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A quest to visit all 13 Disney parks

Some people loathe Disney World, and I understand why. The artificiality, all those people gnawing on turkey legs, the standing in line, that infernal “It’s a Small World” song looping and looping – I get it.

The opposite extreme was always more of a mystery. Some people love Disney theme parks so much that routine visits to Disneyland in California or the Magic Kingdom in Florida are simply not enough. Some people also make it a mission to visit Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland. And Epcot and Typhoon Lagoon and California Adventure. There are 13 Disney parks worldwide and the hardest of the hardcore Disneyphiles have visited them all.

What motivates men and women (usually traveling without children) to spend their time and money this way? It can’t just be that they really, really love Pirates of the Caribbean and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. What kind of person, having already ridden Space Mountain a few dozen times in Florida, flies to Paris and spends an afternoon riding Space Mountain? Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Deranged.

Or so I thought. Confession: Having visited all 13 parks, I am now a full-fledged member of this obsessive Mickey Mouse Club.

Like many people, I visited Disney parks as a boy. I had the time of my little life, but I also never completely bought in. Mouse ears? Over my dead body. When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a persnickety letter to Disneyland complaining that my pair of purple 3-D glasses at “Captain EO” had been missing a stem. Pout.

By 2007, when the New York Times hired me to professionally scrutinize the Walt Disney Co., I had not laid eyes on Cinderella’s Castle in about a decade. But assignments quickly took me inside Disney parks on both coasts, and I began to notice a rabid breed of visitor – people like Tony Spittell and his son Andrew who visited all six of Disney’s major North American parks in a single jet-setting day, or Roger Yamashita, a California engineer who had been to all 13 properties.

Yamashita, 53, cited completion anxiety. “Once I had done California, Florida and Japan, I started to really want to finish my dance card,” he told me. “It was like, ‘Well, I’ve come this far.” Yamashita, a gold member of D23, the official Disney fan club, added, “Disney is also very good at keeping you hooked.”

Ah, yes. Good old-fashioned marketing. Nobody does it better than Disney. Attendance at the company’s 13 parks last year totaled 132.6 million, a 5 percent increase from 2012, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

I relate to Yamashita’s addict-like thinking – more, more, more – but my 13-park adventure was primarily rooted in reportorial curiosity.

So on a 2011 trip to Paris I persuaded my partner, Joe, to skip Sacré-Coeur and instead go to Marne-la-Vallée, a suburb of Paris where two Disney parks now sprawl across former sugar beet fields.

The place certainly smelled French. Arriving around lunchtime, we decided to have a glass of champagne at the ornate Disneyland Hotel, which is perched near the park gates like a pink and white Victorian bauble. Lovely. But the interior smelled as if it had been hosed down with Jean Patou perfume.

We were slack-jawed upon entering the main park. To compete with the splendor of Paris, Disney spent lavishly to open the resort in 1992, and its ornate landscaping has only improved with age: Austrian black pines, endless rhododendrons, pathways that hug serpentine streams. Of all the Disney castles, the one here is the most extravagant. “Even I thought that was pretty cool,” a normally nonplused Joe said after a peek at an animatronic dragon residing in the dungeon.

I hauled him to Hong Kong Disneyland by way of Tokyo Disneyland. At the end of a long trip to Japan last fall, I slipped in a day at the seaside Tokyo Disney Resort, which comprises two parks and a half-dozen hotels connected by a monorail. The excursion turned out to be a surprise highlight of our time in Tokyo.

Tokyo Disneyland may have the single best attraction in the entire Disney empire, but you won’t find it on a park map. Disneyphiles privately call it the Running of the Bulls, and it takes place every morning on the entrance plaza. When the 20 gates open, roughly 40,000 people stampede through them in the first hour and a half (at least according to a Tokyo Disneyland employee) in an effort to beat the lines. And I do mean stampede.

On the subway ride back to Wan Chai, the bustling neighborhood where we were staying, I thought about what visiting the 13 parks had taught me about how Disney operates, particularly overseas. Far from monolithic, the company’s theme park empire is full of quirky surprises. Yes, the notion of Disney as a cultural bulldozer needs to be retired – especially as it builds a 14th park in Shanghai that will be the first to do away with a Main Street-style entrance. (Instead there will be a vast garden that will accommodate Chinese cultural festivals.)

But Disney is Disney is Disney: Dumbo and Pinocchio and the “Frozen” princesses will always be there. At the end of the day, what makes a Disney park unique are the people who occupy it.