Welcome to the magic: Exploring identification, behavior, socialization, and rivalry among fans of Disney's theme parks

Cody T. Havard

The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Carissa Baker

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

Daniel L. Wann

Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky, United States

Frederick G. Grieve

Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The current study qualitatively investigates how fans of the Disney Theme Parks are introduced to the brand and how they perceive Disney and Universal Parks. Findings indicate that family plays a very important role in both introducing and building loyalty toward Disney and the Disney Parks. Further, both family and positive memory play an integral role in encouraging fans to continue their fandom of the Disney Parks. Finally, fans report favoritism toward the Disney Parks brand compared to Universal Theme Parks, but they refrain from displaying the level of out-group negativity and derogation toward the rival brand present in other fandom settings. Discussion focuses on the implications of the current study while introducing future areas of investigation.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Identification; Loyalty; Themed entertainment

Havard, Cody T., Carissa Baker, Daniel L. Wann, and Frederick G. Grieve. 2023. "Welcome to the Magic: Exploring Identification, Behavior, Socialization, and Rivalry among Fans of Disney's Theme Parks." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When people enter a Disney Park, they are treated to the sights, sounds, and smells of a well-designed theme park, which elicits positive feelings in most and favorable memories in many. Since the opening of Disneyland in 1955, people around the world have been fascinated with the Disney Parks brand and the unique ways in which they engage consumers and make attendees feel like guests rather than paying customers. This type of fascination among people is a product of carefully planned and manufactured experiences offered by the Walt Disney Company meant to engage consumers and encourage repeat patronage.

[1.2] Many returning guests to the Disney Parks build strong loyalty and engage with others as a way of fostering their individual and group affiliation, a loyalty and engagement which is present in many fandoms. For example, numerous sites like WDW Radio Box People and Pandamonium exist online via social media that allow fans to communicate with others and share their passion for Disney and Disney Parks. Dozens of books have been written about the company and parks by academics, fans, and acafans about the parks, lessons from the company, and other areas of interest. Further, some fans produce podcasts about Disney that focus on a myriad of areas such as fandom, managerial lessons, and classroom design (note 1).

[1.3] Considering the many different areas of fandom related to Disney, the current study qualitatively investigates both how fans of the Disney Parks are introduced to the brand and the factors that influence their continued consumption and engagement in fandom. Further, to gain more insight regarding fandom and engagement with Disney, participants were also asked to discuss their perceptions of Universal Parks, a competitor to the Disney Parks. Providing fandom researchers and practitioners with empirical findings regarding the identification, socialization, and comparative perceptions of Disney and Universal is important in the pursuit of more understanding and a working relationship with fandom and fan groups. Empirical studies are underrepresented in fan studies approaches but can provide value (Evans and Stasi 2014; Flaherty 2020). Further, the use of qualitative methods provides in-depth data to better understand Disney and Disney Parks fandom.

2. Disney and fandom

[2.1] The Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923 by Walter and Roy Disney as a studio specializing in animated shorts (Gabler 2006). After successes in animated shorts and feature-length movies, the company stretched its reach into live-action movies and later theme park design when Disneyland opened in 1955 (Snow 2019). As a result of this success, the company moved into different areas of themed entertainment, even producing entertainment for athletes and fans at the 1960 Winter Olympics (Crawford 2016) and numerous pavilions at the 1964–65 New York World's Fair (Gennawey 2013).

[2.2] Wanting to increase their footprint, the company secretly purchased land outside of Orlando, Florida, to build an East Coast version of Disneyland (Emerson 2010), and Walt Disney World ultimately opened in 1971—after the passing of Walt Disney—with one theme park and multiple lodging options for visitors (Goldberg 2016). Over the last five decades, the Florida property has expanded to meet (and encourage) fan attendance through additional park gates, water parks, hotels/resorts, and shopping/dining. Additionally, park and resort expansion occurred in Southern California, and new parks and resorts were added in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Today, the company operates more than a dozen theme park and resort properties around the world (Rizzo 2020) and is considered a leader in the themed experience and hospitality space. The parks and resorts have attracted a loyal following among consumers and fans.

[2.3] Fandom occurs when individuals decide to follow and identify with a product or service (Hirt and Clarkson 2011); it can be explained through social identity theory (SIT) (Tajfel 1978), which states that people choose membership groups (fan groups of favorite theme parks in this instance) based on the positive outcomes such membership affords the individual (Wann 2006; Wann et al. 2008). It is the positive reflection one gets from consumption or group membership (Zaichkowsky 1985) that can make someone choose a membership group with other theme park enthusiasts (Aden 2008; Havard et al. 2021b, Zaichkowsky 1985). Fandom can be expressed through attendance (Sanford and Scott 2016), mediated consumption (Mahony and Moorman 1999), and identifying clothing or merchandise (Kwak, Kwon, and Lim 2015).

[2.4] Modern theme parks exist as a way to tell stories using visitor immersion (Baker 2018; Koren-Kuik 2013; Zika 2018), allowing people to experience popular themes, myths, and self-exploration (Dalmia 2018; Hobbs 2015) in spaces that are geared to adults and children (Karis 2018; Rahn 2011). Theme park fandom can be expressed through attendance (Havard et al. 2021a; Havard et al. 2021c), interaction with themed elements and role-playing activities within a park (Baker 2016; Godwin 2017), dress practices such as cosplaying, Dapper Day, and DisneyBounding (Amon 2014; Brock 2017; Lantz 2020), practices involved with food and beverage or merchandise (Wei 2018; Williams 2020), participating in insider experiences catered to fans (Bartkowiak 2012), and engaging with other fans and brand consumers using online platforms and social media (Benevenuto et al. 2012). Each of the Disney resorts has associated fan practices that vary based on location and local culture (Mittermeier 2021; Raz 1999; Toyoda 2014; Williams 2020).

[2.5] Along with park attendance, fans of the Disney parks also congregate and engage online using social media and video sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, further satisfying their need to feel a sense of belonging to a group via SIT (Tajfel 1978). Some popular social media groups focusing on the United States parks and resorts include the WDW Radio Box People, Pandamonium, WDW Magic, and WDW News Today; others follow well-known influencers within the fan community (Kiriakou 2019). The online fan conversations range from park news (e.g., Michael Kay), attraction walk-through videos (e.g., Big Fat Panda/John Saccheri), and reviews of amenities and interviews with professionals associated with Disney (e.g., WDW Radio hosted by Lou Mongello). Additionally, online, video sharing, and podcast platforms allow people to engage with other fans of the parks and resorts and stay in touch with the company and thus also serve the fan community.

[2.6] Another important aspect of fandom for those who closely follow brands is keeping up with competing companies. Research on rivalry has found that people who are highly identified with their favorite brands tend to follow competing brands (Tyler and Cobbs 2016; Wann et al. 2016) in an attempt to draw favorable comparison between their in-groups and out-groups (Turner 1978). Fans can look to favorably compare to a competing or rival brand by reporting varied perceptions of rival brand prestige and even behaviors of rival supporters (Havard et al. 2013). Some highly identified supporters may even hope for and celebrate failure by rival brands (Cikara, Botvinick, and Fiske 2011; Elsbach and Bhattachrya 2001; Havard 2014). The Disney and Universal Parks and Resorts represent rivals in the themed entertainment industry based on the rivalry between parent companies Walt Disney and Comcast (Havard 2020), their history of competition and comparison regarding projects (Gennawey 2015; Stewart 2006) and intellectual property (Russo 2019), or their competitive positions in global market share and theme park attendance (Rubin 2020). Therefore, to better understand how loyal consumers identify and engage with the Disney Parks and Resorts, it is important to also gauge how they perceive the Universal Parks and Resorts brand.

3. Research questions and methods

[3.1] Based on what is known about fandom and the role rivalry plays in favorite brand consumption and engagement, the following guiding themes directed questioning of participants: RQ1: How are fans socialized to and engage with the Disney Parks and Resorts brand? and RQ2: How do fans of Disney Theme Parks view the Universal Parks brand?

[3.2] A total of twenty-two participants provided responses to a series of open-ended survey questions built using the Qualtrics software. Many examples exist of Disney fans gathering and forming communities via social media, and therefore a targeted snowball sample method was used to reach respondents. Participants were overwhelmingly female (77.3%) and Caucasian (95.5%), and they ranged in age from 24 to 70. Participant information, including synonyms used during analysis, is available in Table 1.

Table 1. Participant Descriptive Information
21Mary AnnFemale38Caucasian

[3.3] Respondents reached via social media followed a link to the Qualtrics survey; they read and agreed to participation consent. In order to participate, individuals had to indicate they were at least 18 years of age and were instructed to provide a pseudonym for data collection and analyzing purposes. The participants then responded to seventeen open-ended questions designed to measure (1) how they were introduced to and consume Disney and the Disney Parks and Resorts, (2) the impact the parks and resorts have on them and society, and (3) their comparison of the Disney Parks and Resorts brand to their biggest competitor, Universal Studios Parks and Resorts brand. Participants who completed the open-ended questions took about ten to fifteen minutes to do so.

4. Findings on socialization and impact of Disney parks and resorts

[4.1] Much like in other consumer or fandom areas, participants were introduced to Disney primarily through family members and significant others (Wann and James 2019). For example, Lillian (29, F) wrote, "My entire family went for vacation when I was in the first grade on fall break." Martha (33, F) reported her first memory was "My dad getting picked for the Indiana Jones stunt show on our first visit in '93." Bernard (70, M) wrote, "I remember sitting fascinated in a movie theater in the 1950s watching Walt explain and show off the park."

[4.2] Continuing the importance of familial ties and Disney fandom, many participants expressed that the parks allowed them to share their love and appreciation with family members of all ages. Martha described the Disney theme parks as "our escape and meaningful family time." Likewise, Mary Ann (38, F) noted that Disney is "a location where families get to come together and be silly, act like kids, and find things that everyone would like to do." Bernard responded, "It's a dream come true for me and great time with our children and grandchildren," and Felicity (38, F) said that Disney is "Family Time. Magic for everyone. It's a place to relax and forget everything in the world." Carolyn (43, F) wrote, "My father is a huge Disney fan, and that passion has carried down to me and my children." Again, the findings support literature addressing the importance of family members on an individual's introduction and socialization into a fandom (Wann and James 2019).

[4.3] Many participants also discussed the importance of Disney Parks serving a diversionary role from normal life. Anna (56, F) wrote, "Disneyland is the place I go when I want to have fun, relax, take a break from day to day living. The worries of the world disappear after passing their gates." Minnie (66, F) wrote, "It's my happy place, my escape from reality, my stress reliever, my return to childhood simplicity." Likewise, Carolyn (43, F) replied, "They represent an escape from real life. When I'm there, I forget about the world outside. Disney has a way of wrapping people in a safe 'cocoon' and making them feel safe as if they are in a magical world where there is no sadness. Sometimes it seems as if Disney is 'heaven on earth'." Samantha (33, F) stated that Disney is "a chance to be a kid again and have carefree fun with others who also love Disney." Themes of nostalgia and escapism are common in academic discussions of Disney parks, and the participants' responses reflected these concepts.

[4.4] Disney Parks also impact the larger collective, as several participants discussed what Disney means to them and society. Lillian stated that "I think it means happiness and freedom from stress and responsibilities. A chance to be carefree and kid like." Similarly, Jennifer (38, F) described the Disney Parks and Resorts as "A safe space, magical, somewhere we can be ourselves." Anna responded, "It is a place to be a child again, to traverse alone or with friends. It is welcoming, comforting, safe and homelike. It puts a smile on your face just thinking about it." Noting the positive impact on attendees' psyche, Zip (36, M) wrote, "It's a cathartic exercise in returning to a childhood think while also creating memories as an adult." These examples illustrate fans making Disney a part of their "lifespace" (Lukas 2012).

5. Findings on comparing competing parks and resorts brands: Disney and Universal

[5.1] As noted, a significant aspect of fandom is following the actions of competitors and rival brands (Havard 2014). This behavior occurs because individuals want to support the chosen in-group and find ways to compare favorably to relevant out-groups (Turner 1978). As identification with a favorite brand increases, so too can negative perceptions of rival groups (Wann et al. 2016). An example of this would be Disney annual passholders' views of competing brands versus the views of someone who may consume multiple park brands in a single vaction visit. When asked about their comparisons with Universal Parks, fans of Disney Theme Parks and Resorts reported a somewhat complicated relationship with the rival brand. First, many participants acknowledged the competition but stated their preference for Disney Parks. For example, Jill (41, F) noted that Universal and Disney are "similar but not related," and Martha (33, F) noted that the two brands were "related but like first cousins." Brad (57, M) described the relationship between Disney and Universal as "Competitive, but not hostile." Audrey (48, F) said "they are friendly rivals, I think!" There were also those participants who voiced no opinions or feelings toward the Universal Parks and Resorts brand, such as Krystal (35, F) who said "We are not passholders so I don't pay attention to it as much."

[5.2] An important aspect of rivalry is the direct competition or comparsion that group members feel, albeit vicariously (Havard 2014; Tyler and Cobbs 2016). Regarding the direct comparison between in-groups, although fans of Disney expressed a level of support for Universal Theme Parks and Resorts, they said that the Disney brand was superior. Adelyn (35, F) wrote that "Disney will always come out on top because of the cherished and beloved characters that have stayed with us throughout the decades." Jennifer (38, F) added that "Disney Parks are far superior," and Zip (36, M) said that Universal is "Fun, but not as integrated as the Disney Theme Park brand." Bernard (70, M) explained that "Disney set the bar, but Universal keeps them on their toes. Good competition." Cindy (59, F) summarized her view of Universal, saying "I often share that Disney is an experience and Universal is an amusement park. There is nothing wrong with amusement parks but I want the Disney experience." This type of relationship exhibits a degree of respect for Universal, possibly because many visitors see value in both theme park brands.

[5.3] However, participants strongly prefer the Disney brand and the Disney experience. Clover (60, F) stated, "I'm fine with Universal. I think they do a great job at managing their parks and their brand. But it's different than Disney." Many participants also pointed out that they felt Universal Parks and Resorts were focused more toward older kids and adults and do not have the feeling of magic and family-friendly entertainment. For example, Marie (33, F) said "Universal is geared towards teens and young adults in my opinion. They do not have as much of a family friendly atmosphere and their customer service does not compare to the service you will receive with Disney." Finally, Minnie (66, F) intimated that Universal was "fun rides, but no magic. It's not Disney."

[5.4] A second important aspect of rivalry among groups and brands is keeping up with the actions of the relevant out-group and competitor (Havard 2014). To that end, group members tend to celebrate failure by a rival (Cikara, Botvinick, and Fiske 2011; Havard 2014; Zillman and Cantor 1976), stereotype negative behaviors toward out-groups and members (Maass et al. 1989), and even look for ways in which rivals are presented in a negative light (Elsbach and Bhattacharya 2001). When asked about their reactions to negative news about Universal Parks, some participant responses ranged from slight amusement to happiness, consistent with people in other fandoms taking pleasure or feeling mirth at the news of a rival's perceived failure (Havard 2014; Zillman and Cantor 1976). For example, when she hears about negative news regarding Universal, Adelyn (35, F) responded, "I snicker a bit and shake my head," while Marie (33, F) replied, "it does not always surprise me." Carolyn (43, F) wrote, "I am not too surprised because they will always be in second place in my mind," while Cindy (59, F) said, "I don't want any business to have negative news but it doesn't bother me if it's about Universal." Others, however, were upset when hearing negative news about Universal, as Bernard (70, M) said, "I'm sorry to hear it. It's a great way for families to enjoy time together and bond. I only wish them well." With similar sentiment, Anna (56, F) remarked, "I feel bad for them. Their success complements the success of Disneyland. Tourists come to Southern California to visit both parks." Clover (60, F) wrote, "I feel the same as if it were negative news about a Disney park. Negative things concerning a theme park affect all of them, not just Disney."

[5.5] Responses indicated that on the whole, participants viewed the Universal Parks and Resorts brand positively and were at least somewhat happy when Universal experienced success even if they preferred Disney. Many intimated that success by Universal ultimately benefits the themed entertainment industry, including the Disney Parks. For example, Brad (57, M) wrote, "Working in the industry, it's important that they get as much great news as possible", and Lillian (29, F) noted that positive Universal news "strengthens my love for Disney." To this end, participant reponses supported findings that suggest fans of Disney Theme Parks and Resorts definitely prefer the Disney brand but do not necessarily root against Universal (Havard et al. 2021a).

6. Discussion of key study outcomes

[6.1] The current study qualitatively investigated what the Disney Parks and Resorts mean to people and society. In particular, the respondents reported how they were introduced and socialized to the Disney brand, what the parks mean to them and greater society, and how the Disney Parks and Resorts compare to the rival Universal brand. While limitations such as the demographic makeup of the sample exist, findings from the current study provide fandom researchers with important implications and directions for future investigation.

[6.2] First, the current study provides insight into the ways in which people are introduced to their Disney fandom and how the competition and rivalry with the Universal Parks brand influence their perceptions of the favorite and rival brand. The socialization of Disney fandom supports findings from the sport context (Wann and James 2019) in that most people indicated being introduced to the Disney brand and the Disney Parks through family members. Further, family and favorable memories play an important role in Disney fans forming preferences and loyalty to the brand, also supportive of findings from the sport setting.

[6.3] Second, the current study supports the notion that SIT (Tajfel 1978) and rivalry (Havard 2014) play important roles in the way fans interact with the Disney and Universal Parks. For example, participants implying that Universal Parks are fun but not favorable to Disney Parks is a way for fans to display favorable evaluations of the in-group without explicitly derogating the out-group. To this end, it is refreshing to observe that even though the participants preferred Disney Parks, there was not a great amount of animosity or antifandom typically displayed toward a competitor, Universal Parks in this instance (Theodoropoulou 2007). This subtle rivalry behavior is different from that in fandom settings such as politics, sport, gaming, streaming, or mobile phones (Havard, Grieve, and Peetz 2021), which is a welcome conclusion for anyone researching or working with group members, and it even points to theme park fandom as a potential area of common interest between out-group members.

7. Conclusion: Implications and future research

[7.1] This qualitative study has several indications for fan studies scholars. The findings lend further theoretical support to SIT (Tajfel 1978) by demonstrating the impacts of socialization and group member behavior among fans of the Disney Parks. Further, the current study provides more understanding for the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen 1991), an approach positing that attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral controls influence intentions, which then predict behavior. Specifically, the participants in the study displayed strong likelihood of repeat patronage of the parks and willingness to protect the in-group through highlighting positive attributes of the Disney Parks (Turner 1978). Both of these behaviors are important to researchers and practitioners working in themed entertainment, brand management, and fandom studies. Brands that elicit such strong loyalty (e.g., many fans save specifically for a visit to Disney Parks and make financial decisions based on their fandom) are worth noting in contemporary society for their ability to engage with fans and stakeholders. Further, the tendency of group members and fans to give their favorite companies the benefit of the doubt is nothing new, but the elevated positive descriptions of the Disney Parks among the fans in the study are worth noting. This elevated praise of a company and associated products can help inform others working in themed entertainment and branding on fan loyalty.

[7.2] Future investigation is needed to better understand how fans of the Disney Parks relate to their favorite brand. It should be noted that the current study was conducted during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic when most domestic and international Disney Parks were closed. Investigating fandom in the future as we navigate the new normal is crucial to further understanding of brand and park fandom. Specifically, investigations could add to the work of Williams (2020) by further focusing on how fans react to changes and updates to the Disney Parks, attractions, and resorts. For example, it is expected that someone would react differently to a classic attraction being changed or removed compared to one that has been in existence a shorter amount of time.

[7.3] Another area of interest for future research is the intense amount of discussion and deliberation among fans of the Disney and Disney Parks brands. Fans of Disney are highly identified (Havard et al. 2021b) and often display their fandom through membership in online and paid official fan groups such as D23. Further, fans of Disney also find enjoyment through participating in speculation and fantasy planning regarding the parks. Very popular topics regarding the Disney Parks tend to focus on what attractions fans would love to see designed, added, or changed. Finally, future research could compare the intensity of Disney fandom and explore the fact some fans commonly refer to Disney executives, artists, and former Imagineers in their online and off-line conversations.

[7.4] As the current study also adds to the literature on rivalry and group member behavior, future scholarship comparing fandom surrounding the Disney Parks to other theme park brands would help provide more insight into how rivalry and competition influences group member behavior. Future comparative investigation should be conducted to determine how fans of the Disney Parks brand differ in their perceptions of relevant out-groups with fans of other theme park brands. Finally, investigators can focus on how fandom relating to the Disney Parks can be used as a potential point of shared interests and perspectives among out-group members.

[7.5] The current study qualitatively examines how fans of the Disney Parks are introduced to the brand and gathers their views regarding the perceived main competitor or rival Universal Parks brand. The findings provide insight and avenues for future investigation. Using empirical studies, including those qualitative designs that make descriptions of fan perceptions possible, can also further our understanding of what media fandom is and can continue to expand inquiry across disciplines (Ford 2014). As we seek to gain more understading of fandom and and fannish behavior, the current study provides an important step and future avenues to researchers in the space.

8. Notes

1. WDW Radio with Lou Mongello focuses on many aspects of Disney fandom, from movies and former Imagineers to the parks and resorts. Being a Fan of Disney with Cody T. Havard, Ph.D. is a podcast that corresponds with a university class on Disney fandom and details what it means to be a fan of Disney and their many subsidiary brands, parks, and groups. The Imagineer Podcast and The Progress City Radio Hour both focus on the history of the parks, attractions, and resorts, and the My Disney Class podcast discusses how the Disney Magic can be used in the classroom.

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