Burning Man Goes to Disneyland

This is what it’s like when burners take over The Happiest Place on Earth

“Mama, look, that woman’s still dancing!” The shout comes from a little girl wearing Minnie Mouse ears who is tugging the bottom of her mother’s shirt. She points at a woman in line next to her, wearing a crop top with the word “hustle” scrawled across the chest, black leggings, a studded-leather utility belt, and fur-rimmed boots, her arms swirling over her head, her belly undulating and hips swaying side to side as she dances her way toward the loading zone of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.

“She’s on the playa,” the dancing girl’s friend, says. She herself is clad in iridescent blue leggings patterned with fish scales, her hair a cascade of ombre purple. They’re two of about thirty “burners”—regular attendees of the Burning Man festival—who’ve gathered at Disneyland to celebrate the “Burnal Equinox,” the mid-way point between the last festival and the next.

The group deemed themselves “The White-Out Rabbits” (“white-out” being a term for a sand storm) for this sixth annual gathering. Some of them wear jackets they made themselves featuring a logo of The Man (the festival’s wooden effigy) wearing Mickey ears, while others are bedecked in full “playa wear”: anything and everything eccentric, colorful, studded, striped, big, layered, shiny, sparkly, or just plain strange. They’ve congregated at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at the designated time of 11:11, as posted to the event’s Facebook invite. An inquiry on the post asked, “That’s 11:11 Burner Time, right?” to which Steve, one of the organizers, replied, “Well, 11:11 in Default World time. 11:11 in Playa Time could be different.”

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After discovering a shared enthusiasm for Disneyland, Steve and his friend Nick, both Burning Man devotees, decided to gather some burner friends at Disneyland one spring six years ago. It was an informally-organized escape from what they call “the default world,” the life that takes place 51 weeks of the year outside of Burning Man. Last year, eight people showed up. This year, after fielding some skepticism about how, exactly, going to Disneyland doesn’t contradict Burning Man’s decommodification philosophy, the official festival newsletter, Jack Rabbit Speaks, agreed to post about the event.

“Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” —Official language from the Ten Principles of Burning Man written by festival co-founder Larry Harvey

As the group gathers in front of the castle for the second official photo of the day, a woman named Francine who wears a white fur vest and a Toy Story cowgirl hat mentions the assumed irony of a bunch of burners at Disneyland. “Some people don’t think burners and Disney go together,” she tells me. Her friend David, an intimidatingly tall man made taller by his plush, Jack Skellington top hat (and more intimidating by a septum ring), smirks and shrugs his shoulders dismissively. He and Francine both wear lanyards laden with Disney trading pins. “Both places are about having fun. That’s all,” Francine continues. “We come to Disneyland every weekend. We go to Burning Man every year. It’s just fun.” She pulls up a picture on her phone that she uses as her Facebook profile picture every time she comes to Disneyland. It shows Mickey and Minnie Mouse standing in the desert, covering their eyes as a mushroom cloud billows in the distance. Across the top of the photo are the words “Reality is Boring.”

After a cast member snaps the group photo, everyone disperses, seeking out rides, food, or parades. Steve calls out to anyone within earshot that he’ll post updates to the Facebook event of other meet-up spots throughout the day. A small group gathers near the entrance to Frontier Land. They don’t all know each other, so they introduce themselves with a hug. Heidi, the girl with purple hair, and her friend Michael, rocking a faux-hawk, gauge earrings, and black vinyl-paneled leggings, flew in from Las Vegas on a 5:00am flight. “We weren’t going to miss this,” Heidi says. Everyone starts swapping stories about the festival and their favorite installations from recent years. Michael describes The Bank of Secrets, where burners could write down their never-tolds, deposit them in “the bank,” and withdraw someone else’s. “Remember the sauna?” Heidi asks. She and Michael describe the incredulity of a hot spa built right in the middle of the scorching desert. The dancing girl puts in her headphones and starts twirling. “Should we go on a ride?” she asks. “Ha! It’s just like the playa,” Steve says. “A plan? On the playa? Good luck with that.”

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Photograph by Channing Sargent

Upon deciding to wander toward Indiana Jones, where some people will split off to do Pirates of the Caribbean and others will continue on to Splash Mountain, they continue sharing stories about “the man.” Steve wasn’t sure he’d like it the first year he went, but was turning 50 and wanted to do something different. On the first day, he picked up a guidebook and marked everything he wanted to see at the festival. On the second day, he found himself wandering the desert naked. He wasn’t even on drugs. “There’s no need,” he says. “There’s so much stimulation, so many amazing things to interact with, I wouldn’t want drugs distracting me from any of it.” While wandering alone in the buff, he saw, in the middle of nowhere, a phone booth. It rang. He answered. On the other line was a person at another phone booth elsewhere in the desert. “Suddenly, I got the magic of the playa,” he says. “I threw out my guidebook the next morning.”

In line for Pirates of the Caribbean, everyone starts sharing tales of how Burning Man has become more mainstream over the years. Sam, who wears a t-shirt with Mickey Mouse against a swirl of tie-dye colors, tells Steve about his experience at last year’s event, when strangers crashing with them kept digging a trash pit in the middle of their camp. “After that, I said, ‘We’re not going to be an open camp for random fire spinners from the OC anymore.’” He goes on to explain that despite its growing popularity, Burning Man is still one of most community-oriented, respectful and celebratory weeks he’s ever experienced, which is what keeps him going back year after year. They’re the same qualities that keep him coming back to Disney.

Sam moved to Anaheim so that he could come to the park whenever he wanted. He averages once a week. When asked how his devotion to Burning Man merges with his love of Disneyland, his answer is instantaneous, almost practiced. “Disney is a place that encourages kids to play and interact with their environment and be participants in the experience,” he says. “It’s impossible to not appreciate the creativity that’s gone into creating this experience. You know about the hidden Mickeys, right?”

“There’s on one Pirates,” Steve responds, and then they’re lost in the excitement of the pseudo-secret.

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That evening, the group gathers at the Mad T Party at California Adventure, a live concert given by characters from Alice in Wonderland. A steampunk Mad Hatter sings “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. David-in-the-Jack-Skellington-hat pumps his fist in the air while Francine dances next to him. They’ve both added light-up Mickey ears to their get-ups. Alice takes the mic from The Mad Hatter and launches into a cover of “Spiderwebs” by No Doubt, and Sam shouts his approval. He sips a glow-in-the-dark margarita. Midway through the song, David rounds up the crew. “We doin’ this?” he asks, gesturing toward the Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! ride. The group weaves its way through the audience to the ride’s entrance. The cast member at the entrance looks David up and down. “Wow. You should work here!” she says. “People are always telling him that,” Francine responds.

The ride is closed for the duration of the Mad T Party, and the group discusses what to do next. “We have tickets to World of Color,” Francine says. “But that’s not for two hours,” David adds. “We haven’t done Midway Mania,” Sam says. They become momentarily distracted by the dancing caterpillar projections behind the Alice in Wonderland band.

“I have an answer to the skeptics,” Steve says, observing the psychedelic images. “You find creativity where you find creativity.”

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