A House With Mouse Ears: Disney Does Urban Design

Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town , by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Henry Holt, 342 pages, $25.

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town , by Andrew Ross. Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $26.

Granted: Living in New York breeds a peculiar kind of intolerance. To my mind, the prospect of being greeted with a chorus of “Hip, hip, hooray!” by your block-partying neighbors-to-be minutes after closing on an overpriced, ticky-tacky cottage home should be enough to send any sentient adult running back to the real estate office tovoidthecontract.Unfortunatelyfor Doug- las Frantz and Catherine Collins, the husband-and-wife journalist team whose year in residence in the prefab Florida town of Celebration began precisely this way in 1997, they had already signed another contract: the one that obligated them to go through with writing Celebration, U.S.A. Their confused book inadvertently highlights all the worst things about living in small-town America (the petty gossip, power struggles, stifling conformity and forced cheerfulness) and at the same time enthusiastically endorses the neotraditionalist design philosophy of community and social engagement that the Walt Disney Company built Celebration to embody.

The creepiest thing about the town built by the megacorporation behind one in every four movie tickets purchased is not the intrusion of corporate culture into the public sphere but the evidence it provides of the company’s already pervasive influence: the almost religious faith of the “dyed-in-the-wool Disney freaks” who make up the majority of Celebration’s first wave of pioneers. These folks, who vacation almost exclusively at Disney theme parks and resorts and routinely toss around the phrase “pixie dust” (when they’re mad, they say: “I’ve got pixie dust coming out of my ass”), moved to Florida expecting Disney to provide the backdrop for their fairy tale future. One resident psychologist got it right: “Those people don’t need Celebration. They need counseling.” It seems they often feel compelled to mask their search for a quality-controlled Main Street utopia with exaggerated tales of personal sacrifice.

Celebration has been hyped as a new chapter in both urban planning and American values. It’s supposed to offer a new solution to the social isolation and architectural sterility of suburban sprawl. Yale architecture dean Robert Stern’s master plan will go a long way toward keeping Celebration on the architectural map. But behind the desire to build “a living laboratory for the American Town … a model for new town development everywhere,” we find a very old-fashioned motive: This was a profitable way for the company to develop miles of pristine swampland bought by Walt Disney in the 1960′s, land it risked losing if left untouched. Walt had in mind a 20,000-person domed city of skyscrapers called Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow)–instead, we got an international fast-food court and futuristic theme park (now somewhat dated) that bear that name.

No doubt the plan for the new town would have pleased Disney, who famously said he’d “rather be the benevolent dictator of Disney enterprises” than President of the United States. True to the founder’s spirit, the company makes its paternalistic presence felt: A hired consultant acts as de facto mayor and enforces rules prohibiting everything from colored curtains and clotheslines to complaining about mosquitoes and harassing alligators. Far from resenting corporate control, Celebrationites clamor for more; they mourn the fact that Disney has stripped its name from the town (it was originally called Disney’s Town of Celebration). Residents fear that the company is reneging on its commitment to assure their quality of life.

Consider the progressive K-12 school that was the town’s main selling point for many residents. At Celebration School, teachers are called “learning leaders,” classrooms are called “neighborhoods,” report cards have marks in categories like “respects human diversity as part of our multicultural society and world,” and a lesson on potential and kinetic energy takes place aboard Disney World’s Space Mountain roller coaster. Some parents have had trouble adjusting to the alternative curriculum and jargon. Others are disappointed by the disparity between the sales pitch and their children’s experience. The disgruntled have rechristened a promotional video about a day in the life of a Celebration student: “Eddie Does Disney,” they call it.

Like good reporters, Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins try to remain objective–but they succeed only in apologizing alternately for the antics of the town’s residents and for the looming corporate presence. Our co-authors are impressed by the can-do spirit that united the community “in an endeavor that ran counter to the overall decline of civil society in America”; they repeatedly defend Disney’s involvement and praise the company’s high-mindedness: “Disney could have taken the safe route and developed another golf-course.… Instead, the company did some-thing truly innovative.” Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins insist they were tempted to stay for at least another year, but in the end they decided to head back north in search of bookstores, conversation and diversity.

Andrew Ross, director of the American studies program at New York University, tells a similar story in The Celebration Chronicles , this time from the point of view of a 40ish urban bachelor working hard to stay hip. To spend a year in an apartment in Celebration, he dragged himself from “the dense turbulence, multicultural throngs, and ultra-liberal life-styles of downtown Manhattan” with a weak imperative: “If we are ever to be good neighbors in the larger landscape, there is much to learn about places and people that do not feature on Saul Steinberg’s famous cartoon map of the ‘New Yorker’s View of the World.’” His book, more informal than Celebration, U.S.A., gives voice to gays, teenagers and others who are left out of the family-oriented portrait produced by Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins.

And Mr. Ross actually makes an argument. The motivating principle behind the residents’ frenetic community-building efforts, he writes, is the desire to protect the value of a real estate investment. He concludes that the controversy over Celebration School all boils down to the parents’ worry that their children’s academic performance will ultimately affect the property value of their homes. Mr. Ross doesn’t take sides; he prefers to smoke and commiserate with the disaffected teenagers caught in the middle.

The Celebration Chronicles seeks to determine the “direction of public life at the end of the century” and where the Disney town figures in. Mr. Ross worries about the philosophical underpinning of the New Urbanist movement, which strongly influenced Celebration. (Its mantra is “to improve the world with design, plain good old design.”) He bristles at the idea of urban planning as social engineering–perhaps because it reminds him of New York’s own “benevolent dictator” who squints at democracy and prefers a top-down approach to the public good.