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Disney Fan Culture as Academic Study: "There's Something More Here Than Just Nerds"

Well, that was interesting. Two and a half months of research into the teeming underworld of Disney superfans yielded a rather unusual cover story this week, "The Mouse Who Loved Me." We traveled to Anaheim, rode Spaceship Earth, attended a singles meetup at the Magic Kingdom, and more, for your reading pleasure (many angles of the Disney fan experience didn't make it in but may show up here).

The story follows Pete Werner, founder of the influential fan discussion site the DIS boards, as he struggles with addictions, regains his footing, and criticizes D23, Disney's "official" response to the growing fan community on the internet. He still remembers his first time at Epcot: "This," he thought to himself, "is why I did drugs."

It turns out that the world of Disney fandom is enough to inspire academic pursuit. David Zanolla, a communications professor at Western Illinois University, came to the discipline after his own Disney epiphany.

Zanolla was on honeymoon with his wife at Walt Disney World, about a decade ago. "Everything really hit me when we wore our honeymoon buttons and the woman at the popcorn stand said, 'Congratulations on your wedding -- the popcorn's on the house.' It sounds simple, but that kind of got me thinking: Maybe that's it, how they treat people. So I went to grad school and started studying human communication."

Zanolla is now an active member on the DIS boards, and his wife, Leah, blogs for Werner's site. Every year, he has his communications students create accounts on the boards and chat with Disney fans, culminating in a spring-break trip to a meetup at the Disney parks in Orlando.

"The organizational culture that Disney sets up, the way of life that they design at the theme parks, is second to none," says Zanolla. But that experience can't be contained once it's in the hands of fans, he says. "It's one thing to study what Disney says they do. As a communications researcher, I study the concept that the message sent is not necessarily the message received."

And so, the messy realities of sites like the DIS boards: people talking about addictions, arranging hookups and relationships, drinking their asses off in DIS meets, and definitely bitching about D23, the official fan club, which does not provide a similar forum.

"A fan is somebody that actually turns a love of something into some kind of production or into joining a community," says Zanolla. He should know -- he's done it himself. From the princesses we found in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott to Doug Moore, the fired monorail driver who continues to brush up on Disney trivia, these fans aren't just consuming. They're making Disney lore into a world of their own.

"There's something more here than just nerds," says the park-going professor. "If you walk into any restaurant and say, 'Is anyone here a fan of Disney who wants to talk about their favorite ride?' you would get laughed at and get things thrown at you," says Zanolla. Not so on the boards, where people have already started discussing the New Times story.

Stefan Kamph is a New Times staff writer.
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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph