The story that Parson Weems constructed in the early 19th century about George Washington has always struck me as representative of many stories and images that Americans associate with their history. Weems' Fable is perhaps better known to many as the story of Washington and the Cherry Tree, an imagined incident from Washington's childhood, from which he learned the lesson that it is always best to tell the truth. It has been passed on to generations of schoolchildren and imbedded deep into the American cultural consciousness. Even though it never happened, the story has acquired a veneer of veracity because it contains a valuable moral and it makes our first President a little less remote. The story has the effect of embodying Washington with qualities like honesty, courage and trustworthiness.
Grant Wood captured the theatrical nature of the story in his painting Parson Weems' Fable in 1939. It is Parson Weems who holds back the curtain so that Americans can peer in on the event as it unfolds. Wood's version is ironic because we see George Washington's adult head on a child's body. Wood is pointing out to his viewers the fiction and theatrical elements in this, and by implication, so many other of the stories that we associate with our national history and character.
This project is about the town of Celebration, Florida, a planned community constructed by the Walt Disney Company adjacent to Walt Disney World in Orlando. The name alone begs so many questions, not the least of which is one that asks what is being celebrated. The town picks up on the original idea that Walt Disney had for a utopian community to be called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. But instead of looking to the future for its structure and design as Walt envisioned it would, Celebration has been constructed by his successors to resemble a community out of history. In many ways, it is Disney's own Fable, although it is a fable of the Weems and not Wood variety. There is no irony in Celebration. It is Disney's paean to the American past, a two and one half billion dollar nostalgic look backward at the American small town. Celebration is celebrating itself.
The way that Celebration looks is often compared to a Norman Rockwell painting, and I think it is a wonderful comparison. In her recent study of Rockwell's work, Karal Ann Marling, an historian who has also written about the Walt Disney Company, wrote that Rockwell's paintings presented their viewers with "a vision of our common life, in the heart of this century, as we might wish to have lived it." Celebration has been designed with the same purpose with which Rockwell painted families saying grace, and parents tucking their children into bed. To recreate the American small town as we imagine it must have been, a community where citizens know their neighbors and talk to each other over fences, where children play safely out of doors and walk together to school. To make this a reality in modern America, Disney has spent a fortune.
In his book The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal argues that the future, even the immediate future, is frightening because it is uncertain. Anything could and will happen. But the past is safe, "tangible and secure", and because we have come from there, it takes on a quality of fixedness and certainty that the future can never offer.
Fitzgerald wrote about the same thing in The Great Gatsby. I clearly remember sitting in 10th grade American Literature class on the day that my teacher read the last page of that book aloud, opening my imagination to "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then. But that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." After he had read those beautiful closing lines, my teacher told us that he didn't know what they meant. I don't know that I completely believe that, but I, too, have puzzled over them countless times. But I think I have some idea of what Fitzgerald was trying to say. Fitzgerald and Gatsby were reaching for the same "tangible and secure" past that often seems so much more attractive than the unknowable future. Gatsby spared no expense in trying to recreate the physicality of that past, believing that in doing so, he could recreate it emotionally if he wanted it badly enough.
I believe that Disney had the same enigmatic desire when they set out to build Celebration, a desire commensurate with the financial possibilities that they foresaw if it could be marketed successfully. Stephen Fjellman, who has studied Disney throughout his academic career, says that working in concert with the Company's predatory financial motivations is the "utterly and totally sincere" belief of a huge number of Disney employees in Disney's particular version of the American past and its exhibition for popular consumption.
With their theme parks they have set out to present their vision of the past to millions of visitors, and with Celebration to make the past a reality for the 20,000 residents who build homes there. They have appealed time and again to their customers' belief that the past was a safer, cleaner, simpler place, and the public has shown itself willing to pay for the privilege of escaping, even for a few hours, into that past. Many might not blame them for wanting to escape. The present often seems like a scary, violent place to live, the future frightening and uncertain. It is easy to feel surrounded by drugs, crime, things that cannot be controlled, politicians who cannot be trusted. How easy it is to pay for a ticket and slip into a haven of security, clean streets, no crime.
It is at this place, this crossroads of nostalgia and consumerism, where the truly fascinating event takes place. For to make this community a reality, to make it look and sound as though it were a prewar Rockwellian dreamscape, Disney has introduced a government in which Celebration's citizens have no elected representation and a social system that leaves the town devoid of the very things that together form the essence of the dream for which its inhabitants are stretching out their arms. There is no town government, no churches, its citizens must follow an explicit set of codes that regulate everything from what kind of plants grow in their yards to how many people are allowed to sleep in a single bedroom. They have traded away their actual rights as American citizens for a fantastic version of American life. Like Gatsby, they believe that they will be able to grasp what their proximity to an idealized physical environment would seem to represent, the purity and hopefulness which they ascribe to a bygone era.
And this fantastic version is complicated further by the fact that the era it represents may or may not have existed. Because whether we admit it to ourselves or not, the vision of the past that we reach for is often not the truth. We are a country that from its origins has romanticized its past as well as its future. And the ideas and values that we reach for are to some extent constructs of that romance, legends built upon myths. We are a country that is held together by what is supposed to be a group of shared ideas. Not by blood or religion, but by intangible thoughts. We hold on to these and pass them along in part by giving them physical representation through the preservation or reconstruction of the physical environment in which they were first articulated and tested or in which they seemed to have existed in their purist form. And it is utterly tempting to construct or preserve these vessels so that they represent the past the way we want to remember it. As Henry Nash Smith wrote in The Virgin Land, they are images that were constructed when concept and emotion fused. The emotional longing for a simpler, more pure life has fused with the concept that the 1950's was a time when that life, "our common life" as Marling put it, was a reality. And the result it Celebration.
Norman Rockwell wrote in his autobiography:
"I sometimes think we paint to fulfill ourselves and our lives, to supply things we want and don't have...Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it - pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with kids and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard...I wasn't a country boy. I didn't live that kind of life...I guess I have a bad case of the American nostalgia for the clean simple country life..."
If the Walt Disney Company and itsarchitects did indeed turn to Rockwell for their inspiration of what life looked like in the past, then they have based their designs on a fantasy, on what Rockwell himself wanted to believe of life. And if it is not Rockwell's vision, then it is someone else's and in any case, it is a fantasy, because it does not represent reality. The 1950's were as complicated as any of history's eras, and it has proven time and again to be impossible to escape from life's complexities. Celebration's citizens have given up on an admittedly imperfect system, but one that is the truth behind the fantasy that they are pursuing.
I have always been intrigued by the idea that our culture is built to some extent upon a series of fantasies, of individual idealized visions of life. Visions that we have become so accustomed to that we take them for fact and build our own fantasies on top of them. But although the past we have constructed out of our fantasies and the nostalgia that we feel for it have an almost mesmerizing attraction, there is an inherent danger in the proposition of living in the past. In the end it killed Gatsby. Living in the past puts an unsustainable pressure on the present by making the claim that life is really easier than it seems, its problems and issues smaller and to be dealt with successfully through the creation of the correct environment and the acquisition of the right commodities.
Disney, in its Celebration experiment, has tried to do just that. Embracing a long standing tradition, they have attempted to control Celebration's citizens behavior through the control of the built environment, and by selling them a version of the American experience that is only partially true. This project seeks to examine the built environment of Celebration as well as the ideological forces behind its creation. Celebration calls not only upon the American tradition of selectively interpreting the past, but also on the many attempts at utopian living that precede it.
This project briefly examines these two traditions, and then explores Disney's corporate mission, the reasons, both financial and ideological, that Disney has called upon these traditions and the lengths to which Disney will go to protect its investment. It includes details of Walt Disney's original utopian dream of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and concludes with an inspection of Celebration itself, how it differs from Walt Disney's EPCOT, how it draws on the American romantic and utopian traditions and how it dangerously deviates from the reality that exists in the world outside the Magic Kingdom.