Living in a Disney Town, with Big Brother at Bay

By Douglas Frantz N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Living in a Disney Town, with Big Brother at Bay


Douglas Frantz N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


CELEBRATION, Fla. -- One hot afternoon last month, my wife, Catherine Collins, was riding her bicycle home from the post office here when a blue car with Pennsylvania license plates pulled alongside her. One of the children in the car leaned out the window and asked, "Can you tell me where Truman lives?"

"Pardon me?" Catherine replied, suspecting some kind of tourist joke.

"Truman," the child's mother said emphatically. "Didn't you see the movie?" "Oh, that Truman," said Catherine, who had in fact seen The Truman Story, the media satire starring Jim Carrey. "He was just a character. It was all make-believe. And anyway, it wasn't filmed here. It was filmed over in Seaside, on the Panhandle." It wasn't the first time we had run into the misconception that the movie had been filmed in Celebration -- or that the new town where we live is some sort of unticketed gate for Disney World, which is about eight miles away. There are similarities between the fictional movie town and this post-neotraditional town built by those masters of make-believe, Walt Disney. Both are pretty and orderly, populated by smiling, waving residents and blessed by sunny skies and warm temperatures. And like the movie town, Celebration has its own unique rules and designs for social engineering. But, after living here for 15 months, we can testify that Celebration is a real place, with its own attributes and its own problems. Indeed, the town represents an ambitious, real-life attempt by Disney to employ architecture and urban design to revive the sense of community and place that Americans tell pollsters are missing in traditional suburbs. As journalists, we have lived all over the country, mostly in or on the edges of major cities. We have been pleasantly surprised to find a degree of community spirit and neighborliness in Celebration that we haven't encountered elsewhere. We know everyone on our street, except for one family that never seems to be at home, and block parties and townwide festivities are frequent and popular. Part of the reason for this community camaraderie is the sense that we are all pioneers in this new town. But some of it is attributable to the careful planning that went into Celebration's design. The first residents moved in during the summer of 1996, and today the town has about 2,000 people out of a projected population of 20,000. The 5,000-acre tract on which the town is being built is part of the 30,000 acres Walt Disney accumulated in the early 1960s for his second theme park. When company planners determined that this swath of swamp and cow pasture would not be needed for the future expansion of Disney World, Michael Eisner, the company's chairman and chief executive, gave a green light to developing the town, though it had nothing to do with the company's core business of entertainment. The architect Robert A.M. Stern, a Disney board member and one of the designers of Celebration's master plan, described Eisner's motives in grandiose terms. "Michael's feeling was that, if the company were going to do this, it was going to be something that would set an example," he said. "It would demonstrate that this was a great company with a great sense of public obligation. …

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