The Very Merry Un-Gangs of Disneyland
Model: Cory James
Photographer: Austen Risolvato | Design: Dustin Ames
The guy is drunk. Obviously drunk. Shitfaced. Instead of joining the 10-person line politely waiting to use the men's room at Disney California Adventure, the twentysomething in an oversized T-shirt and low-slung hat cuts in front of the surprised, squirming guys and stumbles inside, desperate to take a piss.
"Hey, there's a line here," someone toward the front says.
"Yeah? So what?" the man responds, puffing his chest and indiscriminately getting in people's faces. "Whoever wants to stop me can step up."
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No one takes the challenge. Instead, they watch as the guy uses a urinal and washes his hands before coming to an empty paper-towel dispenser. Suddenly, he grunts and throws a quick hook, knocking the dispenser off the wall and sending it clattering onto the tile floor as a member of the custodial staff looks on.
A few moments after the cutter leaves, three tall, wide men, each wearing a denim vest adorned with patches and pins in the style of punks or motorcycle gangs, rush out of the bathroom, their heads swiveling as they look for him. They join a larger group of roughly a dozen men and women, some with small children, all with back patches proclaiming "The Wonderlanders SC," before catching a glimpse of the guy. He's now slightly slumped against a lightpost, looking at his phone.
"That's him," Sean Macready, the bearded founder/leader of the Wonderlanders Social Club, says. "Does anyone see security?"
Macready, a bear of a man, finds a cast member to relay a description to security as the guy finally lifts his head and begins to walk away. Their job done, the Wonderlanders start to make their way toward Goofy's Sky School, a night of fun and quizzical stares ahead of them.
The Wonderlanders is just one of dozens of similar social clubs claiming hundreds, if not thousands, of members that have formed in the past several years around the same premise: dress in the same, faux-tough way to rep your set at the Happiest Place On Earth. An air of mystery surrounds them: Many regular attendees and cast members barely notice the crews, only remembering them when prompted with clear descriptions and pictures. Some remember the clubs clearly and with disdain, after unpleasant and unfortunate interactions. But others still idolize them, joining and many times mimicking the groups—even starting their own.
These social clubs are a new generation of hardcore Disney fans, powered by Instagram and Facebook and made up of grandparents in their 60s, as well as teens and toddlers plodding along beside their parents. Only 10 years ago, their style—tattooed and plugged—would have banned them from the parks and made them outcasts among Disney fans. But now, with tolerance, if not approval, from the Mouse, the social clubs have found a playground to call their own.
Like the Goths of the 1990s or the hippies of the 1960s, they trek the park like a second home, occasionally mistaken for troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells. But unlike other groups, they're not at the parks to scare or intimidate. They're there for fun, for friendship—and to uphold Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom ideal.
"I hope they get that guy," Macready says, holding his 6-year-old daughter's hand. He and the Wonderlanders have just seen the bathroom bandit again, aimlessly walking the opposite direction from them. "He should be tossed out of the park. Sure, you can drink, but this is still a family park. What a bummer."
* * *
"When Instagram started, three and a half years ago, [the Disneyland social club movement] was small, and everyone on it knew one another," says Adam Goetz. On weekdays, he's a San Jose-based general contractor and father, but during the five to 10 times each year that he makes it to his hometown of Anaheim, he's the Star Wars-tattoo-dotted, Storm Trooper-armor-wearing Jaster, a leader the Black Death Crew, among the largest and oldest Disney groups.
"Through Instagram, five of us became good friends. Some of us were [New York] Giants fans, so when the Giants went to the Super Bowl, I invited three random people I met on Instagram to my house," Goetz continues. "During the Super Bowl, we all decided to go to Disneyland on March 29, Ashley's [another co-founder] birthday. Our friend Nate [a third co-founder] from Kansas City, who couldn't make it to the Super Bowl, flew out, and when we all met at the front of the park, everyone was wearing black, randomly enough. Someone joked, 'Who died?' and it just kind of stuck. We were the Black Death Crew."
That was 2012, and the Crew initially found themselves strangers in a land they loved. Some had tattoos, multiple piercings or dyed hair, a far cry from the standard guise of a Disneyland-visiting family. From Main Street to Tomorrowland, the Matterhorn to the Resort's madcap spectacles, the visitors seemed better suited for a Germs show than Downtown Disney. Other parkgoers looked at them warily, wondering whether the Crew was there to rob them or just wanted to harmlessly hang out.
But by the beginning of 2013, similar groups began wandering the parks, enjoying one another's company and creating a style and ethos that others quickly aped. They began to garner attention because of the size of their groups and their choice of aesthetic—tattoos, denim, piercings. They distinguished themselves by wearing vests and patches reminiscent of motorcycle clubs but adorned with Disney pins and characters.
"We wanted something we could be comfortable in, that we could wear on hot days, and that was bold and spoke to our acceptance of our semi-outsider stance within the Disney fandom," says Nathan Rice, the founder of Walt's Misfits, one of the first social clubs. "The first few clubs were made up of similar tattooed weirdos, and I think the whole 'The Warriors' outlaw [motorcycle club] thing had an edge that we wanted to convey, even if that edge was ultimately tongue-in-cheek, it being Disneyland and all. In all honesty though, I'm sure the popularity of Sons of Anarchy had a lot to do with that idea being reached by multiple groups around the same time frame."
Michael Stout, an LA-based barber, is the co-founder of the Main Street Elite, one of the most visible clubs. "We started the Main Street Elite with the intention of bringing people together for their common love—some would say obsession—with Disney and the Disney parks," he says. "Being heavily tattooed and having somewhat of an 'alternative' image compared to the average Disney-goer, it was hard for us to mesh with the families you usually see at the park. So we decided we'll make our own Disney family, seeking out the rest of the Disney fanatics who were left with no one to go to the park with."
The clubs could be found throughout Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, doing everything en masse, from sitting at restaurants and waiting in line to taking over entire rides and filling standing sections at park events. They immediately sparked massive interest among Disney-watchers, a famously obsessive lot that treats any new trends among themselves with a mix of skepticism and glee.
The first public reference to the crews appeared April 2013 on MiceChat, among the oldest Disney fan websites. The forum post—titled "does anyone know the name of this crew?"—was styled like a police bulletin:
"10-20 people, men and women."
"'Hardcore' type, with gauged ears, wearing mostly black."
"Some with leather jackets, some with jean jackets. Some of them had some kind of 'crew' patch that said something like 'Main St. Disney Crew.'"
"Some of them had children."
The description left many of MiceChat's members confused. Replies filtered in slowly.
"Maybe it was just a family visiting the park."
"More likely a group of friends that has formed a club in going to the park, I had to guess."
It wasn't until hours later that someone with a quantum of knowledge answered.
"I've seen a few, similar to that, with jackets that say 'The Neverlanders.'"
The thread went quiet until a few days later, when a newly created account left a message.
"Hi, guys. I am Angel, the guy with the Donald Duck Patch. My wife and I started the First Disneyland Social Club, the Neverlanders Social Club. Now more have followed our lead. . . . We come from different walks of life with one common thing, the love for Disney. Feel free to ask any questions if you see us Neverlanders at the parks; always say hi."
Two posts later, MiceChat had its answer when a different newly created account left a message.
"Hello there, and as a matter of fact, here's the lead you're looking for. The group you saw is called Main Street Elite, and yes, as Angel put it, we are not the ones that started it all but do get noticed a whole lot more."
By then, other groups of friends and family began joining existing clubs or forming their own, some with as few members as two and others claiming membership in the thousands. Currently, more than 90 clubs exist with names such as Pix Pak, Disney Resort Imbeciles, Mickey's Outlaws, the Hitchhikers and Walt's Misfits. Most adopted the motorcycle club-style getups of already-existing clubs, adding their own flair (e.g., the Sons of Anakin hang light sabers from their vests), while others created their own getups.
For the most part, the social clubs do what you would expect most groups of Disney fanatics to do together despite their sort-of, but not-actually intimidating image: watch movies, trade pins and other memorabilia, visit the parks, and immerse themselves in all things Disney. One Saturday, Pix Pak, a group of Pixar-centric super-fans, prowled Disneyland, first watching Mickey and the Magical Map before visiting Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Pix Pak wear varsity jackets and are named for Pixar's in-house volleyball team. Find them in the park, answer a question about Pixar trivia, and they'll give you a bottle-cap button modeled after the ones in Up.
The same day, Captain EO's Rag Tag Band met at their favorite attraction—the Michael Jackson Captain EO show—before visiting the rest of the park. That night, members of the Disney Resort Imbeciles, Walt's Misfits, Holidaylanders and Jungle Cruisers stalked a music extravaganza, some sipping cocktails lit by LED ice cubes.
The clubs occasionally intermingle, especially among the smaller- and medium-sized groups made up of families.
"We think it's great talking to and meeting other social clubs," says Vj Escote, an original member of Pix Pak. "It's awesome how each social club has its own way of 'doing the parks,' so when we hang out with them, which is usually every trip to the park, it's almost like experiencing the parks again for the first time. It's new again."
But club activities aren't just kept to inside the resort. Most groups host events outside of the parks—meet-ups, movie nights, parties and other miscellany.
"Outside of the park, our club has done everything from Halloween parties to birthday parties, to Thanksgiving dinners, camp outs, barbecues and good ol' fashioned Disney movie nights," Stout says. "We think of ourselves as a family, and we do everything a family would do."
Achieving membership varies among social clubs, but they almost universally employ an apprenticeship and invitation system. Most clubs initially recruited through social media—via Instagram, Facebook or Twitter—but are now favoring a more personal, one-on-one approach as they grow larger and more visible. Interested Disneygoers are encouraged to reach out to club members they see at the park, follow relevant Instagram hashtags, and interact and engage in whatever ways possible.
Some clubs require prospects to send a formal email or message requesting membership and attend scheduled meetups, where they go through a shadowing process that teaches them about the respective clubs and their codes of conduct, which for the most part requires regular park visits and treating cast members, other visitors and the park with the utmost respect. But for some groups, membership used to be as easy as posting a picture.
"Originally, people would approach us and ask to take a picture with us," says Goetz. "They'd post the picture and tag us, and we'd give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. At the start, it was very loose.
"A year in, we started having people claim they were members, and the problems started," he continues. "People said that we were elitist or not real fans. Last year, we shut everything down and decided to start again. We told everyone that if they wanted to still be a part of us, to go back to their original picture and retag us. We started to give out membership numbers. It went from basically instant approval to a much longer process.
"During the last round of approvals in December, we had one guy who had waited seven months," Goetz concludes. "He never complained. That's the kind of people we want."
* * *
During high-traffic nights, a corner of Disney California Adventure is blocked off to host the Mad T Party, the latest Disney Co. attempt at a hip, neon-fueled, sort-of-family-friendly faux rave, complete with thumping, quick EDM, an Alice In Wonderland cocktail party, and dancers recruited from local dance crews.
One weekend, Disney's house band, fronted by the "Mad Hatter" and "Alice," took their places in front of DJ White Rabbit's booth, backlit by numerous neon tubes. Stilt walkers dressed in purple, their elongated legs resembling those of wandering flamingos, wove through slam-dancing high schoolers and early twentysomethings half-jokingly grinding on one another. In the middle of it all were social-club members. Some groups met up, hugging and greeting as they texted members of other groups, inviting them to join them. Others, however, stood far apart, eyeing the crowd, separated from the greater social-club community by awkwardness, age and the expected riffs that happen whenever people join viral groups at the outskirts of accepted society.
Social clubs, both specific groups and the clubs as a whole, have attracted plenty of criticism from other Disneyland-goers as the clubs have grown more visible. Allegations of bad behavior, elitism, line cutting, turf wars, disability-assistance abuse and even drug use come up often when other hardcore Disney fans discuss the clubs. Real, actual motorcycle gangs have approached several of the clubs, prompting members to alter their attire or not wear their vests as often. Thanks in part to the unrestricted founding of new clubs, some Disney-goers began wearing vests while adhering to much less stringent codes of conduct and embarassing the movement in the process.
Walking around the parks, the clubs draw more than the quick glance. More often than not, when one group passes another, members turn their heads, eyes fixated on the shrinking lettering that adorns the backs of the vests. When social-club members meet friends already in line, it's obvious. When club members are drinking, it's obvious. Anything vest-wearing club members do is obvious.
"The park used to be strict on 'line-jumping,' but lately, they've been really lenient," says an annual-passport holder from San Francisco who requested anonymity. "We were in line for the Disney Live show at Disney California Adventure last July, directly behind a family wearing matching vests. . . . I thought it was just a family thing. About 30 minutes later, five minutes prior to the doors opening, a group of adults all wearing matching vests hopped over the barriers to join them. My 2-year-old nephew said, 'Hey! All these people just came in front!' None of them seemed to care.
"The worst was one night when my son wanted to go on the Monsters, Inc. ride while the Mad T Party was happening," the passport holder continues. "We had to walk through crowds of Disney gangs only to find that right at the ride entrance, a group of them was smoking weed. We told the ride operator, and she said they take issues like that very seriously. We rode the ride, and when we got off, she approached us to let us know that the group was still there outside the ride, and they were still smoking. Because it was a large group of males, she didn't feel comfortable approaching them, so she called security."
Multiple anti-social club Twitter and Instagram accounts with names such as "stopmakingscs" and "nomorescs" sprung up to highlight bad behavior and troll the clubs. Larger clubs found themselves specifically targeted by facetious accounts and social clubs—Main Street Elite by the short-lived "Lame Street Elite" and the Neverlanders by "NeverGrowUp SC."
"It'll be interesting to look back five years from now and see where the Disneyland social club trend went," tweeted Andy Castro, a prominent Disney blogger who writes a regular column about the parks on MiceChat, on Oct. 8, 2013. (He declined to be interviewed for this story, referring instead to comments he had already made on Twitter.) "The claim that social clubs are just 'misunderstood' is fascinating because they're misunderstood by design. . . . Exclusive clubs that only accept members after performing various rituals; wearing appropriated biker gang attire to the park in groups . . ."
A month earlier, a Twitter account belonging to a nonexistent social club connected to Castro alleged that a physical confrontation between clubs had actually happened, that two members of different clubs had fought over turf. "Our friends in Disney security shared an interesting story with us about two rival Disneyland social clubs that will remain unnamed," reads the start of a series of tweets on Sept. 1, 2013, by Wig Wags SC. "Turns out these two clubs had a fight, yes, a real fight over whose turf a specific location belonged to. What is the location, you ask? Redd Rocket's Pizza Port."
The rumor was quickly dismissed as hearsay on forums, and no corresponding police report matching the published details of the incident is on file at the Anaheim Police Department. But the allegation obviously disturbed the social clubs. Their members came out in force to try to calm down any negative reaction. "I have been an AP [annual-pass holder] for the past 12 years," wrote Neverlanders co-founder Angel Mendoza on MiceChat. "Again, the fight mentioned above has not occurred; all of the social clubs that exist are in contact with one another, so we would have known of any alleged fight."
Macready added, "As the founder of a social club, I find this blatantly false rumor very unnerving. The Neverlanders, Main Street Elite, Hitchhikers and the rest are being made out to be ruffians, when in all honesty, they are some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my life. . . . If you were to take the time to talk to someone in one of our clubs, you will find that we're all just big Disney geeks, and this is a way for us to get together in the parks and celebrate everything Walt built for us."
Disney, at this point, has been mostly mum about the clubs but is aware of their existence. Though the park has turned away guests for attire issues before (gang attire is disallowed, and you won't find a Hells Angels or Mongols cut in the park), Disney officially welcomes the social clubs. "We are fortunate to have guests who share such a strong affinity for the Disneyland Resort," says Disneyland spokesperson Kevin Rafferty Jr. when asked about the groups.
* * *
The current wave of social clubs isn't the first time youth groups have swarmed Disneyland and made others uncomfortable. In the late 1960s, Disneyland dealt with hippies and anarchists, most infamously in the 1970 Yippie invasion of Disneyland, which saw hundreds of "long hairs" conquer Tom Sawyer Island, block major thoroughfares, get into fights with security and police, and force an early, unexpected closure—one of only two times Disneyland has officially closed early for a non-private event. (The other time was 9/11.) The park dealt with legitimate gang issues in the 1970s and 1980s; in the late 1990s came an influx of teenagers, drawn by more youth-centric attractions and a dramatic drop in the cost of an annual pass. Disneyland became popular with "Gothics," who formed what might be the first proto-social club: the Disneyland Arcane Crew (DAC).
"Teenagers in Mohawks, dog collars and anarchy patches crowding Tomorrowland," reads a 1997 Los Angeles Times article. "Groups of ghoulishly dressed youths in the parking lots of Disneyland and nearby businesses, some drinking or smoking joints and sending tourists walking the other way."
The crowds pushed the Anaheim Police Department into a zero-tolerance enforcement, citing youths on the blocks surrounding the resort for crimes as light as jaywalking.
"They are just misdirected delinquents rather than gang members, but they are all the heck everywhere," Anaheim Officer Dave Wiggins told the Times during the peak of the DAC. "And when they have been drinking, they taunt tourists, they use spray paint, they throw bottles, camp out . . . It's kind of turned the tourist area into a free-for-all."
Though there was very little real crime related to the DAC, their presence worried many of the other guests.
"I tell you, it's something different," Heather Armand, a mother from Palm Springs, told the Times. "You don't really expect it here because it's a family place, and they're not real good examples for young kids. It gives you that element of uneasiness I never had here before. . . . You just don't feel safe anymore."
The Goths disappeared when Tomorrowland—especially popular among them—closed for renovation, and cast members from that period remember them as mostly harmless. "I'd see them all the time near the Matterhorn," says Kenny Vee, a former Disneyland cast member who worked from 1994 to 1997 and 2002 to 2004. "I never knew them to be much of an issue, except for intimidating some guests."
And while many of the complaints about the DAC are still made today about the social clubs, there is one major difference: No one has complained to the police or Disneyland. And that may be because many of the social clubs now have used their numbers, visibility and skills to help others.
Charitable work has become a large part of what many social clubs do, both for their own members and for the greater community. The Neverlanders raised more than $5,000 during the last CHOC Walk In the Park benefitting the Children's Hospital of Orange County. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Pix Pak sent more than 15 boxes of supplies and food to the Philippines. Many of the Black Death Crew's members are involved with the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costuming organization that sends squads of Storm Troopers to fan-based charity events free of charge.
"The Black Death Crew isn't a social club; it's a social charity," Goetz says. "We like to be more personal with our charity. We have members from all walks of life, so we encourage people to do what they can for people who we know will appreciate it. They can give money, send cards, toys, make things. It's nice to do anything that we can."
Main Street Elite first came together to support one of their member's sons, who was diagnosed with leukemia last year. They plan to make charity a larger part of their organization moving forward. "Like any other family, we knew we needed to step up and help them," Stout says. "We raised more than $4,000 for all of his medicine and medical care. . . . We've also come together for Toys for Tots and other events for any member that needs our help. We help our MSE family as much as possible, and when a family member falls, you pick them up."
* * *
On a recent Sunday night, the Wonderlanders crowded into a Tower of Terror elevator in the last minutes before Disney California Adventure closed. The 11 members of the club filled most of the rows, with a few smaller groups sitting in the front seats. The Wonderlanders buzzed, as the ride prepared to send off its final car of the night.
"Is it anyone's birthday tonight? Or is anyone celebrating anything?" the cast member in charge asked.
After a few seconds of silence, the Wonderlanders started speaking up.
"It's my un-birthday!"
As other members joined in, a girl at the front, slight and not yet out of her teens, meekly raised a hand to just below her shoulder.
Macready noticed immediately, calming down the crowd and pointing her out. "Wait, guys, we have a hand up there," he said.
"It's actually my birthday," the girl nearly whispered to the cheers of the Wonderlanders.
"What's your name?" Macready asked.
Simultaneously, the Wonderlanders burst into a rendition of "Happy Birthday," turning Claire a slight shade of scarlet. It was the ninth time that day they had sung someone a song.
"Everyone talks about the magic of Disneyland," Macready says. "I completely believe in it. When I was 20, I worked full-time as an EMT, but I got a job at Disney, too. After my shifts, I would hang around and people-watch. Sure, you see some people sort of forcing their kids to have fun because they paid so much to get into the park, but you see genuine moments, too. As a cast member, it was amazing to be able to think, 'I'm part of this; I get to make magic happen.' The club still hold those values today.
"That's what I expect of the Wonderlanders," Macready concludes. "If you see trash, pick it up. If you see a family that's having trouble—a mom taking a picture of a dad with kids, and then the dad taking a picture of the mom and kids—help them out. That's a magical moment they can remember for the rest of their lives, and it doesn't take that much effort. One of the girls we sang 'Happy Birthday' to came up to me afterward and said it was the best birthday she had ever had. It's awesome that we get to do that for someone, that we get to make magic."
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