The Cult of the Mouse
Our big yellow Ryder truck rumbled and squeaked down the ramp off Interstate 4 twenty miles southwest of Orlando and onto U.S. Highway 192, perhaps the ugliest and most garish stretch of blacktop in America. Less than ten miles from Walt Disney World, the once-quiet road is clogged every day of the year with tourists in rented minivans. In excess of sixty thousand cars daily, according to county traffic counters. If you were to hold out your hand and stop traffic for the day, that's 47.52 miles of vehicles, fender to fender, almost enough to reach to Florida's east coast.
The bad-tempered congestion on the four-lane road passes multiple outlets of every fast-food chain known to mankind, countless T-shirt shops and tattoo parlors, an American Gladiators dinner theater, endless cheap motels, discount outlets, and a three-hundred-foot-tall contraption called the Skycoaster that somehow induces people to pay $35 to be strapped into a harness similar to a swing and hurled toward the ground at speeds up to seventy miles an hour.
The right turn onto Celebration Avenue, past the shiny white fence and old-fashioned water tower proclaiming "Disney's Town of Celebration," provided a welcome relief from the tedious traffic and unrelenting orgy of shopping. Celebration seemed like a sanctuary. Peopleturning off the interstate just a few miles farther along experienced the same sensation when they found themselves on the broad six-lane road leading to Walt Disney World. Of course, the similarity of the experiences owed everything to the fact that the same company that operates the most-visited tourist attraction on earth had conceived and built Celebration.
But if Disney World was meant to entertain and excite, everything within the town's confines was intended to be soothing to the eye and comforting to the soul. The street patterns and architecture alluded to another era. Unlike houses separated by the broad lawns of a typical suburb, homes were grouped close together and set close to the street, the way they were built a century ago in places like Savannah and Charleston. The architectural guidelines created a distinct sense of consistency that, to our eyes at least, was pleasing. The one- and two-story houses were variations on a limited number of designs, so they seemed to fit together like pieces of an architect's puzzle. Garages were tucked discreetly behind the houses along alleys that ran parallel to every street. Lawns were clipped, and there was no sign of litter anywhere. The streets themselves were laid out on a modified grid plan, attesting in that singularly American way to order, virtue, and rectitude. With their shade trees and wide sidewalks, the streets were also attractive and inviting to pedestrians. It was a town of pretty buildings, neat streets, and smiling people, with an overall effect quite similar to the one we would have found had we made that other turn and wound up in the Magic Kingdom.
But Celebration was a real town, and it was an ambitious attempt by one of biggest and best-known corporations in the country to advance town planning and community building in America. In designing Celebration, the Walt Disney Company had brought together some of the finest minds and biggest names in the architecture and urban-planning professions and come up with a concept that could serve as a model for other developers and, possibly, as an antidote to the isolation and sterility of the modern suburb. The company's team had examined the full range of town development over the last century, from Frederick Law Olmsted's groundbreaking 1868 design for Riverside, Illinois, to the hottest new trend in urban design, neotraditionalism, which relies on scaled-down, pedestrian-friendly planning. Disney's idea was to siftthrough the best practices of the last 130 years to build a new town that would resurrect the vitality and neighborliness of America before the postwar rush to the suburbs.
Several elements made the town Disney planned different from anything else in the country. The concept was far different from the vast tracts of homes in Levittown, New York, the prototypical American suburb. Celebration's scale was small, and its plan revolved around a town center that would serve as a physical and psychological anchor for the community. In addition, where Levittown had provided modest housing for veterans of World War II, Celebration aimed higher on the income scale, offering interesting architecture to the middle and upper classes. Celebration also was a sharp contrast to the suburbs that had followed Levittown. It was oriented toward pedestrians and endeavored to engineer away some of the reliance on the automobile that is the hallmark of the modern suburb. And it was different from other well-regarded new towns of more recent vintage, like Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland, in that its residential housing was denser and its individual lots less parklike. Celebration even attempted to improve on neotraditional design by incorporating broader streets and more commercial space. Whether or not you liked the results, the effort was worthy of serious examination.
Had the grand scale of the planning experiment itself not been enough to warrant our moving to Celebration, the involvement of Disney put it over the top. The entertainment giant is one of the most admired and reviled corporations in the world. To millions of people, its name is synonymous with fun and high-quality entertainment; thirty-six million people a year go to Disney World alone. But to others, Disney's products, from its theme parks and films to this new town of Celebration, have all the flavor and appeal of boxed mashed potatoes. Whichever side you are on, there is agreement that anything Disney does on the scale of town-building merits attention.
The town that Disney built is a lovely place physically. Eventually it will spread over a full five thousand acres, but the initial development occurred in an area shaped like a fat wedge of pie, American apple pie. At the tip is a small man-made lake, which was created to anchor the town center and provide the fill dirt that added three to four feet of elevation to the surrounding swampland, keeping the town high and dry.The small town center nestles around one side of the lake, and three main arteries extend outward from it, defining the shape of the wedge. The two avenues on the edges, Celebration Avenue and Campus Street, are sweeping and embrace the residential neighborhoods. The third, Water Street, flows straight through downtown and follows a tree-lined canal up a slight incline to its end at the golf course clubhouse, which forms the lush green crust that encloses the top of the pie shape.
The town center is the place where most people get their first impression of Celebration, and therefore its most prominent corner lots were reserved for public buildingsthe Town Hall designed by Philip Johnson, the bank designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the preview center by the late Charles Moore. The intention was both to signal that this was a real town, with civic institutions, and to highlight the most architecturally interesting buildings. Less-distinctive three-story commercial buildings line Market Street, the town's version of Main Street, and extend in a semicircle around the small lake. There is a wonderful relationship among those structures, which planners call background buildings. They set the tone for downtown. In a salute to another era, they are clad in stucco in various shades of pastel, no two quite alike but all of them blending into a pleasing and seemingly timeless street scene reminiscent of small-town architecture found across the country. Fitting in with the tropical climate, the buildings feature deep overhangs, arcades, and the occasional fountain courtyard. The buildings sidle up to the sidewalk, reaching out to engage a street shaded by trees. As befits its stature, Market Street is lined with towering poodle-headed Washington palms. Above the shops are apartments, with broad balconies overlooking the street and lake. Those with a good view from the balconies can catch a glimpse of what once wasa stretch of undeveloped, protected wetlandsnow flush against Disney's man-made lake.
Across a small green on the edge of downtown, along Campus Street, construction of the new school was proceeding at a furious pace the day we arrived. One of the great appeals of Celebration, to us as well as to a majority of other people moving in, was the school. It was billed as a true community school, serving students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. And it was billed as a model of education's "best practices." The latter point was particularly important. Given a choice, no right-thinking person would move to Florida for the schools, which areperennially at or near the bottom of national rankings. But Celebration School promised something special.
Osceola County would operate the school, but education experts from places like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Auburn, and Stetson universities had designed its program. The school would be so good, the marketing line promised, that an affiliated teaching academy would share its techniques with educators from across the country. Indicative of its central role in the community was its placement, smack dab in the middle of town, unlike in other developments where the school is shunted aside on the cheapest land possible, usually next to a highway.
The town would also have a sixty-acre health campus, and this, too, was key to Celebration's appeal. Not just a plain hospital, the facility would combine medical care with a fitness center. The focus in Celebration's facility was not to be on fixing illness but on maintaining wellness. The health campus was at one far end of the wedge, and within the wedge were the homes of Celebration, though they spilled out over the edges and eventually would encompass a far larger area.
But the health campus was barely begun and the school was far from finished the day we arrived in town with our truck and pulled into one of the downtown parking lots, which are screened from view behind the buildings. We took up half a dozen spaces with the truck and its trailer, which bore Doug's midlife crisis, a taxicab-yellow Ford Mustang convertible.
Five days earlier, we had packed up the twelve-ton, twenty-four-foot-long Ryder with most of our belongings and driven south gingerly, wincing at every pothole from New York through the Carolinas. At the time, moving ourselves had seemed like a romantic way to start our journey. We shipped Nick and Becky off to stay with Cathy's parents in Nova Scotia. Elizabeth was staying behind at her summer job in New York City. So the two of us planned a leisurely trip to our new home.
We had discovered our error by the time we had traversed the Cross Bronx Expressway and arrived on the George Washington Bridge. The huge truck bucked at every bump, forcing Doug to wrestle the wheels back onto the pavement. The edge of the bridge seemed perilously close, particularly from Cathy's perspective in the passenger's seat. The slightest incline seemed to strain the diesel engine to capacity as big rigs and grandmas in compacts whizzed around us, often with horns blaring. Bythe time we passed out of New Jersey, three hours later, we had managed a compromise with the truckwe didn't drive too fast, it didn't throw us off Interstate 95. As a result, we made it to Florida two and a half days later, safe and sound and without breaking a single piece of furniture or china. But there was precious little romance, as we learned that our truck-driving skills required huge amounts of turnaround space, available only at restaurants where the best house wine was a cold Bud.
For the first three days, we stayed in Doug's parents' condominium east of Orlando while the last-minute work was done on the house, driving back and forth each day to watch. The pace of construction throughout Celebration was frantic. Four houses on our block alone were scheduled for completion in the same week. Inside ours, a two-man crew was painting the woodwork, electricians were hooking up outlets, and the guy installing the air-conditioning units was trying to make them work. Some items clearly would not be finished by the time we closed, but we wanted to be certain the air-conditioning was not one of the things left for later.
Three days after our arrival, at four o'clock on the afternoon of June 26, we met at the house with Todd Hudson and Jason Meyers, two builders with David Weekley Homes, the Houston company building our house. The purpose was to do a walk-through, noting anything that was not finished properly. The items would be written on a "punch list," and the builder would make them right in the days after the closing. Hudson and Meyers were surprised to find that we had brought along a building inspector, Bob Bidwell. Cathy explained that we had never bought a new house before, but we figured it was a good idea to get another set of eyes on the place before we signed off on it.
We spotted most of the aesthetic problemsa chair molding cut at the wrong angle, a bow in one of the bathroom walls, scratches on the porcelain sink in the kitchen, the absence of frosted glass in the window beside the Jacuzzi in the master bathroom, that sort of thing. Bidwell picked up a few bigger itemselectrical wires that ran too close to the attic opening in the granny flat above the garage, the absence of a mandatory shut-off valve on the water heater. Bidwell said the house was sound structurally, and while he thought Celebration prices were very high, he seemed content with the overall quality of construction.
This was the sixth house we had bought in fourteen years of marriage, but it would be the first closing we had attended without our own lawyer. Gene Kane, the mortgage officer at the local branch of SunTrust Bank, where we got our loan, had told us a lawyer would be a waste of money. "Disney won't change anything in the contract anyway," he said. "It's their way or the highway." A quick check with other new residents bore him out. Buying a house in Celebration was sort of like buying a Saturnno negotiating, everyone pays sticker price.
On June 27, 1997, we were ready to sign the final papers for the mortgage. As we walked toward the preview center, where Celebration Realty had its offices and where the house closing would occur, we were as nervous as might be expected. We were about to sign a mortgage on a new home when we already owned another, also mortgaged. Waiting for us were Kane, the mortgage officer, and Cheryl Marlin, a paralegal with the title company, who would actually conduct the closing procedure. She confirmed what Kane had told us: No changes were allowed to the contract.
"We've had attorneys from all over the country call up when they see this contract and say, 'What's going on here? I've never seen anything like this,'" Marlin explained. "We tell them that it's all legal and that's the way it is. The questions usually have to do with the buyer having to pay the entire cost of title insurance and all of the transfer taxes. Usually those costs are shared with the sellers. Not in Disney's case."
As we read through the closing statement, we could see clearly how much Disney's rules cost us. We were paying $1,589.50 for title insurance and $3,608.05 in state and county transfer taxes. In a normal closing, the seller would have picked up half of that total, or $2,598.77. We also paid the first installment of $213.36 in debt-service fees that would be used to pay off the municipal bonds that Disney used to develop the town, $360 for the annual homeowner association dues, and $113.28 in maintenance fees to cover garbage pickup for six months. None of these costs was a big-ticket item, but they added up to nearly $3,330 in extras for the privilege of living in Celebration.
Though it was no solace, we saw that the builder was playing by Disney's rules, too. Weekley Homes was paying $18,171.12 as a 6 percent real estate commission to Celebration Realty, part of Disney's development arm. Plus, Weekley paid an additional 1 percent "marketing fee"of $3,028.52 to the real estate company. Of course, these were costs that the builder had already passed on to us when we bought our home. (A year later, some of the builders would take over their own marketing and sales from Disney.)
In the end, we paid $302,852 for a two-story, three-bedroom house. There were two and a half baths in the house, a dining room, a living room, a kitchen with a large eat-in area, and a family room. Part of the price included a huge fourth bedroom and full bath above the garage, which was known as the granny flat. Overall, the house had about three thousand square feet of space.
The base price of the house, a Savannah model with a Colonial facade, was $243,990. We paid a $6,000 premium for the lot because it backed up on a small swamp and no one would be building behind us. The granny flat was an extra $30,000, and the remainder of the purchase price came from upgrades in the house, such as $13,000 for tile instead of carpet on the entire first floor and a better grade of countertops throughout. Adding it all up, we paid $100 a square foot for the house, compared with an average in the Orlando area of $75 a square foot for new construction.
The high cost of Celebration was not the only thing that nagged at us during those first days in the community, as we walked the neighborhoods and got to know the town better. At times there seemed to be a make-believe quality, an artificiality to the whole enterprise. Some houses that appeared to have second-floor dormers were actually only single-story buildings; the dormers, complete with windowpanes painted black to simulate a darkened space, were fake, assembled on the ground and hoisted into place by cranes. In the same way, the builders tried to create the illusion of space beneath the porches, like that where many of us as children hid while playing hide-and-seek, by tacking pieces of plastic simulating wooden latticework onto solid foundations. Upon closer inspection, we also saw that the long white fence that marked the entry to the town was plastic and the water tower functioned only in the sense that it bore the words "Disney's Town of Celebration." The studied nostalgia, right down to the picket fences bordering every corner house and the profusion of night-blooming jasmine, disturbed.
Also, there was the matter of the tourists. We had spent five years ina two-hundred-year-old house in the historic district of Alexandria, Virginia, so we were used to the smell of exhaust from idling chartered buses and the sight of tourists who thought nothing of pressing their faces to your windowpanes. But here there was a sense that Celebration was an unticketed gate at Disney World, even though there was no entrance gate or guard house, and anyone could drive in and take a look around.
Small matters, but symbolic. At times, the garish eyesores along Highway 192 seemed more real than the pretty neighborhoods and spotless streets of Celebration. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a town for being too nostalgic or too clean or even too well planned. Still, the question in those early days was whether Celebration's developers had learned from the past or just gone back to some glorified version of it. Was Celebration selling nostalgia or peddling amnesia?
Certainly no corporation in the world is better at make-believe than the Walt Disney Company, which had built this town of Celebration in large part as a way to sell off nearly five thousand acres deemed unsuitable for yet another addition to its nearby theme parks. The company's major attractions, Disneyland and Walt Disney World, are marvels of escapism. For many children and adults alike, a trip to Disney World represents the perfect vacationclean, controlled, filled with predictable magic and regulated fantasy. To critics, and there are plenty, Disney's theme parks, combined with its movies and animated films, are illustrations of the defilement of American culture. The parks are, as writer James Howard Kunstler described them in his book The Geography of Nowhere, capitals of unreality dedicated to temporary escape from modern life.
From its earliest days, Celebration was attacked along similar lines. Some of the criticism was inevitable, given the town's association with a target as juicy as Disney. The architectural uniformity, down to plantings and the color of curtains seen from the street, was ridiculed. Jokes were made about residents being required to wear Mickey Mouse ears and practice the aggressive friendliness that is the hallmark of the theme parks. At one point in the town's early days, the Orlando Sentinel ran a spoof about Disney extras being paid to walk dogs in Celebration to create a homey feeling. It was perhaps an early indication of the town's growing sensitivity that not many living there were amused.
During one of her scouting trips before we made the final decision to move to Celebration, Cathy was stopped on Market Street by a tourist who asked, pointing to the houses in the distance, "Are those real houses?"
"Of course," Cathy answered, slightly puzzled by her first run-in with an incredulous tourist.
"Well then, where are the real people?" he continued.
Looking at her watch, which read ten-thirty A.M., on a Tuesday, Cathy said, "They're at their real jobs, paying for their real mortgages, for their real houses."
On a more substantive level, there were questions about the escapist nature of Celebration, as there had been for years about other planned communities. Concerns were raised also about the impact of these increasingly privatized enclaves on urban social relations. Would there be room for poor people and minorities in Celebration, so outwardly and solidly a middle-class paradise? People seemed less willing to repair their cities and communities than to invest money in escaping to the latest version of Disney's Main Street, U.S.A. The model of a civil community, in the minds of some critics, had been replaced by something akin to a movie set. "Celebration is overcontrolled and lacks social conscience," fumed John Henry, an Orlando architect, in a trade journal. "It is elitist: gingerbread glosses over social inequity."
Some criticism had little to do with Celebration itself. The Walt Disney Company was a favorite target for people with legitimate concerns about the growing dominance of corporations in American cultural life and the sanitized version of history on display in Disney's parks. Not far away, Walt Disney World existed like a sovereign state. Disney's studios churned out animated and live-action films. Disney owned a book publisher, and the year before had bought a television network, Capital Cities/ABC. And it had even worked some of its magic on revitalizing Times Square in New York City, a change not universally admired by New Yorkers. Disney was even getting ready to launch its own cruise line.
Now the company that wanted to dictate the leisure-time habits of the nation was creating a whole town, and the price of admission was a mortgage. Celebration could be seen as the final step in Disney's drive to create a vertical megabusiness with products for every stage in a consumer's life, from the child who visits a theme park or buys a stuffedMickey Mouse to the adult looking for a Broadway play or shopping for the next best place to live. It was a disconcerting thought.
Celebration Company, the business unit set up by Disney Development Company to oversee the $2.5 billion town, invited criticism, too. As if the Disney name were not banner enough, the company orchestrated a media onslaught for the town's inauguration. It touted its panoply of big-name architects, bragged that it was doing something unprecedented in urban design, and appealed shamelessly to family values, sentimental longings for bygone days, and a barely suppressed fear of the present.
The town seal, a cameo of a little girl with a ponytail riding her bike past a picket fence, trailed by her dog, was emblazoned on everything from manhole covers and light poles to coffee mugs and golf towels. Russ Rymer in Harper's Magazine compared the sales pitch to a fable, and indeed the script itself had a mythic ring: "There was once a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the cares of the day. The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery story delivered. And there was one teacher who always knew you had that special something. Remember that place? Perhaps from your childhood? Or maybe just from stories. It held a magic all its own. The special magic of an American home town."
Celebration was crafted to deliver its biggest appeal to baby boomers, the generation that grew up watching the Wonderful World of Disney on television every Sunday night and was now trekking to Disneyland and Disney World for vacations with their own kids. For them, the Disney name connoted cleanliness, quality, and dependability, the promise of civility in an uncivil worldin a fragmented world where schools were no longer havens, where churches were empty, where parks were lifeless and neighbors were strangers, Disney offered the promise of order and community.
Like all good marketers, the people at Disney knew that the spiritual and cultural focal point for American society as a whole was the boomer generation. As boomers metamorphosed from Beaver Cleaver to hippie to yuppie, society had followed in their wake. With boomers in their forties contemplating the dread fiftieth birthday, market research showed they were spending more time with their families and were more concernedthan ever about finding the right place to raise their children and settle down for the rest of their lives. Boomers were not the only people with those concerns, but they were driving the market.
We are both boomersDoug was born in 1949, Cathy in 1956. Like many in our generation, we were always on the lookout for the next great place to live. Like many people our age, we read the lists of top places published in Money and other magazines. For years, Doug kept a copy of a Newsweek article on the best middle-sized cities, consulting it whenever he felt constrained, or angered at work, wondering what jobs and houses were available in Albuquerque or Charlottesville. We were restless and, for the most part, rootless. On vacations from Santa Fe to Nova Scotia, we kept one eye on where we would build our dream house and how we would fit in with neighbors and nature.
The locations that beckoned were places where we could walk, where a sense of history infused the community, where there was a neighborhood tavern or coffee shop, a theater, a decent diner, and neighbors on whom you could count. It wasn't surprising, then, that many elements of Celebration appealed to usthe school, the chance to participate in the start of a new community, forsaking our dependence on cars, Florida's interesting history, and the dramatic backdrop provided by its natural environment, not to mention the absence of snow. But Disney World had never made it onto our list of pluses in evaluating a place to live. In fact, we had visited only once, when our children were young, right after Doug's return from covering the Gulf War, when it seemed like an apt antidote for too much troubling reality.
For many people, however, Disney World was at the top of the wish list, and the strategy for selling Celebration relied heavily on exploiting the Disney name. Given the town's proximity to Disney World, it was obvious that the initial pool of buyers would come from the millions of people who visited the theme park every year. The planners couldn't very well use Mickey Mouse as the pitchman and be taken seriously, so they picked the next-best figure, the late Walt Disney himself. What better person to peddle a return to old-fashioned values than the man who created Main Street, U.S.A., as an idyllic replica of the Missouri town where he had spent his troubled childhood?
Though Disney had built Walt Disney Productions into a successful film and animation studio, he had nurtured the idea of an amusementpark for at least twenty years before he finally broached the project with his brother in 1952. Roy thought the idea was crazy and refused to commit more than $10,000 of the company's money to it. Walt borrowed the rest from his life insurance policy and opened Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, in 1955. The next year, the park's revenues were $10 million, a third of the total gross of Walt Disney Productions. Success, however, brought unforeseen consequences. His biographers report that Disney was angered by the proliferation of cheap motels and souvenir shops outside the park's gates. They were both an eyesore and competition as they siphoned off profits from Disneyland. When he set out to build a second park, in Florida, he was determined to control as much of the surrounding land as possible.
The story is part of Florida and Disney lore. Walt flew into the state by private jet many times in the early 1960s. The trips to scout land were kept secret to avoid the inevitable escalation in land prices were the overall plan to become known. A clandestine operation, using phony company names, moved to acquire the land. But Orlando was not the first choice. At one point, Disney found a huge tract of gorgeous land in Florida's panhandle, along the Gulf coast. The St. Joe Paper Company, a large timber and paper-milling company founded in the 1930s by a du Pont heir, owned it. When Disney himself approached the company's patrician chairman, Edward Ball, about buying the land, Ball sniffed, "We don't deal with carnival people."
In the end, the Walt Disney Company picked a rural area straddling Orange and Osceola counties, about fifteen miles southwest of the city of Orlando. In a series of quiet transactions over many months, it accumulated thirty thousand acres. The amount of land, roughly forty-five square miles, was far more than necessary for the new theme park. The excess would allow Disney not only to control the buildings that would be constructed around the park, avoiding eyesores in the immediate neighborhood, but to build hotels and other facilities and thereby control the competition, too. Today, the small jet that transported Disney in and out of Orlando on his buying trips is part of the back-lot tour at the Disney-MGM Studios, one of the four theme parks that compose Walt Disney World.
Control was also the operative word for Walt's next move in creating his kingdom. Disney did not want just land. He wanted a private governmentthat would control his land. Local politicians saw Disney World as an engine for enormous development, so they were more than happy to carry water for the company in the Florida legislature. In 1966, not long after the public disclosure that Disney planned to construct its huge theme park, legislation was introduced in Tallahassee to create a new government entity known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Although innocuously named, the district was in fact a private government that gave Disney autonomy within its domain. As proposed in the bill, the district would have the authority to provide essential public services, from police and fire protection to drainage and flood control. It vested in Disney control over land use within the district, and the creation and enforcement of building codes. Finally, the unprecedented legislation would grant Disney the right to raise money through fees and taxes within the district and to finance its roads, sewers, and other services by issuing tax-free municipal bonds, an inexpensive means of raising the huge sums required to build and later expand Disney World and its environs. Virtually every element of land use within the vast acreage would fall under the purview of the company.
While most politicians in the area directly affected by the planned park were eager for an economic boom, others in the legislature and across the state had to pause at such a bold request. In order to win the legislative support and ease the fears of Florida residents, Disney studios created a film in which Walt offered his rationale for having his own government. The film was not shown to the legislature until February 1967, three months after Disney's death from cancer.
"We must have the flexibility in Disney World to keep pace with tomorrow's world," Disney said. "We must have the freedom to work in cooperation with American industry and to make decisions based on standards of performance. If we have this kind of freedom, I'm confident we can create a world showcase for American free enterprise that will bring new industry to the state of Florida from all over the country."
Another justification, Disney said in the film, was to govern the people who would come to live in the futuristic community that he planned to create as part of the park. He called it Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or Epcot, and it was to be an actual town. Its twenty thousand inhabitants would live beneath a giant dome and be zipped from skyscraper to skyscraper on a high-speed monorail.
The town, he explained, would be "starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world." There would be no slums, and no unemployment, because people without jobs would not be allowed to live in Epcot. There also would be no home ownership, because everyone would rent from Disney's company.
Faced with the promise of Disney's golden touch, the politicians rolled over. In May 1967, the legislature approved the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a sovereign government to manage a theme park. The Florida Senate approved the measure unanimously, and there was only a single dissenting vote in the House. The following year, the state's Supreme Court confirmed Reedy Creek's authority to issue tax-free bonds for internal improvements. Doing so, the court acknowledged, would "greatly aid Disney interests" but would also carry benefits to the "numerous inhabitants of the district."
But there were no inhabitants and there never would be, save forty or so Disney employees who lived in company housing. Some critics suspected that there was never any intention of building Epcot and that it was a smoke screen to secure approval of Reedy Creek. Even if Disney had intended to build a futuristic city, the intent had died with him. Epcot the utopian city of the future was transformed into Epcot the theme park, which opened its doors in 1982.
The utopian vision, and the venerated leader's words preserved on celluloid, were resurrected for the selling of Celebration. When we sat through the slick presentation video at the Celebration Preview Center on our family's initial trip, in February 1997, we watched Walt talking about his dream of building from scratch a community that people would talk about and visit. Although we knew he was talking about his dead dream for a city of the future, it appeared for all the world that Disney was describing Celebration. A man sitting next to us whispered to his companion, "He hasn't aged at all."
Selective editing had transformed Disney's speech about Epcot, a vision of stark skyscrapers and airborne transportation reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner, into a homily for Celebration, the antithesis of Epcot. Only the overall sterility stayed the same. There were some parallels, of course. Celebration would have twenty thousand inhabitants, the same number planned for Epcot. And the town's designers claimed itwould provide the latest state-of-the-art technology, with a fiber-optic grapevine connecting every house and apartment to the model school, hospital, and even grocery store.
But where Epcot looked to the future, Celebration turned to the past. Where Epcot was a vision of the direction in which the American city might be headed, Celebration represented the country's disenchantment with the metropolis and its new embracing of the town of decades past. The emphasis of the marketing campaign for Celebration was always on old-fashioned values and resurrecting the small town where many Americans either grew up or wished they had grown up or, through the power of revisionist history, thought they had grown up. In its way, the promise of Celebration was to create a world so distinct from the contemporary suburblet alone from contemporary urban areasthat it was a fantasy itself.
Celebration was not the only attempt to capitalize on rising disenchantment with urban and suburban life. Developers across the country were offering alternatives, though they tended to be exclusive, gated communities that heightened the divisions between the haves and have-nots. But other new towns were popping up, from Kentlands, a small community in Maryland, to DC Ranch, a town planned for twenty thousand residents on the edge of the McDowell Mountains, near Scottsdale, Arizona. Like Celebration, many of these places adhered to the tenets of the neotraditional movement, the revolt against modern suburbs that emphasizes the return to small-town planning, with sidewalks, town centers, small yards, and expansive public areas. But none of them could boast the one thing that made Celebration stand outthe involvement of the Walt Disney Company, with its long relationship with the American public. Disney's role as the progenitor of Celebration set the place apart from all the similar towns under construction across the country, putting it both in the spotlight and under the microscope, drawing residents who would never have thought of themselves as pioneers and attracting the scrutiny reserved for major corporations, celebrities, and wayward politicians. To be sure, Celebration boasted a bigger array of brand-name architects than the other new towns. And it represented the biggest and most closely watched test to date of the principles of neotraditionalism. But make no mistake, it was Disney's name that set it apart from all the rest.
The result was nothing less than remarkable. On November 18, 1995, a Saturday, nearly five thousand people arrived at an open field along Highway 192 for a lottery to determine who got the chance to move into one of the first 474 houses and apartments in Celebration. Unlike most planned communities and upscale suburbs, Celebration would offer $1 million homes next to rented apartments and $300,000 houses. The result was intended to be an economically integrated rubbing of elbows similar to that of small towns of the past. The difference was apparent in the crowd. There were singles and couples, families with children in tow and senior citizens. There were a few Asian faces and one man in a turban. But there was a noticeable absence of blacks, even though Disney executives had advertised the event in the local black press.
There wasn't much on display in the way of actual product. Bulldozers were at work sculpting neighborhoods out of cow pasture and sullen swamp, and the downtown buildings were still under construction. No ground had been broken for a house. Nor were there model homes to entice buyers or paved roads to delineate the neighborhoods. People would be buying on trust.
The sales office was a squat, prefabricated building with a two-story gabled facade tacked onto its front. It literally looked like a set piece from old Hollywood. The first of the eight thousand houses would not be ready until the summer of 1996, and it would take several years to reach the full population of twenty thousand. Prices for the houses were 20 to 25 percent higher than those for equivalent houses in the traditional subdivisions springing up across the Orlando region.
The turnout at the lottery surprised the people who had planned the event, despite the fact that interest in the community had been high from the time plans were announced, in 1991. Thousands of people had written to Disney seeking information, and thousands more had visited the preview center as work progressed. Already there had been dozens of stories in newspapers and magazines around the country. Indeed, interest seemed high enough that Disney executives were worried they would be overwhelmed if they simply opened sales that day. So Peter Rummell, the president of Disney Development Company, the subsidiary with overall responsibility for Celebration, told the community's general manager, Don Killoren, to come up with a fair and manageable means of selling the first homes.
"Don, we're going to open up for sales and the whole world is going to judge us and we won't get a second try," Killoren later told us Rummell had said to him. "I want good customer service and a big event. I want a press happening."
The result was the lottery, and the Disney touch was everywhere. Huge tents were erected as protection from the heat. Familiar Disney songs, like "When You Wish upon a Star" and "M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E," were piped over the loudspeakers. Magicians and clowns on stilts strolled among the crowd. There were a brass quintet and a hot-air balloon. Clean-cut young men and women, wearing matching shirts with the Celebration seal, sat at rows of tables inside the five tents to take the $1,000 deposit required to enter your name in the lottery for the chance to buy one of the houses or rent an apartment.
Actually, there was a series of lotteries. The five tents represented the five levels of housing available in the first phase of construction. They were Estate, Village, Cottage, Townhomes, and Apartments. The apartments, which were located over the shops and in areas adjacent to the town center, were available only for rent, starting at $737 a month for the smallest one-bedroom units. The least expensive of the homes for sale were the two-story and three-story town houses, which had eight to ten rooms and would sit on lots that were 28 feet wide and 100 to 130 feet deep. The town houses would line one of the town's main avenues and part of an adjacent park. Their prices started at $120,000 and went as high as $180,000. The Cottage homes were next, with prices starting around $220,000 for houses of about 2,500 square feet on lots that were generally 45 feet wide and 130 feet deep, about half the size of the traditional suburban lot. Next came the Village homes, which were larger and on lots that measured 70 feet by 130 feet. They started around $300,000. Finally there were the Estate homes, custom-built houses on premium lots that were 90 feet wide, 130 feet deep, and generally across from an open public space, like the golf course or one of the parks. The prices were expected to start around $600,000 and go up to $1 million.
Residential developers have long understood the market appeal of offering different models within the same community. Builders of rowhouses in the nineteenth century offered buyers choices in trim and other decorations, although the underlying houses remained the same. In Celebration, the builders offered multiple models and up to threedifferent facades for each of them. The opportunity to choose a model and facade was an act of empowerment in a development where there were few opportunities for exercising choices.
What was not subject to choice were the prices, which were non-negotiable and well above the median for the rest of Osceola County, which in 1995 was only $80,000. Nonetheless, twelve hundred people put down deposits of up to $1,000 for a chance at one of the initial houses and apartments.
As the hoppers spun and names were drawn and read out, there were cheers for the lucky winners. Those who got low numbers got first crack at signing contracts with the Disney-approved builders and choosing among the six house stylesCoastal, Classical, Colonial Revival, French Normandy, Mediterranean, or Victorian.
Later, as we got to know our neighbors, we discovered that attending the lottery was a badge of honor, akin to having been at Woodstock in your late teens or early twenties. Some people had gone to extraordinary lengths to be there, and many entered more than one lottery to improve their chances of winning. The deposits were refundable for people who did not get a low enough number to buy a house and for those who decided to back out before signing their contract. Those who entered multiple lotteries had the option of consolidating their deposits on the house of their choice or getting the additional deposits back.
"I paid with three one-thousand-dollar checks at the entrance to each tent," recalled Dan Rudgers, a music teacher in his mid-fifties from Long Island, New York. "I entered lotteries for a town house, a Cottage home, and a Village home. What I really wanted was a town house. I remember my lottery number for the town house, like a kid who remembers his number in the military draft in the seventies. It was four hundred fifty-seven, and I wasn't sure I'd get one. But eventually enough people dropped out of the Townhomes that it looked like I'd make it. So I consolidated my checks into a single deposit on the town house. That day was euphoric. It was just like everybody was so into this community and you just knew it was going to work."
Like many people in the first wave of residents, Rudgers was drawn by the Disney name. As a child in upstate New York, he had been a Mouseketeer, watching Disney's afternoon television show with his mouse ears on and, like Doug, he had had a big crush on Annette Fun-nicello.As he grew up, he switched to watching the Wonderful World of Disney and eventually moved on to Disney World itself.
"Every Sunday night this image of this beautiful, happy place in California would be on the television screen, and I just fell in love with it," said Rudgers. "Then, in 1971, while I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I heard that they were opening Disney World down here. There was nothing that could keep me from coming. On spring break, a buddy of mine and I grabbed two women, and we drove twenty-four hours straight from Ann Arbor. Of course, they went to the beach, and I went to Disney World."
Since he finished graduate school and started teaching, in 1972, Rudgers estimated that he had come to Disney World an average of three times a year. Some years he wasn't able to make it at all, but the next year he would make up for the loss by visiting five or six times. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Disney freak," he said proudly one day as he sat in the kitchen of his town house.
Rudgers first heard of Celebration in the early nineties. During a Christmas parade he was watching on television, there was a brief announcement that Disney was going to build a town in Florida. For three years, he peppered Disney executives with phone calls and letters, desperate for solid information about their plans. He got on a mailing list and began to receive tantalizing information about the plans, still in their infancy.
As the time neared for sales to begin, Rudgers's dream was almost derailed. Disney, now in the form of Celebration Company, went into public registration for the development. Securities laws meant people in most states, including New York, could not be solicited by mail. Rudgers was undeterred. On one of his vacations at Disney World, he used the address of some family friends to get a Florida driver's license. He also registered to vote and opened a bank account in the state. "It was what I call my grand deception," he confessed later. "But otherwise I was afraid I wouldn't be able to buy in the first phase."
Tony Rizzo gave up his career in the air force to live in Celebration. A physician and now a colonel in the air force reserves, he and his wife, Jacci, had lived with their children all over the world. But in early 1994, he had come across a brief mention of Celebration in a Disney magazine. The family had always loved their vacations at Disney World. "Tonyis never happier than when he is in an air force uniform or walking on Disney property," said Jacci.
So he began a correspondence with Charles Adams, one of the town planners. Eventually he and Jacci flew to Orlando to meet with Adams and learn more about the town. The description of Celebration's common purpose, like that of a military base, appealed to the Rizzos. The idea of raising their three young children in a safe environment and sending them to the state-of-the-art public school that Celebration Company was promising to build was so strong that they decided to turn their life on its head and move to the new town.
But the Rizzos faced the same problem that Dan Rudgers had. Rudgers had surmounted the problem by fudging his address. But the Rizzos, coming from a strict military background, were not about to create a phony address. They moved to Florida more than a year before Celebration was set to open, and Rizzo started working for Florida Hospital.
"My husband was up for full colonel, and he gave it up," said Jacci Rizzo. "I remember, after we moved to Florida, he was talking to Charles Adams a few weeks before the start of sales at Celebration and Adams said that it might be a lottery or it might be a line, sort of first-come, first-served. Tony became concerned. He gave up so much to get here that he wasn't going to take any chances. He was planning to take ten days off work and pitch a tent on the site, if that was what it took."
But there was no first-come, first-served. And the Rizzos got a low number for an Estate home in the lottery. The house would be a little bigger and more expensive than they had anticipated, but Rizzo's profession was going well, and it was a chance they felt they could not pass up.
Professional interest first brought Ray Chiaramonte to Celebration. He was assistant director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission in Tampa, Florida, and for a number of years he had watched the rise of the neotraditional movement. He also was a fan of Disney World and had first visited the preview center at Celebration during one of the family's frequent trips to the theme park.
"I came over a number of times and brought my staff, too," he said. "I was more interested in the physical architecture, but as I learned about the health center and the school, my interest increased."
Chiaramonte still had not decided how deep his interest was when lottery day rolled around. He was supposed to attend a play in Tampa that evening. Instead he drove over to Celebration and put his name in for an apartment. He got number twenty-three, assuring him of success.
He remembered the next moments vividly. "I called my wife, Debby, and said, 'We're going to live in Disney World.' I was afraid. We had been in the same house for eighteen years. I have a very stable job. Everything was so set in a certain direction. But we decided to change directions. We decided, let's just go. It will be an adventure. I can find out if the planning really works. And if we don't like it we can come back."
Along with four other government employees who live in the nearby town of Kissimmee, Chiaramonte commutes an hour or so each way to his job in Tampa. He hasn't decided whether neotraditional planning works, but he is happy living in Celebration and wants to stay to see it evolve further. After living in the apartment for a year, the family bought a house in the fall of 1997. "I'm intrigued," Chiaramonte said one evening as he sat on his front porch.
The town's first phase, 351 homes in what is called Celebration Village, essentially sold out through the lottery. A few winners changed their minds and some did not qualify for mortgages. But the leftover houses were snapped up quickly by other people. The 123 apartments in the town center were filled immediately through the lottery, leaving a six-month waiting list.
The success allowed the company to speed up the schedule for the second phase, to be known as the West Village, which is where we bought our home. Of course, the success also permitted the builders to bump up the prices about 10 percent for the next batch of dream seekers.
Celebration was expected to cost about $2.5 billion over ten years. Disney itself was risking about $100 million, barely a blip on the company's financial radar screen. (The previous year the parent company had earned $1.4 billion on $12 billion in revenue.) Most of that $2.5 billion would be the money paid for homes by individual purchasers, though a significant chunk of the development costs also were going to be passed on to the residents through assessments over the life of the community.
Disney had more at stake than money. Michael Eisner, the chairman and chief executive of the company, had encouraged the creation of the town with the understanding that it would be someplace special, which would reflect well on the company and its brand name. He did not want simply to build a town, he had said repeatedly. If Disney was going to build it, he wanted it to be the best new town. Disney's devoted fans expected nothing less.
"People speak in almost religious terms about how wonderful it will be," an Orlando planning consultant, James Sellen, said a short time after the lottery. Within those high expectations lurked serious danger. The people attracted to Celebration were relying on Disney's presence to ensure nothing less than the quality of their lives. Many of them expected Celebration to repeat the ideal of Disney World, but for fifty-two weeks of the year, not just a week or two of holiday time. If everything did not run as promised and if problems were not hidden away behind the scenes, the fingers would be pointed right back at Disney. The vaunted brand name could be tarnished. And Disney couldn't walk away from Celebration anytime in the foreseeable future, because the community always would be associated with its illustrious parent and the town would be just a few miles away from Disney World.
Those concerns seemed to be heightened by the preponderance of Disneyphiles in the first wave of Celebration residents, a fact that caused consternation among the small circle of men who had brought the town to life. These developers and planners feared early on that the new residents would expect life in Celebration to be as smoothly predictable and consistently happy as a visit to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World.
"The ones we worried about were the people who believe Disney can do no wrong," Peter Rummell, the chief visionary behind Celebration, told us in recalling some of the planning for Celebration within the parent company. "Those are the people who go to Disney World eight times a year and think that because Main Street is clean they could extrapolate that to a community and think that it was going to be perfect. Those are the people who think their kids will never get a B in school and there is never going to be a weed in their lawn when they move to Celebration."
Not long after the first residents moved into Celebration, Rummellleft Disney to become chairman and chief executive of the St. Joe Corporation, the company that had rejected Walt Disney's overture three decades before. But Rummell's initial fears were prophetic. The Disney brand name was a powerful lure, an implied promise of a cocooned town free of crime, drugs, and other excesses of a debased culture. Managing the rose-tinted expectations of a town full of people drawn to the Disney mystique would turn out to be far tougher than creating a day of fantasy at the Magic Kingdom.
Copyright © 1999 by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins