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Disneyland Article
Why Disneyland Has Some Of The Most Toxic Fans On The Internet
Julie Tremaine
"This has to stop," a Disneyland fan said.

There had been a stream of troubling comments for the past few days in the "Vintage Disneyland" Facebook group. People were getting offended and others were starting to speak out.

It started innocently, with people sharing memories of the park with the phrase “My Disneyland had …” My Disneyland had the Welch’s Grape Juice stand. My Disneyland let you fly through the Matterhorn on the Skyway.

But the internet being the internet, things took a dark turn, fast. "My Disneyland didn’t let wokeness ruin rides" was a common theme, quickly becoming a pile-on of grievances, from removing the scene on Pirates of the Caribbean where women were sold into sex slavery to changing culturally insensitive scenes on Jungle Cruise that stereotyped Indigenous tribes. Don’t even get them started on what’s on deck for Splash Mountain.

"The whole 'My Disneyland' thing was just mind-boggling," Bill Cotter said. As one of the admins of the 114,000 member group, it’s his shared responsibility to filter out the worst of the posts and comments. "I actually posted a picture of my car on Main Street that my Disneyland had better parking," he added.

Cotter is now retired from theme parks, but spent years working at Disneyland, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios. When he was a cast member (what Disneyland calls its employees), on the days Disneyland was closed, you were allowed to drive your car in the park if you had a certain level of seniority.

"I came back later and, my God, the hatred that was flying back and forth," Cotter said. "Like, 'my Disneyland didn’t have whale-sized people stuffing food in their face.' What are you talking about? Body shaming is not acceptable. Why did you feel you had to make that comment? And then it just went downhill from there. Some of the comments were truly terrible. 'My Disneyland didn’t have a pedophile president in the White House.' What the hell? That just went really south."

The members who participate in that kind of thread can get so toxic that even just speaking out in a mild way against the negativity — by saying something as innocuous as "this has to stop" — is to risk having thousands of people pile on their criticisms, starting with why the problematic comment wasn’t a problem in the first place and ending, quite often, with personal attacks on that person and their family that can extend outside the group and sometimes into real life.

But it’s not just isolated to this one Disneyland Facebook group.

There is a serious issue with toxicity in Disney social media as a whole, and it has increased so much over the past few years that the topic has become a growing area of academic study.

"It’s become quite fascinating to me to look at the toxicity in a fandom that a lot of people would think is just very happy, and everyone’s always on the same page with things, when they’re obviously not," said Rebecca Williams, senior lecturer in communication, culture and media studies at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom. She focuses extensively on participatory cultures and fandoms, especially Disney fans, publishing the book “Theme Park Fandom” last year.

Williams first started noticing a larger-than-expected reaction to what she thought were relatively benign opinions about Disney when she was doing her own planning for a family trip to Walt Disney World.

"It was the first time I'd really seen a sense that a lot of the locals thought of tourists as being foolish or as not really knowing the right thing to do or the right place to go. And I'd never really thought about that before," Williams said. "I'd always thought quite nicely that everyone who liked Disney was going to be friendly and nice."

Since then, in her observation, the criticism has grown from passing criticism to deeper attacks that have become more pointed and personal. Blame the pandemic, sure, but there’s more happening than just that — and the trends in Disney social media reflect what’s happening in society more broadly.

"I think the pandemic has made people generally more angry about the little things," Williams said, but she saw the real emergence of this kind of discourse around the 2016 election. "I think people on social media started to become more divided anyway, and some of that spilled over," she said. "They’d never really been that vocal about their politics before on the Disney sites or on Twitter accounts."

Look on Twitter any day, especially on posts under the #DisTwitter threads, and you’ll see people attacking each other in vicious ways. Sometimes it’s about how "wokeness" is ruining the Disney experience — as Jonathan VanBoskerck famously opined in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year. He received massive backlash as well, when he said, "Disney cares more about politics than happy guests."

But sometimes fans attack for seemingly innocuous things like Williams mentioned, such as restaurant preference, or for daring to prefer a park that others think is inferior. "Epcot fanboys" are regularly raked across the coals for loving a park with fewer rides than other Disney World parks and that has been under construction for several pre- and mid-pandemic years.

"These kinds of conflicts usually end up turning on ideas about who are the real fans and what does real fandom look like or mean," said Benjamin Woo, associate professor of communication and media study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Woo, the author of "Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture," sees this kind of flare-up as a way of comparing who’s the better or more deserving fan.

"One of the reasons why online spaces have provoked, or made visible, or accelerated these kinds of conflicts is that it’s much easier to find and see people who are enjoying the thing that you enjoy in a way that’s different than you enjoy it, or who are criticizing those things," Woo told SFGATE.

"That discoverability of online fan activity means that you're kind of confronted by different conceptions of what it means to be a Disney fan or a Marvel fan or a gamer or whatever in a way that you might not have been if your fandom was limited by your own immediately available peers in your school or your city," he added. "I think the central dynamic here is you're just being confronted with these different conceptions of what it means to be a fan or how you are quote unquote 'supposed to think about or enjoy the thing.'"

Fans have spent years building up huge knowledge bases of little-known Disney history, or of learning every corner of the Disney movie universe, or creating their own version of the best way to do the parks. Then they share that information online. People disagree — or worse, go on a personal attack.

Insert whatever insult you want there, because it’s already been said, many times, to many people. They’re throwing their money away. They’re wasting their lives. They’re "creepy" Disney adults who refuse to grow up. They’re any version of fan the attacker doesn’t see as worthy.

"It doesn’t explain the particular vitriol in which some of [those opinions] get expressed," Woo said, "but I think that is a really important piece of understanding" that kind of behavior.

Academics studying the phenomenon can see any number of examples themselves. "On Facebook, I’m in groups for Disney cruises, and it’s amazing how somebody will ask the most innocent question and just get destroyed," said Dan Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky. "I'm like, man, some people don't have near the magic you should probably have."

Wann studies the psychology of sports fandom, how groups of people interact over their love of sports and how they react when their team is losing. What he sees is that fandom is a deeply ingrained form of self-identification.

"Fans take this stuff personal, right? If you are a diehard Disney fan, or a diehard Giants fan, or a diehard ‘Star Wars’ fan, or a diehard fill-in-the-blank fan, it's a part of their identity," he said. "It is literally a part of who they are."

Some people choose a long-term commitment to Disney because their family likes to go, or because it’s a way to stay connected to the past. But there are also long-term financial commitments that people make to the company, through investments or through purchasing membership in Disney Vacation Club, which is essentially a timeshare at Disney hotels with a contract that can last up to 50 years. So, Wann points out, you’ve got good reasons for wanting things to stay positive at the parks.

"When things go wrong with that part of their identity, their choice is either to pretend they don't care or to make it seem better. Well, they're not going to pretend they don’t care, right?" Wann said. "If you’re a Disney Vacation Club person, you don't get to say, ‘Well, I guess I'll just not care anymore.’ You care psychologically and financially."

"When things happen at Disneyland — for instance, you talk about a ride change or if prices go up or they take away annual passes — Disneyland fans go crazy because you’re taking something that they hold very dear to their heart," said Stephanie Williams-Turkowski, assistant professor in the department of mass communications at Stephen F. Austin State University, who wrote her dissertation about Disney fandom. "It's like if I came into your house and rearranged all your furniture without you knowing, that's how deep it hits them. So there can be toxicity about that. There’s also toxicity and negativity towards the things that don’t change."

She especially sees fighting in online Disney communities about which groups should and shouldn’t be represented at the parks, and what the "real" Disney fan is. "There are so many different facets of being a Disney fan and you don't have to fit that one description," she said. "That's where a lot of the negativity comes in — like, 'You don't look like the typical Disney fan. So why are you pretending to be one?'"

"It’s really phenomenal and disappointing, " Bill Cotter said.

Though there are several other admins in the Vintage Disneyland group, many of them choose not to identify themselves publicly, some even going so far as to use a pseudonym to avoid backlash for enforcing the rules of the group. Those rules include specifying that posts need to pertain to a certain time frame to be considered "vintage," but also include "be kind and courteous" and "no politics," which are less followed than you might think.

"Some of them are just scared to death of being attacked by people on a personal level," Cotter said. "They start calling you Hitler for being a dictator. So many things you couldn’t print."

“It bounces off you in the street, but I just don’t like it when it happens here, it’s a whole new level of hurt,” he added. Cotter has a particular visibility in the group. He has written several history books, including one on the 1964 World’s Fair when Disney debuted It’s a Small World and other now-iconic park rides. “What frustrates me is that you’re trying to say you want to go to the happiest place on Earth,” he said, “and people just feel absolutely compelled to bring the outside world into it.”

Cotter, too, sees a correlation in vitriol with the 2016 election. “You’ll post a picture of something like, ‘Here’s myself at age 3 standing next to Monstro the Whale,’ and somebody has to post, ‘He’s almost as bad as Donald Trump.’ Why did you feel you needed to do that?” he said. “Then somebody else will post a picture of a kid sleeping in a stroller and somebody goes, ‘Oh, look a baby picture of Joe Biden doing what he does best, sleeping.’ You just don’t need that crap.”

But it’s not just politics. People attack each other over their parenting at the parks, their ride preferences, even the clothes they choose to wear to Disneyland. Cotter also said he sees a significant amount of race-baiting and homophobia. “Some people are so anti-gay that anything that suggests somebody might be gay sends them into an absolute frenzy,” he noted.

On the morning we spoke, Cotter checked the admin activity log for the group. In less than two hours that day, three people had been declined from joining the group, two had been banned, and several more had insensitive comments deleted from posts. Remember, though, that’s out of more than 100,000 members, the majority of whom he described as “really decent people and having fun.”

In sports fandom, Dan Wann said, those people are called “dysfunctional fans,” who disregard other people’s feelings or go on the attack when something goes wrong with their team. It might be one in 20 people, he guessed. “The majority aren't that way, but it doesn't take very many to make it seem like a majority,” he said.

“They're the ones that love to call into sports talk radio and diss the local and away games and confront the opposing fans,” Wann said. “They were bullies as kids, or they’re highly aggressive and they drink a lot. I wonder if maybe you haven't come across people [who] are just dysfunctional Disney fans and they're not nice outside of Disney. Their job is to take away the magic.”

So why do people continue to engage when the most benign comments often get attacked? Probably for the same reason cast members continue to work at Disneyland when the park pays wages it’s hard to live on. In fact, 25,000 of them are suing Disneyland right now for a living wage, the majority of whom still work for the Mouse.

It all comes down to passion for the park, a deep and sometimes inexplicable attachment to a place that’s more than just a place. It represents peace of mind, escapism, being able to walk out of your life and walk into one where everything is in vivid color, music plays from the landscaping, and your every need is tended to, as long as you can pay for it.

“People just really want a communal bond over something, and trust in the community and people who are seeking out that community,” said Will Henderson, associate director for the Social Media Listening Center at Clemson University, who studies the social media habits of theme park fans. “Yes, there are certain users that you don't want to engage with, but I think the block button and the report button are not used enough.”

With Disneyland especially, there’s a protectiveness that comes with what people perceive as “Walt’s park,” the only one Disney personally oversaw the creation of. People will complain about changes at Walt Disney World, but when it comes to Disneyland, that discourse is on a totally different level. “We have three times the number of members in Vintage Disneyland than we do in Vintage Disney World, and we must have 10 times the problem,” Cotter said.

In addition to Disneyland being seen as the purest expression of Walt Disney’s personal vision, it’s also more of a local’s park, with a huge portion of its annual passholders within easy driving distance. “Disneyland people are more of a local group,” Cotter said. “Before they eliminated the passes, they had a group that went all the time and started getting very protective of their environment.”

Because so many people grew up frequenting Disneyland, that passion and protectiveness could be linked to their happiest childhood memories. “So many people go to these places first when they are kids with their families, it's almost like, ‘You're attacking the way I was brought up, you're attacking my family,’” Rebecca Williams said.

Hannah Sampson, a staff writer who covers travel at the Washington Post, started seeing the negativity online among Disney fans come to a boiling point when she first reported on changes to Splash Mountain in mid-2019. “When I wrote that story, people were commenting on the piece and saying things like, ‘PC police get a life, leave us alone,’” she said. Some of them were even defending “Song of the South,” the movie Splash Mountain is based on, which is so problematic that the New Yorker called out its racism in its coverage of the movie’s 1946 release.

“People were saying how much they loved ‘Song of the South’ and how it was really a great movie,” Sampson added, “when in actuality they're not even showing it because it [Disney] realized that it's so offensive and culturally unacceptable.”

A story she wrote about conservative backlash to what she called “Disney’s ‘woke’ moves” generated more than 4,300 reader comments (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this Washington Post article). The discourse was exactly what you’d expect. One reader commented the story was “more fodder for the knuckle dragging right wing outrage machine,” while another responded with, “Diversity and inclusivity is a stupid replacement for competence. Losers of the world, arise!”

“If not seeing a depiction of a woman sold off at auction is going to ‘ruin’ your Disney experience,” wrote one commenter of the change to Pirates of the Caribbean, “then you deserve to have it ruined.”

Sampson sees the fight over changes to Disney as reflecting the broader national discourse around whether it’s better to remove, say, statues of Confederate generals. “There’s very much this broader mindset of there being difficult things in the past that some people want to remove, and others are saying, ‘No, this is our heritage. We shouldn’t be tearing it down,’” she said. “I definitely see that reflected in the discourse around the Jim Crow crows in ‘Dumbo,’ which can be seen as really offensive and racist, and are seen that way by many, and ‘Song of the South.’”

The political right blames the left for erasing the past when changing their beloved childhood rides like Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain, and the political left blames the right for resistance to those changes delaying what they see as progress. But nobody gets blamed more than Disney CEO Bob Chapek.

Under Chapek’s leadership, the parks have ended free FastPasses, taken away significant guest perks like trams to and from parking garages and free airport transportation to and from Walt Disney World hotels, and replaced the beloved annual passholder program with one widely seen as inferior. To say people dislike those decisions is to put it mildly. But people forget that Chapek, when he talks about the company’s “more aggressive” financial strategy to raise profits, is, well, doing his job.

“He’s not even pretending to hide anything. He’s like, ‘We want your money,’” Rebecca Williams said. “But I think it’s interesting that he’s been singled out in this way.” She said she’s observed Josh D’Amaro, head of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, as being portrayed by the public as trying to do the right thing and do better by guests, but as being held back by Chapek. “We get this weird scapegoating of one person as bad and someone else isn’t,” she added. “It allows people to defend the company to put the blame on an individual when it clearly isn’t just his fault.”

“When you’re making the point about Disney constantly changing,” Hannah Sampson said, it’s easy to forget that “its main goal is entertainment and making money. It’s kind of funny [that] the attitude people have brought to this conversation is whether you should be replacing Walt’s original vision. You have to assume that he would have recognized the need to change things as the times changed and to reckon with things that were problematic from the start.”

Williams sees this focus on Chapek as the biggest Disney villain as a way of deflecting people’s complicated emotions about the company’s decisions — not just about removing parts of rides or taking away perks, but of allowing more inclusive dress codes for cast members, like letting anyone wear nail polish, not just cisgender women. Or, for the company charging more than $200 a day for a Park Hopper ticket and fighting in court to not have to pay its employees a living wage.

By placing your blame or hatred on Bob Chapek, Williams contends, you can overlook those other problems, or make them easier to contend with. “You can say, ‘Well, you know, it's because of somebody else,’ or, ‘It's not everything, it's just this one person, we can blame this one individual person for it,’” she said. “People try to defend against it because then they can think, ‘It isn't just because of my identity, it's these other things that are happening, it's because Disney has to be woke or, they have to be seen responding to this.’ You can blame someone else for it. You can defend against feeling like your own self identity is under attack.”

Ultimately, the simplest explanation is that people have intense connections to this company that manufactures happiness as its largest commodity, and, as Hannah Sampson said, “there’s always going to be some way in which current Disney leadership is not living up to the expectation of the fandom.”

“There’s a lot of grist for that now,” she added. “You can't blame people for disappointment and feeling like their pockets are getting emptier and emptier, but I also think the real Disney fandom would not be happy if there wasn't something that they could complain about.”

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