In defence of the Disney adult

In an extract from 'Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking', writer Marianne Eloise explores the intersection of neurodivergence, fixation and disorder.

by Marianne Eloise
01 April 2022, 8:00am

Photo by Craig Adderley

Writer and journalist Marianne Eloise was born obsessive. It was, and still is, she says, her natural state. What that means changes day to day, depending on what her brain latches onto: fixations with certain topics, intrusive violent thoughts, looping phrases. Some obsessions have lasted a lifetime, while others will be intense but only last a week or two. Her new book, released next week — Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking — is a culmination of a life spent obsessing, offering a glimpse into Marianne's brain, but also an insight into the lives of others like her. From death to Medusa, to Disneyland to fire, to LA to her dog, the essays explore the intersection of neurodivergence, fixation and disorder. They tell the story of one life underpinned and ultimately made whole by obsession.

Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.

So reads a gold plaque above the entrance to the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, so small you could miss it. It’s a promise: that whatever plagues you, whatever drags you down in your mediocre, simple little life, will disappear the second you enter those gates. It isn’t a promise for children, who already live relatively worry-free existences without the trappings of adulthood and are either too short or too preoccupied to look up and take in the details of the entrance. No: it’s a vow for the adults who aren’t rushing in to queue for Space Mountain or to beg for a pretzel shaped like Mickey Mouse’s face. The ones who maybe aren’t even converts yet, who are nervous at the prospect of a day in a busy, loud theme park full of children. You, too, will find peace and nostalgia here, if you are only open to it.

So-called Disney Adults, grown people with taxes and long-abandoned virginities who actually enjoy going to Disneyland, are the subject of much ire at the hands of cynical Twitter adults, who derive 90 per cent of their joy from mocking things that other people like. I get it, I guess – I hate many things that I perceive as whimsical. I’m fundamentally against nostalgia. I don’t respect grown women who wear fifties pin-up in an attempt to return to a simpler, more racist past. I’m startled by all colours that aren’t gentle pastels. I never really liked Disney cartoons much, and by the time I was old enough to choose what films to watch, I didn’t want to watch anything without Jim Carrey.

Logic dictates that I should hate everything about Disneyland itself: it is loud, it is busy, it is expensive. My impatience means that queuing, especially for longer than fifteen minutes, is unbearable, and my limited tolerance for other people means that I spend that time hating anyone playing videos out loud on their phone. I hate most of the food, I hate the blinding sun, I hate making small talk with chipper security guards as they rifle through my bag for any evidence of anything that might alleviate the other anxieties. It should be hell on earth, but it isn’t.

As far as Disney nerds go, I’m a novice. I’m actually pretty normal. Theories as to why adults love Disneyland vary, and they’re never particularly fair. The usual one is that these stunted adults long for the warm waters of the womb, the comforts of childhood that they had to leave behind when they found out about taxes and aging. I don’t identify with that theory because I was never a Disney child in the first place. Photos of me as a kid are deceptive: I’m always wearing a 101 Dalmatians backpack or a Minnie Mouse t-shirt, not because I loved the cartoons, but because I was being dressed by other people in the nineties. I will concede, too, that I loved the look of the characters themselves, even if I wasn’t a fan. But I, mostly, refused to watch the movies, knowing that their central plots of animals going through trauma was too upsetting for me. I didn’t go to a Disney Park until I was thirteen, although my parents went to Disneyland Paris without me in the nineties (read into that what you will). My childhood was, largely, unpleasant and unconventional – I hold no desire in my heart to return to it.

I went to Disney World at thirteen with my auntie, uncle and cousins not because I loved Disney, but because I loved the idea of doing anything. My world was small and, following the birth of my baby sister a week or two earlier, getting more stressful by the minute. I spent two weeks with a real family, one who ate and played and talked and laughed together. We went to theme park after theme park and I fell in love with the ease of it, with the way all of my decisions were made before I even got through the gate. I knew what I would eat (fries), what I would drink (Coca-Cola) and that I would spend every sweltering day following the instruction of my cousins, who had been before and I experienced Disney World like it was a real place, a meticulously organised universe existing parallel to the one that scared me. I wanted, somehow, to crawl inside this picture-perfect, pastel world, to live in the Swiss Family Treehouse and experience the thrill of Space Mountain daily. I had never before had any real desire to go to America, but I believed that Disney World, and Orlando in turn, was an encapsulation of a culture so much brighter and more exciting than anything I had ever known at home.

Walt Disney didn’t only over-design Disneyland because he was a motivated perfectionist: he wanted to create an entirely new world, one devoid of the chaos and death around him. The work of the people responsible for crafting that world often goes unnoticed, but the 2019 Disney Parks documentary The Imagineering Story did a deep dive on the inner workings of the so-called Imagineers, who design and implement the concepts and technologies of the Park attractions and mise-en-scène. One Imagineer says, “Walt wanted to create a better reality – not chaos and contradiction, but order and meaning’. Some conflate that obsession with a certain authoritarianism, and his drive to craft utopia doesn’t do much to dissuade that theory. One of those projects was EPCOT, a futuristic city – ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. His belief, whether through EPCOT, Disney’s futuristic Tomorrowland or Celebration, seems to be that happiness lies in sanitising reality.

For every effort made, death cannot be kept out of Disney’s doors. A Wikipedia page entitled ‘List of Incidents at Disney World’ is, to say the least, lengthy. But it can be skipped over, forgotten, tucked away as an unfortunate blip. Dark rumours extend to Walt himself, whether it’s cryogenics or Nazism. But our impulse to find the darkness in Disney, to search for its faults, points to something in humanity. Any stab at achieving perfection is an attempt at denying death, and as such, it runs through Disney’s DNA. But that isn’t insidious; it’s human. We just find it so hard to believe that something could be purely intentioned.

When I first went to Disneyland in Anaheim, I naïvely didn’t realise that I was not special. In Southern California, a lot of residents, even grown adult ones, have annual passes. Their culture is one of Disneyland. It’s a 40-minute drive from LA, and for my friends who grew up in Orange County, going to Disneyland was as common as going to a McDonald’s is for anyone else. These people, as a direct consequence of spending every weekend and after-school free time at Disneyland, are by their nature nerds. They know everything; when it’s best to queue, what rides were never completed, which cast members are kindest and which are a little shady. They know the history of every ride, when refurbishments happened and when they were rallied against. Where Disney is a distant dream for most people, for better-off residents of Southern California, it’s their culture. What they know that others don’t is that you don’t age out of Disneyland – a Disney Adult is not separate to a Disney Child. They both want the same thing: an escape.

marianne eloise headshot
Photography Ella Kemp

I could make excuses, ruminate on reasons why adults love Disney that stray away from nostalgia or regression or capitalism. Ultimately, though, I only know why I do: those little moments, those details and that care for minutiae build to create a world acknowledging death while fearing it, a world where we can escape into tomorrow even when everything is so dense we can’t see ourselves anymore. In those grotesque images, in those blueprints and photos, I saw what’s possible when you stop giving a shit about what anyone else thinks is acceptable or possible. I saw a fantasy.

Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking by Marianne Eloise is released on 7 April 2022.

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