Celebration Chronicles

Andrew Ross

Read June 2003

When I was young (we're talking about five to seven years old), I used to put myself to sleep by dreaming about designs for new towns.  I'm not sure quite what it was about Bangalore (where I was, in fact, quite happy) that led me to such utopian fantasies, and my designs were, in retrospect, quite awful.  (Though reading some of the fantasies of the New Urbanists, I'm not so sure this would have been a debilitating weakness.)  They were also, if memory serves me right, very circular; instinctively, something about a hub-and-spoke model seemed very appealing.

Anyway, back to the present.  The New Urbanists appear to have been one of the major forces of the 1990s, and nowhere was their nostrum more readily wedded to the forces of marketing and fantasy than in Celebration, Florida, a town conceived by Disney.  People who had come to think of Disney as the company that could do no wrong, who had been won over by the spotlessness (I'm told) of Disney's Main Streets, rushed to buy into the imagineering fantasy.  You can just see how a story like this is going to go.

Andrew Ross takes a year's hiatus from New York City to live in Celebration and chronicle his experiences.  He comes wanting to find fault with Disney (a trait common to many a journalist, eventually leading town residents to clam up before the fourth estate) but slowly comes to give them credit and absolve them of many of the town's sins.  If you really like your Disney over a barrel, stick to Carl Hiaasen's Team Rodent.

There are many stories within the Celebration framework, and Ross captures some of them superbly.  He discusses the overpriced houses, the premiums people were willing to pay for the marriage of Disney to a kind of utopian urbanism.  But what happens when you find yourself in a town with poor construction and sometimes questionable infrastructure?  What happens, in particular, when you've paid what most people might consider too much, and when that amount represents your life's savings?  You rapidly learn that complaining loudly makes it likely that the next, more watchful, generation of Celebration-bound will stay put, leaving you to ponder the shattered remains of your equity in leisure.  Thus, many a Celebration resident changes their outlook to pursuing life, liberty and property value.  (Hmm: having written that last phrase I realize it's a direct paraphrase of the book's subtitle.  I guess he got his point across.)

Many of the problems of Celebration center around its school system.  Schools are a major determinant of property value in the US; in addition, promises of magnificent schools were part of the Celebration pitch.  (And the early residents bought into it because it came from a company with a talking mouse as its enduring symbol.  Go figure.)  The residents are shocked to find that they are just a part of a mediocre public school district.  What's worse, many of the teachers—some of them also idealists drawn to the Celebration theme—prove to be experimentalists, further infuriating parents who had, presumably, hoped that Disney would create a school that would get their children directly into, say, Brown (ahem).

Ross, who is deeply sympathetic to the teachers, tries his best to paint them in the best possible light.  He fails rather miserably.  Indeed, his descriptions of some of their activities left me thinking that if I were a parent, there's no way I would endure some of these antics.  At any rate, the parental antagonism pushes the school's administrators and teachers deep into a defensive shell, making the entire situation predictably worse.  In short, it's a nightmare.

The book's analysis falls short in several places.  For most of the book, Ross never discusses race matters, surely a central force in Walt Disney's planned utopian town?  He also never really informs us about income levels (which, over a year, he could surely ascertain); what information we do get suggests it's rather low (go figure: there's very little to do in town, and the surrounding region's main employers are entertainment complexes).  Ross never even tells us whether there's a bookstore in the place; I'd have loved to hear what books it stocked and, over the course of a year, sold.

Everything said, this is an intriguing book, especially if you've ever been interested in urbanism, the New Urbanists, Disney, or a host of related topics.  Ross wears his biases quite loudly on his sleeve, making it easy to distinguish opinion from reportage.  His attempts to inject himself into Celebration as a resident never entirely succeed, I feel, but he still observes enough to give us real glimpses of the town.  And, if nothing else, it made me want to re-read Duany and Plater-Zyberk's book to reassess New Urbanism in light of this case study.