They have heard all the jokes in Celebration, the town that Disney built on 4,900 acres of swamp and farmland just south of the Magic Kingdom in steamy central Florida. No, they explain patiently but firmly, there is no Mickey Avenue or Goofy Way. No, the street signs do not feature stylized mouse ears. And no, each day does not close with fireworks and a parade down Main Street, U.S.A. Celebration, says Don Killoren, general manager of the Disney subsidiary that has made it a reality, “is not a theme park.” He leans forward and adds emphatically: “This is a real town with real homes and real people.”
“Real” is a big word at Celebration, and for good reason. The town, after all, is at the epicentre of all that is fake or just plain tacky: the vast sprawl of amusement parks, motels, water slides, fast-food joints and strip malls surrounding Orlando, Fla. And its developer is Disney, famed for its meticulous—some would say obsessive—drive to create environments free of the messy realities of everyday life. When the company announced it would build an actual town on land it owns adjacent to Disney World, the howls were prompt and predictable. Disney isn’t content to decide how people relax, what they watch and what they hear, said the critics. Now they want to dictate how they live. Celebration, went the warning, would be an exercise in corporate social engineering.
As it turns out, Celebration is a surprisingly normal place, albeit one that is self-consciously nostalgic, harkening back to an imagined America of small towns and traditional values. The town plan and the design of the houses is loosely inspired by the ideas of so-called New Urbanism, which opposes the spread of yet more soulless suburbs. Houses are built in traditional styles, usually with front porches and picket fences. They are set back just six or eight feet from the street, so people sitting out on their porches can greet neighbors strolling on the sidewalk. Cars and garages are relegated to back alleys. A pictureperfect downtown complete with grocery store, diner, movie theatre and bookshop invites doing what does not come naturally in much of suburban America: parking the car and walking. Demand has been brisk. The first residents moved in last summer; now there are nearly 1,000, the vanguard of 20,000 who will eventually live there when a planned 8,000 apartments and houses are completed in 10 to 15 years.
Those who have bought into Celebration tend to talk, unprompted, in language that would warm the heart of any Disney executive. Calvin Slater, 35, and his wife, Claire, 31, moved in last July. They purchased a three-bedroom bungalow for $255,000, and explain their choice in unexpected terms: as a search for old-time Canadian values. The Slaters grew up in Ontario—he in the Ottawa Valley town of Pembroke, she in North Bay. They moved to Orlando in 1989, and
found themselves in a traditional suburb where everyone drove everywhere and it was hard to meet people. “We were kind of disillusioned with it,” says Claire. “The sense of community wasn’t there.” They faced a choice: return to Canada, where they remembered a simpler, more neighborly time, or buy into Disneps vision of smalltown life. “We wanted to re-create what we had in Canada,” says Calvin. “Feeling safe, walking down the street or to a movie, letting your kids bike around town. That’s what we had when we were growing up, and that’s what we wanted for our kids. We bought into that dream. If we weren’t here, we’d be back in Canada.” Friends are skeptical, he admits. ‘We get a lot of ribbing. You live on Donald Duck Lane’—that kind of thing. But when people come here, they’re impressed.” What visitors see is the most talked-about urban project in the United States. Disney has deep pockets, so it was able to reverse the normal pattern of development Instead of waiting for enough demand to sustain stores and restaurants, the company built a mini-downtown centred on a main street that slopes gently to a manmade lake. Tiere is a bakery and a post office and a grocery called Gooding’s done up like an old-time general store—though a close inspection reveals that the pressed-tin ceiling is really made of plastic—as is the tempting-looking food in the window.
Disney recruited renowned architects to design individual buildings. Cesar Pelli created the Art Deco movie theatre; Michael Graves designed the circular post office; and Philip Johnson sketched the rather forbidding town hall with its forest of white columns. The colors are subdued pastels, and the buildings are done in a riot of styles. Critics call it a jumble; Killoren replies that it reflects “how real towns evolve over time. If you have one architect, it all ends up looking the same.” One result of creating an instant downtown is that the town welcomes—and needs—visitors to support its stores and restaurants. Many comparable communities keep out the world with gates and guards, but anyone can drive into Celebration.
Houses are based on six traditional styles, including Victorian, “coastal” and Mediterranean. A thick “pattern book” sets out rules governing how owners can change their homes—everything from color to the design of a window and the angle of a roof. That may seem restrictive, but it is not unusual for such developments: many so-called masterplanned communities put limits on what residents can do to their houses. Prices vary widely, from $199,000 for a small townhouse to as much as $1.7 million for the most luxurious custom home on the edge of Celebration’s public golf course. Prices are about 20 per cent higher than for comparable homes in the area, but Disney is selling units as fast as they are completed. For some, the Disney name itself is a draw, and the line between Celebration and the Magic Kingdom seems to have become blurred. “I’ve always been a Disney fan,” says DeEtte Abeyta, 34, who bought a three-bedroom townhouse with her husband, Michael, and 13year-old son, Brian. “I knew if d be good.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to live on Main Street and the Castle?”
Others find fault with Celebration, and for basic reasons. New Urbanism preaches limiting sprawl by increasing density in city centres, but Celebration is yet another suburb on the far southern edge of Orlando—in effect, a better-designed kind of sprawl. And a giant corporation has engineered an entire town, the ultimate Disneyfication of society. John Henry, an Orlando architect, compares it to 19th-century company towns that looked good, but elevated corporate power above citizens’ rights. “It has a totalitarian feel to it,” says Henry. “There’s something fundamentally un-American about it.” The truth may be that Celebration is a quintessentially American place—both in its utopian aims and its commercial realities. □
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