How child-free 'Disney adults' are transforming the company's theme parks as Disney pours $60 billion into the division
- Child-free millennials and Gen Z-ers are now as commonplace at Disney Parks as families with kids.
- Disney plans to invest $60 billion in the parks over the next decade, the Wall Street Journal report.
Since the start of 2023, Sarah Rachul, a public-relations professional who lives in Ohio, has logged more than half a dozen trips to Disney parks, including Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
Her target? Ten Disney trips by the year's end.
"It just melts away some of the stress. I'm not looking around my house going, 'Oh, I have to clean that,' or 'I have to sort that.' I'm not thinking about my job. I'm just in this cool, fake, around-the-world walk," 29-year-old Rachul said of her impromptu visits to Epcot, usually with a cocktail in hand as she strolls through the world showcase with its pavilions modeled after countries from Italy to China.
Rachul's parents, members of the Disney Vacation Club, a timeshare program, accompany her on some visits, helping make the trips more affordable than, say, a vacation to Tuscany. When she turns 30 next year, Rachul and her boyfriend are already set to ring in her third decade aboard a Disney cruise.
Rachul is one of a growing share of 20- and 30-somethings without kids who are packing into Disney parks, particularly Walt Disney World in Orlando — frequently making these often-lavish trips as couples or in groups of friends. That's according to interviews Insider conducted with more than 20 people, ranging from annual pass holders to current and former Disney employees (most of whom requested anonymity to speak freely about company business and policies) to travel agents and others familiar with foot traffic at the parks.
Collectively, they painted a picture of an undeniable demographic shift that could have big implications for Disney's parks' business, from an influx of consumer dollars — childless earners tend to have more disposable income than parents — to an impact on in-park rides and experiences. It comes as Disney is investing in parks in a major way over the next 10 years, with the Wall Street Journal reporting Tuesday — citing a regulatory filing — that the entertainment giant will pour some $60 billion into the parks division, which also encompasses cruises and merchandise. Disney also posted a blog about the plan.
The phenomenon is also eroding the stigma surrounding the "Disney adult," a term that in recent years has been used to poke fun at grown-ups with a tendency to display their die-hard devotion to the Mouse House. One Urban Dictionary entry defined a "Disney adult" as a millennial who "can't stop talking about Disney" and is "one of the most terrifyingly intense people you'll ever encounter."
But the idea of donning a pair of Mickey ears or "DisneyBounding" — dressing for park visits in outfits inspired by famous Disney characters — is becoming more mainstream, and perhaps even cool, for more and more kidless millennials and Gen Zers. Disney's not just for hot, tired parents chaperoning their kids from character breakfasts to rides on Aladdin's magic carpets anymore.
"It's two hours away, but it's an escape," said Molly May, a 38-year-old mental-health counselor based in Florida, who, along with her husband, has held an annual Disney World pass for several years. The couple got engaged there, celebrated their five-year anniversary at Disneyland, and visited Disneyland Paris earlier this year. They're planning to commemorate 10 years with a visit to Tokyo Disneyland.
"The responsibility I have as an adult," May added, "disappears as soon as I walk through the gate."
Francis Dominic, a social-media creator, previously worked for both Disney World and Disneyland in various roles, including as a tour guide, for four years beginning in 2014. Now he creates Disney-themed content, much of which is focused on park tips and experiences, for his audience of more than 108,000 followers on TikTok.
"I hear from every single age group, from 80s all the way to teens, of just people ready to have so much fun in these parks and being so unapologetic about it," Dominic, 30, said.
"As millennials growing up, we were teased about loving certain princesses or certain things," he added. "Now it's more of like an 'I don't give a fuck' moment."
On a given day, 40% to 50% of parkgoers at Disney World could be child-free adults, a former parks executive says
The trend has emerged at a time of manifold pressures for The Walt Disney Company, from a share price that's fallen more than 25% over the past year to a recent Wall Street Journal report suggesting that traffic to the Florida parks dwindled this summer.
Meanwhile, rising ticket prices, coupled with soaring inflation, could be deterring some parks visitors. In the last year, 93% of respondents in a consumer survey agreed that the cost of a Disney World vacation had become untenable for "average families," and a popular Disney travel blog estimated that a "baseline" five-night trip for family of four to the Orlando parks could exceed $6,300.
On top of that, throw in a monthslong political battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — which led Disney to scrap plans for a new $1 billion campus near Orlando that would have created roughly 2,000 jobs — as well as a looming threat from its crosstown rival Universal, which will open its fourth Orlando theme park in 2025, and it's clear there are challenges ahead for Disney Parks.
But in the face of all this, Disney World appears to be accelerating efforts to lure adult visitors, including pricey experiences that seem less likely to appeal to families.
In recent months, its Epcot theme park has introduced $250-a-person omakase dinners at the Japan pavilion's Takumi-Tei restaurant, for instance, burnishing the rite of passage known as "Drinking Around the World." It's a favorite pastime for Epcot visitors over the age of 21 who get tipsy shuffling from one country pavilion to the next, ordering internationally inspired cocktails or sipping flights of spirits at venues like the Mexico pavilion's La Cava del Tequila bar.
Along with that dining glow-up, multiple high-tech rides have debuted since last year, as well as a fresh slate of holiday experiences lined up for this winter. "You can see Disney is pushing to be competitive for that adult, thrill-seeking group," Jonathan de Araujo, the founder of the Disney-authorized travel-planning service The Vacationeer, told Insider.
A Disney spokesperson declined to comment for this story, and company insiders say obtaining data about any aspect of the business — such as foot traffic — can be opaque (the Journal's reporting, for example, was based on stats from the third-party company Touring Plans, which tracks wait times for rides). But, according to a former Disney executive with close knowledge of Disney World, between 40% to 50% of typical crowds at the Orlando parks are composed of adults visiting without children — people the executive categorized as "nonfamily."
That number is "astonishing when you think about it," the executive, who worked in travel marketing, said, "because it's not the perception that people have." And that stat has been on a gradual uptick for several years, this person and others familiar with Disney World's foot traffic said.
Tara Goldstein and Ann van Oostendorp, independent travel planners who specialize in Disney trips and call themselves the "Magic Planning Sisters," told Insider that between mid-2020 and 2023, 53% of the Disney vacations they planned were for adults only. They attributed much of the shift to the advent of hot rides — like a cutting-edge roller coaster themed after the tentpole "Guardians of the Galaxy" franchise, for example — that appeal to an older audience.
"Disney knows the kids want to go," van Oostendorp said. "Now it's time to bring in the adult population."
From weddings to special meals, millennials without kids are bringing disposable income to the parks
Twenty-three-year-old Natalie Schwartz remembers all the visits she and her boyfriend, Brett, made to Disney World as students at the University of Tampa.
"I just always have had this little-girl dream of getting married there," Schwartz told Insider several weeks after her June wedding, a nearly 120-person affair at Disney World's Grand Floridian resort. Among the perks were discounted park tickets the couple could share with more than a dozen friends, and together they spent two days venturing through the parks ahead of the ceremony. Schwartz also took her grandmother on the It's a Small World ride.
This summer, Schwartz returned to Disney World to celebrate her friend Sierra Keller's 24th birthday. "Disney kind of just transports us somewhere else," said Keller, who now lives about 10 minutes from the parks in a home her family built specifically to be close to Disney. "You're not worried about elections. You're not worried about laws passing or what tomorrow's going to look like, or how many bills do I need to pay or anything. You're just in that moment and you get to kind of be carefree."
The growing share of visitors like Schwartz and Keller has "slowly influenced the product choices" within the parks, the former Disney travel marketing executive said. Ultimately, the groups bringing new spending are "going to drive those decisions," this executive added. "If you look at it and you say, 'Hey, we're going to continue to do baby rides,' it's like, 'Well, wait a minute — do we really need those? Don't we have that?'"
In 2021, Epcot added Space 220, an upscale restaurant designed for the Instagram age. The decor could only be described as interstellar chic — think big bay windows overlooking a simulated image of the Earth. Jason Petrina, the restaurant's general manager, told Insider he's seen more adults without kids — couples, friend groups — coming in lately, noting that many are local annual pass holders or members of Disney's timeshare program. He's gotten to know some regulars by name.
"They're not really concerned about spending money as long as they get a great experience," Petrina said. And that could mean springing for premium wines or lavish dishes like rib-eye steaks or lobster. He estimated that 15% to 20% of the restaurant's income stems from this group — "a huge piece of our business," he said. "If you're down 15 to 20% in sales, you might close."
Drinking with mates or boozing with Mickey? How Disney's parks and retail experience is evolving.
Inside the parks, signs of Disney's efforts to satisfy an older crowd — the same group it has lured to cineplexes with its investments in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises — seem ubiquitous. One of the most obvious examples is the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster, which opened in May 2022 and features preshow content starring actors like Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldaña.
The coaster — which launches riders backward before hurtling them into a dark, cavernous space meant to emulate the universe at the beginning of time — features songs like "September" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," hits likelier to perk up older ears than younger ones. This year, the Magic Kingdom added Tron: Lightcycle Run, an indoor-outdoor coaster with motorcycle-like seating. Both rides offer a far more thrill-seeking edge than stalwarts like It's a Small World.
Meanwhile, Disney has said it will sunset DinoLand USA, an older corner of Animal Kingdom that featured several kid-friendly dinosaur-themed rides. Beyond that, reports in September indicated that the Magic Kingdom will debut a new tavern serving alcohol in close proximity to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and inspired by the Disney film franchise, but the precise timeline for the project is uncertain.
The parks have also extended hours through their "After Dark" events, giving late-night visitors protracted access to rides. At Disneyland in California, the Anaheim parks introduced their inaugural Pride Nites this June. And this month, three Disneyland restaurants — the Carnation Cafe, River Belle Terrace, and Cafe Orleans — began serving alcohol.
Plus, the company has announced new holiday offerings at Disney World's Hollywood Studios, including a series of "Jollywood Nights" throughout November and December. The events — with ticket prices ranging from $159 to $179 per person — will feature a DJ, special cocktails, "glitz and glamor galore" at a jazz lounge, and a "soiree" at the Hollywood Tower Hotel Courtyard, the site of the Tower of Terror ride.
These unique experiences are casting a spell on millennial and Gen Z wallets. "When you're here, everything feels like it's laced with magic and truly pixie dust. Sure, we'll buy $20 drinks — but if we do that at a regular bar, I'm like, 'That would be crazy.' But if it's at Disney, it's fine," said Dominic, the TikTok influencer.
Beyond food and beverage offerings, high-end merch throughout the parks seems to speak to Disney's desire to capture these consumer dollars. At Hollywood Studios, sleek lightsabers like the blades wielded by iconic "Star Wars" characters such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine retail for upward of $200. One Disney World worker said she'd witnessed tears welling up in many adults' eyes the first time they activated their laser swords.
Also on the merchandise front, Disney has launched multiple capsule collections in partnership with glossy brands like Gucci, Dooney & Bourke, and Coach, emblazoning Disney iconography on everything from jeans to accessories, including a Coach backpack for nearly $600.
Last year, in connection with the celebration of Disney World's 50th anniversary, merch designers from across the company worked on developing styles that would appeal to older shoppers, the former Disney travel marketing executive recalled. Many items intentionally emphasized fresh color schemes or iridescence to appeal to a customer with "more sophisticated" tastes, this former exec said.
'Hey, there's a lot of adults in the parks. We haven't met a single kid today,' cast members say
Disney has had its eye on this demographic and its spending power for several years.
In 2018, the company piloted a campaign called #HappyPlace, which mainly consisted of a series of videos incubated by teams at Yellow Shoes, Disney's internal advertising agency devoted to parks, experiences, and products.
#HappyPlace content was geared toward child-free adults who were "definitely above the drinking age," said Neph Trejo, a creative director who worked for Disney until earlier this summer and was integral to the campaign's development.
The videos showcased what a trip to Disney World without children could look like for adult friend groups — including sipping on sake and feasting on fresh gyros. One video posted to Trejo's website, called "Swag Safari," is set to a moody soundtrack and portrays a fictionalized trip to Animal Kingdom in which a handful of millennials embark on the Kilimanjaro Safari and, from a high-end hotel terrace, watch giraffes wake up.
"Our approach was to shine a light on the beautiful tapestry of people that come to Walt Disney World," Trejo said. "It's not just about rides. It's not just about churros. It's not just about Dole Whip," he added, referring to the parks' famous frozen-pineapple treat.
Even Disney characters are fielding hugs and selfies with grown-up customers these days. One Disney World employee said lines to meet iconic characters can sometimes be made up of half or more adults without children. "We're like, 'Hey, there's a lot of adults in the parks. We haven't met a single kid today,'" this person said. "Or, 'I was just out there for an hour and I saw three kids the entire time of the two to three hundred people I met.'"
But there's a darker side of this demo that's created pain points for some Disney workers.
Some visitors get a thrill from performing stunts seemingly conjured to go viral on social media. On TikTok, examples are plentiful of teenagers and 20-somethings physically touching or recording cast members, asking personal questions to try to break their unflappable depictions of figures like Cinderella. One video shows a woman laying her hands on the chest of an actor playing Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast." The Disney World employee recalled a guest who broke park rules by lapping water from decorative fountains.
Management has addressed the situation in private conversations with parks talent, according to the employee, who said Disney World has adopted a strict policy that its actors refrain from participating in social-media trends. "You can absolutely step away or you can ask for a leadership position to come over and chat with them if it's something that's uncomfortable," the person said, describing the company's guidance. "With the internet these days, everything you do is probably going to be put online at some point, so be aware of that. So it's definitely something they touch on in our training."
Ultimately, though, the parks worker says the uptick in adult attendees is "an open road for new growth."
"It's a lot easier to cater to an older crowd because you can better know their wants and needs, whereas with kids, kids don't even know what they want," this employee explained, pointing to the customer-experience surveys Disney sends visitors. "It's really the adults' opinions who they care about and who they're trying to cater to."
'There is a tug of war from adult to family at times,' said a former Disney Imagineer
Jeremy Singh loved classic Disney movies growing up and still recalls the first time he set foot in the parks at age 12. He felt an instant connection.
"I knew from that first trip that I'd found my thing," he said. "I wanted to know more about it, how it came to be, how everything worked."
But even Singh couldn't have predicted that a decade later, he'd have relocated to Orlando, where his fascination with theme parks would blossom into a career. Now, as a content creator focused on Disney World, Singh, 23, has amassed a million followers on his JeremyTheTea TikTok page, and has been hired by Disney in what he said is a bid to reach this prized young-adult demographic.
"I know that when I'm called to do these things, they're probably trying to get to that audience," said Singh, noting that his primary following ranges between 21 and 28 years old.
Prior to the actors' strike, which has paralyzed the promotion of most new films by movie stars and online content creators alike, Singh helped support marketing efforts surrounding Disney's live-action "Little Mermaid" film earlier this year and attended a Disneyland performance by the movie's lead actor Halle Bailey that was broadcast on "American Idol." He's also been tapped to promote Disney's Halloween festivities, which he said would tie into the company's "Haunted Mansion" film premiere, inspired by the eponymous ride.
Singh has become a leading voice within a burgeoning community of Disney-focused influencers that emerged during the pandemic years and, according to experts, has helped fuel adults' interest in the parks. A search for the term #DisneyWorld on TikTok reveals that the hashtag has been associated with content viewed some 20 billion times, while Disney Parks' own TikTok page has surpassed 5.7 million followers.
Francis Dominic, the former parks worker turned influencer, has also been tapped to promote Disney parks and films. He cohosted an advanced screening of Disney and Pixar's "Elemental" this year alongside Patrick Dougall, another Disney creator who's built up a TikTok following of 380,000. Attendees — the vast majority of whom were millennials — were asked to dress as their favorite element inspired by the film.
But even as Disney makes a concerted push to keep this all-important audience coming back, some warn that the parks can't afford to alienate their other vital fandom: kids.
"There is a tug of war from adult to family at times," said Mark Eades, a former Disney Imagineer in the 1980s and early '90s who's watched the brand evolve over the decades. Unless Disney can find an equilibrium that keeps both groups happy, Eades cautioned, "I think they'll realize, 'Uh-oh, we've left the kids at the door.'"
It's a difficult tightrope to navigate, but it could define the future of Disney parks. Eades — a pass holder at Disneyland in Anaheim who sits on the board of the Disneyland Alumni Club, a group of roughly 400 former parks employees — likened the situation to the retro cartoons he loved watching growing up. He enjoyed them as a kid, and he still enjoys them now.
"If they can succeed in doing attractions and entertainment like that," Eades concluded, "that's when you hit it out of the park."
Amanda Krause contributed reporting.
Are you a Disney parks or Walt Disney Co. insider? Contact this reporter. Reed Alexander can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or SMS/the encrypted app Signal at (561) 247-5758.
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