I’ve made some jokes over the years, but I don’t hate “Disney adults.” Why hate people who aren’t harming anyone? My issue is that I’ve just never understood them. That has nothing to do with Disney, either. I love going to new places and meeting new people. I can’t relate—even with friends and family I love and adore—to those who only seem interested in going on the same exact trip multiple times a year to a place seemingly meant for children. Or at least I couldn’t until now. Because after a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a guest of Walt Disney World, I might not be a “Disney adult,” but I definitely understand why so many are.

Disney Didn't Turn Me Into a Disney Adult, But It Did Help Me Understand Them_1
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Nerdist was recently among the handful of media outlets Disney hosted at its video game-inspired Level Up! event. (Read all about Level Up! and what it taught me about Disney parks in our multiple part series which starts here.) It’s an understatement to say I got the full VIP experience. Among the many perks involved was getting into parks early, going on the best rides without waiting, and eating at exclusive locations. It was amazing in ways I can’t fully explain. Without my wife and young son in tow—technically this was work!—it was like being a worry-free kid at myself. The adults handled everything, my (second) job was just having fun. Only this was like my uncle was also married to Walt Disney’s daughter.

Obviously all of that special treatment contributed to how I feel about my time there and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. But as you’ll see it’s not why I’m writing this.

My Disney adulthood education is rooted the universal truths I learned about Disney and why so many find it intoxicating enough to keep going back. The most important was something I already knew, but couldn’t fully understand until now. No one offers nostalgia like Disney. How can they when few others have a century of stories, movies, shows, characters, and shared experiences to draw from? That history, and how it binds us to loved ones, is why being in a Disney park is like stepping into a living memory. It’s a memory that is free of all other worries and burdens, the type of memory that really does make you feel like a kid.

This is one of many in my series of Disney selfies best titled “Happiest Goofball in the World”

As I walked back down Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom for the first time in 30 years (almost to the day!) it was as though I’d never left. It all felt familiar in the best, most innocent, purest way. I had the same emotional, childlike reaction on rides I loved as a kid. Space Mountain still thrilled me. Pirates of the Caribbean was as fun as I remembered. Even Dumbo, which I assumed I was way too old to enjoy without my son, had me smiling like I didn’t have a care in the world. It all just felt good. And that feeling was wonderfully simple. Who wouldn’t want to feel that kind of joy as often as they can? Who wouldn’t want their biggest problem in life to be a long line for the Tea Cups? No wonder people who can keep coming back.

It also helps that in addition to being timeless, visiting Disney feels like stepping outside of reality. The parks’ immersive, self-contained environment makes being there feel like you exist on another planet. It’s a place unmoored from the stress and issues of normal life back on Earth. Obviously being able to ignore the outside world, even for a few days (especially right now), is a huge privilege. That chance to briefly escape reality is a big reason why I felt immense gratitude while there. I knew/know how lucky I was. And though I was much luckier than almost every other person visiting, that feeling was a communal one.

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I know Disney is a billion dollar, money-printing conglomerate that’s inherently and unavoidably a political monster, but being at a Disney park is apolitical in a way few things are anymore. (Even the people who work there give that impression. Disney the company might be like the heartless studio counting box office dollars, but the individual people responsible for providing a great experience are like filmmakers only concerned with making a great movie.)

At no point did I ever have to hear a stranger pontificate about politicians or elections. No one was spewing hate or bigotry, either. (Though I thought a ton/felt very guilty about that considering the state I was in.) It’s as though everyone who goes to Disney understands there’s an unwritten rule prohibiting such talk. Breaking it would instantly make someone the worst person at the happiest place on Earth, and no one I encountered wanted to burst the bubble of joy we were all living under for a brief respite. People just get along there the way you wish they’d get along everywhere.

(The only other place I’ve ever experienced that sense of shared, apolitical, escapist joy was on a cruise, which makes a whole lot of sense. “Vacation cruise people” are the floating equivalent to Disney adults. There’s just something impossibly appealing about having a good, self-contained experience that also serves as an uncomplicated reprieve from regular life.)

Me and FanSided’s Camila Domingues being huge Star Wars nerds at Hollywood Studios’ Galaxy’s Edge.

I get it now. Those universal truths are the reasons Disney adults exist. They aren’t looking for what I am in a normal vacation. They’re not worried about going to a new place, because Disney is not a place. They’re not worried about new experiences, either, because Disney is not defined by its rides, attractions, or food. Disney adults keep going back because Disney is a feeling. It’s a feeling that everything there is alright, always has been, and always will be. I know that’s not actually true, but in the moment, when you’re enjoying a Dole Whip, riding up into Spaceship Earth, dropping on the Tower of Terror, or just watching a kid hug Goofy, it feels that way. When you’re there your brain has a way of blocking at all the bad stuff. When Disney is at its best you are, too.

But that fun, freeing escape from adulthood and reality isn’t what Disney adults are really chasing there. It’s not why I wanted to write this, either. The shared communal delights of Disney escapism is responsible for the real reason Disney adults exist. It’s about the people we go to Disney with. That includes those we went with long ago, those we go there with right now, and those we hope to go with in the future.

Disney might be timeless, but we’re not. An amusement park can remain a simple joy, but we get old and life gets more complicated as our memories fade. And the older we get the more we say goodbye to people we’d like to hold on to forever. At Disney, where time doesn’t exist, we can. I did.

Me gleefully returning to Hollywood Studios (nee MGM Studios), a place my family and I adored.

I spent 30 years telling people I don’t care about fireworks because once you’ve seen Disney fireworks nothing else compares. I’ve been pretty damn convinced of that opinion despite it relying on the memories of a 10-year-old me. Turns out I’ve been entirely right, just not entirely for the right reason.

Our first official night as a group ended with the fireworks display at Magic Kingdom. It was incredible, as good as any fireworks display I’ve ever seen. But the reason nothing has ever compared to Disney fireworks for me is that they also have something going for it no other show can offer. As I watched Cinderella’s Castle and the night sky come to life, I wasn’t thinking about the colors or the music. I wasn’t thinking about work or even why I was standing there and under what circumstance. All I was thinking about was my sister Kayla, gone, impossibly, more than 12 years now, the first real Disney adult I ever knew even though she never really got to be an adult.

Being back at that spot in the Magic Kingdom, it felt like she was there with me. I could feel her presence, another living memory. As were my sister Jenna and my mom, just as the four of us had been there together thirty years ago at the end of an amazing day. It was like we had never left. More importantly it was like Kayla—who’d been so many times since my last visit—had never left. And that was before the show ended with Tinker Bell, my sister’s favorite character, coming out. As that little fairy in green danced away from the castle, I felt closer to Kayla than I have in a long time.

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As Tinker Bell disappeared and the last firework vanished from the sky it was like my sister went with them. I quietly wiped my eyes before anyone noticed. I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience by making them feel bad for me. They were surely all having their own personal moments. That’s what Disney offers everyone. I wasn’t as successful hiding my feelings the next night, though, when we gathered at EPCOT to watch its fireworks display.

All I could think about that night was my mom and the last time I went to Walt Disney World. It had been the site of many childhood trips until my last vacation there at 10. My mother, struggling with a divorce she neither wanted nor was responsible for, yet feeling as though she had somehow failed us, was determined to prove nothing had changed. She wanted her young kids (including me, the oldest) to know everything would be alright.

My sister Kayla at the Magic Kingdom.

To prove that she brought the three of us all on her own to Disney for a trip she couldn’t afford at a time when she was so hurt and lost. Thirty years after she did, as the music blared and fireworks went off from every corner of EPCOT’s World Showcase, I thought about how happy we’d been that week even when we had every reason not to be. I thought about what this place and those parks had meant to us. Most importantly, I thought about what my mom had done for us then and what it still means to me now.

When the show ended I didn’t move. I didn’t want to. Mom and Jenna were back in Massachusetts, and yet they had been right alongside me, just as Kayla was again. I didn’t want want any of them to leave. That’s when my new friend and fellow Level Up! attendee, Fanside’s Camila Domingues—another longtime Disney prodigal who made my trip so much better and more special than it would have been without her because we got to share so many new experiences together—asked if I was okay. (You really don’t have to know me long to know I’m not usually quiet.)

My mom, Jenna, Kayla, and me the last time we all went to Walt Disney World together.

I didn’t know how to explain everything I just said, so I told her the simplest version of the truth: I was thinking about my sister. She asked if she could give me a hug and I said of course. In that moment I had created a new memory, one I’ll carry with me in my heart same as my old ones when I return to EPCOT. And return I will, because this trip was emotional not just because of the past and present, but because of what it will mean in the future.

Over my four days at Walt Disney World, I couldn’t stop texting my overjoyed wife who wanted a million updates. (She’s a frequent Disney visitor because we have a dear friend who is a Disney adult.) Courtney and I kept discussing when we should bring our son Alexander for his first trip. I thought about which rides he’d love and which ones will scare him. I also thought about how I’d tell him about his aunt’s favorite rides and his grandma’s favorite restaurant they closed. Just as I want him to see where me and my friend Camila geeked out over being inside the Millennium Falcon. And I’d like him to be with me the next time I buy him Mickey Mouse ears.

Alexander with the same type of hat I had as a kid.

But while I don’t want to wait too long, I want him to be old enough he will at least retain the feeling of being there. I’m (obviously) a sentimental person, the kind most prone to Disney’s unique charms. I want every trip he ever makes to Disney to give him that feeling, the one that combines the past, present, and future into something that is whole, pure, and timeless for a brief, perfect moment when the problems of life simply don’t exist.

If only all of life could feel that way all the time. I know all the reasons it can’t. There are also too many other experiences I want to chase to only want this to relive this specific feeling. But while that might mean I’ll never be a full Disney adult, I now understand why so many are.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist who didn’t even tell you how every Beauty and the Beast related thing he saw at Walt Disney World made him emotional for family reasons. You can follow him on Twitter and  Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.