Gangs of Disneyland
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Disneyland isn’t just for kids, and cosplay isn’t just about head-to-toe Comic-Con costumes. Meet the latest evolution in superfandom.
There’s a new phenomenon at the Happiest Place on Earth. On the streets and pathways of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, groups of guests in coordinating vests have become a common sight. And we’re not talking matching family reunion T-shirts or high school team colors — these are Disneyland social clubs, and their ranks are swelling.
Taking cues from motorcycle clubs, the groups wear matching denim vests with the club’s name and logo on the back in custom made patches designed by members. The vest fronts may feature the member’s name and their favorite character or attraction. And pins. The limited-edition Disney pins are everywhere, either for showing off or for trading.
You’ve got The Wonderlanders, The Hidden Mickeys and Walt’s Misfits …
Each club takes its name from a specific attraction or themed land, like The Jungle Cruisers, named after the safari ride or The Hitchhikers, named after the hitch-hiking ghosts inside The Haunted Mansion. Other groups go for a more general handle: The Wonderlanders, The Hidden Mickeys and Walt’s Misfits. The Neverlanders are acknowledged as the first of the social clubs, while the Main Street Elite are the largest and most visible group. And the number of clubs has grown to well over 20; even Disney’s adjacent California Adventure park has its own denim-clad denizens.
Clubs are set apart from the general crowds by more than just the vests. Tattoos, pompadours and piercings are typical, and tell of the wearer’s ties to various music and lifestyle scenes. Often already part of other subcultures to begin with, the majority of club members are accustomed to sporting an unconventional, uniform “look.”
“We wanted to meet people who wanted to go to the park as much as we did. People who were like us: young parents into movies, music, fashion, tattoos and body mods,” said L. Aggro Harrington, a member of the Main Street Elite.
But the happiest gangs on Earth aren’t clique-y: More and more, their members are simply Disney fans, drawn to the idea of sharing and showing off their passion. These tribes are all-inclusive when it comes to gender, age and sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon to hear of members driving hours to shuttle friends to the park or fundraising for a member’s medical bills. The clubs stay in touch constantly via Instagram, where they document each vest-clad trip to the park.
The affordable and accessible social club vest falls somewhere between wearing a Disneyland T-shirt and wearing a Sleeping Beauty gown.
Membership requirements vary from club to club, but the basics are ubiquitous: be a Disney fan, be able to attend meet-ups at the park, and be respectful of other members, other clubs and of the park itself. Some larger clubs have specific meet-ups just for potential prospects. Once a prospect is chosen, they start a trial period to see if they gel with the rest of the crew. Once officially inducted, the coveted patches are given, and the new recruit is off and running … no jumping in required. Not exactly Sons of Anarchy, is it?
Naturally, there are detractors. Based on their attire, some park regulars view the clubs as gangs. “They definitely make other guests uncomfortable when they’re groups of younger ones,” explains a Disney cast member who works in Fantasyland and Toontown. “But there are also families that come. [The clubs] have gotten so big that they have every kind of guest you can imagine now.”
Rumors of fights over turf run rampant in online chat rooms. Others simply find the club members intimidating. But speak to one, and notions of rumbles and switchblades are quickly dispelled. They cheerfully explain that it’s all about friends, enjoying the park and looking cool while doing it. Club leaders are adamant about their appreciation for other clubs. Anything less is considered very un-Disney.
Geek culture is everywhere now, and the social clubs’ vests are the latest branch of fandom. Though fan conventions have gone mainstream and the term cosplay has entered the vernacular, some fans still shy away from showing their pop culture love by wearing a complete costume, or perhaps can’t afford a detailed, screen-accurate ensemble. For Disney die-hards, the character options skew female — not many guys want to dress as a Prince Eric look-alike. The affordable and accessible social club vest falls somewhere between wearing a Disneyland T-shirt and wearing a Sleeping Beauty gown, and it suits guys and gals alike. Besides, Disneyland doesn’t allow full-blown costumes in the park unless you’re a small child or it’s one of their sanctioned Halloween parties, so the vest means you don’t have to wait to declare your Disney love. The Clubhouse is open every day.
As with any club, fandom or subculture, the feeling of belonging is the driving force, and the vest is the symbol of these communities. More social clubs could pop up to represent other aspects of geeked-out fan culture. Will the daunting task of procuring a costly costume give way to the simplicity of the denim vest? Will we meet the Walking Dead Warriors? Don Draper’s Devils? Will red-vested Lannisters mock battle gray-vested Starks? I, for one, certainly hope so.
- Paul Christian Vasquez Contact Paul Christian Vasquez