Pete Werner had been clean and sober for nearly a year. He'd attended his third treatment program, moved in with his parents in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and started working to slowly rebuild the life he had lost chasing booze and drugs. He had spent all his money and lived on the streets for a while, but at age 26, he had recently landed a job as a programmer for a company that made software for the military. He tried to keep his friends and his boyfriend close.
His next addiction started on a lonely business trip. Werner flew into Orlando International Airport in May 1991 for a conference. He had one day off before the event began, so he got in his rental car and followed the overhead signs toward Walt Disney World, destination zero. He didn't realize it at the time, but he was about to be reborn as one of the world's most influential Disney nerds.
He had no particular love for Disney lore, found no nostalgic childhood comfort in the movies or characters. Simply curious and killing time, he arrived at Epcot, paid his money, held a ticket in his hand. And then — as he tells this story, his Disney-mania foundation myth, he gets wistful and a little giddy remembering the rush — he walked around Future World.
He heard what he would later call "bush music," happy tunes emanating from speakers hidden behind Disney's immaculately landscaped shrubs. He watched the crowd, which was light on this weekday. He sat on a bench, dumbfounded but alive, and stared up at Spaceship Earth, the huge, resplendent polyhedron.
"This," thought Werner, "is why I did drugs."
During his treatment, Werner had tried to catalog his emotions, taking stock of his elusive highs and his more persistent, searching lows. This feeling was new, though. He had seen the skyscrapers of New York, but this was somehow larger. Disney World existed for the sole purpose of enjoyment. Abandon was OK here, and it didn't require chemicals.
Before long, Werner would find a way to feed his habit and sustain a full-time Disney high. He made Disney his work. He began organizing Disney tours and, more influentially, established an online fan forum: the DIS boards at disboards.com, the internet home to hundreds of thousands of hard-core Disney fans.
Disney, when measured by revenue — $30-some billion per year — is the largest media company in the world. It has a market capitalization of $62 billion and subsidiary businesses that include radio, television, sports broadcasting, hotels, movie studios, and videogame developers. So Disney's individual theme-park visitors might seem like a minuscule part of the business. But taken together — as they always are, streaming through the gates in sweating masses — they're a tremendous source of cash.
Pete Werner and superfans like him make up a small but important fraction of the Disney audience. They pour roughly bazillions of dollars into the company coffers, whether it's by collecting Disney merchandise or returning to the safe confines of Disney parks whenever they need a lift.
So when Disney announced in 2009 that it would be starting its own "official" fan club and convention, offering a sanitized, controlled take on the fan experience, it stood to reason that these devotees would have some high expectations.
Werner's reaction? "D23 is bullshit."
For eons," said Walter Cronkite, "our planet has drifted as a spaceship through the universe. And for a brief moment, we have been its passengers." Werner had gotten up from his bench to board Spaceship Earth, his first Disney ride.
His blue Omnimover vehicle neared the top of its track inside the huge sphere, where an animatronic young man sat in front of a "Network Operations Center." Werner was carried upward into the top of the dome. Stars were everywhere, and a blue Planet Earth hovered amid the constellations.
The carriage squeaked and jerked and rotated slowly. Moving backward, it retreated down a ramp. Werner's back was pressed against the seat, his gaze angled upward at the receding world. The music swelled, and Cronkite spoke again: "Today, our search for understanding is unbounded by space and time. Centuries of information stand ready to reach us in an instant: our link with the past, our hope for the future."
After Werner returned from his business trip, he told everybody about his Epcot revelation and started planning to return the following year. His second trip only cemented his new obsession, and he started coming once a year, dragging along whomever he was dating. He would break up with at least one man who couldn't embrace Disney's appeal.
In 1998, Werner and his partner moved down to Orlando. They bought passes to the parks and kept exploring them until Werner's knowledge needed an outlet. The internet was just gaining popularity, and Werner learned HTML and created a personal website. That turned into an online Disney travel-planning guide, the DIS, which he approached with his usual obsession.