Thank you, Disney

Jenny Diski

  • The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town by Andrew Ross
    Verso, 340 pp, £17.00, June 2000, ISBN 1 85984 772 2
  • Celebration, USA: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins
    Holt, 342 pp, £18.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 8050 5560 6

For a committed sedentary like myself, one of the most striking aspects of the populating of the town of Celebration, Florida, built by the Disney Corporation in the late 1990s, was the ease with which people made the decision to sell up and move there. In some cases, they crossed the continent, gave up substantial careers, took the kids out of school, put their property on the market, and signed a financial commitment to buy a plot of land on which not a single brick had been laid, in an alligator-infested swamp owned by a corporation which specialised in producing cartoons and simulations of historical and geographical clichés. Some people just popped in after a trip to next-door Disneyland and signed up for a new existence, others packed up and moved to rented accommodation nearby in order to be on the spot when the lottery for the first plots of land was announced.

You don’t have to drive for very long in the States before you find yourself stuck behind a slow-moving house. Not one of those recreational vehicles that might as well be a house, but an honest to goodness two-bedroom, living-room, kitchen and bathroom house that will, when it arrives where it is going, be fixed on elevated bricks and be called home by its inhabitants. At least for a while. The buildings in America may be on the move, but it’s nothing compared to the lack of fixity of the people. Even houses that are built in situ, in towns and suburbs, have, no matter what the diversity of architectural style, an air of slightly rackety impermanence, as if their original builders had settled only for as long as it took for word to arrive of somewhere better. People in America move. They always have. They moved to get there in the first place, and then moved again for land, gold, work or just the thrill of going somewhere new. Ghost towns stand as relics of this tradition, signposted with pride as if their empty, decayed structures told the American story better than the towns and cities presently throbbing with living inhabitants who for the most part have come from somewhere else, or are going there. To be in one spot is a kind of limbo, whereas the ghost town’s echo of an extinct past, of people upped and gone, the sense of a place utilised and then forsaken seems to speak of the romantic vigour of those who moved on, more than the waste and abandonment of what they left behind. The itinerant town was an essential component of the making of America. As the tracks were being laid across the wilderness by the railroad companies in their frantic race to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, supply trains brought the workers and their materials, along with the entire makings of an instant town for the labourers to sleep, eat and play in. These were the original hell on wheels, entire prefabricated buildings, broken down into their clapboard parts like flats for a stage set, and, travelling in the coaches behind, the saloon keepers, prostitutes, restaurateurs, gamblers and other essential personnel ready to set up the whole town in a day at the current furthest extent of the railroad. Whereupon life, death, drinking, whoring, gambling, fighting and doubtless a little quiet poetic contemplation went on until the railroad tracks had been laid beyond a certain outer limit, when the whole kit and caboodle was taken down, put back on the train and trundled off to the next stopping place.

There is no special mention of this restless tendency in either of these books on the town of Celebration, but for a European, the rootlessness of Americans is a central curiosity, and in this case a factor the several authors fail to take into account in judging the degree to which families and individuals were really committing themselves in buying into the Disney dream life. The power of Disney in the psyche of America accounts for a good deal of their blind trust, but the readiness of people of all ages and classes to disrupt their lives and move elsewhere underlies and possibly undercuts that trust. Belief that Disney could turn its own fantasy into their reality persuaded people to take large risks. ‘People trusted Disney,’ said one resident. ‘They trusted that Disney standards would ensure that the community they were going to live in would be better than most, if not superbly better than most. I think that is the only reason most people came here.’ The original planners of Celebration themselves feared the Disneyphiles they would attract, the ones ‘who go to Disney World eight times a year and think that because Main Street is clean they can extrapolate that to a community. Those are the people who think their kids will never get a B in school and there is never going to be a weed in their lawn when they move to Celebration.’ None of this prevented the Corporation from blazoning the literature with Disney’s name and putting a 30 per cent premium on local property prices for unbuilt houses as an entrance fee to the Disney town. But the risks and the naivety of those who paid their dollars to Disney were diluted by their sheer willingness to move and then move on. If the pixie dust turned to dandruff you could always call U-Haul and wash it out of your hair. Ken and Patti and their three teenage children had already relocated from Minneapolis to San Antonio. ‘It was two days before the lottery at Celebration, so I flew down and entered it. We didn’t really know much about Celebration, but we decided to try it anyway. We figured if it didn’t work out, we could always move again.’

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