The Friendly Cult of Disney Tourists

Mickey and Minnie Mouse balloons at Hong Kong Disneyland (Photo: Loren Javier/flickr)

Wayne Godfrey says the jet lag wasn’t too bad. The longest flight, after all, was from Australia to Tokyo. Then there were a series of shorter flights that culminated in southern California and— most importantly—Disneyland.

It was the end of an epic journey with six friends to every Disney park in the world, spanning four countries and 32 days. Undertaking the quest was a feat that required around two months of planning and roughly $6,000 apiece.

California Adventure (Photo: Nani Leilani/flickr

This quest was just one example of the lengths Disney fans will go to celebrate all things Disney. Disney fandom is no casual affair or underground phenomenon: there are multitudes of fan blogs, clubs and conventions, official and unofficial. Devotees will focus on specific characters, eras, movies, artists and rides. There are discussion forums, online groups and in-person meetups just for Disney pin collectors. And for many fans, a treasured experience is a trip to one of the carefully engineered parks. Right now there are five park destinations, located in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong and some of those offer multiple parks—in Anaheim, for instance, you can visit Disneyland and California Adventure. A sixth is slated to open in Shanghai in 2016.

 
The Disneyland Resort subway in Hong Kong, the world's first metro line designed to service a Disney theme park (Photo: GuoZhongHua/shutterstock.com

But for some fans, one (or even a few) visits is not enough.

One couple went to Disneyland every day for a year. One man visited 37 Disney World attractions in one day. A father and son hit Disney World and Disneyland within 24 hours. Another pair followed in their footsteps and tacked on Tokyo. Not all Disney travelers take the extreme route, but many fans have made the pilgrimage to every park or are repeat visitors. 

Godfrey, an accountant in Sydney, is a lifelong Disney fan with a special affinity for Chip and Dale, Flounder from The Little Mermaid, and the live action Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In the early 90s he founded Down Under Disneyana, billed on its website as the “premier Australian club for Disney Fans.” Club members gather six times a year to discuss all things Disney, listen to guest speakers, and participate in trivia. Many members are frequent park visitors, but it wasn’t until the 18-month-long 50th anniversary of Disneyland loomed in 2005 that Godfrey and his friends made the radical choice to undertake what they dubbed the “Ultimate Theme Park Trip.” In September of 2006, they visited every park, starting in Tokyo and working their way west, ending at Disneyland for the last week of anniversary celebrations.


Tokyo's DisneySea. (Photo: fortherock/flickr)

Although many have undertaken efforts to visit each park, Godfrey says, he is not aware of anyone who has done it in a row as his group did.

In Paris, they watched striking workers march through the park. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” says Godfrey. The waits were shortest in Hong Kong. At Disneyland, Godfrey struck up a chat with a stranger who turned out to be a Disney insider and scored a special tour of the animation studios.

“I always tell people to talk to people in the queue,” says Godfrey, “Because you never know what might happen, what sort of magical things.”

For the uninitiated, it might seem strange to traverse the globe in order to visit places modeled after a theme park in California. But for Godfrey, the subtle differences are part of the appeal. Hong Kong’s Jungle Cruise is “totally different” from the classic Disneyland version. And there are, of course, attractions unique to each locale-- such as Tokyo DisneySea, a 176-acre nautical theme park that includes a lavish recreation of Venice complete with Gondola rides.

 
Hidden Mickeys: left, 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride' in Disneyland, spot the yellow upside-down classic Mickey; 
right, in Cars Land, a sideways classic Mickey on the power line. (Photo: Steve Barrett)

The unconventional quest for subtlety within the walls of major theme park is Steve Barrett’s expertise. He is the creator of the website Hidden Mickey Guy and author of hidden Mickey guides for Disney World (now in its sixth edition), Disneyland and Disney cruises. There’s also an iPhone app.  A “hidden Mickey” is an image of Disney’s iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse,  woven into park designs from wallpaper to landscaping. (Hidden Mickeys are not officially acknowledged by Disney, but are a bit of an open secret. Barnett says that park employees will often help visitors track them down.) Most hidden Mickeys are “classic,” according to Barnett: A series of three circles representing Mickey’s face and ears, although they can be much more elaborate.


Where's Mickey? A boat in the 'Storybook Land Canal Boats' at Disneyland, CA, where a purple classic Mickey is hidden in the flowers. (Photo: Steve Barrett)

Since moving to Orlando in 1998, Barnett has visited Disney World roughly every other week. He goes to Disneyland “at least” twice a year and has been on several Disney cruises. He has visited Tokyo Disney where, among other things, he was enchanted by the gourmet popcorns with flavors like curry, green tea and strawberry. He hopes to visit all of the other parks, as well. 

“The main hidden Mickey fan is a repeat guest,” says Barnett. A first time visitor will be drawn to the attractions, he says. But for uber-fans, hidden Mickeys add “depth” to the experience.

 
At 'The Seas with Nemo & Friends' pavilion at Epcot, Walt Disney World, spot one or more classic Mickeys formed of rocks at the bottom of the aquarium. (Photo: Steve Barrett)

Barnett keeps tracks of hidden Mickeys across all the parks on his website and updates it frequently. As parks are refined, old hidden Mickeys vanish and new ones appear. The smallest one Barnett has recorded is painted onto the body of a fly at Disney World. One of the most intricate is a specially designed rock facade in Orlando’s Little Mermaid ride, which cast a shadow of Mickey at noon on his “birthday”, November 18. Barnett even receives photos of “natural” hidden Mickeys—cats, fish and cows who have sprouted mouse-like patterns. 

When he travels to a park, he does so with the attitude of field researcher, carrying a briefcase in which he holds a notebook, camera and print-outs of tips sent in by fellow enthusiasts. Barnett diligently confirms as many reports as possible because over the years people have tried to fake him out.

“People play games, you know,” he says. “So I have to check these things out myself.”


 

One of the galleries in the Walt Disney Family Museum (Photo: Jim Smith/ Courtesy the Walt Disney Family Museum)

Parks may be the obvious dream destination for Disney fanatics, but for those obsessed with the man who started it all—Walt Disney—there are plenty of more understated hubs. In Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, enthusiasts congregate at “Walt’s Barn,” a rustic structure built by Disney from which he operated a miniature railroad. The Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, MO displays family letters and belongings. And at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, fans wend through a multi-level collection of exhibits that document everything from Disney’s professional arc to the evolution of animation techniques.

 
Mickey Mouse merchandise from the 1930s at the Walt Disney Family Museum (Photo: Jim Smith/ Courtesy the Walt Disney Family Museum)

The museum—a non-profit founded in 2009 and not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company —is a decidedly more sober experience than a theme park replete with rides, costumed characters and live shows. But it still attracts its share of hardcore fans. According to Kirsten Komoroske, the museum’s executive director, costumes, international guests, and visits from fan clubs are not uncommon. Recently, a frequent visitor who often tours the museum in costume presented Komoroske with a group of children she had taught to recite Disney’s speech from the opening day of Disneyland.

“Someone recently told me they had been here around ten time for inspiration,” says Komoroske, “and they had just scratched the surface.” The average visit, she says, to the three-story place lasts 2 to 3.5 hours.


A 12-ft diameter model of the Disneyland of Walt Disney's imagination (Photo: Cesar Rubio Photography/ Courtesy Walt Disney Family Foundation)

The museum was founded by Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and several family members sit on the board. According to Komoroske, the proximity to the Disney clan is part of the appeal for many devotees. Family members (including Miller, before her death in 2013) occasionally meet with fans. 

But whether they’re scrutinizing museum placards or riding a replica riverboat through a manmade moat, Godfrey, Barnett and their ilk see no end to Disney adventures.

Godfrey lands at Disneyland again this August as part of his trip to D23, the official Disney fan club conference. And his organization is undertaking yet another group expedition to attend the opening day of Shanghai Disney in 2016. Over the years Godfrey has fielded hundreds of email requests for tips on visiting the parks, including from fans who want to visit all of them. Barnett says he hardly has to do his own research anymore, as readers inundate him with hidden Mickeys. He continues to make frequent trips to Disney World, and hopes Disney Paris will be his next international stop.

But the truth remains that many people would be puzzled, if not downright confounded, by the urge to visit Disney parks on a loop. What about the lines and screaming kids? The heat and the crowds? What would Barnett say to the doubters?

Not surprisingly, he says he loves the details and intricacies, the sensation of entering an entirely different world.

“It’s visual and it appeals to all the senses,” he says. “And it transports you. It transports you from the stress of your everyday life.”


Vehicles wait to enter the Magic Kingdom section of Walt Disney World in Florida. (Photo: Katherine Welles/shutterstock.com)
 

This is part of biweekly series on unusual travel subcultures called Extra Mile. Want to suggest one? Email edit@atlasobscura.com

Update, 6/15: Due to an editing error, two sentences were changed to reflect the correct dates of Godfrey's 2006 trip and to clarify who gave him an insider tour of California studios.