The Other Side To The Story

It was 85 degrees this Christmas Eve, when I first visited The Walt Disney World Company’s newest creation, Celebration, Florida. Somehow holly berry and pine needle decorations don’t really put me in the holiday spirit when I have to sweat to see them. Of course, Disney doesn’t control the sun (at least, not that I know of), but being surrounded by white, veiny tourist legs squeezing out of tacky Bermuda shorts only added to my negative feelings about this town.

By now, anyone living in Central Florida should have heard of what I was convinced was phase one hundred in Disney’s plan for world domination - the town of Celebration. In case you don’t know, it’s Disney’s estimated $2.5 billion project on approximately 4,900 acres in northwest Osceola County which will include up to 8,000 residences, a school, a health campus, and commercial, recreational, and retail facilities.

Driving down the hell that is U.S. Highway 192 is not my idea of grand entrance to any community, nor is the landmark water tower that signals Celebration Avenue. I’m all for organization, but the signs directing me Downtown were a little too reminiscent of that other Disney property not so far away. But more than the street signs, I couldn’t get over the architecture and the urban planning that looked more suited to Main Street, U.S.A. than any place where people would actually live. They even have those name plates next to every door, like they do in the parks — signs that read, “Electrical Room” in a uniform type with Braille at the bottom.

I decided to check out the sales office, expecting some kind of EPCOT-style tram ride to take me through the building.

The preview center was full of people who must have been so excited about this community of polite neighbors that they just forgot to excuse themselves as they shoved me out of their way to secure a seat in the mini-theater. The people starring in this “propaganda film,” as my friend called it, couldn’t stop talking about how alike they are and what “similar values” they all have. No kids with nose rings; no fat man drinking a Pabst; no one smoking a cigarette. Just porch swings, pot luck dinners, and evening strolls through the ‘hood.

Something's going on here?

The real slogan for Downtown Celebration is “something’s going on here,” but I like it in the form of a question, Alex. What’s going on here may well be part of Disney’s(the person’s and the company’s) larger dream, but more than that, it’s an experiment in New Urbanism.

Despite the name, New Urbanism is not that new. There are over 100 planned communities either in place or being built in the U.S. One of the most famous is Seaside, Florida designed by Miami-based architects Andres Duany and wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, developers and pioneers of New Urbanism.

The Congress for the New Urbanism, a group founded in 1993, has created a charter to detail the ideas, rules, ethics, etc. that encompass New Urbanism. Loosely defined, the concept started with the simple idea of persuading builders to create developments on a smaller scale; to increase the density of residential areas, to build schools, stores, offices, and recreation within walking distance; focus on plans for pedestrians and public transportation; to create friendly streets that encourage neighborly interaction through porches, stoops, and balconies; and to mix housing for various levels of income. The Celebration Company, the subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company that designed Celebration, followed all the rules.

There are shops, restaurants, a town hall, a post office, a bank, and a movie theater all within walking distance from the homes. Almost every home has a porch. Garages have been built, but in almost every case, the are behind the homes with an entrance through a smaller alley-like street instead of through paved driveways. A “health campus,” a.k.a. hospital, is in the works. And an office plaza sits next to the campus in an area just outside the Downtown and residential areas. There are plenty of grassy spots where neighbors can gossip or where kids can relax and enjoy a smoke on their walk home from the school.

So, what’s the problem? New Urbanism sounds like it just might provide a Leave-It-To-Beaver atmosphere in which to raise the Beavis and Butt-heads of today. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t.

Unscattered, smothered, and covered

Celebration’s first robbery, first murder, and first kidnapping are inevitable. Families may move there to avoid crime, but they’re seriously deluded if they think they can escape it. What they do want to escape is what New Urbanists see as a postwar suburbia that has raped the environment, dissected communities, and led to a heartless modern wasteland lacking compassion and breeding crime.

But if the spread-out urbanism that currently consumes the U.S. has caused social, moral, and logistical problems, how can cramping everyone closer together release any of they modern tensions.? New Urbanists say that people in planned communities will work together for a common goal of creating and maintaining a healthy atmosphere for living, learning, and growing.

But I’m not so sure that people want to live on top of each other. Families choose suburbs over cities, large homes or small ones, and big yards with more privacy over less spacious pieces of property. If you could afford a $600,000 home would you choose to live twenty feet from your neighbor’s house, divided only by a seven foot wall which the neighbor’s kids can easily see over from their second story windows? Not me. For $600,000 I don’t want any tan lines!

Supposedly, by commodofiying nostalgia, Celebration will attract residents who don’t want to take their tops off. It will be a community of people looking for the simpler, purer, good ol’ days — like it was when they were growing up...or how they wish it was when they were growing up. Whose sense of nostalgia is Disney selling? And is that sense of nostalgia real or imagined? Perhaps Celebration is an attempt to recreate a time that never was by rejecting the social ills of today, yet embracing today’s technology. Andy Wood, on the Center for Utopian Studies’ homepage, calls this anachronism a “tension of ideals without center.” He suggests that the progression of society naturally creates new social ills and that it may be impossible to compile a “Best of” world like those Sounds of the ‘70s Cds.

Herbert Muschamp’s article in Architecture Review (June ‘96) claims that New Urbanists overestimate their positive environmental plans since more compact cities lead to new problems. He also writes that the new design theory relies “too much on esthetic solutions to the social problems created by urban sprawl.” I raise a related question: Is it urban sprawl that has created today’s social problems or will the problems persist because they are more a product of the time than of faulty urban planning?

Slouching toward Celebration

Regardless of planning, zoning ordinances stand in the way of a New Urbanist wildfire. Laws that enforce the current “sprawl” will have to change drastically for towns like Celebration to become a significant force in urban planning. Jerry Alder of Newsweek (May 15, ‘95) sees Disney’s project as the litmus test: “Celebration will either validate the New Urbanism with the imprimatur of Disney — ‘safe for middle-class consumption’ — or prove its critics, that it’s a plot to lure unwitting citizens into living in theme parks.” Marlissa Marton, eight-year-old resident of Celebration and aspiring actress, compared her town to the Magic Kingdom after her class’ fieldtrip to the oh-so-educational themepark: “It’s kinda the same, except without the rides.” Maybe Celebration Phase II will include a big yellow rollercoaster that’ll take the kids to school.

The Other Side by Sean Helton

I perhaps have an unfair advantage in this discussion, as I’ve been working for The Celebration Company for the past six months. However, I think it fair to abandon the cynicism and sarcasm and look at Celebration without prepossessed feelings.

I’m not attempting to look at “new urbanism” because Celebration doesn’t fall into that category. Celebration is a town. Period. That previous term connotes very specific building guidelines—things like street widths, lot lines and densities—not all of which Celebration abides by. Will new urbanism work? I have no idea. Will Celebration work? Yes.

Celebration will work not because of its planning, not because of its architecture, technology, school or health campus, but because of its residents. The residents of Celebration are seeking to create community. They have chosen to spend their money not on a home in a neighborhood where a guard clears you and your visitors, and not on a house that sits on a two-acre parcel. They have chosen to live in a town with a public downtown filled with shops and restaurants you won’t see in any tired mall. A town with a public school and health campus. They have decided to move into this town and breathe life into it.

I’ve never met people like I have in the past six months working there. These are people who are genuinely nice. How many people you know are genuinely nice? Not nice when they need five bucks. Not nice when they need a ride.

Recently I escorted an Austrian television crew through Celebration. Remember, this is European media—the most outspoken of the anti-Celebration nay-sayers. After five days in town, the producer commented, “I feel like I know half the town already. I’ve really been touched by the families I’ve met.” That is why Celebration will work.

This is a town where people want to be involved. A place where your neighbor would actually call 911 if they saw someone back a van to your door and unload the contents of your home. Yes, crime will happen in Celebration and the residents know that. This is not utopia and no one is that naïve. However, this is a town where the residents will actually show concern when crime does happen. They take it upon themselves to be proactive instead of typically-American reactive. They know their neighbors and are happy to watch their house when they’re away for the weekend. They look after their neighbors’ kids like they look after their own.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that Disney is involved. Too many people are concerned with Disney’s role in the town. Disney was involved primarily in the downtown and the development of the land. Aside from that, Disney’s involvement is nearly non-existent. The home sites are purchased by the builders and buyers in turn purchase from them. The health campus is run by Florida Hospital. The school is run by the Osceola School Board. Yet people are so dogmatic and narrow-minded that they frown on Celebration solely because of the Disney name. And that’s fine. Celebration is not, nor was it ever intended to be, for all. You don’t have to like it. Just don’t be jealous. Sit at home and enjoy your day. And later you can go ask your neighbor, “what’s-his-name,” for a ride to work.

Back to April/May 1997 issue