clubs aren't childish, either, despite their sometimes childlike glee. Though they love all things Disney and especially the company's founder, their admiration is tempered by an understanding of his humanity. Walt, like his park, isn't perfect, but his ideals are something to work toward.
"He drank, and he smoked, and he loved his family too," Michael said. "He's a real man who built an empire, and it's something we strive for and look up to. For us [going to Disneyland] is all about getting there and letting go."