A Disney movie complete with Tinker Bell and her magic wand was regular Sunday afternoon viewing when I was a girl. And I've visited Disneyland, California, twice. Been there, got the figurative tee-shirt. So I thought I understood the Disney brand; it's about movies, theme parks and happy childhood memories, right?
Well, as I discovered on a five-day stay at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Disney is actually far, far, more than that. I've come to the conclusion that captivating children is not necessarily the end goal. In fact, in Disney's perfect world, getting kids on board with the brand is merely a stepping stone to retaining them as a customer throughout their lives.
Adult milestones such as weddings, honeymoons, birthdays and anniversaries can all be celebrated at a Disney property in authentic Disney style. See disneyweddings.com for "the perfect way to start your happily-ever-after" or join the Disney Vacation Club for timeshare-style holidays.
One evening at Disney World my (then) seven-year-old and I booked a table at a dinner with Goofy and Pluto. The characters chatted to diners, had photos taken with them and signed autographs. But I noted that some of the tables were occupied by middle-aged adults - no kids in sight - who were all talking to and posing with the characters. Seriously, what was that about?
Even my daughter began to see through the tightly scripted cheerfulness. She was bewildered by the fact that every wait-person, receptionist, bartender, concierge and theme park staff member greeted her in exactly the same way. "Mummy, why does everyone call me 'Princess'?" she asked. I can't remember my reply but I do recall my silent thoughts: "Because they work for a faceless corporation intent on global domination and this is just stage one in their evil plan to indoctrinate you into their happily homogenised world." Or something like that.
I don't consider myself a classic Disney conspiracy theorist. While I acknowledge there may well have been an inappropriate adult motif on the original cover of The Little Mermaid, I struggle to hear subversive messages when Disney movies are played backwards and I think the text created by rising pollen and dust in The Lion King is probably more about special effects than sex.
However five days fully immersed in the Disney experience made a definite impression. If you go to a theme park in California or on Australia's Gold Coast, you can retreat at the end of the day to your hotel or apartment and normal life resumes. But Orlando's Disney World is enormous and offers a wide range of accommodation so it's logical to stay on site - in which case every moment is drenched in sheer Disney-ness.
It was the Mickey Mouse ears that got to me in the end. Meal times were a classic; drinking straws, pasta and even breakfast waffles were shaped like the famous rodent. That was the obvious stuff. Less obviously and perhaps more sinisterly, we discovered the same symbol in unlikely places, often when our defences were down.
We were lazing in our room when one of us realised the innocuous-looking table lamps amid otherwise non-Disney-esque interior decoration featured prominent Mickey Mouse ears. It had taken us days to recognise this but then it was impossible to not see it. And trudging back to our room after a busy day we discovered the same iconic design woven into the intricately patterned, faux-Victorian carpet in the corridor.
Were these symbols merely commitment to the theme and subtle little in-jokes for observant guests? Or were they subliminal messages intended to infiltrate our subconscious and sway us to commit to the brand for life? Sorry, can't decide now. I'm about to set sail on a Disney-themed cruise ship before renewing my wedding vows with a guaranteed view of Cinderella's castle.