In 1995, America witnessed the most publicized real estate transaction since the Oklahoma land rush. Buyers queued up, $1000 checks in hand, to enter a lottery. A low number guaranteed them the opportunity to buy a piece of a dream: a home in Disney's Utopian new community, Celebration.
Located adjacent to Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, Celebration promised a return to the ideal of the American small town, and who better to serve up that dream than kindly old Uncle Walt?
It had been an idea a long time in the making. Disney's original idea for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was very similar to Celebration, so similar in fact that an EPCOT promotional video made shortly before Disney's death in 1966 was expertly edited and used in the promotion of Celebration. Remarked one viewer, He hasn't changed a bit. EPCOT was to be a town of skyscrapers and monorails, a postmodern community of 20,000 with an eye to the future; Celebration, by contrast, found its muse in the past. Celebration promised state-of-the-art infrastructure, progressive schools, and high-tech shopping convenience, together with a sense of community unknown since the 1950s. Houses were to be spaced more tightly together than in the typical suburb to foster a feeling of togetherness. Front porches were to be located close to the street (and to one another) so that neighbors could be, well, neighborly. It was a dream that was to go horribly awry, a place where badly built homes sank into the swamp, where alligators were regular visitors to the family swimming pools. Encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes bred in the backyards, and people complained endlessly about the unfulfilled promises.
Two new books address the phenomenon of Celebration: The Celebration Chronicles by Andrew Ross and Celebration, USA by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Although they touch on many of the same issues, their perspectives could scarcely be more different. Ross chose a rental apartment as his domicile, Frantz and Collins a $300,000 house. Ross moved from Manhattan, Frantz and Collins from suburban Connecticut. Ross is divorced, a rare solo denizen of Celebration; Frantz and Collins are married with school-age children.
Ross tells us of his humorous experiences with interior design consultants who helped in the decoration of his apartment:
"She warned me that she was itching to be let loose to redesign my 'little space.' Protocol demanded that she consult my tastes, however, and she promised that when the time came we would go shopping together in the showrooms. Passing on each of the national traditions on offer, I expressed my preference for Mediterranean colors and local decorative elements. This was a frank provocation, because it did not cater directly to the expertise of my guests . . . But they were undeterred by my lack of imagination. What colors interested me? Turquoise and jasmine. Both were 'in' at the moment. Everything I mentioned happened to be 'in.' We agreed on leopard-skin prints . . . "
Frantz and Collins on new neighbors:
"In Celebration, friendships, like the town itself, were instant, popping up as fast as the moving trucks unloaded new lives. The natural instinct was to resist these new relationships even as we went on forming them. On the surface, they sometimes seemed too easy. Yet what was this community itself except common interests and a shared outlook on life? The same dreams brought most of us to Celebration, just as the earliest city dwellers sought safety and better lives through group living five thousand years ago."
Both books, though quite different in nature, are insightful and thought-provoking. Each offers good humor, excellent research, compelling anecdotes. Celebration was (and is) a town of contradictions: modern vs. traditional, individuality vs. conformity, nature vs. mankind. A microcosm of America, with a uniquely Disneyesque twist.
Bruce Tierney is a writer and songwriter.