On the balcony of the Catal Restaurant, a Mexican-themed bar overlooking a Wetzel's Pretzels shop, twentysomethings sip red cocktails and Jack Daniels. Inside, a mustached DJ plays soul songs. The DJ's red suit jacket and graphic tee make me feel like I'm in Bushwick, but I'm 2,790.03 miles away from Brooklyn: I'm at a bar in Downtown Disney--the fake city of bars, restaurants, and gift shops outside Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It's the weekend of the D23Expo, biennial Disney version of Comic Con, where the Walt Disney Company announces new rides and movies. On Friday night, the House of Mouse is throwing a private party called #OhMyDisney. Only adults attend the party, but they freely express their inner children there.
"No! I know more about villains!" slurs a drunk woman with purple hair at the bar.
Elsewhere in the restaurant, several girls, including a blogger from StarWars.com, hover over a table lined with cotton balls and pink and turquoise rhinestones. The women are decorating Mickey Mouse ears to wear later, but all the male party attenders, gay and straight, pay attention to Jamie Patterson. She twirls around the room in a dress made entirely of Tsum-Tsum, Disney's line of Japanese-inspired Disney cartoon stuffed animals with a cult following.
In the 21st century, Disney specializes more in cult followings than children's entertainment. Since Bob Iger took over as CEO in 2005, he has led the corporation's acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, the company that owns Star Wars and Indiana Jones, among other properties. The purchases brought comic nerds, sci-fi geeks, and tons of males into the Disney fold. The Disney dream factory has also brought in a crop of goths through its dark live-action adaptations of classic animated films: Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and next year's The Jungle Book. (Goths already loved the company for The Nightmare Before Christmas.) At Downtown Disney, Disney has even opened a Hot Topic-like store called Vault Disney selling gothic Disney products: a small stature of a tomb that says "Tomb Sweet Tomb" on the front; a sexy Dumbo t-shirt made of lace; and endless Cheshire cat merchandise.
Everyone loves Dumbo and Luke Skywalker, but why are so many adults obsessing over the Walt Disney Company's characters like they're religious figures? I go to the D23 Expo to find out myself.
When I arrive at the convention, I see more men dressed as Frozen's Elsa than small children. At the entry, I watch a guy cross-dressing as a fairy pose with a group of girls dressed as Tinker Bell's friends for photos. A group of Christans stands across from the fairies holding signs saying "Christ Died for Our Sins." I assume the Jesus junkies attend the event to protest the Disney fans' costumes, seeing as they subvert the social construction of gender, but the Christians deny this.
"We're not protesting," explains Vicky, a 22-year-old missionary with braces. "We're here because they are a lot of people here and we're all sinners."
Vicky could find tons of people to protest at D23 Expo if she wanted, though. On Grindr, I count over 66 guys looking for gay sex at the convention. I've always wanted to fuck someone in a public bathroom, so I message a bunch of guys. Most of them look like bears (overweight hairy gay guys). In one profile picture, a bear poses with the Genie from Aladdin. Nearly every dude ignores me--one guy claims it's because he imagines my butt is too hairy because I have "facial hair" and he loves "smooth bubble butts."
Feeling rejected, I rebrand my Grindr. I change my profile to "Looking for D at Disney." Within ten minutes, I receive five messages. A hot Portland gay invites me to have a threesome at his room in the Super 8 Motel. Although he looks like he smokes meth (Portland's gays love crystal or "Tina" as the gays call it), he has a six-pack. I accept his offer, but he then cancels on me.
No Disney gay will fuck me. The only thing I get from the hours I wasted on Grindr is seeing this amazing profile picture:
The gays attend the convention for more than sex, though. Hoards of gays show up in drag, dressed as their favorite villains. In the long line outside the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday, I meet a boy named Brendan cross-dressing as Maleficent. He perfectly captures the evil fairy's crown, but his gender remains obvious: Facial hair covers his face. A California native, he has attended all four D23 Expos. I ask him why he loves Disney characters, specifically Maleficent.
"I have no idea," he says. "I'm just drawn to her."
He has always considered Disney "a safe space" for gays to act gay and follow their guttural urges, whether that's dressing as a blond princess or loving a woman who wants to put a blonde princess to sleep for eternity. "Disney has always been accepting," he says.
He has a point. Years before love won, gays loved Disney. They attend the Broadway musicals, buy the stuffed animals, and spend fortunes going on vacation at Disney World. Since 1991, gays have organized an unofficial Gay Days at Disney theme parks. Disney has never rejected the event or gays, despite Christians' protests, nor have them officially endorsed them, but they now sell "I Love Cruising" pins at California Adventure theme park. Many Disney films have lessons, but the company's films, going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, completely lack religious messages.
None of the Disney gays can fully explain why Disney offers them a safe space, though. When I approach a lesbian couple dressed as Jessica the Rabbit and Roger Rabbit, they are unable to articulate why they love Disney other than to say, "Because [we] grew up with it," as though Disney is a religion or cultural myth, as embedded in their psyche as the Founding Fathers. Lesbians and gay men also grew up with Barbie dolls and Nickelodeon, and you never hear gay people describing toys or All That as a cultural holy ground.
Other stigmatized subcultures--from video game nerds to comic geeks--also treat the D23 Expo as America's mecca. Inside the convention center, men and women carry suitcases filled with Disney pins. People wait in lines to apply for Disney Chase Visa cards at the Visa booth, and teens hover over Uniqlo's display of Disney t-shirts for sale. Hundreds of people wait in line to enter the convention's store, which sells more collectibles than t-shirts. The window display highlights the "A Day at Disneyland with Walt Disney and Jiminy Cricket" record; on the cover, Walt Disney rides a train and wears a red shirt and overalls, resembling Ronald Reagan. A bald man wearing a baseball cap calls his wife: "It's $150!" he screams about a potential purchase. Another woman takes photographs of records' covers and texts them to her husband to get his opinion on her potential purchases. She's considering pre-ordering a collectible Silly Symphony record collection (price: $399.98) that store clerks are pushing on collectors. A fan I meet tells me that she heard an avid consumer yell, "I just want to shop!"
When these fans aren't hyperventilating over records and pins, they're waiting in hour-long lines to get into hall presentations about new films and rides. Some people even start lining up the night before, at 10 PM. I love Disney--Fantasia and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are two of my favorite movies, and I own an annual pass to Disneyland--but I can't imagine hyperventilating over the revelation that Chris Evans beats people up in the Captain America: Civil War or Shakira will voice a gazelle in a movie called Zootopia.
On Saturday, I attend a D23 Expo panel on upcoming theme part attraction, hoping to better understand the Mickey zealots. 8,000 people crowd into "Hall D23." Eight tall screens display the panelists talking on stage. I sit in the media section with Disney bloggers. Prior to the panel, they gush over what they saw earlier in the day, including a performance by former Disney Broadway stars. "When she sang 'Feed the Birds,' I was dead! Dead!" a blogger behind me screams. Another blogger livestreams the event on her cell phone. "Everyone is a big lover of Disney and Pixar!" she says into her iPhone.
I feel like I'm at a mega church until Bob Chapek, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, enters the stage. Chapek is bald and wears a suit without a tie. "I want to acknowledge the exceptional leaders who put this all in motion, especially my predecessor Tom Staggs," he says, effectively transforming the event into a weird corporate function. The fans ignore his corporate rambling but light up when Chapek alludes to his childhood in the Midwest: He says, "As a kid growing up in the Midwest my family would take visits to Florida," and then pauses for applause.
"We're going to look at our future growth plans along with spreading pixie dust around the globe," Chapek adds.
Before he unveils Disney's new Star Wars land, Toy Story land, and Avatar-inspired attractions, Chapek gives shout outs to storied Disney attractions, comparing Disneyland's new Paint the Night Parade to the iconic Main Street Electrical Parade.
"I'm happy that the legend of the original parade lives on," he says. "What hasn't changed is the spectacle we can create with lights." He pauses. An image of Walt Disney wearing a cowboy hat at the construction of Disneyland appears behind Chapek. Walt, again, looks eerily like Ronald Reagan. "Like our whole new land at Disneyland. Or should I say galaxy?"
Chapek details the new Star Wars rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios. Next, he brings out Joe Rohde, the lead creative mind behind Disney's Animal Kingdom. Where most Imagineers (the engineers who design Disney rides) are fat white guys in Hawaiian shirts, Rohde looks like a flamboyant hippie. A long earring hangs from his left ear, and Rohde fills his presentation with discussions about "the richness, the beauty, the intrinsic value of nature" instead of corporate lingo about growth.
He's presenting Pandora: the World of Avatar, the new Avatar-inspired land at Animal Kingdom. To help him explain the attraction, he brings out Avatar's producer Jon Landau and director James Cameron, who says he rode to the event in a helicopter. Like all the other executives at the event, Cameron and Landau wear dress shirts and have thinning hair, but Cameron points out the difference between him and Imagineers.
"These guys are crazy," Cameron says about Rohde and the other Imagineers.
Cameron means the guys are brilliant, and the crowd of action fans agrees. As conceptual art of the floating mountains plays, the crowd loses their mind. I'm not an Avatar super fan, but I find myself applauding and taking pictures of Cameron on my iPhone like a fanboy. During the next presentation of the Iron Man Experience at Disneyland Shanghai, Stan Lee walks on stage. "I'm Stan Lee, the world's greatest cameo actor," he says. I start crying like the zealots around me.
I don't understand the tears on my face until I walk through the Disney Archive's exhibit of Disneyland artifacts from the past 60 years. In glass cases, I see the sweater and Mouseketeer hat Annette Funicello, the original Disney girl gone bad, wore on the 1950s classic The Mickey Mouse Club; a massive Cheshire Cat float that would inspire a zillion Hot Topic merchandise items; and pictures of celebrities at Disneyland: Tyra Banks sitting on "the musician Seal's lap," Michael Jackson, and again, Ronald Reagan.
Disneyland was once the American Versailles--a palace of the finest American kitsch gay theatre guys and kitsch lovers could enjoy--but the inclusion of Star Wars, Marvel, and Tim Burton movies have transformed Disney into company for nearly every American subculture, including goths, geeks, and nerds. Disney is now the American Louvre, and, as the drag queen put it, it's a "safe place" for all.