A Mickey Mouse Utopia

Gossip is a potent presence in any small town, but rumors about Celebration, Florida, tend to travel far beyond the borders of that burg. So maybe the one about chip implants that turn Celebration residents into cheerfully complacent Stepford wives is far-fetched. But have you heard about the expert guidance on porch décor (wicker furniture, good; macramé plant hangers, bad) provided by the town fathers? What about the homeowner who was harassed into taking down her red curtains and putting up the standard-issue white ones? Or the guy forced to move an old car parked in front of his house for too long? And how about the continuous Muzak floating through downtown Celebration's pristine, palm-tree-lined streets?

If that all sounds a little extraordinary, remember that we're talking about Celebration--the planned community built by Disney, which is itself built on the ideals of escapism and make-believe. And for the record, those rumors are, respectively, true; true; false; and both--the compulsory soundtrack was only halted when Jane Eisner herself, wife of Disney honcho Michael Eisner, complained about it during a visit.

But even if Disney's control over its newest Magic Kingdom isn't as draconian as might be imagined (though why a parked car is okay and red curtains aren't is anyone's guess), the folks living in Celebration have also endured relentless scrutiny from other quarters. Thanks to Disney's own hype about the project, which had its ballyhooed opening in November 1996, tourists flock to Celebration year-round, many seeing it as a charmingly "realistic" alternative to Disney's nearby theme parks. (Indeed, Celebration can be seen as Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., gussied up with New Urbanist theories and prestigious downtown buildings, and then transplanted to "real" life.) And the press, as might be presumed, is ravenous for insider tales; some 700 articles on the place were written before the first moving trucks even pulled up.

Freelance journalist Catherine Collins and her husband, New York Times correspondent Douglas Frantz, were so fascinated by the idea of this participatory Truman Show that they moved to the town themselves--for at least as long as it took to write Celebration, U.S.A. (Henry Holt), anyway. These worldly-wise journalists are rather disingenuous about their supposedly spontaneous decision to dive into a Disneyfied lifestyle, claiming that Celebration sounded like a neat place to live with their two young children. And hey--why not write a book about the experience while they were at it? (In a similar vein, New York's bad-boy lefty critic Andrew Ross paid near-New York rent on an apartment in downtown Celebration while writing The Celebration Chronicles, also just published.)

While Frantz and Collins finally admit on page 211 that "our primary mission [for living in Celebration] was observation," they were apparently honest from the start with their new neighbors and friends--who, they say, were actually eager to talk to them for the book. But even though the locals may have appreciated Frantz and Collins's commitment to living in Celebration, it's not clear whether they knew that the couple planned to return to their house in Westport, Connecticut, after a year (ultimately, they stayed for two).

Nevertheless, the authors certainly did their investigative homework in the allotted time, attending seemingly every community meeting (they don't mention running into Ross) and interviewing a host of residents, Celebration executives, state and county officials, and Disney's top brass, including Eisner. The result is a comprehensive if rather flatly written guide for readers whose curiosity about Celebration was piqued by all those newspaper articles. Placing the town within a tradition of planned communities that stretches back more than 100 years, Celebration, U.S.A. traces the project from Uncle Walt's daydreams of decades ago to late last year, when angry parents were yanking their kids out of the "world-class" Celebration School.

By now it's no secret that the creators of Mickey Mouse play hardball when it comes to business, and the story of Celebration's development is no different. Frantz and Collins use two chapters to detail the backstory on the thousands of acres Walt Disney purchased in the Sixties. Originally, he intended this land to act as a buffer against the seedy developments destined to crop up like weeds around his immaculately manicured theme parks. After wheeling and dealing with the Florida Legislature and Osceola County, where Celebration is located, the Disney corporation succeeded in creating its own governing body for the land: the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a setup likened by one Disneyologist to "the Vatican with mouse ears." But when it turned out that some 20,000 future Celebration citizens would ultimately have voting rights within that district, Disney was able to "de-annex" the town and turn it over to Osceola County. After, of course, ensuring that it would still have control over virtually every detail of the development.

Despite all of its political machinations, Disney was unable to escape the wrath of citizens who, after giving the company their trust (not to mention sizable piles of money), were rewarded with an array of construction problems in their new homes. Disney's hype had put homebuilders on a fast track, resulting in everything from crooked shower doors to construction delays of a year or more. And soon residents had a bigger and far more emotional headache in the form of Celebration School. The prominently situated institution was designed to be a focal point of the town, but became so for all the wrong reasons. Disney's attempt to mix a slew of progressive educational techniques and the latest technology in one K-12 public school was an unqualified disaster. Three camps quickly emerged. Some parents were adamantly opposed to any forms of newfangled learning in what was supposed to be a traditional small town. Others, like the authors, were intrigued, but became disillusioned when the unorthodox methods amounted to DIY learning (there were no textbooks, tests, or grades). Finally, there were the die-hards who felt that any criticism of the school was tantamount to treachery.

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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