‘Spatially Poaching the Haunted Mansion: The Pleasures, Perils & Participatory Affordances of Disney Theme Park Fandom'

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


Very few media companies draw the same level of often-vitriolic academic critique as Disney. From political economy perspectives (Bohas 2016) and approaches drawing on forms of psychoanalysis (Harrington 2015, Zornado 2017) to studies focusing on the effects of the Company’s animated films on viewer’s perceptions of romance (Garlen and Sandlin 2017), body image, and gender roles (Do Rosario 2004, Coyne et al 2016), Disney has become a totem for all that is wrong with contemporary consumer culture. Perhaps even more derided are the Company’s theme parks such as Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida which are perceived as presenting the ‘hyper-real’ (Eco 1986) and inauthentic copies of actual places or historical periods (Bryman 1995, p. 142) and ‘supporting conservative, corporate, and consumerist ideologies’ (Wasko 2001, p. 157). Moreover, those who visit theme parks have been largely characterised as cultural dupes who must ‘agree to behave like robots’ in a ‘place of total passivity’ (Eco 1986, p. 48) which is carefully controlled and regimented to restrict visitor autonomy (Bryman 1995, pp. 99-17). The typical imagined theme park visitor is the consumer par excellence, someone who does not even recognize their own consumption within a space where ‘the ultimate purpose of narrativizing experience is to naturalize consumption activities, so that visitors consume without being aware of it’ (Yoshimoto 1994, p. 187). Equally, theme park attendees (especially those who attend Disney parks) are often assumed to be families and, even when adult visitors are acknowledged, they are often perceived to be engaging in the superficial, trivial and inconsequential.
However, there is little doubt that such places are enormously popular. For instance, the world’s most visited park, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, attracted 20,450,000 visitors in 2017 (TEA/AECOM 2017, p. 6). In this talk, I want to argue that, despite many of the ideological or economically influenced critiques we may make of theme parks and corporations such as Disney, it is necessary to move beyond simply dismissing these spaces and those who visit them. In fact, adult theme park fans form a dedicated and complex participatory culture around the places that they love and often develop deep emotional and affective ties to them. Drawing on a case study of the theme park attraction the Haunted Mansion (which celebrates its 50th birthday this year), I propose that theme parks offer us the chance to challenge existing models of transmediality and participatory culture, exploring the relationship between fans of the Mansion (who have worked to extend its narrative storyworlds via acts of ‘spatial poaching’ (cf Jenkins 1992)) and the Company that owns it. In exploring the Haunted Mansion, we can examine how participatory culture and communal building of narratives intersect, and sometimes clash, with the enforcement of official interpretations by a global company like Disney. Thus, my paper ultimately seeks to move away from the widely held notion of theme-park visitors as naïve, controlled and duped into excessive consumption, to argue that we need to take seriously how theme park fans form active, reflective and pleasurable attachments to theme parks and their rides, attractions, and experiences.

Period4 May 2019
Event titleA Celebration of Disney
Event typeConference
LocationChicago, United StatesShow on map


  • fandom
  • participatory culture
  • Disney