Jess Siswick was supposed to be at Walt Disney World with her best friend last month when the theme park company announced it was closing for the rest of the month because of the coronavirus pandemic — a closing that has been extended until further notice.
The 32-year-old northern Virginia woman had planned her Disney visit around a conference in Central Florida, but her employer halted work travel. So Siswick, a digital content specialist for the Journal of the American College of Radiology, decided to create her favorite Disney experiences at home.
She dug out some Minnie Mouse ears, posters and other memorabilia and put everyday items to work, including sticky notes, a $50 projector, her phone and an Amazon Echo. And then there was the "real MVP," as she said in a tweet: her office chair. She has virtually visited the Magic Kingdom, re-created the Soarin' experience with socked feet and some air freshener, tried to get on a popular new Star Wars ride and visited the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, among others.
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Over the past couple of weeks, Siswick's videos on social media, which use the hashtag #HomemadeDisney, have racked up hundreds of thousands of views — and inspired other theme park fans to pitch in with their own offerings. The trend has even gone beyond Disney with #HomemadeThemePark incorporating other parks.
"We're all confused, we're all anxious and we don't know what's happening and what's going on," says Siswick. "Having these little video projects brought back, like, the magic of Disney; it's keeping it alive when it's not there for us."
She said her favorite responses have been from people who thanked her for making them smile.
"Those are the ones that resonated with me so much, that my dumb little videos are helping people get through this terrible time," Siswick said.
The Gilmore family in Salt Lake City grew up going to Disney parks and got inspired when they saw Siswick's videos.
"We were just dying laughing," says Rachael Gilmore, 23, who works for an event technology company. "We were like, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to do this.'"
All stuck at home, she and her younger siblings — Chelsea, 21; Emilee, 19; Julia, 15; and Douglas, 13 — joined forces to make homages to a ride based on Winnie the Pooh and the Expedition Everest roller coaster.
"Basically, we had nothing to do on Saturday; we did Pooh," Gilmore said. "We had nothing to do on Sunday, so we did Everest."
Inspired by other videos, the family's videos included small jokes, like getting in trouble for sitting on a rail in line, the long-broken yeti on the Everest coaster and the hair ties that mysteriously pile up on the ride.
"I think what makes them so funny is they capture the little details and the little Easter eggs that make it uniquely Disney," Gilmore said.
Julie Thornock and her family in Monroe, Utah, went for some of the most iconic moments when they re-created their favorite ride at home.
The 42-year-old registered nurse got inspired after seeing someone's simple-but-effective backyard version of Splash Mountain on a Disney-themed Facebook page: a couple of logs, some ponchos, buckets of water and a commemorative photo. Thornock, an annual Disney visitor with five kids between 13 and 20, posted it to her own page. Friends urged her to dive in.
"They're like, 'Oh my heck, Julie, we can so see your family doing this,'" she said. "So many people kept challenging us."
So Thornock and her family — husband Kirk and kids Brooke, Brin, Carson, Cannon and Chloe, plus Evie the dog — staged their own Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with a sled ride down the stairs, a broom chase and a dangling bare leg.
"We just filmed it really quick, just because we thought I was going to post it on Facebook — 'OK, challenge accepted, here's our version of it,'" Thornock said. "It just went crazy, crazy, crazy."
As of early Thursday, the video had been viewed more than 1.8 million times on Twitter alone and featured on Access Hollywood and BuzzFeed, among other sites.
Banks Lee, an Orlando resident and media manager for Attractions Magazine, said one recent post that struck a chord portrayed a nearly universal experience: a clear view of a castle and fireworks quickly blocked by a grown man with a plush toy, ostensibly standing in for a child, on his shoulders.
"This is the most realistic of the homebound attraction remakes," the post says.
Lee and his 5-year-old daughter, Spencer, got in on the act to re-create her favorite ride, Alien Swirling Saucers at Disney's Hollywood Studios, in a collaboration with Siswick.
"Everyone's starting to now try to one-up each other," says Lee, 34. "It's just going to these amazing places."
The Disney closings are a daily reality for Lee, unlike most fans; his publication had people reporting in the parks regularly, and his wife, Sidney, works at one of the resort's hotels. With everything closed until who knows when, Disney said it will pay its hourly workers through April 18.
He said the Disney-at-home videos have provided some much-needed smiles at an unprecedented time.
"It's a great way to just forget even for 30 seconds or minute about what's going on and sit back and enjoy some creativity," he said.
The DIY Disney trend has not gone unnoticed by the self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth."
"We know Disney fans are searching for ways to bring magic and joy into their everyday lives and we've loved seeing some of you recreate your favorite Disney Parks experiences in your very own living rooms," Disneyland Resort public relations director Michael Ramirez wrote in a blog post Sunday.
He said the company had been inspired to share "virtual pixie dust" with fans, including an eight-minute video of a new parade at the California park.
Carissa Baker, assistant professor of tourism, events and attractions at the University of Central Florida, said in an email that the fan-made tributes are providing an outlet for creativity and some joy, but also serving as promotions for the theme parks.
"For those who haven't been there and are seeing this content, I would imagine that many will say that a Disney vacation is something worth trying to do," she said.
While she expects leisure spending to drop because of economic uncertainty, Baker said she still believes visitors will return to Disney once operations resume and normal travel starts up again.
"The theme park industry successfully rebounded from the most recent recession and the uncertainty post-9/11, so I believe it will do so again," Baker said. "The timeline is what is more uncertain right now, as the situation is still evolving."
Gilmore, whose family made the Winnie the Pooh and Expedition Everest videos, is glad the parks are closed for now and wants everyone to stay home. But there's no question she'll return.
"Disney is our home," she said. "We'll definitely go back."