A Mickey Mouse Utopia

A new book examines what there is to celebrate in Disney's famous planned community

Clearly, life in Celebration was no day at the theme park. And yet Frantz and Collins mostly characterize their life there as "pleasant and easy, which are not bad qualities." Such watered-down enthusiasm is about as honest as they get in conveying their personal feelings about the town. Despite the authors' scrupulous balance in their assessments of Disney, the reader will find hints of their objections to the culture of Disneyphiles--that is, a significant portion of Celebration's first wave. They raise their eyebrows at the abundance of dishes with marshmallows and the absence of alcohol at certain block parties, while lamenting the difficulty in finding quality Italian ingredients for their dinner parties. They quote Cicero and William James, and sadly observe the lack of bookshelves in the average Celebration home. And despite the fact that they seem to become deeply involved members of the community--this heathen family even started attending Presbyterian services--one can't help but wonder how much of this activism was genuine, and how much was in the service of their book.

The authors are equally oblique when it comes to addressing class issues in Celebration. Frantz and Collins take Disney to task for wiggling out of any provision for affordable housing, and also bemoan the lack of minorities in Celebration. But they also describe as "staunchly middle class" a town where even bottom-line "Garden Homes" go for around $200,000. In the same paragraph, they tell how "many of our neighbors had sacrificed to get to Celebration and many were struggling financially in order to stay." And later they praise Celebration's "leisurely" pace of life and the way residents drop in on each other all the time.

Certainly neighborliness and community spirit are encouraged by Celebration's new-urbanist design--the proximity of houses to each other and to downtown, for example--but Frantz and Collins don't acknowledge the economics behind this lifestyle. Families who need paychecks from two (or more) jobs to stay in the "middle class" don't usually have time for impromptu beers and barbecues--to say nothing of Collins's daily coffee klatches.

Like any town Celebration is a work in progress, making Celebration, U.S.A. a report that may, in many ways, already be outdated. Toward the end of the book, this fledgling community sends its first political candidate out into the larger world of Osceola County. Other signs point to the possibility that, over time, Celebration's sense of self-satisfied isolation, as well as its original magic and mission, might dissolve. The newest citizens don't have the same wholehearted faith as the early settlers, who knew their town's five "cornerstones"--wellness, education, community, technology, and place--by heart. Furthermore, Celebration has compromised some of its New Urbanist tenets not only by building its newest homes beyond the optimum walking distance from downtown, but also with plans for a two-million-square-foot shopping mall. Might Disney's elaborate exercise in fake authenticity eventually develop the patina of an authentically average suburb?

Finally, no matter how seductive Celebration is, you have to wonder how many other citizens will follow Frantz and Collins beyond its picket fences (Frantz has been reassigned to a post abroad). Americans don't put down roots like they did during the heyday of the small towns that inspired Celebration, partly because they don't hold jobs for as long as they once did. But will Celebrationers (Celebrants?) choose quality of life over career opportunities? It should prove interesting to watch the turnover rate: Unlike a theme park, drawing them in is easy, but keeping them there could be another story.

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