My family saw themselves as pioneers. In 2000, we moved from frigid Minnesota to a town that was a former swamp. But it wasn’t the wilderness. Instead, there were rows of perfect houses, in perfect order, among seemingly perfect people. Celebration Florida looked like an idealized form of the 50’s crashing back down to earth. In our first week we had two separate people knock on our door and ask us if we were actors. Since Celebration was built by Disney, it was reasonable to assume that Celebration was another theme park. A backward looking Tomorrowland.
But it was real, at least it was intended to be. Disney built Celebration Florida, a semi private startup society, hoping to be an example for future cities. They were playing the quintessential American impulse: to build a city on the hill. Like all utopia towns, Celebration missed the mark. Meticulous effort was put into urban planning, but they left governance to the way side while forgetting economics all together. Moreover, Disney’s own reputation hastened the town’s slow degradation, as expectations of Disney “Pixie Dust” led to illusory expectations. But failure is our best teacher. As Walt Disney argued, “I’ve always had a feeling that any time you can experiment you ought to do it. You never know what you get out of it”.
Walt Disney developed city building ambitions after the enormous success of Disneyland in Anaheim California. In fact, it was too successful. Cheap tourist traps popped up around his park, scaring away discerning customers. He wanted a buffer zone between his park and the outside world. Walt wanted end-to-end control of his product. At the same time, Disney was growing anxious about the state of American cities. While living in Los Angeles, he became terrified of urban sprawl, crime, and general uncleanliness. From his experience building spotless, well organized amusement parks, he thought he could apply the same principles to city building.
In order to accomplish both goals, Walt Disney needed his own territory that he completely controlled. The Disney corporation devised a plan called the “Florida Project” with the goal of buying large swaths of real estate. After failing to buy land in the panhandle, they searched sparsely populated central Florida. They found 27,433 acres of completely uninhabited swamp land. They bought the land under dummy corporations in order to avoid the press and overcharging landowners. There was no infrastructure, no nearby government, nor major industries to speak of. In the Zone industry, this is referred to as a “Green Zone”, or a territory with no development or tax base. Disney now had his buffer zone. As Walt exclaimed, “"Here in Florida we've enjoyed something we've never enjoyed at Disneyland: the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine".
But the most important part of the project was territorial control. The cash strapped Florida was eager to grant Disney any level of autonomy. The Disney corporation helped the state draft legislation called the “Reedy Creek Improvement District”. Essentially, the state gave Walt Disney his own private government. The bill granted Disney the ability to make his own infrastructure, building codes, and public services (policing and fire). In addition, the Reedy Creek Improvement District was granted the authority to float tax free bonds for infrastructure investment. Before Reedy Creek, this was largely unheard of. It allowed the Disney corporation to raise money without dealing with banks, much like a traditional municipal government.
When buying the land, his stated purpose was end-to-end control of future theme parks, but underneath he had a broader goal. He wanted to build a future city as an alternative to the whole world. He called it Experimental City of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short. Sadly, Walt Disney was dying of cancer at the time, and spent much of his time in hospitals. Despite his failing health, he continued to plan EPCOT, using his hospital ceiling tiles as a grid.
He imagined a centrally planned megapolis inspired by the futurist garden city movement and french architect Le Corbusier. It was structured like a giant wheel with the densest areas in the center which dissipated while fanning out. The central structure was the crown jewel, a giant building with arcades, shopping, dining, and offices. Walking was the only means of transport within the building, an early iteration of a mall. However, emanating from the the center was a series of monorails that reached outside the large complex. The monorails were connected to a low density “green zone” which included parks, schools, tennis courts, baseball fields, fire departments, and churches.
Further out still were the residential areas which included stand alone households as well as apartments. All residential building would be equipped with state of the art domestic products. However, no one in EPCOT would own their land or home. This stripped residents of all voting rights. Disney argued this was the most effective way to continually update technology. Employment within EPCOT or the theme parks was a prerequisite to residency. Disney wanted a spirit of civic ownership while simultaneously eliminating unemployment driven slums.
He was about to pitch EPCOT to the Floridian state government and american corporations . He even created a video to explain the concept. He shows sketches of EPCOT and explained its principles.
However, Walt Disney died two months after that video was made, before it was shown to anyone. He passed away in his hospital bed with his brother Roy Disney at his side. He drew his last breath while looking up at his planned utopia.
After Walt’s death, no one wanted to move forward with the city. Despite Roy’s pleading, it seemed too risky to proceed without the city’s most important advocate. However, they continued with the amusement park portion of the Florida Project and created the Magic Kingdom, MGM, and Animal Kingdom. They even created a future themed amusement park named EPCOT. It did not have it’s original, urban ambitions.
But some Reedy Creek land was still unused. There was 14,000 acres of land separated from the rest of the parks by highway I-92. The interstate was filled with tourist traps and located within the impoverished Osceola county, making it undesirable for parks. This area was mainly used to dump alligators found on Disney property. Although they did not intend to build another park, they knew they couldn’t allow the land to remain fallow. The Disney Corporation was afraid it would be seized by the the State as an environmental preserve, and they couldn't sell it since that would allow for more tourist traps.
Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, decided housing would be best use, but stated ,“we didn’t want just another housing development.” It must have a distinct Disney flair. But in contrast with Walt Disney’s plan, they did not want a technofuturistic, chrome megamall. Disney’s original plans have aged badly and seemed emotionally cold.
In order to find new approaches, the Disney Corporation formed a think tank conference of urban planners and architects. They quickly became attracted to New Urbanism. The New Urbanist movement believed that cities must be denses, have mixed zoning, and plenty of public spaces. The goal is to have as many interactions as possible with other residents for civic pride, safety, and economic growth. In contrast, the suburbs focus on individual houses with large square footage and few public spaces. Moreover, because suburbs zoned separate areas for commercial and residential spaces, there were even fewer meeting places. Contemporary middle class americans were isolated in their Mcmansions, lit at night by their constantly running televisions. By looking at New Urbanist experiments such as Seaside and Columbia, Disney believed they could curb the worst excesses of the suburbs with the best elements of dense cities.
Disney’s first step was to establish the Disney Development Company, tasked with building the town. Unfortunately, there were many steps to take before turning an alligator infested swamp into a new community. Disney could not simply incorporate Celebration into the Reedy Creek Improvement District since citizens would have voting rights over all Disney property. Disney didn’t want a predicted 20,000 residents to have the “the ability to vote on the color of the magic kingdom.” Celebration could not be a fully private government.
They instead negotiated with Osceola county to annex Celebration while granting the Disney Development Company considerable autonomy. For instance, new developments are required by the state of Florida to provide low income housing. However, Osceola county is one of the poorest counties in Florida. They wanted extra tax revenue from high value properties, not low income housing. Consequently, Osceola and The Disney Development company developed a quid pro quo deal to donate $300,000 to a low income housing program.
Celebration was able to secure much more autonomy. Although Celebration was not a fully private town, it was a public/private partnership that skewed more private. The county of Osceola would provide basic services such as fire, rescue operation, school administration, and policing.
However, the Disney Development Company built, maintained, and controlled all the infrastructure. They were given the authority to set up Community Development Districts (CDD), essentially private municipal infrastructure corporations. They were allowed to annually float $300,000,000 in tax free bonds to set up private roads, street sweeping, pest control, landscaping, sanitation, and high tech utilities. Residents to this day comment on how well built and maintained it was. Residents would pay off the bonds as annual fees on their properties, similar to a private property tax.
Disney also established CROA (Community Residential Owners Association), a governing board of property owners. Their duties are numerous and hard to define. CROA could be seen as a homeowners association on steroids. Their ordinances range from the height of hedges, the color of houses, to “porch policing” in which CROA members would distribute fines for rule breaking. On the CROA website they describe themselves as:
Comprised of seven (7) owners who serve two-year staggered terms. Board members may serve two consecutive terms. The Board is required and has the fiduciary responsibility to preserve, protect and enhance the value of the association’s assets as it makes decisions, establishes policies, enforces the governing documents, and builds community.”
But Disney did not leave anything to chance. While CROA would be controlled by Celebration property owners on paper, Disney owned the most real estate and selected Disney employees as the majority of the board. Moreover, the CDD, which was completely controlled by the Disney Development Company, had the ability to veto any decision CROA made.
The legal structure was more of an afterthought. Celebration's true interest laid in it’s New Urbanism. They expressed their urban planning philosophy through their five cornerstones: Education, Health, Place, Community, and Technology.
The Disney Development Company always envisioned a school to attract residents. They decided to create an ultra experimental K-12 school. It was built in the center of town to allow all children to there. I did not realize this was strange until years later.
While the county government managed the school, Disney spent millions of dollars creating their radical curriculum. K-12 schools have the benefit of socializing younger with older students to promote better behavior in both, but Celebration School took it further. Each building, called a “Den”, had four classrooms with four different age groups. The several teachers in each “Den” were called “learning leaders” who would administer individualized learning in small class rooms. They gave little homework, had no grading system, and no tests.
While each of these experimental methods have been validated in controlled studies, they have never been tried all at once. Parents were polarized over the school’s choices. One side was excited by the opportunity for a unique education. The other was wary of risking their child’s education for experimentation. Many came to Celebration under the promise of a good school and were concerned that they could not measure their child’s progress through grades or tests. The result was a “civil war” that was fought out at multiple PTA meetings.
The fallout resulted in a montessori and private school for students of disaffected parents. However, Florida's standardized testing might have validated the Celebration School’s methods, which became one of the highest ranked schools in the state.
After much pressure, Celebration School gave up their education experimentation and adopted a traditional curriculum, segregated age groups, tests, and grades. In order to keep up with expansion, they turned the K-12 into a K-8, and built a underperforming high school far from the city center.
The hospital is a state of the art, expansive facility. It is part of the Florida Hospital network, the largest private and oldest hospital network in Florida.The hospital provides inpatient, outpatient services, and 24-hour emergency care.
Before “preventative care” was a buzzword in health reform debates, Celebration hospital put an incredible emphasis on a healthy lifestyle. The hospital contains a 60,000-square-foot, Fitness Centre & Day Spa with countless classes, state of the art gyms, and experimental spa therapies.
Celebration believed the comfort of nostalgia. They wanted to resurrect the idea of a historical america. However, the Disney Development Company did not want to build the house themselves. In order to express their aesthetic preferences while outsourcing construction, the Disney Development Company created the “Celebration Pattern Book”.
The Pattern Book was required by all builders. It attempted to give celebration a sense of continuity and order, despite multiple builders. Celebration’s product was the not the houses, but the town in itself. It was also list of allowed styles such as: colonial, french, classical, southwest and victorian. No similar styles were allowed next to each other and each had strict aesthetic requirements.
Many appreciated the how the neighborhoods were a well ordered whole. However, others found the Pattern Book too restricting. Residents could rarely change their houses. If they made changes that contradicted the Pattern book, CROA could impose fines.
While these regulation raised the value of their properties, residents were forced to pay significantly more than similar houses in central Florida. The “Celebration Premium” ranged from $50,000-$100,000. This led many Celebration citizens to call themselves “house rich and cash poor”.
Community was intended to be the biggest distinguishing factor from Celebration and other developments. Downtowns used to be a fixture of american communities but have slowly disappeared. Disney tried to return it in earnest.
In accordance with new urbanist principles, The Celebration downtown was a high density meeting place with mixed zoning. It has 105 Apartments mingled with essential establishments: a grocery store, 3 cafes, a bank, a doctor’s office, a post office, 16 retail shops, 6 restaurants, and even a movie theater. Personally, I often visited my friend’s downtown apartment and went out for a “Celebration Lunch”. It consisted of a slice at the local pizzeria, ice cream at the creamery, and popcorn at a movie theatre matinee.
All community events took place downtown or in its many adjacent parks, overlooking the man made lake in the center. The downtown was so important that Disney build it before a single house was constructed. They even subsidized businesses so they were operating before residents even lived in Celebration. However, the downtown was not an economic vehicle for Celebration. None of the business owners could afford to live there. Disney believed future cities were places of entertainment and community, not economic growth.
Disney took other measures to foster community. For instance, the Celebration Pattern Book required mixed value residencies. Large estates were often a block away from townhomes and cottages. Disney purposefully did not want a segregated “bad side” of the tracks. While this may have had a short term, negative effect on property values, it raised the sense of civic community.
Barriers were broken down further by requiring lots to have small front and backyards, while providing plentiful public parks. Instead of having children isolated to their properties, like the suburbs, they were gently nudged into socializing. Adults were incentivized to mingle as well. The Celebration Pattern Book required all houses to put garages in the back and have large front porches. The porches intentionally served as meeting places and often hosted large neighborhood parties. The Disney Development Corporation even incentivised parties as a form of social experimentation.
Backward facing garages also served a social function. Large alleyways connected the garages. While this had the practical function of better trash collection and emergency service transportation, it was also a meeting place. Neighbors with differing property values would often socialized in the alley ways while working in their garages or taking out trash.
Despite Celebration’s backward looking aesthetic, Disney wanted it’s town to emphasis technology. Celebration was one of the first towns to adopt electric cars called NEVs, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. While incapable of driving on the highway, one could easily drive around town. Electric cars are now ubiquitous, but at the time, it looked like the Jetsons. They even used NEVs to spray mosquito repellent all over the town. Despite living in a former Floridian swamp, I was never bitten by mosquitoes.
To power Celebration, the Community Development District created a private, underground electric grid. They also used this under ground layout to give every home highspeed broadband internet, unheard of at the time.
In 2004, this technology would be crucial. Central Florida would be directly hit by three hurricanes and indirectly hit by two others. Despite the continual battering, Celebration never lost power nor broadband. In contrast, almost every development in central Florida was without power, water, or internet for at least a month.
That’s not to say Celebration was not hit hard. The park facing our house used to have nine 50 ft trees. Almost all fell, leaving a jungle of spanish moss and diagonal trunks. Few of the residents were from Florida, and fewer still had ever been in a hurricane. They all exited their houses at the same time as the storm passed, looking at their wrecked cars, fences, and windows. No one said a word. Not a single resident. This might have been the turning point from Celebration as experiment to an actual community. Communities require a history, a shared struggle. Now it had a visceral moment that everyone could recollect.
Unfortunately, not even solidarity from collective rebuilding could save Celebration from its foundational problems.
When it comes to Celebration’s fundamental flaw: It’s simple economics. Disney had the false assumption that cities should be a source of entertainment and community, not jobs. As a consequence, they didn’t foresee any issue building a community in an area without high paying jobs. The largest employer was the Disney theme parks, and none of them paid enough to live in Celebration. The only people who could live their were location independent business owners, what are contemporarily referred to as "digital nomads".
Beyond economics, Celebration suffered from unrealistic expectations from Disney, known as the “pixie dust” effect. Many came to Celebration expecting Disney’s Utopia would save their failing marriage, only to separate after not meeting their expectations. Residents even gave it a name, “the Celebration Separation”. One of these divorces even resulted in dramatic bloodshed. A recently divorced resident got into an armed standoff with Osceola police in Celebration. They had to bring an armored vehicle and disperse tear gas before he committed suicide.
Problems accelerated after Disney retreated from the project. Disney’s CROA board members terms’ expired, but it made no attempt to retain their positions. Furthermore, they sold off their downtown real estate holdings and the Community Development Districts to Lexin Capital. As their influence in the town’s governance waned, complaints of worsening upkeep began to emerge. While some cheered less Disney control, others saw the CROA and the dysfunction Osceola county government as a worse poisons.
It’s almost poetic that residences began to notice mold destroying their homes. Their houses started so pristine and promising. But like most utopias, Celebration homes became to wither under the messy realities of life and age.
2006 was the year our family moved from Celebration back to Minnesota. It was also the year that the real estate bubble was began to burst. We put our home on the market the week it began to collapse. If we sold at the market price, our family would be destitute. However, due to my father’s new job, we needed to move immediately, with or without selling the house. Our first two years in Minnesota were spent living in our grandparents’ basement, waiting for our house to be sold.
Our experience was far from unique. Celebration was brutally hit by the collapse. These “House rich, cash poor” homeowners became simply poor. Many used their homes as an investments and couldn't’ even afford furniture. Without a source of jobs to make up for the loss, many simply abandoned their properties.
I believe 2006 was the end of the Celebration social experiment. The town still exists today and many people happily live there. But it’s simply a housing development now. It lost its defining, pioneering startup societies ethos. Celebration was a worthy experiment in urban planning, but it failed largely due its inability to address economics and governance. All the beautiful architecture and public spaces in the world cannot overcome the need for economic sustainability.
Even if they didn’t address economics, many of Celebration’s problems could have been addressed with better governance by Disney. At the very least, Celebration could have incorporated itself into a town instead of becoming part of Osceola county. Perhaps they could have even overturned CROA, giving Disney more control and incentivizing them to invest in Celebration’s economic prospects.
But they didn’t have Walt Disney’s convictions, which they sorely needed for such a long term project. As Michael Eisner said, “Trust me, if we wanted make money, there would be a lot easier ways.”
Despite all it’s flaws, I often miss Celebration. When I moved back to Minnesota, people were relatively reserved and cold. They already had long established relationships and felt no need to make new ones.
Celebration on the other hand was a community of people without ties. Our only common trait was that we were not born there. No one had an established network, but all were eager to make one. Every new resident was invited to the neighborhood porch party. Complete strangers smiled and waved on the streets. Everyone knew every other.
There is a reason why Americans smile more towards strangers. It’s a trademark of frontier culture. People without a community are desperate to make one, quickly and with vigor. While some may say it’s artificial, I think the opposite. Nothing is more real than purposefully making your own community. To have real ownership of the type of people you surround yourself with. Not by accident of geography or blood, but by effort and conviction. Disney’s town may not have been a successful startup society, but it was a community that celebrated the pioneering impulse: That starting fresh is something worthwhile, even if it’s just to find out what will happen.