Gary Schaengold is by most measures a full-fledged, capital-A adult. He wears conservative clothes and wire-rimmed glasses, drives a sensible Honda Prelude, and owns a nice ranch house in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he adjudicates cases in a municipal courthouse, teaches law at the University of Dayton, and runs a private law practice. His wife, Anita, owns a jewelry store. They attend services at a local Baptist church. They’re active in the state’s Republican Party.
All of which tells you next to nothing about what truly matters to Gary and Anita. They are, in fact, a reigning power couple among Disney enthusiasts, those fans who have devoted much of their lives—their free time, their social circle, their disposable income, their private musings—to the Disney mythology. To hear Gary tell it, they’re simply believers in “the gospel according to Disney.”
Their shared obsession began one Christmas when Gary gave Anita a set of Disney videos. Anita soon found herself preoccupied with the 1989 feature The Little Mermaid, in particular its red-haired heroine, Ariel. She began collecting Little Mermaid merchandise, which eventually spread to every corner of their 4,200-square foot house. She joined, and eventually became president of, a support group called Arielholics Anonymous that includes 130 active members. Meanwhile she and Gary took a trip to one Disney park, then another, then another, until it made sense to purchase annual passes for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Tokyo Disney, and Disneyland Paris. Nowadays Gary and Anita spend at least one weekend a month at one Disney park or another, even though it usually means taking a red-eye flight so that he can be in court at 8:00 a.m. on Monday mornings. “Starbucks helps,” Gary says.
As much as he enjoys the rides, Gary seems happiest simply walking through the park, which he does quickly and with great purpose, slowing only to chat with cast members, pin traders, or fellow enthusiasts. Mostly, the topic is merchandise. The highlight of one day at Disneyland comes when Gary meets up with an enthusiast who makes his living buying, selling, and trading Disney pins. A deal has been worked out in advance, and in a quick exchange that would look highly suspicious in any other setting, Gary hands over one hundred dollars cash for a Ziploc baggie containing his own personal “holy grail,” a tiny copper-colored Ariel pin that was distributed as part of a European video release. “I never thought I’d see one of these,” he says. ?I am now complete.?
Indeed, calm satisfaction, not wild ecstasy, best describes the optimum emotional state of Disney enthusiasts like Gary. He and his pin-trader friends will, when pressed, talk about the childlike feelings of magic Disneyland gives them, but in truth they don’t seem all that happy about the Happiest Place on Earth. But of course they are—it’s just that their happiness is less about play, freedom, and excitement than contentment, completion, and safety. Their good feeling is rooted in an article of faith: Disneyland, like all Disney parks and unlike any other amusement park, presents itself as a world, one that mimics more pleasant parts of the real one, but without its infinite complications and vast possibilities. It’s manageable. You can, without much effort, master one part of that world—Collect the pins! Own the merchandise! Learn the history!?and in so doing, join a group of likeminded settlers on a patch of make-believe that has been crafted, packaged and contained for your pleasure. (Disney storytellers excise the darker bits of European folk tales, just as the cogs and pulleys of the park are hidden behind decorative scrims and security personnel are disguised in themed costumes.) Disneyland is at once vast, containing entire “lands,” mythologies, and characters, and at the same time limited and inviting and knowable. It’s a small world, after all.
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