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.’

Walt Disney was filmed unveiling his plan for a city of the future in 1966. It was that high-tech, old-fashioned future of the postwar era with twenty thousand inhabitants living under a vast dome, flitting from skyscraper to skyscraper by high-speed monorail. You can almost see Captain Kirk’s thigh-hugging trews and belted tunic. Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) would have no slums and no unemployment. This was not an unrealistic daydream on Disney’s part because Epcot would be built on the 45 square miles of land Disney had accumulated in Florida, and no one without a job would be allowed to live there. Nor would there be any home ownership: everyone would have to rent their housing from the Disney company. Whether Disney ever planned to build Epcot is doubtful. The point of his speech was to persuade the Florida Senate to approve the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District so that the Disney land would become a sovereign government with the right to issue tax-free bonds for internal improvements, to construct new rides, sewers and buildings according to its own codes and standards without seeking approval from the Orange County planning department. With the Senate’s approval, the company’s total control over the environment was ensured. There were in the event just forty inhabitants of Reedy Creek who were entided to vote, and they were all employees who lived in company housing. Even before the Magic Kingdom theme parks had cast their spell over generations of Americans, the Disney dream had turned the heads of politicians. Though those heads were not entirely soft. The financial spin-off for Orange County of millions of tourists heading in its direction was deemed to be worth the loss of political control. After which Walt Disney died, and no more was heard of the fabled city of Epcot, until in 1997 parts of the 1966 film were edited into a video produced by the Disney company to promote the sale of plots of land in the newly planned town they called Celebration. The magic had by now had thirty years to take hold and its powerful grip on the imagination of Americans is indicated by something a man in the audience of prospective buyers whispered to his companion: ‘He hasn’t aged at all.’

It depends on your notion of future and past whether you view the shift from Epcot to Celebration as a backward or forward movement. Luckily, the movie Back to the Future came out in 1985 and elided the two directions, pointing to an underlying anxiety at the heart of the Disney conception of the new town. It was necessary to go back in order to improve the future. Something had gone wrong with postwar living arrangements and turned I hopeful world sour. The source of the problem was town-planning and architecture. And the source of that problem was Modernism. When Cesar Pelli was invited to design the Celebration cinema he said he wanted to create a modern movie theatre. That was fine, he was told by Robert Stern, who was overseeing the town’s look, as long as Pelli understood that as far as Celebration was concerned, modern ended in the 1930s. The future as defined by the brochure from Michael Eisner’s Disney Corporation was to be found not in Walt’s skyscrapers and monorails, but in a long-lost past of white picket fences and pastel dormer windows, so lost that perhaps it was entirely mythic:

There was once a place where neighbours greeted neighbours in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the care of the day. The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery store delivered. And there was one teacher who always knew you had that ‘special something’. Remember that place? Perhaps from your childhood. Or maybe just from stories ... There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence. A place where the biggest decision is whether to play Kick the Can or King of the Hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets. That place is here again, in a new town called Celebration.

It was only at the last minute that they decided against providing a back-story for Celebration, a concocted history that had the town built by the survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon or rising from the rubble of General Sherman’s march through the South. In fact, Celebration rose from a swampy lot at the edge of the Magic Kingdom that was used to relocate alligators once they grew too big for the ponds beside the golf courses and theme parks. It was a flourishing wetland of ten thousand acres, which, if left undeveloped, was in danger of being taken over by the State of Florida for its environmental value. Disney could have created a highly profitable gated community of the kind springing up all over the States for ‘white flight’ middle-class refugees from what they see as a troubling multicultural world. But Michael Eisner and his Imagineers wanted to try for something with more glory. Walt’s (possibly duplicitous) dream of Epcot became a dream of building a neo-traditional community from scratch. Great empire-builders in the past have wanted to leave monuments, and so perhaps did Eisner, who described the architect Aldo Rossi’s office building at Celebration as ‘our own La Défense’. Andrew Ross relates that a few years before that Rossi had broken off discussions with Eisner about designing a building for Euro Disney, declaring: ‘I realise I am not Bernini. But you are not the King of France. I quit.’

Instead of a back-story they had the five cornerstones that newcomers were invited to recite at their induction meeting: education, wellness, technology, place and community. The good past as represented by a fleet of famous Post-Modernist architects was to be combined with the latest in fibreoptic Internet technology from AT&T and Hewlett-Packard, medical equipment from Johnson & Johnson and Glaxo Wellcome, and progressive education devised by Stanford University. Celebration was to be an experiment in neo-traditionalism and privatisation on a grand scale. To escape the soulless deserts of American suburbia, dormitories designed for the benefit of the motor and tarmac industries, the new concept was for high-density – five or six dwellings per acre rather than one or two – mixed housing, where public space was valued more highly than private enclosure. The houses were to have small back gardens and porches rather than alienating front lawns, to persuade people to use the communal parks and piazzas instead of retreating behind their own four walls. To enhance a sense of community the houses were to be within walking distance of the commercial centre of the town and had to conform to guidelines that regulated everything from basic house design to the colour of the curtains seen from the street and the plants that might be grown in the yards and on balconies. Buyers signed contracts agreeing to these things, among others. No more than two people were permitted to sleep in one bedroom, the Celebration Company (TCC) had the right to dispose of any pet which caused complaint without consulting its owner, and political signs measuring no more than 18 by 24 inches were allowed to be posted in a yard for 45 days before an election.

If certain individual freedoms are given up, it is for the benefit of the community as a whole, the rubric goes. In the case of Celebration this runs to political freedom. It is a town whose senior officer is not an elected mayor, but the manager of the Celebration Company owned by Disney. The Celebration Company retains a veto on all matters of government and there is no democratic representation in the running of the school, hospital or town hall. A doctor living in the town explains:

I’d rather live in a civil than a political society. Here we have a contract with TCC that defines our property rights, and we are not frustrated by bureaucrats with their own agenda. I don’t have a contract with politicians ... What we have here is a deconstructing of government, a rollback of politicisation. In a civil society you feel a desire to fit into a community and satisfy your neighbours. In a political society, under the heavy hand of government, you expect your neighbours to satisfy you.

A former teacher who runs the Media Centre agreed. ‘I accept this. I’m happy with it. I personally am opposed to elected officials. People who want to go into elected positions, I am suspicious of their motivations.’

Ross, who lived in a rented apartment in Celebration for a year in order to write his book, disagrees as he ponders the future of the town based on corporate management:

There could hardly be a worse way of guaranteeing the public interest in education than by turning it over to corporate hucksters, or even by entrusting it to temporary corporate executives, however sympathetic, who see a way to boost the PR ratings of their employer by doing a few good community deeds. In the corporate world, allying with a well-known brand name is like hitching your wagon to the brightest star in the firmament, at least until the next stock market swing, leveraged buyout, or disappointing quarterly statement. But public trust needs the support of earthly bodies, in an orbit that is dependable, for the long run. When a society allows public education to be dependent on lottery funds or the passing benevolence of toy manufacturers and soda producers, it has already walked away from its democratic obligations.

Certainly the inhabitants of Celebration discovered that when things began to go wrong, the Disney name disappeared overnight from the town sign. The two construction companies licensed by Disney to build and sell the houses were not able to maintain the fabled Disney standards. Houses were eighteen months late, with faulty roofs, sewage systems and air-conditioning. Those who could not stand the disruption were offered a deal by TCC: they were allowed, against their contracts, to sell their houses before the first year was up, providing they did not go to the press. The ultra-progressive school turned out not to use books, and refused to grade students, assessing them instead with evaluations such as ‘not yet’, ‘listens actively for a variety of purposes’ and ‘respects human diversity as part of our multicultural society and world’. When parents realised this would not get their kids into any decent college, they held meetings in secret, for fear of being termed ‘negative’ and shunned by the community, but they had no elected voice within the school government. People turned to Disney with their grievances, even writing to Michael Eisner, but they received no reply from the Corporation, which dreaded bad publicity. The fabled fibre optics came to nothing after the relevant division of AT&T was sold off and the company withdrew its experimental equipment.

Nonetheless, the pressure to be a happy member of the community was enormous. Residents of Celebration were watched and watched each other like hawks. The watchers were even within their community. Ross in his apartment, and Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins in a house that they actually bought in order to write a book about the town. Both parties were open about their intentions and both invested a year of their lives, and in Frantz and Collins’s case a year of their two children’s education as well as $350,000 on purchasing the house. Ross has a tougher take on what it was that made the will to conform so strong. The public silence of the townspeople about the disasters of Celebration – the jerry-built houses, the school, and the intense pressure on dissenting individuals to stop complaining or leave – was much more, for Ross, to do with keeping up the property values than with an underlying community spirit. All along, a Disney town was perceived as a good investment opportunity, and people paid above the odds and put up with the vagaries of a town not yet fully built in the hope that their houses would rise in price. They had hitched their wagon to Disney’s star for more perhaps than the dream value. Frantz and Collins do not make this analysis and seem to have integrated more fully into the community than Ross. They try to write as residents rather than as outsiders, though the line they walk is too fine to be convincing. Neither party intended to stay beyond gathering data for their books – Ross had a sabbatical from NYU – but Frantz and Collins give the impression of wondering if they might. In the event they remained an extra year, leaving finally because despite getting on well with their neighbours, they missed edge and culture. ‘The town looked inward, sealing itself off from a world that ended at its borders. It was restrictive, almost tribal, and it left us feeling at times out of touch and uncomfortable in a place where life’s edges were rounded and smoothed not by time but by choice.’ They note that ‘almost none of the houses we visited had bookshelves.’

Celebration has no poor either. The teachers at the school couldn’t afford even the rented apartments in town, while Disney employees, often Hispanic immigrants, paid the minimum wage of $5.95 an hour, couldn’t hope to buy into Celebration. Disney agreed to pay Osceola County $300,000 over three years instead of building affordable housing into their plans. Brent Herrington, TCC’s community manager, saw the lack of cheap housing as a plus:

What happens is, in an affordable house that is couched as an entitlement, you don’t have the same kind of personal commitment and pride in your accomplishment in this new home. If people come to a place just because their name popped up when that community had a vacancy, they are not going to have the same commitment to the town. That’s the part I think the residents would probably have some squeamishness about.

Both sets of journalists report residents bemoaning the lack of black neighbours (even middle-class blacks would not buy into the Disney dream) and the homogeneity, but neither is convinced. A businessman from Celebration spoke to Ross of a recent ‘Latin influx’ to Osceola County (many of whom would be Disney employees), making a distinction between good and bad Hispanics: ‘These are not Latins from Long Island, mind you, they are from south of the border and Puerto Rico.’ A woman tells Ross: ‘Osceola is a low-rent county with too many ethnics – it’s basically a bedroom community for hotel domestics.’ Younger people of the boomer generation are more confused about their racism: ‘I don’t care myself, although this is a white ghetto. I would welcome more diversity as long as it doesn’t drive the prices down.’ Ross makes the wider point:

Today, white people are often at their most white when they believe that consciousness of race is not natural ... white-skin privilege abides and goes unexamined when it’s no longer ‘natural’ to think about someone’s racial background and is perceived to be racist to do so. As Malcolm X pointed out, ‘racism is like a Cadillac. There’s a new model every year.’

Ross regularly provides the wider analysis, while Frantz and Collins capture the texture of life in Celebration, but both, having been neighbours of those they are writing about, are remarkably gentle about the fantastic absurdity of the Magic Kingdom dream that brought the residents of Celebration together, and the intellectual process that lies behind both the decision to build and the decision to live in a community out of sentimental escapism.

After all, the quality of dreaming matters. There are dreamers and dreamers. Great dreamers, on the whole, are saints or sinners (the Marquis de Sade, Simon Stylites), variations on innocence, whom we revere or abhor, while your everyday small-scale worldly dreamer (the bloke down the road who wants to build a conservatory, the woman saving up for a breast enhancement) is a more mundane figure for whom we are more likely to feel contempt. The degree to which we admire or despise dreamers depends mainly on the size of the dream and the distance of the dreamer from our own lives. We are very pleased that Martin Luther King had a dream, and that Nelson Mandela held to his dream through 28 years in jail, mostly because we are grateful that we don’t have to do it ourselves. Impractical dreaming that amounts to something in the world we positively venerate, at least in retrospect. But then very often what we call admiration is, on closer examination, a special form of contempt.

But what of those who simply dream of having a notionally nice life and who are in the fortunate position to buy into it when an ersatz version is offered to them by a corporate dream-maker? This is very difficult for the liberal observer because to admit contempt for ordinary dreams goes terribly against the grain. As soon as news broke of the Disney Corporation building a ‘real’ town to be filled with real people that took an idyllic homely past as its theme, the press and academia groaned their disdain. It was OK to despise Disney, the progenitor of the saccharine Mouse who has become a synonym for all that is false and tacky. But what about those who choose to take up residence in the Magic Kingdom? What follows is a customer’s review from Amazon.com of Frantz and Collins’s almost excruciatingly balanced account of their stay in Celebration:

Written by left-leaning, snivelling reporters. They are critical of Disney’s handling of the wetlands, yet the authors bought a house in the middle of the wetlands. They snipe about Disney not giving away part of their profit margin to accommodate low-income people, yet didn’t rent out their ‘granny flat’ to an underprivileged person. As true liberals the authors see corporations as responsible for everyone’s welfare ... It would be nice at least once to hear them thank Disney. Thank you Disney for your vision. Thank you Disney for risking your capital. Thank you for fighting the political battles to make Celebration possible.

Utopia, these days, is a Mickey Mouse business.