'Disney has really saved my life', says fan who turned his 2-room HDB flat into a Disney wonderland

'Disney has really saved my life', says fan who turned his 2-room HDB flat into a Disney wonderland
David Hillman with one of his rarer Beauty and The Beast dolls.
PHOTO: AsiaOne

For most people, watching Disney films is simply a form of entertainment, or perhaps a way to distract the kids for a few hours.

But for 38-year-old David Hillman, Disney animated classics hold a special place in his heart, in particular the story of Cinderella. This was the cartoon that made him feel like he was not alone whenever he felt out of place in his own family.


Speaking to AsiaOne in his Disney-themed home (more on that later), the Indonesian-born graphic designer recounts: "People always say that as the youngest in the family, you're the golden son or whatever.

"Mine is totally the opposite. My two brothers have always been the golden sons in the family so I've always been kind of a loner when I was a kid."

He shares that "there was never a night where I didn't go to sleep without crying" and he "felt like he didn't belong to the family". Hence, he could immediately relate to the story of Cinderella.

After all, Disney's version of the fairy tale is about a young girl, who was treated very differently from her stepsisters but managed to find her happy ending with the help of her fairy godmother.

It wasn't just the feeling of being an outsider that drew him to the film. David reveals the movie instilled a sense of hope in his nine-year-old self and become a haven of sorts for him.

"Even though, for example, your parents may not like you or whatever it is, it doesn't mean that there will never be hope," he explains about how Cinderella really resonated with him, and thinking back, he says, "Disney has really saved my life in a way." 

Even now, it's cathartic for him to watch Cinderella whenever he's feeling emotional and there's "no one I can turn to".

A 2-room HDB flat full of all things Disney

Cinderella may have been David's introduction to Disney but the one that captured his heart and locked it firmly to the magical world of Walt Disney was the 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast. 

It was the first animated movie that he ever watched in a cinema and looking back at that experience, David says he was mesmerised not by the story but by what it took to make the film.

From the beautiful hand-drawn animation and artwork to the music and scripting, for David, it was fascinating to realise how everything worked together to provide an immersive experience.

"There's something about Disney movies that's so perfectly detailed and done so well. Not just Beauty and the Beast, but even Snow White back then," he observes. And what he admires about Walt Disney is that every animation film was crafted to be an experience for viewers through music, colours, animation, and storyline.

So enamoured was he with Disney that he even went on to collect Disney figurines, memorabilia, and dolls.

While most fans might just have a few figurines of their favourite Disney characters, David has amassed a two-room HDB flat full of Disney collectables, fulfilling a childhood dream of his.

Incidentally, his collection started with a simple Cinderella figurine he got in Singapore in the '90s. This was during his first overseas trip with his family and he visited the Disney store at Takashimaya. 

However, he only started growing his collection more extensively after he moved to Singapore in 2010, got a job, and had more money.

When asked how many items he has in his entire collection, David was not able give a figure because he has never counted them all, but he estimates spending about US$30,000 (S$40,110) on his collection, thus far. One of his most expensive items is a limited edition Elsa doll that cost him US$1,000, and there are only 2,500 of them in the world.

Like any respectable online shopper, he knows how to spot a good bargain. One of his best buys is a rare, limited edition Vanessa (the human form of the villainess Ursula from The Little Mermaid) that he got for US$200 and is now valued at US$800.

He had initially decided against getting the Vanessa doll due to a lack of storage space. He regretted his decision the next day but by then the doll was out of stock — any merchandise that has to do with Vanessa sells out like hotcakes, he explains.

He eventually managed to find it on the secondary market for US$200, but that was because the plastic packaging was damaged; not that it mattered to him as he easily found a suitable replacement.

David's Disney collection goes beyond the usual figurine replicas of the characters. In his possession is a box of replicas of the items that remained on Walt Disney's office table after his passing — an old Disneyland visitor pass, a piece of paper with Walt Disney's autograph, an old telegram and some photos.

"My collection is not just about figurines or dolls. Something like [items that belonged to Walt Disney], even though it's just a piece of paper, but to me, it's worth something," he said.

Choosing Disney over romance

The life of a collector can be a tough one, especially when people don't understand why they do the things they do.

People have called him "David the Disney Princess", judged him for being a Disney collector and told him "Disney is for girls". In one instance, when a friend introduced him as an "influencer for Disney", he was met with "sarcastic giggling".

"It hurts a little bit but that is their opinion. To me, if Disney still belongs to just the kids, it won't be as big as now... So when people bully me about Disney, [I say] it's because I'm happy around Disney," he confesses.

He has even given up a relationship for Disney — a previous partner couldn't accept him being a huge Disney fan. They had been dating for one and half years before his partner felt that his love for Disney was "too kiddish" and asked him to choose.

"I told the person, 'It's not like I walk around with Mickey Mouse shoes or Mickey ears or whatever.' But to [the person] it was just too kiddish and not something they want. Of course, I chose Disney, I'm not going to choose [them]," David quips.

The thing is that David has never been shy about his status as Disney fanboy. He shares photos of his collection on Instagram where he has over 40,000 followers from around the world. He has even sat at the lobby of the Sandcrawler Building for hours until the security guard asked him who he was looking for, just because that's where the Disney office is located.

Well, he no longer has to do that now that he is an official Disney influencer as of 2019. And it is neither about the fame nor the fancy events. Being recognised by something that was built by Walt Disney himself, and being able to exemplify the values and beliefs of Disney is what being a Disney influencer is all about.  

"Disney provides you with places for you to be yourself. They don't really care about your age, your gender, or whatever... If you have the talent and skills, if you have the passion, you understand the true meaning of magic, that's what Disney is all about," he concludes.


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