Some communications and media experts have noticed what they say is an increase in negativity when it comes to online posts by those who consider themselves Disney fans. We’re not so sure about their findings. You’re a fan. We’re fans. But it’s always the squeakiest wheel that gets oiled (and news coverage). Let’s dive in.
Disneyland’s Opening Day in 1955 was a catastrophe. Plumbing was a shambles. Women’s high-heeled shoes got stuck in the not-yet-dry asphalt. Food and drink ran in short supply, and a bajillion people showed up, even though Opening Day was intended to be an invitation-only event, with only about 15,000 invitations being sent out.
To say there was plenty to complain about, be angry about, and get upset about, would be an understatement. And surely Guests were frustrated; it wasn’t quite what they imagined after all. But there was no social media in 1955, and, gauging by what some experts say about Disney fans, it’s a good thing there wasn’t because the comments about the issues at the Happiest Place on Earth that day might have sent Disney’s endeavors in a completely different direction–perhaps a downward spiral?
According to experts, comments posted online by those who claim to be Disney fans can be some of the most negative, mean-spirited content on the web. That may sound surprising, but to some who serve as administrators on Facebook Disney fan pages, and for those who’ve been verbally attacked because of their seemingly harmless posts about liking EPCOT the most, it’s a very real scenario.
A group on Facebook called “Vintage Disneyland” regularly posts things about the park and even asks members to share their thoughts and memories about Disneyland. Recently, a post invited members to share their thoughts and gave the prompt, “My Disneyland had—,” to which others responded with “My Disneyland had the Welch’s Grape Juice stand,” and “My Disneyland let you fly through the Matterhorn on the Skyway.”
Innocent enough, right?
But things got ugly very quickly, with fans commenting things like, “My Disneyland didn’t let wokeness ruin rides.” Soon, these “fans” were making posts about sex slavery related to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and spreading anger about insensitive scenes in the Jungle Cruise attraction and about the background of the Splash Mountain attraction (and Song of the South).
Bill Cotter, one of the admins for Vintage Disneyland, which boasts more than 114,000 members, says he and other admins are responsible for filtering the worst of the comments.
“The whole ‘My Disneyland’ thing was just mind-boggling,” he said. “I actually posted a picture of my car on Main Street [and posted] that my Disneyland had better parking.”
Cotter was reminiscing about his time as a Disneyland Cast Member and remembering that on the days Disneyland was closed, certain senior-level Cast Members could drive their vehicles into the park.
“I came back later and the hatred that was flying back and forth,” Cotter said. “Like, ‘my Disneyland didn’t have whale-sized people stuffing food in their face.'”
Cotter tried to process what was going on: “Why do you feel you had to make that comment?” he asks, but he says the comments only got worse from there–up to and including referring to government leaders as pedophiles.
But the toxicity in comments among some Disney fans isn’t only in the Vintage Disneyland Facebook group, not by a long shot. Rebecca Williams, senior lecturer in communication, culture, and media studies at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom, studies this very thing and notices the “toxicity” too.
“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,” she explains.
She says that she really began to notice these kinds of comments–and even attacks on others for having seemingly innocent preferences about rides and experiences at Disney Parks–when she began looking online while planning her family’s Disney trip.
“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.”
She attributes some of the apparent frustration to the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has made people generally more angry about the little things,” Williams said. “I think people on social media started to become more divided anyway, and some of that spilled over; they’d never really been that vocal about their politics before [the 2016 election] on the Disney sites or on Twitter accounts.”
Another expert on the subject says that he’s noticed online posts attacking others just because they like one Disney Park more than another–and other seemingly harmless opinions.
“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. “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.”
Dan Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky, says that innocent questions can get a person destroyed in some of these online groups: “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. I’m like, man, some people don’t have near the magic you should probably have.”
Some journalists who cover topics related to travel say they really began to see a rise in online negativity among fans of the Mouse when it was first reported that changes were coming to the Splash Mountain attraction back in 2019.
“When I wrote that story, people were commenting on the piece and saying things like, ‘PC police get a life, leave us alone,’” says Hannah Sampson, a staff writer for The Washington Post. Sampson says some readers defended Disney’s problematic film, Song of the South, on which the Splash Mountain attraction is based.
And while one person attacks another because of this or that, it’s possible that when it comes to the Disney universe, no one receives more personal attacks than Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who is often called “Bob “Paycheck” online because many feel he makes no bones about it–he’s about getting your money.
“He’s not even pretending to hide anything. He’s like, ‘We want your money,’” Rebecca Williams says, “but I think it’s interesting that he’s been singled out in this way.”
Williams says others in Disney leadership are perceived as doing the right thing for Guests and fans, but that Chapek is the bad guy–the scapegoat.
“We get this weird scapegoating of one person as bad and someone else isn’t,” she explains. “It allows people to defend the company to put the blame on an individual when it clearly isn’t just his fault.”
It’s worth mentioning that Disney fans are by no means in a class by themselves when it comes to posting argumentative and negative comments online.
Any topic is up for debate, whether Disney-related or otherwise, and as social media grows and infiltrates more and more of our everyday lives, it’s quite apparent that members of any group–not just Disney groups–can be guilty of posting less than niceties online. It certainly isn’t just about Disney-related topics, and it isn’t just people who like to discuss Disney, Disney Parks, and the like.