Like most kids, Jesse Cosio dreamed of going to Disneyland. The son of a forklift operator and a middle school administrator, he grew up in Bell Gardens, a working-class area east of L.A. Bell Gardens is a mere 25 minutes from Disneyland, but for Cosio, the parks may as well have been on the other side of the world. “The kids I grew up with never really went to Disney, so it was always the dream place to go,” he says. “Knowing you don’t have the funds to be part of something — it attracts you, right?”
For Cosio, that dream lingered well into adulthood. In 2013, Cosio (now an HR rep for a construction company) and his wife, his childhood sweetheart and a fellow Disney fanatic, decided to invest in annual passes, which let California residents attend the parks whenever they want at a slightly discounted rate — $1,000 per pass for themselves and their three daughters. That’s roughly, too, when he started seeing big, burly, twenty- and thirtysomething guys with beards roaming the park wearing denim vests with a giant, menacing-looking wolf on the back. Against the backdrop of Fantasyland, they looked like bikers who had been cast in a gritty, ironic Brothers Grimm adaptation.
But Cosio didn’t think they looked out of place. He thought they looked cool. “I asked my close friend, and he said, ‘There’s a club out there that has a killer-looking character and has rockabilly guys. You should go talk to them and figure out what they’re all about.’” Soon, Cosio became a member (and later, president) of the Big Bad Wolves, a rockabilly-themed Disneyland social club. (The big bad wolf is a common trope in rockabilly culture.)
There are dozens of social clubs inspired by Disney movies and attractions, from the Haunted Mansion to Tangled to Star Wars, and they’re all immediately identifiable by their denim vests or jackets, which bear the patches of their club logo. Some of the clubs are named after famous rides or attractions, such as Rum Runners, an organization devoted to both the Pirates franchise and running, whose logo features an amalgam of a skull and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davy Jones. Others choose iconic characters: The Bangerang Babes’ patch features Tinkerbell in mouse ears to capture their spirit. Yet more pay homage to decidedly non-Disney cultural ephemera, such as MWA, or Mice With Attitude, whose patch features a scowling Mickey in a pinstriped jersey, an Ice Cube–esque curl peeking out from under his cap.
In terms of gender, club demographics vary widely, though that largely depends on what group you’re in. Priscilla Lopez, 37, the president of the social club Maroon’s Toons, says that while Tinkerbell- or Mickey/Minnie-themed clubs probably skew female, Star Wars–themed clubs like the Order 66 and Dark Side Elite are “probably about 60 percent male.” Members also range in terms of age, with many clubs including members’ children as well.
But to hear social club members themselves tell it, all of the social clubs have one thing in common: They’re groups of like-minded individuals who gather at Disneyland (and its sister park, Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001) to hang out, ride the rides, imbibe the occasional adult beverage (DCA serves alcohol, though Disneyland does not) and bond over their love of all things Disney. “We’re just with our family and friends enjoying the parks,” says Jesse Perez, an events photographer and president of the social club Mickey’s Tripods. “It’s the same thing as families coming in to the parks with T-shirts that say ‘The Garcia Family.’”
But calling Disneyland social club members Disney fans is like calling Oprah Winfrey a journalist: Technically, it’s true, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Not only do Disneyland social club members take their fandom to the next level, but the way they present themselves to the world — and the way they’re perceived by other park guests — tells a complex story. And as the notoriously squeaky-clean (not to mention litigious) Disney theme parks division gears up for its next stage of growth, there’s also a lingering question as to whether the social clubs will be welcome to grow along with it.
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Although diehard Disneyland fans have obviously existed since the theme park’s inception in 1955 (Walt Disney World, its Floridian equivalent, opened in 1971), Disneyland social clubs are a relatively new phenomenon. According to an OC Weekly profile of the clubs in 2014, the first few started forming on Instagram in 2011, primarily as a result of annual pass holders (or APs) looking for fellow park goers to hang out with.
Clubs vary widely — not just in terms of theming, but also in terms of what you have to do to become a member. There’s no Sons of Anarchy–style initiation rite that involves cooking and eating fecal matter, but depending on your tolerance for scavenger-hunt-style activities, you may view the process of getting a Big Bad Wolves patch, for instance, as on par. According to Cosio, to become a Wolf, you may have to complete certain challenges, such as taking pictures with specific Disney characters or finding a certain number of hidden Mickeys in the park. By contrast, to get into the White Rabbits, all you have to do is show up to hang out with them the first Sunday of every month at 4 p.m. at Sonoma Terrace, a wine bar at Disney California Adventure.
Although many members of the social clubs are couples or family members, for single members (especially single male members), part of the reason for joining seems to stem from the inherent awkwardness of being a solo adult man in the parks. There’s a real stigma attached to being an adult male theme park fan, says Josh Taylor, a Disney vlogger and podcast host at Network 1901. (Taylor isn’t a member of a social club, though he is friendly with some social club members.) “Men have football games. They go out with their buddies to bars,” explains Taylor. “So it seems weird that men would be at a children’s place where, on any given day, you can walk up to Snow White and give her a hug.”
He speculates that the clubs are attractive to men because they offer an “openness” and a freedom from toxic masculinity that other spaces don’t: “You can go and be yourself and not get judged.” (Another potential benefit? It’s not uncommon for people to hook up in social clubs. “We’ve had people who have gotten engaged who have met in the social club scene, people in serious relationships,” White Rabbits social club founder Jakob Fite says. “There are more girls than guys, so if you’re looking for people to date, the social club scene might not be that bad for you.”)
It may seem strange to see big, burly straight dudes shrieking with glee as they whirl around in pink teacups, but the men in the clubs flat-out reject the notion that there’s anything outlandish or non-stereotypically masculine about such activities. “I don’t know if anyone has ever questioned my manhood for being in a social club. They might think, Look at these guys, they look all tough, why not join the real thing?” Cosio says. “But to the naked eye, you think Disney is all about princesses and castles and shit like that, but Disney does have a dark side. Every ride ends in tragedy, ya know? With Pirates [of the Caribbean, his favorite ride], these outlaw guys are taking over a town, you get me?”
Or, as Perez put it, “I don’t see anything wrong with a guy going out and enjoying the Disney parks. What else am I supposed to do? Play golf? That doesn’t interest me at all.”
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No one can really agree on who came up with the jackets, or the denim garments that differentiate social club members from your average theme park attendee. But Taylor says that the general outsider aesthetic — what Fite refers to as an image of “an outlaw, a lawbreaker, a thug” — is very much rooted in Southern California culture. “A lot of [social club members] come from a punk rock background, because Anaheim has punk rock, ska kind of roots,” says Taylor. “They’ll have nose rings or tons of tattoos. SoCal being as punk as it is, over time, people have seen Disneyland as kind of a rite of passage.” Taylor also draws parallels between the cheery recklessness of the West Coast punk and ska scene and the relentlessly sunny push toward growth and innovation embodied by Walt Disney himself: “They have an appreciation for what Disney built there — this utopia with fantastical optimism.”
Nonetheless, the outsider aesthetic causes a lot of problems for the social clubs. Numerous Reddit comments gripe about the social clubs’ habit of “ride takeovers” (basically, ensuring that all members make it onto a ride vehicle at the same time); taking up too much space in congested areas; or perhaps most amusingly, shouting obscure Disney trivia at each other while waiting in line. “Their elitist attitude, their loud ‘I’m in a group of 15 let’s all scream shit!’ nature, their saving spots in line for not 1, not 2, but 3 or more people?” one frequent Disney guest wrote on Reddit. “I can’t stand it.”
This perception is shared by some (though by no means all) cast members, the term used for employees of the always image-conscious Disney company. Cosio says he sometimes finds his club surrounded by security when they gather in the picnic area to take photos or eat lunch. “I don’t think the parks understand the social clubs quite yet,” he says. “To them, it’s more like, ‘Look at these guys. They don’t have the balls to join a motorcycle club, so they go ahead and join a Disney club.’ They look at someone with a vest on, boots on and they think, This guy is up to no good.” It’s also worth noting that while social clubs range in terms of ethnicity, many social clubs, including the Big Bad Wolves, have overwhelming Latinx representation, though Cosio doesn’t believe that plays a role in the parks’ perception of the group. (Disney didn’t return my request for comment.)
It goes without saying that most social club members deny being guilty of raucous behavior in the parks; occasionally, clubs will have to boot a member for drinking too much and getting belligerent, but that’s about it. They attribute any criticism of the clubs to something akin to profiling. “When you see the vest, the image that pops into your head is Mongols, Hells Angels, Vagos, outlaw bikers, drugs, that kind of stuff. The vest itself has a super negative connotation. And there’s nothing that I can do about that to change someone’s perspective,” Fite says flatly. In fact, some clubs have started transitioning from the traditional denim vests to more understated T-shirts precisely for this reason.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t drama within the social club ecosystem — there is, and lots of it. Most of it is garden-variety petty infighting of one kind or another. “A lot of newcomers come in thinking they’ll have this logo or this name, and you can’t just start up something and think you’ll be able to walk in being that way because you’ll step on other people’s feet if that club already exists,” says Perez. “Then they’ll be, like, ‘Where did you get this name?’ Or, ‘How did you come up with the concept for this?’” (No one was willing to call another club out on the record for this cardinal sin, but a quick perusal of the unofficial social clubs’ database yields a number of variations on the phrases “Mickey,” “Minnie” and “elite.”)
The most highly publicized drama thus far was a lawsuit filed in 2017 against Fite. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by former Main Street Firehouse Station 55 President John Sarno, Sarno was planning a charity walk to benefit the families of firefighters when he was approached by members of the White Rabbits, who demanded hundreds of dollars in protection money to host the event. He also claims that Fite publicly defamed him on his podcast by accusing him of, among other things, sending inappropriate texts to a 12-year-old girl and releasing his medical records without his permission.
Fite, of course, denies shaking down Sarno for protection money, claiming that he didn’t even meet him in person until after the event was held; he also refutes the claim that he personally hacked into Sarno’s medical records, though he doesn’t deny that he allowed a podcast listener to call in and reveal the information on his show. He also doesn’t deny publicly accusing Sarno of pedophilia on his podcast, claiming that the girl’s mother provided him with proof in the form of copies of the texts. (Both the girl’s mother and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan are named as co-defendants in the suit; Sarno didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Moreover, Fite doesn’t see his public attacks on Sarno as defamatory. He claims that the moment Sarno stepped foot onto the social club scene, he made numerous claims that later proved to be false — e.g., that he was a former firefighter and sunglasses model, that he ran a nonprofit that benefited firefighters’ families and that he was close friends with Johnny Depp, who could help get him into the secret Club 33. Much like other social club members who view themselves as guardians of the Disney parks, Fite saw his exposure of Sarno as a way to protect the community from a dangerous, dishonest interloper. “Anyone can do citizen journalism,” he explains.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit had a profound effect on the social club scene, particularly in February 2018, when nationwide news outlets started covering the lawsuit and the social club community at large, culminating in a decidedly negative story in the L.A. Times. Many were concerned that Disney would start banning the vests from the park, or that the company would prohibit social clubs altogether. “The lawsuit kind of changed the community,” Lopez says. “It made people be a lot more humble and open.” It also made many club founders reluctant to open up their groups to new members: “There’s this fear because we don’t want one bad apple to spoil everything.”
This fear isn’t entirely without merit. As guest attendance rises, and as Disneyland gears up for the summer 2019 opening of Galaxy’s Edge, a Star Wars–themed portion of the park that’s projected to attract 200,000 guests on opening day alone, the park has slowly been hiking up the cost of annual passes, in large part as a way to drive attendance down. Annual passholders take up valuable real estate in the parks, and they also tend to spend less money than tourists do. “They see [locals] as invading on the family vacation,” says Taylor. “Because there’s so many people who are annual passholders who pay less than $100 to go, and the lines for attractions can get up to two, three hours long, Disney’s biggest problem right now is what to do with locals at Disneyland and what to do with annual passholders.”
For this reason, there’s increasing concern among the most diehard local Disney fans, including social club members, that the company will ultimately price locals out. And in a sense, there’s nothing more local than the social club phenomenon. While similar organizations have popped up in Disney World, they haven’t quite thrived there the same way they have at Disneyland, in large part because Disneyland is so entrenched in SoCal culture and mythology. But even though it’s not a great time to be a local Disneyland fan right now, there’s one fan who isn’t particularly worried about being priced out of the parks: Jesse Cosio. He estimates he spends about $5,000 a year “just on annual passes alone — and that’s not counting the food I’m buying in there or anything like that. We make Disney a lot of money.”
And he’s more than willing to give them more, whether Disney particularly wants the Wolves there or not. “When you’re a true Disney fan, like we are, you’ll pay top dollar to go to Disney,” he says. “Doesn’t matter what the price is — we’ll pay it.”