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Alice Clark Payne says spending time at Disney World feeds her soul. @aliceclarkpayne via Instagram

These moms say Disney makes them better parents. Who are we to judge?

'Disney Adults' sell plasma to afford season passes and dress like princesses on a regular basis. They're widely mocked ... but they're happy.

/ Source: TODAY

Three years ago, Alice Clark Payne and her family moved from South Carolina to Florida, to be closer to Disney World.

Payne had given birth 15 days earlier and was recovering from her third C-section. She headed straight to Disney World with her newborn, leaning on a stroller to relieve the pressure on her sore abdomen.

“It’s easy to lose your identity in motherhood.”

Mom Alice payne

As her children grew, Payne says Disney helped her get through bouts of pregnancy-related depression. Walking through that park, even with three children, reminded the young mom of who she used to be before parenthood: Carefree and happy, like a princess twirling with joy.

“Being at Disney made the (negative) feelings go away,” she tells TODAY.com, adding, “You can’t pour from an empty cup — and Disney fills my cup.”

Disney adults — those grownups obsessed with all things Disney — are frequently and easily mocked. But Disney parents, whose Disney obsession evolved in a meaningful way when they had children of their own, tell TODAY.com that Disney fills a profound need and ultimately, makes them better parents.

Some, like Payne, moved states to live closer to Disney theme parks. Others homeschool their children inside the park gates, claiming Disney offers a unique educational experience. With Disney prices at an all-time high, they’ve taken second jobs, donated plasma or forfeited luxuries like manicures and visiting coffee shops to afford memorabilia and annual park passes that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Some moms are trying to replicate their own happy childhoods, and some are trying to give their kids the happy childhood they never had. Some people reeling from pregnancy loss and depression find healing in the clean and familiar streets and enchanted castles of Disney. Some find a compassionate refuge from judgment among their fellow Disney moms. 

Like all of us, they’re looking for their happily ever after.

The princess

Payne got married at age 20 and had her first child at 21. By the time she was 25, she had three under 5. 

“It’s easy to lose your identity in motherhood,” she says. “Maybe even more so in your twenties when you’re just starting life. I’ve lived many days in breast milk stained T-shirts and a bun on the top of my head.” 

Payne, now 29, adds, “I’ve had to learn who Alice is, outside of being a mom, as my kids have gotten older."

She learned that Alice loves Disney. A lot. She shares her love on Instagram, where instead of stained T-shirts she wears fantastic gowns and dresses inspired by her favorite Disney characters.

“People are not nice ... they say I dress like a toddler.”

Mom alice payne

Payne knows about the Reddit threads where critics snark on everything from her pink clothing and hair bows to her high-pitched voice. According to one Urban Dictionary entry, a “Disney adult” like Payne is “One of the most terrifyingly intense people you’ll ever encounter.”

“People are not nice ... they say I dress like a toddler and say, ‘Why would you twirl at Disney?” adds Payne. “As a mom, you can kind of hide behind your kids and say, ‘I’m doing it for them’ — but it’s a little bit for me too.”

Payne says Disney World helped her get through postpartum depression after her first child (she was also briefly on medication, she says).

“I remember days during my depression when I couldn’t leave the house or barely get off the couch and I had so much guilt,” says Payne. 

“Disney is definitely an escape,” she says. “I enjoy the magic. I could sit in the park for hours without going on rides ... just to be out of the house ... Calories don’t count and money doesn’t count ... nothing matters.”

“The desire to pathologize fans is much more indicative of the culture than it is of the fans themselves.”

Sarah Nilsen, University of Vermont.

A few times a week now, Payne loads her children, now ages 4, 5, and 7, into the car for the 20-minute drive to Disney World. She often wears outfits inspired by characters, a trend called “Disneybounding”: Minnie Mouse stans wear polka-dotted clothing or Ariel the Mermaid lovers choose purple tops and green skirts. On days she doesn’t visit the park, Payne might slip on a princess gown to play with her daughter or, on a few occasions, school pick-up. 

When Payne’s two older children are in school, she straps her youngest into a stroller and treats Disney World as a gym, tracking her steps.

Payne loves watching people witness Cinderella’s Castle for the first time and little girls twirling in princess dresses. “It’s nice to see people happy.”  

The homeschooler 

Dariyan Bell, a married mother of six, moved from St. Louis, Missouri to the Orlando area to “be a part of the magic,” she tells TODAY.com.

Bell homeschools her children, sometimes from Disney World. The kids take animation classes at Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station, learn geography and history at Epcot Center and calculate math when handling their own park budgets. On non-park days, Bell’s kids have learned to cook with “The Unofficial Disney Parks Cookbook.”

Bell visited Disney World for the first time in adulthood. 

“I wanted to go as a child, but I thought it was so out of reach — only something rich people do on TV,” she tells TODAY.com.  

While celebrating her daughter’s fifth birthday at Disney World, Bell “felt like a kid again.” She became determined to give her children what she missed in childhood.

A safe space for women

“Disney Adults” are often described as “crazy” or immature, derogatory terms that say more about our culture than anything else, says Sarah Nilsen, an associate professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Vermont.

“The term infantilizes people who are seen as being ‘obsessed’ with Disney and incapable of facing the reality of adulthood,” Nilsen tells TODAY.com. “The desire to pathologize fans though, is much more indicative of the culture that is viewing them in this way than it is of the fans themselves.”

“It celebrates an America where people can use fantasy as a space to transcend the mundane realities of their lives.”

Sarah Nilsen, associate professor of Film and Television Studies

Nilsen, who has built a reputation as a Disney scholar in academia, says Disney’s culture is unlike any other brand, and there’s a reason it occupies a central place in so many lives. 

“It celebrates a world vision that is not political, religious or cynical,” notes Nilsen. “It celebrates ... an America where people can use fantasy as a space to transcend the mundane realities of their lives and occupy a world that celebrates positive and utopic possibilities.”

The parks, Nilsen notes, allow fans “to move from being a passive spectator watching a film or TV show into an active participant who becomes part of these worlds.” They’re not just watching the magic. They are the magic. “You can’t do this with many other cultural products,” the expert says.

Nilsen has little patience for critiques of Disney’s glorification of princesses and traditional gender roles. She notes that male Star Wars fans don’t get the same kind of cultural scorn as female Disney lovers. (Of course, Disney now owns Star Wars.)

The parks are one of few spaces for women to be playful and innocent, without judgment, says Nilsen: “They are devoid of sexual aggression, sexuality and explicit violence.”

Defending the castle

Ashley Reckline, 35, remembers the moment she stopped caring what people thought about her love for Disney. The freelance photographer moved from Kentucky to Florida for easier access to Disney World, and makes the nearly three-hour round trip multiple times a week. 

She had a late-term miscarriage in March of 2023.

“I was depressed and angry, and I didn’t want to talk to my family,” she says. The loss forced a realization upon Reckline: “Life is short and I need to live authentically and unapologetically for myself.”

That, in part, meant blowing off what people said about her love for Disney and how often she posted about it on social media. Her doctor supported her trip to the park days after her pregnancy loss. Reckline credits Disney World “100 percent” with her emotional recovery, explaining, “It was exactly what I needed.”

The mother of a 4-year-old and a 14-year-old, Reckline finds solace in kid-free trips.

“It’s the most peaceful thing —there’s a little alleyway off Main Street in Magic Kingdom and you can hear people (playing) piano,” she says. "You feel safe." The feeling she gets in the park is “a sensation that a lot of people don’t realize,” Reckline says. “Disney helps me be a better person for my kids, others — and most importantly, myself."

Florida mom Abby Hogan co-hosts the Manic Magic Podcast about Disney and motherhood.

“I get comments like, ‘Grow up’ or ‘You’re mentally deranged,’” Hogan tells TODAY.com. “I usually respond with, ‘It sounds like someone needs a Dole Whip,’” one of Disney’s signature park desserts.

“My ‘Disney’ mom friends are my most non-judgmental friends because we all understand the feeling of being judged.”

Mom Abby Hogan

As a parent, Hogan feels validated inside the park

“Disney moms are the best,” says Hogan. “There’s a shared understanding of accepting everybody at their worst and best — at their least and most magical — when their kid is throwing a tantrum in the middle of Main Street ... most of my friendships are because of Disney.” 

Maybe most magical of all, Hogan says Disney is a land without mom-judging.

“Once you get past being embarrassed or bothered by outside judgment, it’s almost as if there’s no room for inside judgment either,” she notes. “My ‘Disney’ mom friends are some of my most uplifting, non-judgmental, supportive friends because we all understand the feeling of being judged — that’s the last thing we want to do to each other.”

It’s a small obsession, after all

Disney adults get judged in a way that eludes, say, football fans who spend thousands of dollars on team jerseys and tickets.

Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Ohio, has some theories as to why. 

“Disney is seen as a quirkier interest than sports,” he says. “It’s also a matter of scale. There are many more sports fans than Disney fans, and once something becomes very popular it becomes more accepted. Smaller-scale preoccupations are more likely to be seen as quirky due to their smaller size. Just like all religions start as cults, but lose the cult distinction once they become popular enough.”

“My problem is, anything we talk about, I turn it into something Disney.”

Mom Shandale Tucker

Fandom fulfills two elemental desires: to belong to a community and to express oneself, says Shpancer.

“Both football and Disney, for example, have the earmarks of a secular religion where people find order in shared values, hymns, rituals, dress codes and sacred objects,” he says.

The thrill of a touchdown or a ride through the Haunted Mansion “offer ways to celebrate with abandon and emotional involvement, minus the risk,” Shpancer says.

When is it too much?

Shpancer says this question can help gauge whether any fandom is positive or negative: Are you in control? 

“A passion becomes unhealthy when it’s destructive,” he says. “Ask if you work for your passion — or it works for you.”

Disney fans — or diehard fans of any ilk — might be “trying to experience a childhood without chaos and pain,” Shpancer tells TODAY.com. “As life becomes harsh and unpredictable, those associations and rewards can be quite therapeutic.”

He adds, “If you can’t stop talking about something — even when it’s unhelpful or inappropriate — or if you can’t talk about it at all, even when the situation calls for discussion, that might be a problem.”

Shandale Tucker, the mother of two adult sons in Texas, struggles to subdue her enthusiasm.

“People will always say, ‘Can you please not make everything about Disney World?’” Tucker tells TODAY.com. “My problem is, anything we talk about, I turn it into something Disney.”

At a former job, Tucker warned colleagues to walk away or speak up if she dominated conversations with Disney talk.

“I didn’t necessarily try to contain it,” she says. “At other jobs, people said, ‘Ugh’ and walked away ... if someone said, ‘Please don’t talk about it,’ I’d ... go into another room and talk about it.”

She knows her love for Disney goes over the top sometimes. But she has no regrets.

“Disney ... gives me something to look forward to in a way that shapes my decisions all around,” explains Tucker. “As my sons grew up, I was a lot more attentive and productive knowing that I needed to earn and save enough money for our yearly Disney World vacation ... vacation helps with mental health, and created memories for me and my family that helped us stay close.”

When you wish upon a star …

Parenting is often chaotic and confusing. Disney is not.

“I can imagine that for some women,  walking into Disney — a place where things seem to be under control and predictable — gives a sense of hope,”  Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University, tells TODAY.com. “Particularly for women who had successful pregnancies despite postpartum depression, they see images of happy children, which might be a model ... for how lovely life can be.”

Kramer emphasizes that anyone who thinks they might have postpartum depression or any kind of mood disorder should talk to a licensed professional. But, she sees how going to Disney could be an act of self-care that improves mental health.

“If those challenges that women are facing can be addressed by a visit to Disney, power to them,” says Kramer. 

Walt Disney wanted parents to love his theme parks, too.

The inspiration for Disneyland, he explained in a 1963 interview, came during a “Daddy’s Day” watching his daughters ride a merry-go-round from his seat on a bench.

“I felt that there should be something built — some kind of an amusement enterprise built — (so) that the parents and the children could have fun together,” he said, adding, “But it all started from a daddy with two daughters who wondered where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them too.”

What happens when these kids grow up and aren’t as excited about Disney as their parents are? 

Kramer points out: “Children thrive when grown-ups understand them to be unique individuals with their own set of needs, interests, desires, and preferences, which do evolve over time. When parents respect this ... and offer opportunities to pursue their own interests, children are happier and families are stronger.”

Disney moms find different ways to navigate the inevitable process of kids growing up. All the moms TODAY.com interviewed for this story say if one of their kids doesn’t want to hit the parks, they find ways to go alone or the whole family stays home.

Reckline says it’s “disappointing” when her 14-year-old isn’t enthused about another day in the park. She allows him to stay home or explore Disney World on his own. “I feel more comfortable letting him find independence there versus the mall,” she says.

Tucker recalls the first Disney World trip her sons, then 10 and 14, declined.

"They said, 'Nah, we're good,'" she says.

“It was the first time I realized they’re losing that love,” she says, adding, “I was sad, thinking, ‘Oh my god, they don’t love this as much as I do.'"

For a while, Tucker felt hurt and wondered, "Where have I failed as a parent?" Now, she is happy to visit Disney World, with or without her sons.

Bell says her 11-year old occasionally sulks en route to Disney World — but she always has fun.

“When she’s an adult, she’ll look back and enjoy me making her come with us.”