To Disney or not to Disney?
For many travelers, especially those with children, it's not even a question they ask. They already know the answer.
To these visitors, Disney is Mickey Mouse, princesses, magic and fun. It's happy memories of childhood brought back to life in your children, a clean place where the rides are safe and the Disney characters are always happy to pose for pictures with your kids.
That's Deb Koma, who visited once as a child and walked back into the Magic Kingdom in the mid-1990s with her young son. "It was so perfect, everybody was so happy, everything was so maintained," said Koma, who now works for the AllEars.net, an unofficial Disney planning and fan site. "You were in a perfect fantasy world. That, and my little boy loved it."
But for other vacationers, Disney inspires a firm "no."
To those travelers, Disney is merely a commercial machine built to sell tickets, overpriced toys and a stereotype of girls as princesses. They may remember visiting Disneyland or Disney World when they were children, but they aren't taking their kids there.
That's the Rev. J.C. Mitchell, who will be heading to Orlando, Fla., this year for a work conference but will not be taking his family with him, even though his job will cover most of the costs of his trip. "We do not enjoy Disney," wrote Mitchell, who went to Disney World as a child, via email. "We believe it symbolically represents the excesses of our extremely individualistic society."
What is it about Disney that creates such a strong response from its dedicated fans and foes?
Whether you love or hate or merely tolerate the expansion of what Walt Disney started in 1923, there's no doubting that Disney is popular and its influence is everywhere.
All of those theme parks, resorts, cruises, movies, television shows, toys and other Disney businesses earned the company $11.3 billion in the last three months of 2012. More than $3 billion of that money came from Disney cruises and its 11 theme parks and 43 resorts across North America, Europe and Asia. One more park is under construction in Shanghai.
People like Disney. It ranked as the third most well-regarded company -- behind only Amazon.com and Apple -- in a recent Harris Interactive survey of people's opinions of the most visible companies' reputations.
Fortune ranks Disney as the most admired entertainment company and the ninth most admired overall, behind Apple (1), Google (2) and Amazon.com (3).
Still, there is this cultural split. Disney just rubs some people the wrong way. Whatever people think about Disney, it's probably what they're also thinking about American society and its values, said Manchester University sociologist Robert Pettit.
"Disney does such a wonderful job of representing American culture, they're almost synonymous with America," said Pettit, who teaches a three-week course, "Disney and American Culture," that includes a Disney World site visit. "They are master storytellers, and they have the narrative business down pat."
And behind the magic, "Disney is a capitalistic corporation bent on consumerism, and that's what drives our economy," he said. "It brings out people's opinions about our society and culture in general. You can love them or be very critical of those aspects of our culture and society because it portrays them so well."
The magic of their children's reactions
Disney is magic for Edward and Harriett Yu of Los Altos, Calif. The Yu family and their two daughters have happily visited Disney theme parks about every two years, and the family has sailed on two Disney cruises. Edward Yu even booked a family reunion on one of the cruises last year, reserving 10 cabins for his extended family two years in advance.
"For us as parents, it's a chance to connect back to our own childhood and brings back happy memories," wrote Yu in an email. "Now that we have kids, it's priceless to see their reactions as they experience the parks/rides/shows for their first time. Words can't describe the preciousness of seeing our little ones thoroughly enjoying themselves on Disney attractions."
Because it's Disney, "we know we can expect top-notch entertainment each time we go," wrote Yu, 46. "And there is an expectation that guests behave properly, which I appreciate."
Yu isn't a Disney apologist: He says that Disney's princess influence can be a bit much.
He also wishes there were more healthy food options at the parks. "You figure a park of Disney's caliber could make the food experience better." But he thinks it's worth the occasional visit just to see the expressions on his girls' faces.
The Disney purist
It just made sense to Punam Patel that she would get married at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., this week.
Patel, 26, grew up 15 minutes away from the theme park and visited several times per week with her father and two siblings. Her dad would drink from his Mickey Mouse coffee cup with its free refills while the kids went on rides, and he'd bring it home to wash for another day of free coffee.