Geo-Joint: Celebration, Florida – The Happiest Town on Earth, sort of.

Life is messy. It’s hard to keep things organized, and when a whole bunch of people live nearby each other (as we usually do), all sorts of inefficient, unsightly, poorly maintained situations develop. For proof of this notion, have a look at just about any urban area. Maybe it’s human nature, or entropy, or some other immutable universal law, but disorganization and its trashy products are everywhere. This ever-present ugliness of modern life is an annoyance for many, but one man and his company had a vision, and the money, to create something different. That man was Walt Disney. He envisioned a small American town that had the homey qualities of Mayberry combined with the perfect order of Disneyland. He bought up close to 30,000 acres of remote wetlands in central Florida southwest of Orlando back in the 1960s, with the plan to create such a town. Unfortunately for him, he died before it could be realized. Despite his departure, the Disney Corporation went on to create Walt Disney World with its several theme parks on this land, and it has been a huge success.

Celebration sits in mid-peninsula, close to Orlando.

Celebration’s nostalgic Town Center fronts one of central Florida’s ubiquitous lakes, with Disneyesque order.

After the construction of those parks, a large parcel of land remained, but was separated from the entertainment areas by a highway, and unhandy for that sort of development. Walt’s old idea came back into play. Disney designers and an army of architects and planners set about creating a pre-made town based on the southern charm of a Savannah, or Charleston. The plans included large, classically designed houses with gables and expansive front porches, white picket fences, neat and tidy landscaping, tasteful decoration in streetlights, and no cluttery advertising signage. The neighborhoods were laid out around a central downtown square, reminiscent of early American towns. Along with the enforced charm came some enlightened urban layout meant to combat sprawl. Employing a then popular design philosophy called New Urbanism, the downtown areas were laid out to be within walkable distance from residences, providing services that people would find inviting—restaurants, movie houses, cafes. Multiple-use buildings and the inclusion of condominiums encouraged a certain amount of density close to the commercial district and brought people into greater contact, encouraging public interaction. As a final touch, the place was given a name sure to swell your heart with warm fuzzies—Celebration. The marketing surrounding Celebration before it opened in 1996 was so successful that people had to enter a lottery to be eligible to buy into the town. The original residents were thrilled to part of a Disney-centric development. Safety and charm were number 1 priorities, closely followed by cleanliness, order, and controlled format. To promote a cohesiveness to the town’s look, there were only six traditions of architectural design style allowed, all to be covered in a narrow range of pastel colors. The reliably formulaic quality of Disneyland or Disney World made for secure, satisfied residents. The population was decidedly more well-to-do and whiter than the surrounding communities, and to a large degree they were employees at Disney World.

The commercial district is designed to exude Southern charm and scrupulous cleanliness.

Houses are all pastel, stately, and neat. White picket fence de rigueur.

Beyond these diehard fans of Disney, though, people took a more jaundiced view of the ambience of Celebration. The rigid rules that made other homeowners associations look like lawless trailer parks put many off, and gave the place a reputation for being a sort of Orwellian dream prison. The enforced order and cheer gave many the creeps. The Disney code of happy perfection just didn’t ring true outside of theme parks and movies, and indeed, reality began to marr the gloss of Celebration. Corners that had been cut during construction came to light as buildings aged. A school once touted as offering the best possible education around let residents down. The downtown area didn’t offer enough basic amenities for a functioning community with everyday needs. Even the movie theater, an architectural gem of ‘50s styling, went out of business as its restrictive movie content policy didn’t bring enough viewers. Problems didn’t only crop up from within. The mean old outside world eventually had its way with Celebration when the economy turned sour in 2008 and foreclosures became common. One despondent resident whose mortgage was underwater barricaded himself in his house and shot himself dead. Not long after, Celebration logged its first murder. These sad events and crimes were well below the statistics racked up by nearby communities, but the image of Celebration was tarnished. While most residents are still happy with the town’s carefully curated organization and appearance, outsiders are increasingly skeptical of the wonderfulness of the place. Originally planned to grow to a 20,000-person community, it remains well less than half of that, 20-plus years later. Many have always found the notion of a meticulously planned and governed living space to be uncomfortably intrusive. While so many of us long for the “good old days” of neighborly kindness in a well-kempt setting, having it pre-organized and then legislated rang hollow and smacked of artificiality, or worse, mind control.

You can tell by the shorts and short sleeves that this is not a bitterly cold Florida evening. But the “ice” won’t melt—like the “snow” that falls on Town Center in December, it’s actually a synthetic material.

Disney sold out its interest in Celebration to a property development and management firm in 2004, but the strong adherence to Mouse House kitsch by the many Disney World employees and fans has kept the place thematically intact. Residents still refer to their life there as living inside “The Bubble,” and outsiders who scoff at it are ignored. Such a place will always have its adherents because it is, after all, clean, neat, architecturally cohesive, and safer than most places. It’s Living the Dream, for many. For others, though, it’s a living nightmare of conformity and constraint, but nobody is forcing these detractors and eye-rollers to live there. The fantasy and foibles of Celebration are a fascinating study in human and environmental engineering—its starry-eyed possibilities and its real-world limitations. Designers may try their best, but in the end, people are funny.


Headed for Disney World and a side trip to Celebration? Get this stylish wall map of Florida to decorate your wall and plan your route. Available from Maps.com.

 

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PHOTO CREDITS:

caption: Celebration’s nostalgic Town Center fronts one of central Florida’s ubiquitous lakes, with Disneyesque order.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Bobak Ha’Eri (CC by SA 2.5 Generic)

caption: The commercial district is designed to exude Southern charm and scrupulous cleanliness.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Simonhardt93 (CC by SA 4.0 International)

caption: Houses are all pastel, stately, and neat. White picket fence de rigueur.
source: Pixabay: schaerfsystem / 353 images (CC 0)

caption: You can tell by the shorts and short sleeves that this is not a bitterly cold Florida evening. But the “ice” won’t melt—like the “snow” that falls on Town Center in December, it’s actually a synthetic material.
source: Flickr: Leigh Caldwell (CC by 2.0)

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