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Celebration, Florida

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

Disney World may be a nice place to visit… but would you want to live there?

(Image credit: Bobak Ha'Eri)

WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR

By the early 1960s, Walt Disney was no longer content to be an animator, movie director and producer, theme-park designer, and TV show host. What he really wanted to do was build a city in central Florida. But not just a city— a “planned community” that would serve as a utopian example for future urban planners. He called it “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” or EPCOT for short.

Top-level executives at the Walt Disney Company (not to mention Disney’s financial advisors) thought he was out of his mind. But they had to give him the benefit of the doubt— just a few years earlier, the same people thought that building a “kiddie park” in a California orange grove would bankrupt Disney and his company. They were wrong, of course. Disneyland, which opened in 1955, became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.

(YouTube link)

Even so, Disney’s plans for EPCOT were fairly bold. He’d never built a community before. But he had overseen the complex design and development of Disneyland, and he wanted to draw on that experience to build EPCOT. For example, he wanted to install small elevated trains like Disneyland’s People Mover, as well as a citywide monorail. What automobile traffic that was left, Disney planned to limit to underground tunnels, like the ones used by park staff. EPCOT would also be laid out, like Disneyland, in a circle, with businesses in the center and residential areas (with enough housing for 20,000 people) along the perimeter.

GET A JOB

But Disney also wanted to make sure the community ran smoothly and according to his vision. That meant that EPCOT residents would not be allowed to own property— homes would be rental-only, and tenants would have no voting rights or any say in community lawmaking. And while that sounds very similar to a modern-day elderly residence home, Disney actually didn’t want any retirees living in EPCOT. Everyone (except for children) would have to be employed, and employed at EPCOT. Disney actively wanted the town to be a showcase for advanced technology and to serve as a tribute to American ingenuity and the benefits of American capitalism.

“CENTER” OF THE WORLD

The Disney Company aggressively developed the idea of EPCOT until 1966, when it came to an abrupt halt. What happened? Walt Disney died… and so did his dream of EPCOT. With Walt out of the way, Disney executives no longer had to pretend they wanted any part of the massive undertaking of creating and running a city.

Besides, they had much bigger fish to fry— they had to get the company’s second theme park, Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, up and running by its announced 1971 opening date. When that park proved to be even more successful than Disneyland, the company announced plans to expand the Florida complex into Walt Disney World, which included plans for a second park— EPCOT Center. It opened in October 1982.

(Image credit: Benjamin D. Esham)

It was not the EPCOT that Walt Disney had imagined— it wasn’t a town; it was an amusement park. But it was based on EPCOT’s original conceptual art, and it does positively ponder the future. Visitors to Future World can see cutting-edge technology and innovation. The rest of the park, called World Showcase, is like a permanent world’s fair— a series of small areas, each representing a different country.

A DREAM IS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES

But the original EPCOT dream failed to die, probably because of the lasting— and lucrative—lucrative— success of Walt Disney World. The company had long since established “Disney” as a clean, wholesome, family-friendly, all-American brand. The company also deified Disney, and looked to his old playbook for new ideas. Result: in the early 1990s, the Disney Company created the Celebration Company, charged with building a “perfect community” on a 4,900-acre plot just eight miles south of Walt Disney World.

(Image credit: Simonhardt93)

Michael Eisner, the company’s CEO at the time, challenged Celebration’s designers to, as he put it, “make history.” Their ideas had little in common with what Uncle Walt had planned for EPCOT. Instead of building a futuristic utopia with people-movers, monorails, underground tunnels, and shiny angular buildings, they created a community based on “new urbanism,” a design philosophy that stresses the need for walkable neighborhoods, open spaces, and traditional architecture. Ironically, lots of its other buildings resemble the nostalgic all-American small-town buildings created for Main Street in Disneyland. However, Celebration doesn’t have a “Main Street,” because of a local law that says no two streets in the same county can have the same name.

CELEBRATE! OR ELSE

But Celebration did retain one element of Uncle Walt’s vision: strict control over the community’s politics, services, and appearance. Small alleyways were built behind houses for trash collection and the parking of residents’ cars (most houses don’t have garages that face the street). Tight neighborhood regulations dictated the color of residents’ curtains (white only) and the height of the grass on their front lawns, along with a slew of other nitpicky rules. The company also hand-picked the businesses that were allowed to set up shop in its commercial districts.



Nevertheless, thousands of people wanted to live in Celebration. In 1996 the first 700 people started moving into one of the town’s “villages,” which was what it called its residential areas. (Average cost of a house in Celebration: $377,000.) Early promos called Celebration “a place that takes you back to that time of innocence.”

Other people thought the Disney-town was creepy. “It is kind of Stepford Wife-like,” a relative of a resident told the New York Times. Perhaps contributing to the uneasiness, Celebration’s downtown contains several weird “seasonal” features. Every October, for example, leaf-shaped confetti flies out of lampposts along one street, much like the timed fireworks and parades that occur at Disney theme parks. The event, which attracts hundreds of Floridians who rarely get to experience fall foliage, occurs nightly on Fridays and Saturdays. In December, fake snow made out of soap fills the air while Christmas music trickles in from hidden speakers. (Other annual highlights include a pie festival that’s televised on Food Network and a “Posh Pooch” event in which local residents dress up their dogs in fancy clothing.)

PARADISE LOST

(Image credit: Wassssuuuup!/Adam R)

As Celebration grew, so did discord among its residents. The one thing that Disney and his successors wanted to hold on to in Celebration —control— is what ultimately sank the community. Homeowners became frustrated by the company’s control over the town, its government, and its businesses. Hundreds of homes remained unsold; many others were sold by fed-up residents for far less than they’d paid. And reality continues to shake up “the perfect community” every now and then:

• In 2010 vandals covered Celebration’s memorial for veterans in black graffiti.

• Around that same time, the local elementary school was put on lockdown after a woman reported that her estranged husband was driving around town wielding a gun.

• That same year, a SWAT team and a tank were called in to deal with the owner of a failing security business who barricaded himself in his house. A 14-hour standoff ended in tragedy when the man committed suicide.

America’s “Great Recession” of the late 2000s didn’t help the town much, either. It caused property values to plummet 60 percent within four years. Nearly 500 houses had to be repossessed by banks and lenders. Local residents also began contending with problems that impact most American communities: burglaries, vagrancy, and divorce. Several homeowners say that the town’s blandness ruined their marriages. (The term used to describe the phenomenon: “Celebration Separation.”)

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Those who stayed relish Celebration’s relatively good safety record and quality of life. Many of them refer to it as “the Bubble” and, as a homeowner once joked to a reporter, Celebration will feel like a real town when a bike finally gets stolen. While we don’t know if that has happened yet, Celebration’s first reported homicide occurred in 2010. A retired schoolteacher named Matteo Giovanditto was found dead in his condo. The murderer was a transient who claimed Giovanditto tried to drug and assault him. It was later revealed that the victim had a history of sexually abusing children.

END OF THE LINE

In 2004 the Disney Company sold off much of its property in Celebration’s town center and started scaling back its role in the community. According to some insiders, that was the plan from the start; Disney intended to stick around only long enough to make a huge profit off the real estate. Depending on whom you ask, Celebration may have just been a shrewd business venture all along. But while Celebration may no longer be an official “Disney town”… it’s still just a ten-minute drive from Walt Disney World.

(Image credit: Dough4872)

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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