Benji Breitbart doesn’t go to Disneyland every day.
“I wasn’t here last Thursday,” he says as we walk down Main Street. “I usually come six days a week.”
We’re moving quickly. “I have things I need to do,” Benji says. He’s canvassing the park, looking for anything new or out of place.
“We’re reopening the Electric Parade, so they’re getting ready,” he says, indicating some people in white uniforms scurrying about. I hadn’t noticed them, and it’s hard to tell exactly what they’re doing. But Benji knows. He knows everything that happens here almost as soon as it happens.
We hustle down Main Street, take a left into Adventureland. He notes that the Tiki Room needs a paint job. At the Haunted Mansion, on the far side of New Orleans Square, he stops suddenly. “This guy is new.” A speaker has been built into the gate around the Mansion. “When they change something, it’s jarring.”
Benji’s running commentary on Disneyland includes park history (“The Mansion is the last thing Walt worked on before he died”), labor politics, new plans. He uses the pronoun “we” when talking about the place. “We’re planning a big new E-ticket ride for DCA [Disney’s California Adventure park, adjacent to Disneyland].” “We’re doing a good job on paint in New Orleans Square.” I ask him why he says “we,” since he doesn’t work for Disney and has no official role here. The question surprises him. After a pause, he replies: “I’m an owner. I own 500 shares of Disney stock.”
But that’s not why I think he says “we.” He says “we” because Disneyland is the central force in his life. Most of his friends are Disneyland regulars, people like him who don’t work here but come to the park several times a week. Most of his clothes are Disney clothes. When he worked briefly at DCA, he would get his hair cut at the Disney cast-member barbershop. “I go to Angels games, because they [used to be] owned by Disney. I never liked baseball before. I watch ABC because it’s owned by Disney. But I don’t watch TV usually. Why watch TV when I can come here and watch Fantasmic?” (That’s the water and fireworks and animation and live-action show Disney puts on every night during the summer.)
Benji is 20, a student at UCLA. He has messy brown hair and a serious mien. He wears a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a jacket bearing the Disneyland logo; a kind of Donald Duck–bill mask hangs around his neck. His clothes are rumpled and askew; he looks like a distracted physics major with an unusual attachment to cartoon animals. At first, he’s not particularly friendly. He offers me a limp handshake when we meet at the entrance and then walks quickly ahead, never slowing down if I want to look at something in detail. He doesn’t look at me when he talks, and most of the time he doesn’t talk. We just walk together, and I keep asking what he sees that I don’t see. He asks no questions about the notes I’m taking or what I think of Disney, but I get the strong sense that he doesn’t trust me. He doesn’t want anything bad written about Disneyland.
I first learned about Disneyland regulars like Benji about a year ago. I was working at Marketplace, ‰ the public-radio show, and was reporting a story on Disney stock. The woman whose desk was next to mine, Marketplace’s Webmaster, overheard my phone calls and told me that she knew a lot about Disney, and that if I had any questions I should ask her. Pretty soon, she was giving me a rundown of the top Disney brass. Not just Michael Eisner, but the names of everyone in Disney management. She didn’t go to the park that frequently, she said — maybe five nights a week. But, she added, laughing, she wasn’t one of the really obsessed; often she’d go for no more than a couple of hours. She had an annual Passport, which cost $219 and let her into Disneyland and DCA as often as she wanted; there were hundreds of people who went all the time, and sometimes met up in the park.
I have an instinctive dislike of Disneyland. I’m not political about it, like some of my friends who talk about the Disneyfication of world culture. I just don’t like rides. I don’t like being strapped into my seat. I don’t respond well to forced-fun environments. I don’t like all the crappy merchandise and the bad food. But I was intrigued by my colleague’s story. So last summer I took the 5 south, hoping to meet some of these regulars. On my second trip, I found Benji at a Disneyland fan meeting, a casual event arranged through the discussion group on one the most popular of the many Disney fan sites, Laughingplace.com. He offered to meet up a few days later and show me the park through his eyes.
“Gin-GER!” screams Benji. In front of Aladdin’s Oasis stands an older woman with a lot of white hair pinned under a police cap, made up to look like a somewhat fantastic beat cop. Ginger actually works security here, slowing down rampaging teenagers, helping find lost kids. She asks not to be quoted, since I don’t have permission from Disney PR to interview any employees. But I can say this: Just being near her takes away Benji’s sourness. They stand together for a long time, trading gossip about Disney cast members (that’s what they call staffers here) and about future plans for the park. Benji is smiling now, and laughing. He seems like a little kid, telling dumb jokes and getting all excited about the upcoming premiere of Lilo & Stitch. But Ginger has to work, and Benji returns to our hurried tour.
Benji mentions Jim Henson’s MuppetVision 3-D, which I say I’ve never seen. He looks at me in disbelief and says, “Well, let’s go. It’s starting soon.” We leave Disneyland, cross the large plaza where the ticket booths are located, and enter DCA. We’re a little early for the movie, so they herd us and a few hundred children with their parents into a large waiting area set up to look like the backstage of a theater. Ceiling-hung monitors display skits featuring Muppet characters like Kermit and Fozzy and Gonzo, the main point of which seems to be to mention Kodak, the show’s sponsor. Most of the kids ignore the monitors and talk and laugh with each other; Benji, however, is not only paying rapt attention, but talking along with the dialogue, sometimes telling the punch line of a joke before the character onscreen does.
I ask him if he knows why he’s so into Disney.
“Uh, no,” he says. “I’ve been doing it so long, it defines me. I tried to figure that out. I just ended up with no answers.” He turns back to the monitor. Most people have crammed toward the front of the waiting area, but Benji has us way in the back. He explains that most people don’t realize that the back is the best place to sit for the show.
Benji turns to me. “It would be nice to know why I love Disney,” he says. “Because I could use it in some kind of marketing program to attract other people.”
Benji worked at DCA last summer, roasting coffee in Baker’s Field Bakery. “The only reason I left was to go to school so I could come back and get a real job,” he says. “Eventually, I want a salary job. I could be in the office doing something.” He imagines working in marketing, getting other people as excited about Disney as he is. “In my opinion, they are the best entertainment option out there. If I go to a good Universal attraction, which is rare, I still enjoy it but it’s not as good.”
MuppetVision is in 3-D and ends with a big explosion that seems to destroy the theater. It really does look good from the back. After the show, we walk around DCA for a while. “Oh, you got to meet Pat,” Benji says. “She’s a Blastie.” DCA has a show called The Power of Blast, a 30-minute version of a Broadway hit built around a cutting-edge marching band, and Pat has seen almost every performance of Blast — there are four shows a day — since it opened in November 2001. She’s the most committed of the Blasties, but there are others who see the show at least a few times a week. Blast is performed in a theater made to look like a classic small-town movie palace. At 2:15, there’s already a line for the 3 o’clock show, a big crowd of high school kids and parents carrying young children tired by the sun. The crowd is thick, but Benji pushes us forward to the very front, where, wedged near the entrance, we find an older woman with a round, angry face. “Pat,” Benji says loudly.
“Hello, Benji,” she answers in a bored voice.
“Are you coming to the Fantasmic opening?” Benji asks.
“No. I’m going to see this,” she says, jerking a thumb toward the theater. Has she really seen every performance since the show opened? She’s seen most of them, she says, but sometimes she takes off on Tuesdays to run errands, and she missed the 3 o’clock last Wednesday. I ask her why she likes the show so much. She shrugs and says she doesn’t want to talk about it.
Benji explains that every square inch of Disneyland has its own obsessives. There are people solely devoted to Ron Miller, the man who plays ragtime piano in Refreshment Corner at the end of Main Street. There is one woman who comes to the park every day and just rides the Indiana Jones™ Adventure over and over. Its crew gave her a crystal bowl to commemorate her thousandth time. There are Haunted Mansion people, Matterhorn people. Benji and his closest friends don’t focus on one attraction, though; they are generalists, they like everything at the park.
Doug Marsh is Benji’s best friend, even though they couldn’t be less alike. Where Benji is brooding and shy, Doug is expansive, showy, a Disneyland-obsessed Nathan Lane type, short and paunchy, but with flaming red hair and a bushy beard. (“I’m not gay,” he tells me. “A lot of people think I am.”) He says that he’d also love to give me his tour of the park, so one morning we meet near the entrance. As we walk toward the ticket booths, Doug spots a piece of white photocopied paper and goes to pick it up. “Look at this,” he says — it’s a list of special events at the park on October 17, 2001. “Why would this be floating around? And why would they print up a special schedule for that day?” He puts the paper in his satchel. “This will be investigated.” I’ve heard Doug collects paper ephemera, any sort of printed matter that’s given away free at Disneyland. “Yes,” he says. “Ephemera. Particularly ephemeral ephemera.”
As we enter the park, I use my new Passport. Doug congratulates me on my purchase, but offers a warning. “Believe it or not, there is a phenomenon of burnout when you first get a pass. You come all the time, and then you reach a point where you won’t come to the park for a month.”
Like Benji, Doug offers a running commentary. But his talk is more chummy grade-school teacher than sullen adolescent. He engages me, asks me questions.
We stop at the tunnel that takes you under the train tracks into the park. Disneyland is surrounded by a berm, a barrier that protects the guests from the outside world. “Walt felt this berm was very, very important. To have that complete experience in the park. John Hench: Does that name mean anything to you? He is one of the real old-timers.” He’s referring to those people who helped create Disneyland — the Imagineers. “Walt felt so strongly about this tunnel. The idea that you leave the world and enter the happiest place on Earth. John Hench says that this is where he feels Walt most strongly.”
Doug says any tour of the park should start with a train ride around it. He is, after all, a member of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, a group devoted to the study and preservation of Walt Disney’s personal collection of very large model trains. As we enter the Main Street Station, an older man in a conductor’s uniform greets Doug. “You took a picture of me a little while ago,” he says. Doug pulls a blank. “Ralph,” he says, reading the man’s name tag. Then he remembers and turns to me with a smile. “Ralph Garcia. This man worked here when the park opened in 1955.” Ralph seems thrilled to be remembered, and he and Doug spend time together at an aerial photo of the park from those first days, comparing notes on what has changed and what shouldn’t have.
When the train comes, Doug sits in a back row, leaving the best seats for a large family enjoying the Magic Kingdom for what seems to be their first time. The train doesn’t just circle the park; it also passes through some of the rides, like Splash Mountain, and by a diorama of the Grand Canyon and audioanimatronic dinosaurs. “Walt and his Imagineers wanted to control you — what you feel, what you see, what you think.” Exactly, I think — that’s what’s so evil about the place. But Doug continues. “That’s what people want. That’s what I like: the complete illusion. Unlike, say, Universal. They have the streets of London, but inside it’s generic shopping interiors. Here, the bank on Main Street is an actual bank.” He describes Main Street when it first opened. There was a real butcher shop, a real post office. Walt wanted to create a real world, a better world.
The train travels the perimeter of the park. You can see into most of the lands: Frontierland, Toontown, Tomorrowland . . . Doug tells me what Walt would have thought of all the new attractions. (Doug is the most frequent and eloquent practitioner of something many Disneyland regulars do: speak with authority on what Walt would think of recent changes to the park). Toontown is particularly un-Waltish, Doug says. He points out that it’s designed to make children feel that they have actually entered a cartoon, but it’s done in such a way that anyone ‰ over the age of 10 just sees a lot of brightly painted round houses and long lines. “The concept of age-appropriate attractions was not one supported by Walt,” Doug says. “Quality entertainment is quality entertainment.”
As we come back around to the Main Street station, Doug’s cell phone rings — it’s a Mickey Mouse phone, of course. His friend Roger Morgan has just arrived and will meet us in a few minutes. “Roger is a total fanatic,” Doug tells me. “Stars-in-the-eyes fanatic.”
Roger is waiting for us, in a Disney-themed baseball cap. “I was born and raised in the shadow of the majestic Matterhorn,” he says, when I ask where he’s from. “My very first memories are of the park. My parents wouldn’t tell me if I was going until the day we went, because they knew I wouldn’t sleep at all the night before.” He’s an average-looking guy — average height, brown hair, brown mustache — completely unremarkable except for the dozens and dozens of Disney commemorative pins that hang from four lanyards around his neck and seem to cover his chest like a breastplate. Pins are serious business, he and Doug explain. Disney is constantly releasing pins to commemorate one thing or another. It just made a pin to celebrate the return of the Electrical Parade. There are several pins commemorating Walt’s birthday. There are pins for each of the attractions: a Matterhorn pin, a few different Haunted Mansion pins. There are any number of pins for each of the characters: Goofy, Snow White, Winnie the Pooh, and on and on and on. There are so many different Mickey pins that some people collect only pins of Mickey standing or pins of Mickey with his hand on his cheek. Some pins are quite large — several inches wide and tall — and do tricks, like light up or change pictures when you shift them to the light. Some have figures that move. Some are released in severely limited editions, and Roger has several of these. In addition to his lanyards, Roger carries a thick binder that contains a few hundred other pins. Doug reaches into his satchel and shows me his own pin book, in which he keeps some of his 2,000 pins to trade with other collectors he meets at the Magic Kingdom. This all means big money for Disney; pins are sold throughout the park, and the management is planning a special area for pin trading. It’s big money for collectors, as well: The rarest pins, which cost around $10 retail, sell on eBay for hundreds
As we walk down Main Street, Doug and Roger constantly stop to point out their favorite window inscriptions. Painted on the second-floor windows in Disney’s version of a turn-of-the-20th-century heartland downtown are old-fashioned signs for nonexistent businesses, most containing a Disney in-joke. The window above the photo-supply shop, for instance, reads “Plaza School of Art. Instructors: Herbert Ryman, John Hench, Peter Ellenshaw.” Ellenshaw was an important matte painter on many Disney films and produced the first conceptual drawing of Disneyland; Ryman helped design New Orleans Square and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; and John Hench, one of Doug’s heroes, was Walt’s right-hand man designing the look of the park.
These old-timers and others created the Happiest Place on Earth, Doug tells me. They thought of everything that would allow people to come here “and be truly carefree, that is to say, free of ordinary cares, a brief vacation from the dull grind of everyday life.
“Roger is unusual in that he grew up with the park, and he cares enough to learn the history,” Doug says. This is a big issue for Doug, who grew up in Oregon and came to Disneyland only once in his childhood, in 1972, when he was 14. But just as his family got here, his father had a heart attack and they had to leave. He’s known the place firsthand only since the 1980s, but from reading, he knows Disneyland history better than any of his friends. He’s constantly running into people who grew up in Southern California and come to Disneyland a few times a year but don’t know a thing about the place.
“It drives you crazy that Roger came to the park so often,” I say.
Doug nods vigorously. “I just wish I could have had the experience of knowing the park then.”
He notices a young girl standing with her mother nearby, carrying a binder just like Roger’s; she’s staring at Roger’s pin-covered chest.
“Do you want to trade?” Doug asks. The little girl — about 7 years old, in a pink dress, with long blond hair — nods, shyly.
“Come over here,” Doug says. He pulls out his binder from his big bag. The girl, whose name is Jenny, awkwardly puts hers on a stone wall that’s not thick enough to hold it. “You can put it on the ground,” Doug reassures her. “It’s okay.”
Doug puts his book down next to hers, and she leans over it. It’s like a photo album, except the pages are a soft plastic mesh with neatly sorted pins attached. There are pages of Mickey pins, a page of Aladdin-themed pins, but mostly there are pins of Tinker Bell — or “Tinks” — most of which have the same basic design but vary slightly in color.
“I’ll trade you for this,” she says, pointing at one that celebrates Lumiere, the Beauty & the Beast–themed restaurant in Walt Disney World.
“That’s a pretty hard trade, as you know,” Doug says. “I’ll tell you: You have a good eye.”
Jenny has one page of pins of miniature movie posters. Doug points at one for Return to NeverLand, which changes colors as you shift it. “I would trade you Lumiere for that,” Doug says.
Jenny’s mother, meanwhile, is talking to Roger. A large woman with a big laugh, she explains that she and Jenny both just got into pin collecting, and that Jenny already has more than she does. The mother has a lanyard like Roger’s, but not as full. She does have seven small Pooh pins of different colors, which Roger offers to put in order of their release date. As he finishes, the mother sees Jenny holding her new Lumiere pin.
“Give it to me,” the mother calls out.
Jenny cradles the pin and turns away. “I love my pin.”
“Give it to Mommy.”
Doug, with a smile, says, “Maybe trade it with Mommy?”
“Who bought her all her damn pins?” the mother yells, with a snorting laugh.
“She has a lot of good pins,” Roger observes.
Jenny turns back to her mother. “Nyah nyah nyah nyah.”
“Give the pin to me or I’ll bite you,” her mother says, too seriously.
Jenny is now dancing in place and singing a little song: “I have Lumiere! I have Lumiere!”
This goes on a bit longer, but when they finally move on, Jenny still has the pin. “I like to encourage the kids,” says Doug.
We enter Tomorrowland. Doug and Roger stop, suddenly and simultaneously. They look at each other. “Planters?” Roger exclaims.
Surrounding a fountain is a circle of potted trees; they weren’t there yesterday. Doug and Roger both look for the nearest Disney cast member, who happens to be a security guard. “What kind of trees are these?” Doug asks eagerly.
“Peach,” the guard answers.
“Peach,” Doug says, excited.
A tall, skinny young man in a big, floppy hat walks up. “Guess what?” he says. “Friday: Lilo and Stitch.”
“In the park?” Doug responds.
“In the park,” the man says slowly and portentously. This week the new characters of Lilo and Stitch are going to join Mickey and friends; that is, human beings wearing Lilo and Stitch costumes will walk around the park signing autographs.
This is Richard, who is just out of college and moved from Salt Lake City to be near the park. He carries a coffee-table book about Disneyland; it is full of autographs. He has Mickey and Minnie, of course, and Tink and Snow White and Buzz Lightyear and Winnie the Pooh (signed, that is, by whatever Disney cast member happened to be wearing the suit when Richard approached). ‰
He has hundreds and hundreds of autographs, more than any high school yearbook. Doug and Roger flip through the pages, shouting out whenever they see a favorite.
“You don’t have Goofy.” Roger says.
Richard flips triumphantly to the page. “Goofy!”
Richard waves to a tall, attractive young black woman standing a dozen yards away, whispers something to Doug and then walks over to her. Doug turns so that his back is to them. “See that girl?” he asks Roger. “No, that girl. The one with Richard. She’s going to be Lilo. Don’t look. She’s very mad at Richard for saying.”
Richard and the woman come over; Doug does a bad impression of nonchalance and asks if she’d like to walk with us a bit. She says, “Ummmmm” and looks at Richard. It takes him a long time to realize what he’s supposed to do. “Uh, we have to, ummm,” he finally says. And they walk away.
Roger says he has some things to check out and heads off, agreeing to meet us later at his favorite Disney restaurant, Rancho del Zócalo in Frontierland.
Doug and I continue our tour; just in front of the castle that sits at the center of the park, we run into Benji. “Did you see the planters?” he asks.
“They’re peach!” Doug replies.
Benji agrees to eat lunch with us, and we walk over to the restaurant, where Roger is waiting. We order our burritos and taco salads and sit down. It’s messy food, and we have a lot of Disneyland napkins on the table.
“They should have napkins with the logo and napkins without the logo, so you don’t feel bad using them,” Benji says.
Roger holds up a handful. “These are collectible. I have bundles of them at home in Ziploc baggies.”
“Do you have a 35th Anniversary napkin?” Doug asks.
“No!” Roger yells.
“I’ll give you one,” Doug says.
Roger performs an elaborate bow. “Thank you.”
Doug and Roger tell Benji about the woman who is going to wear the Lilo costume this Friday. This leads to a general discussion about dating. Doug and Benji don’t date anyone. Roger is married to a woman who has recently gotten into Disney — but she’s a Pooh fan, Benji tells me, dismissively. “Girls get in the way of the true calling of TWDC,” Benji says. TWDC stands for The Walt Disney Company.
But enough about girls. Benji wants to talk about what’s changed in the park since yesterday.
“Have you seen the new signs in Critter Country?” Benji asks. Roger shakes his head no. “Where have you been?” Benji explodes in a mock rage. “Have you seen the new planters at Tomorrowland?”
“They’re peach,” Roger says.
After lunch we board the Mark Twain, the big riverboat that circles Tom Sawyer’s Island on the Rivers of America. Doug recounts Walt and Lillie Disney’s 30th-anniversary party in 1955. He describes exactly where on the ship the musicians stood, who was there, what kind of food was served and where it was placed.
Roger cuts in: “The party was on the Mark Twain, and then it went to the Golden Horseshoe,” a nearby Western-themed restaurant.
“No,” Doug corrects him. “At the Golden Horseshoe and then the Mark Twain.”
“Let’s read our history books,” Roger insists.
“Read all you want,” Doug responds.
Soon after the boat pulls away, we pass another dock. “This is Fowler’s Harbor,” Doug explains. It’s named after Joe Fowler, the retired Navy admiral who oversaw the construction of Disneyland; the story goes that Walt was so angry at old Joe for spending so much money on this harbor — a dry dock for the riverboat — that he called it Joe’s Ditch.
That’s when I cracked. I had spent my days with Benji and Doug trying to reserve judgment, hoping to see the park as they do. But right there, passing Fowler’s Harbor, I’d suddenly had enough. I couldn’t help thinking that this whole life project of theirs was an absurd waste of time, that there were so many more worthwhile things to care about. Doug relates the history of Disneyland with all the earnestness of a high school history teacher on a field trip to Washington, D.C. But that’s real history: Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, Congress writing the laws, Martin Luther King Jr. intoning, “I have a dream.” Whether a guy named Fowler did or did not piss Walt Disney off 50 years ago doesn’t matter at all. Or rather, it matters only within the berm, and even there to only a small number of unnaturally fixated fans; it’s all completely self-contained, completely self-referential. Disney and Disneyland have had an impact on American culture that indeed is worth studying, and is studied from all sorts of scholarly angles. But that’s not what interests Doug and Benji and Roger.
Yet at the very moment I inwardly dismissed them, I recognized something compelling, even profound, about their obsession. It made me think of a yeshiva I visited in Israel years ago: A group of rabbis were arguing a particularly narrow point of Talmud, having to do with whether on high holidays one is allowed to move the ladders attached to dove coops. It was not a practical question; the rabbis owned no dove coops. But for Orthodox Jews, God is precisely in these seemingly irrelevant details: They believe that God entered history only once, when He revealed the Scriptures and the oral tradition; their only access to the deity is therefore through His words, and by parsing every one of them, by comparing minute differences in scriptural language, Jews hope to learn what God meant. Through arcane debate, they can reach out and almost touch God.
Doug and Benji and Roger and their friends talk a lot about the Magic of Disneyland, that wonderful, childlike feeling of giving in to this world that Walt created, of letting the place make you happy. They want to hold on to that magic and feel it all the time, but it’s perhaps not as easy as when they actually were children. And so they become Talmudic. They go deep inside the history of Disneyland, study every inch of it. When Doug looks at the Mark Twain, he doesn’t see what kids see — wow! a big cool riverboat! — he sees Walt and Lillie dancing, he sees dozens of old-timers crafting the perfect experience. Doug sees these things everywhere.
By trying to understand just What Would Walt Do, they can in some way actually touch the man they believe did a better job than anyone of bringing magic into the workaday world.
I try to explain my theory to Doug. I’m getting it all wrong, he says. It’s not like an actual religion. They don’t think Walt is some sort of god. And, somewhat nervously, he points out that he doesn’t actually believe there is true magic — it’s more of a magical feeling. He knows Disney is a company run by businessmen who want to make money. But that doesn’t bother him. “I’m able to separate the magician and the magic,” he says.
Disneyland, he says simply, is “a very nice place, a wonderful place to go, I enjoy myself while I’m here.”
We leave the Mark Twain and head for Critter Country, where we stop at a high wooden barrier. Behind it, Benji tells me, they are building the since-opened Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Benji and Roger and I climb onto a low stone wall to look inside. (Doug says it’s against the rules and he won’t do it.) There’s not much to see — some narrow tracks and piles of construction material. Benji and Roger guess where the line will be and where they’ll put the gift shop.
Then we climb down and head back toward the entrance.
What do Disneyland regulars call themselves? I ask.
“We prefer Disneyana enthusiasts,” Doug says. Then he smiles, “Or Disney Freaks. Or Disney Nuts.”
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They say that they don’t have one name, like Trekkies do. Most of them feel that Trekkies are lame.
“Our creator had other successes,” Roger says.
Benji says he was once a Trekkie. “There’s no difference,” he says, then adds, “Disney fans are crankier.” We walk in silence for a moment. Benji laughs. “I had a girlfriend once.”
“Trekkies are devoted to some stupid pop-culture fad,” Doug says finally. “Disney fans believe in the magic.”