Preview Center

 

Town Hall

 

Post Office

 

Movie Theatre

 

Celebration Park

 

Downtown

 

Celebration School

 

Celebration Health

 

New Office Complex

 

Golf Clubhouse

 

Covered backyard

 

 

Celebration is a town filled with contradictions. Designed to recall the image of prewar, small town America, and the idealism and safety that we associate with that era, it is in actuality a community that is controlled by a strictly enforced set of rules and regulations. Celebration emerges from two prevalent strains in American thought, the search for a utopian life and the romance of the past into idealized forms. Using architectural forms that Americans associate with the best and most pure aspects of American life, the Walt Disney Company has attempted in Celebration to create a community in the utopian model, ruled by a single vision, structured through a set of principles to which every resident must subscribe, and envisioned as an example to the rest of society, a city upon a hill, in which residents live a more meaningful existence.

Unlike utopian communities of the 18th and 19th century, however, Celebration's specialness is not derived from its unique understanding of its relationship with God nor from a revolutionary conception of human relationships. While Celebration claims that it has a dedication to Community unusual in the modern age, the very institutions and organizations that form the bedrock of American community are lacking in it. There is no representative government, no churches, and residents have little control over the policies of the Celebration School, although it is public. What they have in common is commodities, and an agreement to a set of rule that dictate what type of shrubs they can plant in their yards and how high their fences may be.

The following provides a physical description of Celebration, as well as a discussion of how the rules and regulations of Celebration are in fact diametrically opposed to the purpose for which Celebration proclaims itself and which it has been constructed to embody.

 

Celebration, Florida

On the second day of my visit to Celebration, the forecast called for rain. But the sky was perfectly blue, with the exception of a few picturesque white clouds. It began to rain as I drove through the gates on my way out for the last time. It is almost enough to make one believe that it never rains in Celebration.

Driving into Celebration is like driving into a dream, or onto a movie set. The juxtaposition with the surrounding landscape makes it even more dramatic. The major thoroughfare off of which Celebration Avenue branches is choked with the same peach and turquoise stuccoed, red tile-roofed motels and restaurants that form much of the territory surrounding the Magic Kingdom, there to profit from the Disney World overflow. Seeing the environment makes Walt's motivations for establishing the Reedy Creek Improvement District understandable if not justifiable. The parks themselves are nestled far inside the District and away from this commercial area.

But the transition to Celebration is much quicker than that to the park. Immediately after turning off of Route 192, you find yourself on a wide, grassy boulevard, lined with trees and a white split rail fence. A water tower, emblazoned with both Celebration's name and an advertisement for the movie theatre is the first thing that you see, followed by a sign in pseudo-childlike handwriting which warns drivers to watch out for children at play.

Over the bridge and you are inside. In fact one of the first things you notice is that children are at play, roller-blading, riding their bicycles, running through a large fountain constructed just for that purpose. Some are accompanied by their parents, but most are unattended, free to cavort safely. There is also a swimming pool and a playground, appropriately placed out of the range of visiting tourists.

Another thing that is immediately apparent is the cleanliness. Like the Disney parks, Celebration is spotless. Not only is there no litter or overgrown lawns, but even the trash and recycling receptacles have been hidden in narrow alleys that run behind individual houses so that they cannot be seen from the road.

After gleefully driving around Celebration for several minutes, taking it all in, I proceeded to the Preview Center, located along with Celebration Realty in an odd looking building across the square form the town hall. Made of brick, the Preview Center is the tallest building in town. Designed by Charles Moore, it was the last building executed before his death. It almost resembles a church, with a tower at the front of a long, low building which can be seen from almost anywhere within Celebration. The tower is surrounded by a white staircase and which was intended to lead to a viewing area at the top which would provide a view of the whole community. But because of zoning restrictions, one cannot climb higher than the third story.

At the preview center, I was greeted by a woman who asked me why I was in Celebration and escorted me to a young man who was just beginning a short talk on Celebration and the philosophy behind it. He explained that Celebration was founded on five important principles, Health, Education, technology, Community, and Place. The dedication to these five principles and their incorporation into daily life, he told us, set Celebration apart from other planned communities. He also listed many of the communities, both planned and organic, that celebrations architects and planners had visited before they broke ground at Celebration, looking for ideas about what worked best in small towns as well as problems that should be avoided. According to my guide, Disney was moved by a sense of purpose and responsibility to build a community that built upon the best aspects of small town life without incorporating any of the negative ones.

We were then ushered into a room displaying maps, photographs and posters designed to present evidence of these principles in action in Celebration. Once we had had a few minutes to look around, we were moved into the Film Room. The Film Room is painted with large, fanciful red diamonds and outfitted with red rattan chairs. The ceiling contains a dome, the frieze of which is painted with the names of the cities whose plans most influenced Celebrations designers. They are Savannah, Easthampton, Nantucket, Mt. Dora, Winter Park, Kissimmee, and Charleston.

Heavy green velvet curtains parted and a short film about Celebration began. The film is introduced by Walt Disney himself, in a clip from the last film that he made before his death, detailing his plans for EPCOT. Starring a cross section of Celebration's residents, it touches on the the five principles and the influence that they have on life in Celebration. Residents exclaim, among other things, on the foresight of designing houses with porches and low fences, so that one can observe one's neighbors. They praise the fact that Celebration is safe and comfortable, and that the people who live there have the same ideals and goals. It is, as one resident observes, a "dream town."

Throughout the short film, even while the speakers are sitting in their living rooms, softly chirping birds can be hears in the background. When the film ends, the birds continue, the lights go up, and doors at the far end of the room glide open, permitting viewers to walk into the Map Room. The Map Room centers on a huge, three-dimensional map of Celebration, including the portions that have yet to be developed. Using a pointer, my original greeter points out Celebrations amenities, including the golf course, health center and school. She escorts us into the Model Room, where we can view scale models of the different house sizes and styles, as well as the pattern book which contain the 84 possible floor plans as well as lists of the restrictions that apply to home exteriors and yards. With the exception of the apartments that can be rented in the center of town, there are five sizes of homes that can be built in Celebration. They are Townhouse, Garden, Cottage, Village and Estate. Six exterior styles are permitted in Celebration. They include Classical, Colonial Revival, French, Coastal, Mediterranean and Victorian. Driving through Celebration, it is apparent that Victorian in clearly the most popular, followed by Colonial Revival. Because French and Mediterranean are only available in the more expensive house styles, Village and Estate, there are many fewer examples of these styles. For example, Lake Evalyn, one of the areas that has been developed most recently, has only Garden lots, and almost all the homes are Victorian.

All of the houses open to alleyways in the back, where the garages are located. It is at the alleyways that house in different price ranges meet. Greeters at the Preview Center call these buffer zones. Yards are small, even in the more expensive houses, so that neighbors are in close proximity and with the hope that residents will be encouraged to use the many parks and common areas in the town. Some back yards are completely covered with black screen. While this is intended to keep out bugs and animals, it serves unconsciously as a mediator with nature, keeping its unpleasant aspects at a distance.

The downtown area seems strangely out of proportion with the rest of the development. While is has a small food market and and eyecare office, cellular telephone shop, movie theatre and jewelers, it lacks a grocery store and many of the kinds of shops that would be of utility to its residents, like a drug store or a dry cleaners. Residents I spoke with acknowledged the need to travel out of Celebration for many necessities of daily life.Most of the businesses seem to be in place to capitalize on the tourist market. The restaurants are expensive, but there was a healthy mix of townspeople and tourists in the sandwich shop where I ate lunch, complete with soda fountain and 1950's standard songs. Walking and driving through the streets, there was a noticeable tourist presence, but not overwhelmingly so.

The shops and restaurants are intermixed with the municipal buildings, which consist of the Town Hall and the Post Office, as well as the Bank. There are no Fire or Police Departments.

Designed by Philip Johnson, the brick Town Hall is surrounded by a forest of thin white columns, calling on several architectural influences, from classical architecture to colonial columned houses, such as Mount Vernon, and colonial churches, as well as southern antebellum plantation houses. Perhaps more than any other structure in town, it belies the dichotomy inherent in what Celebration is trying to accomplish. The Town Hall, a building representative of the small town tradition of rigorous self-governance and democratic principles, functions in Celebration as the office of the Town Manager, and unelected position that is filled by an appointee from Celebration's governing board, which is run by Disney. When you enter the building, the hall does not branch off into a series of municipal offices,such as the Registrar of Voters office, as is the case in most other city office buildings. It merely contains a receptionist, a bulletin board, stacks of Celebration promotional literature, and an unmarked elevator.

Celebration School is set off from the downtown area and is surrounded by parks and playing fields. It is light and open, and seems to derive influence from the Spanish Colonial style architecture with its two low towers, open at the top to allow air circulation.

The school, which enrolls students in grades Kindergarten through 12, has been the flash point of controversy in Celebration. Debates have raged over its curriculum since it opened, and several families have either moved out of Celebration or are sending their children to private schools elsewhere. The school follows a progressive curriculum that lacks the usual systems of grades and honors. Teachers are trained in this method in a teaching academy established in Celebration by Disney.

Many parents are concerned that the school is not competitive enough, and fear that their children will not be accepted at competitive colleges and universities. Due to the amount of controversy and unrest that this system has generated, the school has just announced that they will instate honors classes and an Honor Society in the High School. The school has responded to pressure placed upon it by the townspeople, but there is no elected Board of Education that represents the citizens of Celebration in their dealings with the school. A group of original families who opposed the school went to the press with their complaints as a recourse because they felt that they did not have adequate representation within the system. They wanted Disney to allow them to break the homeowner's agreements that they had signed, called the Declaration of Covenants, and move away. Disney tried to make them sign a confidentiality agreement before they allowed them to break their agreements so that they would not be able to generate any more bad publicity for Celebration.

The Golf Club is at the end of a long vista that extends out from the main shopping street, called Market Street. It is a public, 18 hole course, and the club house was designed by Jaquelin Robertson, who with Robert Stern is one of Celebration's main architects.

The Celebration Health Center contains a hospital that is a subsidiary of Florida Hospital. It also houses workout facilities and a health food restaurant. Celebration Health as well as a new office complex are removed from the center of town.

What Celebration noticeably lacks is a courthouse, a cemetery and any denomination of church or synagogue, perversely denying the physical manifestations of justice, faith and death that those structures represent. Religious communities are developing, but they currently meet in the movie theatre and school cafeteria and are responsible for buying their own land and paying for the construction of their worship site, should they want a structure of their own. Celebration's planners made room for one worship site the center of town, with the understanding that whichever denomination organized itself first would be able to purchase it.

The blandness of Celebration's ideology is represented in its architecture. The homes are certainly attractive, and the public areas well kept. And there is something fascinating about looking at Celebration, everything neatly lined up and coordinated. There is a completeness to the environment that Disney has created, a totality of vision that could seduces one into believing that it is the truth. Like the painstaking detail in the paintings of Bierstadt and Rockwell, Celebration's wholeness can read as sincerity.

And there is little variety. With the exception of the streets lined with townhouses, which suffer from a different kind of blandness - all the same color and with the same decorative detailing, unlike the diversity of color and style that one sees in the townhouses of Georgetown, New York or San Francisco, most streets appear to be identical. As noted above, there are six styles of houses, but Victorian and Colonial Revival have been most enthusiastically embraced. Unlike Savannah squares, which provided Celebration's designers with inspiration for the arrangement of neighborhoods, Celebration's squares do not provide any type of distinction from one another. Savannah's squares grew up as times and style passed, so that one finds just Victorian squares, or colonial ones. The variety of architecture that surrounds each of Celebration's squares denies it any sense of history or the passage of time.

Because of Celebration's zoning codes, most homes have the same plants in their yards. Garages are hidden and strict guidelines keep any distinctive features out of front yards. Even the size of houses is meant to be indistinguishable one from another. With the exception of Estate homes which are the largest and most expensive, houses of varying size are longer rather than wider so that they can not be told apart from their facades.

 

The Declaration of Covenants

When homeowners move into Celebration, they sign an agreement called the Declaration of Covenants. This title for a homeowner's agreement echoes the language of the covenant that other utopian communities like the Shakers adopted to describe the shared values that brought them together, and is further evidence of the special status that Celebration assigns itself. The Declaration lists the rules by which residents must abide. These rules range from the predictable to the frightening. For example, it dictates the length of time that you can display, as well as the size of, political signs during an election period, and limits the number of signs to one. Yard sales are limited to one per year, and cars cannot be parked in an individual's driveway for more than 24 consecutive hours, but must be stowed in the garage, so that they cannot be seen from the street. If the Celebration Board, which again is made up of unelected officials, receives complaints from other homeowners about a resident's pet, they can remove the pet from the community without the owner's permission. The agreement bars more than two people from occupying a single bedroom.

It is the Declaration of Covenants and the fact that Celebration's residents do not have elected representation on the local level that I find most troubling about the community. The amount of control that Disney possesses, and which Celebration's residents have willfully signed over to them, is diametrically opposed to the image of small town America that Disney has paid billions of dollars to achieve and maintain and for a piece of which Celebration's residents have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one of the citizens in the promotional film at the Preview Center commented, everyone in Celebration has the same ideals and goals. I am sure that some Celebration residents would admit, this cannot be entirely true. But to Disney who made the film, this is a selling point of Celebration, and the suggestion that everyone should have the same ideals and goals is a troublesome one. Democracy operates as a dialogue involving disparate voices. Even the rights and ideology upon which American nationhood is based are constantly being debated. Is flag burning an issue of free speech? Should citizens be allowed to own guns? How much control should the government be allowed in issues of individual health and wellness? To be fair, these are some of the large issues of our time. But their very presence of such questions in the national dialog proves that American citizens have a right, as well as a responsibility, to participate in shaping the rules and laws that structure their daily existence. Celebration's residents have given up that right and that responsibility by buying into an environment that provides them with the facade, the symbolic representation of those rights. The ideology by which they are bound is one of commodity.

Andrew Ross, a professor from New York University, is coming to the end of a year in residence in Celebration and is currently writing a book about his experiences in the town. When I spoke with him about life in Celebration, he felt that it was not fair to compare Celebration with the New England small town model that Celebration strives to emulate visually. Many of Celebration's residents, he said, had come to Celebration from a suburban lifestyle, and had different expectations and opinions of what their rights were than those Americans who lived in rural areas. To deny them the right to live without the rights that so many other Americans enjoy if they so choose would be a denial of their rights in a different way.

Having lived in Celebration for a year and interacted with its residents on a daily basis, Dr. Ross has developed a unique perspective on life in Celebration. His insights helped me to clarify my own position on Celebration, and to realize that we interpret what is happening there in very different ways.

First, Celebration's designers have developed an environment that takes its inspiration from independent communities that are paragons of the small town model. Easthampton and Nantucket, although they have emerged in the 20th century as expensive resort communities have their architectural and political origins in colonial America. Savannah and Charleston, although larger in size are similar to Easthampton and Nantucket in that all four owe their physical preservation to active citizens who have participated in over 200 years of planning and zoning. Each is an independent, self-directed community, not a planned one, regulated by a Board of Directors.

Second, Dr. Ross did not believe that Celebration fit well into the American utopian model. However, like other American utopian experiments, Celebration represents a group of individuals organized in a society around a single, strongly held set of ideas. As that Celebration resident stated in the film, everyone there is supposed to have the same set of ideals and goals. They share a single concept of how life should be lived, and they have taken a gamble of considerable size to pursue that ideal. Like other utopian communities, they have to some extent separated themselves from society to live their beliefs, beliefs voiced by a dynamic and persuasive leader, in this case the Walt Disney Company, and about which residents have no say. Like the Fourierites (check spelling), the Shakers, the Oneidans, and many other utopian societies, the physical environment of Celebration is regarded as an integral part of the system of belief and has been designed to support that system. In these ways, I believe that Celebration fits well into the model of American utopias.

Finally, Celebration's designers and residents have not presented themselves and their town as just another place to live. They have actively proclaimed its specialness, its outstanding dedication to place, community, health, technology, and eduation, the innovativeness of its lifestyle. A townswoman with whom I spoke about life in Celebration called herself as a "pioneer." As Walt Disney himself said and the Preview Center guides reiterated, Disney built Celebration to be an example to the world, a late 20th century interpretation of the City Upon a Hill. And while Winthrop's city was far from democratic, there is an implicit suggestion of democracy in its evocation, a suggestion that is also made by Walt's desire that his community be built upon a piece of virgin land. This suggestion is also made by the designs that Disney has chosen for Celebration's architecture. By evoking these very symbolic American ideas, traditions and architectural vernacular, it is Disney and Celebration's residents who have brought American democratic ideology into the mix, not outside observers who have unfair expectations of Celebration's residents.

According to Dr. Ross, over 40 million Americans have moved to communities that are privately governed, similar to the way Celebration is governed. And there is no denying that Celebration has received the amount of publicity that it has because of the corporation that is doing the governing. But what is most troubling about Celebration is the length that Disney has gone to in order that Celebration should look like and ideal small American town, replete with the virtues that Americans assign to the "tangible and secure" past, while at the same time betraying that past with a system of government that is the opposite of the one that the image they have created represents. And it is startling that Americans should like to live in this type of community. It is somehow disappointing. Dr. Ross suggests that it would violate their rights in another way to keep Americans from living in towns like Celebration, but beyond their rights I am curious about their responsibilities and obligations. "Affluence," Peggy Noonan wrote in her book Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, "detaches. And affluence and technology detach completely." Celebration suggests to me this type of detachment, the possibility that with enough money one can remove and protect oneself from the troubling aspects and complications of society. In Celebration, the Walt Disney Company's has created an environment in which this type of detachment can thrive while simultaneously claiming to cherish and represent community.