Disney Adults

Yasmine Pang

In popular culture, the Walt Disney Company is most famous for its animated movies, family-friendly theme parks, and iconic characters. Known to appeal to both children and adults, cuteness is present in current Disney culture and embodied in popular Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Winne-the-Pooh, and even Grogu (affectionately known as Baby Yoda), as the company has expanded to adopt popular franchises like Star Wars (see Figure 1). Using the soft power of cuteness, Disney has marketed the cuteness of their characters and movies to the general public since the 1930s.[1] During this period, the Great Depression changed attitudes toward consumption as many individuals began to adopt the mindset of buying “branded products at a cost-effective price.” At the same time, the Walt Disney Company recognized the need to generate alternative methods for revenue during the Depression, ultimately recognizing the merchandising power of icons such as Mickey Mouse. By plastering the face of Mickey onto everyday products, people could buy affordable items featuring his “rounded ears and caring smile” to bring them comfort in difficult times. One popular product was the first Mickey Mouse watch, purchased 2.5 million times within the first two years of its release for $2.98 each.[2]

Figure 1. While not all adults who frequent the Disney theme parks are Disney adults, a large percentage of Disney World parkgoers are adults. Although some of these adults visit with their children, other adults attend alone or with other adult fans who share a similar love for Disney culture. 

Interestingly, while the brand was initially successful in marketing Mickey through such products, the marketed “mouse” was not always designed in the same manner he is known for today. In early cartoons, Mickey was a more “rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow” and “mischievous.” However, as Mickey evolved into a national symbol for America, he was expected to behave accordingly; his design progressed to become more “juvenile” and “well-behaved,” with a “blander” and more “inoffensive” design for the general public. Stephen Jay Gould describes that in changing Mickey into a cuter and more juvenile figure, the character evokes an “‘innate releasing mechanis[m]' for affection” in adults, making him a friendlier, more marketable face for consumers (see Figure 2).[3] Sianne Ngai further supports this by highlighting how cuteness can provoke maternal and tender feelings in addition to more aggressive feelings of mastery, control, and a need for ownership over these cute objects.[4] Thus, with the gradual transformation of characters like Mickey into more “cutified” versions, Disney has continued to sell consumer products adorned with their cute characters. As a result, the Walt Disney Company has become one of the largest and most successful merchandising companies in the business.[5] The widespread availability of cute consumer products has allowed Disney fans to continue expressing their love for Disney and find comfort in the brand through readily available, consumable merchandise. Such cute products and the company’s iconic animated characters have contributed to the gradual rise of Disney fan culture. 

Figure 2. As Mickey evolved into a national symbol for America, he became cuter: more “juvenile” and “well-behaved,” with a “blander” and more “inoffensive” design for the general public. 

From Disney fanatics to more modest Disney fans, Disney enthusiasts have been able to showcase their devotion by living Disney-centered lifestyles, collecting Disney merchandise, or regularly attending Disney theme parks.[6] Yet, while the Walt Disney Company appeals to all ages, Disney adults have recently become more well-known in popular culture due to their unique fan practices. Defined as grown-ups who “excessively” display their love for Disney, “Disney adults” are adult fans who are known to “[love] all things Disney and [spend] vast amounts of money and time on Disney-related products and experiences.”[7] While the phenomenon of Disney-enjoying adults has existed since the 1990s, the “Disney adult” label did not enter the vernacular of the internet community until January 2020, when an online Reddit post criticizing Disney adult behavior began to circulate. While Disney adults can come from any generation since that of the late Baby Boomers, Disney adults typically consist of Millennials and Gen Zers, who grew up watching many of the popular animated films Disney released in the 1990s.[8] Known as the Disney Renaissance, this was a “period of revival” in Disney animated movies that became widely popular, owing to their stories about youth delivered through emotional musical numbers. The songs highlighted the struggles of the films’ young characters, affirming the “agency, desires, and rights to a dream” of young viewers as they related to the characters onscreen.[9] As such, these young people grew up watching and developing emotional connections with the coming-of-age films, allowing them to feel nostalgia and affection for the movies later in their lives. This population and their upbringing during the Disney Renaissance are likely the origin of the Millennial and Gen Z Disney adults known today.

While not all Disney fans are adults, the power of Disney adults as a consumer group is evident in how they have influenced the marketing choices of the Walt Disney Company. Although the majority of products are strongly exposed to consumers in their childhoods, some products and experiences are specifically marketed toward adults.[10] As Gould theorizes, becoming cuter and more juvenile can elicit feelings of affection in adults, which Disney marketers have been aware of in designing their products. The company has continued the practice of “cutifying” Disney products, and while this strategy has been effective with a wide range of audiences, it has been notably successful in appealing to Disney adults.[11]

At present, there are numerous ways in which Disney adults can express their love for Disney. While some of these practices are not limited to Disney adults, Disney adults are unique in how they engage in a combination of various fan practices more frequently than the average adult. For example, couples plan to have Disney-themed weddings on Disney property, while other Disney adults go as far as spreading the ashes of their loved ones on popular park attractions.[12][13] However, one Disney adult practice that distinctly combines the acts of “consuming” and “experiencing” Disney is DisneyBounding (see Figure 3). Similar to cosplay, DisneyBounding is the act of creating an outfit evoking a specific Disney character without wearing a direct costume of that character.[14] Established in 2011, the practice was coined by influencer Leslie Kay, who ran a Tumblr blog called “DisneyBound.”[15] On her blog, she would share Disney-inspired outfits when she was “literally bound for Disney” and visiting the theme parks.[16] While these Disney-inspired outfits are not required to be cute, they are often designed to be perceived as “cute” and “fashionable” by a general audience. These outfits can be worn anywhere, but Disney adults tend to DisneyBound when visiting theme parks, where they can take pictures with the characters they are dressed as or even take pictures of themselves imitating those characters while in the parks. The practice began in America at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland parks but has since expanded to the Disney theme parks in France and Asia.[17][18] While the act of costuming as a favorite character is not new to fans, DisneyBounding has become even more popular in recent years as a result of Disney’s ban on costumes for parkgoers over the age of fourteen.[19] Online, social media influencers continue to share outfit ideas for fans interested in DisneyBounding. However, while DisneyBounding is well-known in the Disney community, less is known about why exactly adults choose to partake in the practice. Furthermore, little is understood about how DisneyBounding brings such joy to these adults, as well as other feelings that are evoked when they DisneyBound. 

Figure 3. A Snow White fan DisneyBounds as Snow White while posing with the character and the Evil Queen, another Snow White character. Although the fan is dressed in a color scheme similar to the popular Disney Princess, her outfit is not an exact replica, an important aspect of DisneyBounding culture.

To explore the phenomenon of DisneyBounding, one can consider how the practice is similar to other fashion styles and the emotions they evoke in their practitioners. For example, DisneyBounding is similar to sociologist Megan Catherine Rose's description of the effect that Japanese Harajuku Decora fashion has on its practitioners. Decora fashion involves adorning the body with “layers of objects, accessories, and stickers” to form “kawaii affective assemblages” that evoke feelings of “‘energy and power,’” “excitement and pleasure.”[20] These kawaii feelings stem from how practitioners have agency in their unique fashion choices and freedom to experience “new ways of being” and “‘a capacity for action.’”[21] Additionally, as Japanese cute, or kawaii, can be used to describe and evoke feelings of “warm emotional contact” and loveliness, these aspects can be a motivational factor for individuals to partake in the fashion style.[22] Although Decora may be much more countercultural and is not a form of infantile regression, it is possible that Disney adults are motivated to DisneyBound in a manner comparable to those who wear Decora fashion. Disney adults too may experience feelings of “‘energy and power’” as well as “excitement and pleasure” when wearing cute outfits that evoke their favorite characters. Various researchers have discovered that one of the main reasons why Disney adults DisneyBound is to “relive their childhood Disney memories.”[23] This is supported by how some Disney adults suggest that DisneyBounding allows them to “‘become a part of the magic of Disney’” and “‘part of [the] world or story [of their favorite characters].’”[24] Cute DisneyBound outfits are a means through which adults can experience nostalgia and relive childhood joys. 

Although not applicable for all cute practices (such as Decora fashion), scholars have noted that cuteness and “cute sentiments” can be used for the “recovery of a childlike emotional and mental state.”[25] DisneyBounding arguably allows Disney adults to do just that — in imitating Disney characters, they temporarily enter a “childlike state” that allows them to play as their desired character within the Disney sphere (see Figure 4).[26] Evidently, the cuteness of DisneyBounding allows Disney adults to experience feelings of nostalgia and a desire to return to their pleasant childhood eras. DisneyBounding allows an adult to revert to her child self and childhood era, an era during which most Disney adults likely spent their childhoods being exposed to Disney culture through film entertainment and theme park experiences. As Disney has become a symbol of magic and joy through its characters and stories, Disney adults are likely reliving the magic through the cute “affective assemblages” (Rose, Kurebayashi, and Saionji) they create with their DisneyBound outfits.[27]

However, while practices like DisneyBounding give Disney adults an opportunity to relive the joys of their childhood experiences, Disney adults often receive negative criticism for their overall behavior. Some argue that when Disney adults are overly expressive in their Disney fan practices, they are explicitly supporting capitalistic practices and embodying “overgrown children.”[28] Yet, DisneyBounding can also be perceived as a way for the adults to proudly own their passions and refute claims of immaturity. By intentionally dressing as Disney characters, Disney adults resist existing expectations for how adults should carry themselves in their everyday lives. Far from being immature and “overgrown,” Disney adults are sophisticated and mature in deliberately choosing to dress so and are confident about freely expressing their interests even as their interests are highly stigmatized. 

Figure 4. DisneyBounding influencers like Leslie Kay have grown in popularity as the fan practice has become more common for Disney fans. These influencers encourage fans to practice their own self-expression, a core part of the DisneyBounding experience. 

Apart from the discussion surrounding its adult fans, Disney has received negative critiques from the general public, particularly for how it has used race to develop cuteness in Disney characters and its strong influence on consumers. For instance, Mickey Mouse was initially designed using black minstrelsy’s visual elements (e.g., blackface, exaggerated makeup and features, white gloves). While Mickey can be perceived as cute, the elements of black minstrelsy in his character design simultaneously attempt to make African American stereotypes more “pleasurable” and “less cruel” to viewers.[29] By being packaged and delivered as a cute character, Mickey diminishes the racist perspectives of the Disney animators who created him. While Mickey is one of the first examples of how Disney has projected its racist perceptions onto viewers, there are countless other examples of Disney’s continued failures to accurately represent ethnic minority groups in its media. For example, while The Princess and the Frog has been acclaimed for portraying the first African American Disney Princess, it has received just as much negative criticism for showing Princess Tiana as only a “slimy, mucus-dispensing, green frog” for the majority of the movie.[30] Importantly, through Disney’s common label as a corporation spreading American cultural imperialism, the ways in which it portrays people of color heavily influence the mindsets, perceptions, and beliefs of its consumers. As Disney adults continue their fan practices, they may be perpetuating the passive tolerance of the company’s problematic behaviors and actions.

Although Disney adults and the fan practice of DisneyBounding have received mixed reactions from the general public, DisneyBounding has certainly allowed these adults to experience cute emotions of nostalgic comfort and joy. However, through the company’s controversial portrayals of race, Disney has clearly been able to soften its controversial portrayals of minority groups through the soft power of its cutified characters and films. To fully discern the effects of Disney on its consumers and the general population, it is necessary to dissect how the company uses cuteness to its advantage both in its cultural influence and business practices. While Disney adults provide an avenue through which people can critically examine the relationship between cute affective cosplay and childhood nostalgia, further research is needed to continue exploring the politics at work in the behaviors and practices of Disney adults and the Walt Disney Company as a whole.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 9.

[2] Priscilla Hobbs, “Introduction,” in Interpreting and Experiencing Disney: Mediating the Mouse, ed. Priscilla Hobbs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2022), 1-2.

[3] Stephen Jay Gould, “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse,” Ecotone 4, no. 1 (2008): 336.

[4] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 816.

[5] Wasko, Understanding Disney, 49-50.

[6] Wasko, Understanding Disney, 196-208.

[7] Deanna Schwartz, “For some adults who love Disney, it’s like a religion,” NPR, June 11, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/06/11/1104056661/disney-adults.

[8] E. J. Dickson, “How ‘Disney Adults’ Became the Most Hated Group on the Internet,” Rolling Stone, June 21, 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/disney-adults-tiktok-hated-internet-1370226/.

[9] Ryan Bunch, “Soaring into Song: Youth and Yearning in Animated Musicals of the Disney Renaissance,” American Music 39, no. 2 (August 2021): 182.

[10] Wasko, Understanding Disney, 185.

[11] David Forgacs, “Disney animation and the business of childhood,” Screen 33, no. 4 (December 1992): 363.

[12] Jodi Eichler-Levine, “Don’t judge Disney adults. Try to understand them,” NBC News, June 9, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/disney-bride-groom-draw-twitter-hate-disney-adults-not-bad-rcna32851.

[13] Erich Schwartzel, “Disney World’s Big Secret: It’s a Favorite Spot to Scatter Family Ashes,” Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/disney-worlds-big-secret-its-a-favorite-spot-to-scatter-family-ashes-1540390229.

[14] Dori S. Koehler, “I Am Disney Bound: Costuming as Psycho-Social Practice,” in Interpreting and Experiencing Disney: Mediating the Mouse, ed. Priscilla Hobbs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2022), 206.

[15] “DisneyBound: Archive,” Tumblr, accessed April 26, 2023, https://disneybound.co/archive.

[16] Alessandra Sferlazza, “How To Disneybound in 5 Easy Steps—With Tips from the Experts,” WDW Magazine, March 1, 2021, https://www.wdw-magazine.com/our-guide-on-how-to-disneybound/.

[17] Koehler, “I Am Disney Bound,” 206.

[18] DisneyBound France Facebook Page, accessed April 26, 2023, https://www.facebook.com/disneyboundfr.

[19] “Park Dress Guidelines,” Walt Disney World, accessed April 26, 2023, https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/faq/parks/dress/.

[20] Megan Catherine Rose, Haruka Kurebayashi, and Rei Saionji, “Kawaii Affective Assemblages: Cute New Materialism in Decora Fashion, Harajuku,” M/C Journal 25, no. 4 (2022), https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2926.

[21] Rose, Kurebayashi, and Saionji, “Kawaii Affective Assemblages.”

[22] Hiroshi Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii’: A behavioural science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 2, no. 1 (April  2016): 81, 86.

[23] Nettie A. Brock, “The everyday Disney side: Disneybounding and casual cosplay,” The Journal of Fandom Studies 5, no. 3 (September 2017): 1.

[24] Amanda Krause, “Disney fans found a clever way to bypass the theme park’s ban on adult costumes,” Insider, January 16, 2021, https://www.insider.com/disney-fans-share-tips-for-character-interactions-and-disneybounding-2021-1.

[25] Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii,’” 86.

[26] Koehler, “I Am Disney Bound,” 219.

[27] Norbert Griszbacher, Ildikó Kemény, and Ákos Varga, “Echoes of Our Favourite Childhood Figures: Examining the Role of Disney in Lifelong Character Development Through Its Generational Fairy Tales,” GiLE Journal of Skills Development 2, no. 2 (October 2022): 58.

[28] Eichler-Levine, “Don’t judge Disney adults.” 

[29] Nicholas Sammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[30] Moon Charania and Wendy Simonds, “The Princess and the Frog,” Contexts 9, no. 3 (August 2010): 71.