Turning the Page: Celebration, U.S.A

The first time I ever heard about Celebration, Florida I was sitting in my New York City History class during my senior year at a very liberal liberal arts college. The discussion drifted to gated communities and how “unnatural” they were. Like many of the things said during that class (and many of them during my time at that college) I didn’t get what the big deal was about. It never even crossed my mind if gated communities were good or bad to live in. At one point, a girl brought up Disney’s town and my ears perked up. I was a huge Disney fan, although at my college I was sort of in the closet about it. It didn’t pay to get into it with most people. (Even if I did write about it a lot of my creative writing classes.) This student was – shock of all shocks – disgusted that Disney had built their own little town where all the houses had to look the same. HOW COULD PEOPLE LIVE THIS WAY? I stopped listening. And I don’t think I thought about Celebration again until I finished Richard Fogelsong’s book Married to the Mouse at the beginning of this summer.

A little tough to get through at times, Richard’s book detailed Walt’s search for the perfect spot to build Walt Disney World without hitting the same problems they had with Disneyland – not having control over the development of the surrounding areas. Bottom line: Walt was not a fan of the businesses that had opened around Disneyland. Richard’s book covered a lot of numbers, and the general urban development of building the World. What I found most interesting was Disney’s relationship with Orlando and the development of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (and how Walt’s original vision for EPCOT played such a part in it). Toward the end, Richard mentioned a book or two about Celebration and I decided to take out Celebration, U.S.A by husband and wife, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins.

I quickly became fascinated.

While the first residents didn’t move into Celebration until 1996, the idea to build a town started in 1985. Peter Rummell, President of the Disney Development Company, was given the job to look into the 30,000 acres of undeveloped land left in Orlando. At this point, Magic Kingdom and Epcot were open, and construction for Hollywood Studios (then still known as MGM Studios) was underway. Much research and analysis led to the resolution that WDW would never have more than 5 theme parks. After some nifty math, the company was still left with 10 acres of land. The best part was that the land was swampy and populated by mosquitoes, cows, and the alligators they had transferred from working Disney areas. The company decided that if they didn’t make a decision soon, the state might swipe it because of its “environmental value” or they would sell it.

By why sell it when you can make some money, right? Rummell had to do a lot of quick thinking when it came to convincing Michael Eisner to turn this land into a development, and not something entertainment related. Soon a light bulb appeared: why not make Walt’s original dream of a living and breathing EPCOT a reality? Except in more realistic terms. Who could say no to that? Rummell believed the town should focus on education and health; he wanted to create a town that stirred the memories and feelings of the olden days but with a modern twist (a.k.a. neotraditionalism). He told Eisner that the town would be a “model for new town development everywhere.” And so the project was launched.

Initially, the town was to center on the Disney Institute when the original vision of education for all was a main feature. It was later decided the Institute would do better on Disney property (it is now defunct; the building is a part of the Saratoga Springs Resort) so they backtracked a bit. The focus remained on education but this time, for children. They wanted to create an innovative school system that provided only the best in technological advancements. This change became a major draw for those parents who wanted their children to have a unique and thorough education. After a project pause in 1988-1990, the town was christened with the name Celebration (originally favored by Eisner and his wife as Celebration Gardens) and an overall themeing was decided upon – pre-1940s Southeastern homes. The project wasn’t formally announced until 1991, and it wasn’t until 1995 when a crowd of 5,000 showed up to enter a lottery to be the first to move in.

One thing was still missing though. The entire town. Nothing was built. The first homes wouldn’t be ready until 1996 and still, people were desperate to get in. So how exactly did they know what they were getting into? I asked myself this same question quite a few times at this point in the story. For the non-Disney Company hecklers, the company was one that produced quality everything. With their name tied to the development, what could go wrong?

Doug and Catherine, our authors, didn’t move into Celebration until 1997. Up until then, they had only lived with their children in big cities. Both had grown up in small towns and when they first heard about Celebration and got the go-ahead to write a book on their experiences, they couldn’t pass it up. They wanted to experience small town life with their children (age 11 and 9). Add in Disney’s undeniable dedication to quality, a progressive school, everything needed in walking distance, and the chance to live amongst residents from all over the world – they were sold. Even if it meant signing a contract to only put tasteful curtains in their windows, never to complain about the mosquitoes, and keep their one car behind their residence.

While there was a lot of technical detail throughout the book, what I enjoyed reading the most was the story of the people who moved to Celebration in the first place. As someone who lived in the same house until I graduated high school and went to college a single state away, it was very surprising to read of the families that picked up everything to move to Disney’s town. Or the lengths they went through to make it happen. Some didn’t even sell their first house before they moved down to their Celebration home. Others maxed out their credit cards and had their parents take out equity loans just so they could make the down payment.

Despite some of the crazier circumstances, I felt pretty inspired by a lot of the families who decided to take a chance and make Celebration their home. They were willing to invest in an adventure. Even if it meant leaving the place they always knew. So many of them just wanted a chance to start life with a blank slate and actually took the steps to make that happen. Again, my parents have lived in the same house for over 30 years now and my husband’s parents plan to live in their home for the rest of their lives. I’m not surrounded by many adults who would do something so “daring”. I felt lifted because of it. Life is not over when you have kids and are settled into a routine in a community. It’s still out there if you are unhappy and are looking for something new.

Another part of me was flabbergasted by the amount of faith these early residents had in the Disney Company to make their lives better. So many moved to Celebration because of the Disney name and I understand that. In their theme parks and resorts, their unwavering quality in every arena is shouting from the roof tops. No garbage on the ground, happy cast members, delicious food, amazing details. But life is also no fairy tale. I sometimes worry if my affections for WDW are a form of escapism. Would I rather be in a fantasy world then my own? Sure, that’s partly true. Who wouldn’t? But I don’t forget there is a real world out there. Part of my passion for the company is because of the history and the ability to embrace my inner child whenever I want to. I think that’s pretty healthy compared to some earlier residents who thought they were going to be living in their own Magic Kingdom. It was a rude awakening for them when they realized that was just not true. The company handled Celebration at a distance, unlike the World. And honestly, you can’t depend on any one thing to give you that kind of happiness. You just can’t.

There is a definite learning process chronicled during this book. Even though Doug and Cathy were not die-hard Mickey fans, you could see how their own vision for Celebration changed as their first year continued. More and more it became just like any other town. Problems with the school, altercations with neighbors, and construction issues in their house. At some point the residents needed to take responsibility for their town and overcome their sugarplum notions.

After living in such established locations, I think I’ve taken for granted all the growing pains my current hometown has gone through to be what it is today. I almost felt like I was reading about the birth of the United States in a Social Studies textbook from long ago as I passed through story after story. It really was remarkable. It’s true Disney made a lot of mistakes when they decided to take on this venture. They could have avoided an insurmountable amount of drama if they had just held their horses, built up the town, and took their time. Instead they had too many people move in before anything was ready. The school was not even open for those first residents when so many of them moved for the school in the first place. I can see that happening when it came to shops and extracurricular activities in town, but the school? C’mon. The construction of the homes happened too quickly and carelessly and led to many problems initially, and even down the line. Not to mention there was no diversity. Low income families could not afford to move in the town. (Cast members couldn’t even afford to live there.) Sure, Disney was put in a tight spot at the early stages of planning when the state demanded affordable housing in Celebration and the county wanted more expensive homes. In the end, Disney agreed to donate money to affordable housing programs and build pricier homes.

But even as Doug and Cathy were debating whether or not to stay in Celebration for another year, they couldn’t help but talk of the many benefits of moving there. It was the most time they had ever spent with their neighbors compared to the other towns they had lived in. The potlucks, someone always sitting on their front porch, coming together to formulate a plan for their children’s education, fundraising to build their first church. It was monumental, and there was no way you could not be touched by those actions.

In 327 pages, there is so much detail covered in Celebration, U.S.A. When I started it, I never once I thought I would feel sad when I reached the last page. I grew to care about this town and the people who were working so hard to make it feel like a community. Disney could only give the town so much but it took the people to make it really feel like home. While I was left with a certain amount of pride, my curiosity could not be squelched especially after last year’s first report of murder in Celebration and Disney officially severing their ties to the town seven years ago. I am increasingly interested in reading an account of life in Celebration today. Here’s hoping that book is in the works. But until then, pick up Doug and Cathy’s account and discover the true pioneers of the town that Disney built.
* * *
Note: I am in the middle of reading 100 books this year, and the two I mention in this review/essay are part of that number. If you have any suggestions of books I may enjoy, please post them below! I’m always looking for more to read, and to add to my “Disney education”. If you would like to follow my progress on Goodreads, please feel free to friend me there! Happy reading!

One thought on “Turning the Page: Celebration, U.S.A

  1. Great review! This book has been on my TBR pile for months now, staring me in the face the whole time. It may be moved up a few notches now!

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