Is Walt Disney's Perfectly Planned Community, Celebration, Florida, Creepy or Inspiring?
Celebration, an unincorporated, master-planned community to the Northwest of the small Central Florida city of Kissimmee, was established in 1994 as a prototypical example of New Urbanism. While not entirely different from other master-planned communities like Seaside, Florida (near Panama City Beach and the principle location for The Truman Show), Celebration is uniquely known as being built and conceived by the Walt Disney Company, in honor of Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Despite the stigma, both good and bad, of an association with the Disney Company—not to mention rumors of a Draconian set of rules regarding garbage disposal and ornamentation (mostly just rumors, though they do provide a handbook to all residents and bored cops have been known to harass kids on slow nights)—the community has attracted over seven thousand residents.
Perhaps they’re looking for a carless existence (one of the central reasons behind Celebration’s establishment), the promise of a small-town experience where neighbor relations are high, or simply the soft-focus nostalgia that Disney, the brand, invokes.
“A lot of [Walt] Disney's ideals about the type of neighborhood that he grew up in are translated into Celebration,” says Laura Poe, the Communications Manager of Celebration Town Hall in a phone interview.
But what is the plan, and why does it benefit neighbor relations? Katie Potochney, a former resident who spent her teen years in Celebration, says, “They brought in a lot of different architects, and they designed it with Walt Disney’s original spoked layout [streets coming off a town center like the spokes of a bicycle]. There’s a center of town. They designed the town to lubricate neighbor interactions. The garages are in the back of the homes, and that means the front of your house is closer to the sidewalk. You’re a lot more apt to talk to people who are walking by you on the sidewalk instead of being distanced like suburban homes are with the 80-foot long driveway.”
Poe agrees that the lack of driveways is an important feature of Celebration’s blueprint. “In other places, you pull into garage, shut the door, and never meet the neighbors,” she says. “The front of the house in Celebration is meant to promote conversation, meet neighbors, and get out of the house.”
Personal spaces are one thing, but engagement away from home is also built into the fabric of the community. “Having so many sidewalks was something I really took for granted,” says Potochney, who lives in New York City now, but seems genuinely fond of her time in Celebration. “There are a lot of bike paths through swampy areas. Celebration taps into the nostalgia of the small town where everyone knows your name.”
“The sidewalks are wider, in order to walk hand in hand with loved ones,” adds Poe. Because of the effortlessness in mobility and the accessibility to public spaces and neighbors’ homes—golf-cart-like Neighborhood Electronic Vehicles (NEVs) are even allowed on main streets—Celebration residents are able to gather in parks, esplanades, and squares with ease. “Celebration is very social,” says Poe. “There are 70 registered civic and service groups, including Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and the Celebrators—our largest group—for residents aged 50 and up. For bridge, tennis, or anything you want to do, there's probably an organized group.”
There are 13 defining tenets of New Urbanism according to Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which include walkability to the town center, accessible playgrounds, and a mixed variety of dwelling spaces on each street. Florida resident, and independent art historian Edwin Stirman spent time in Celebration while studying the town for a project. His take is that Celebration and Seaside are idyllic, and that their most significant New Urbanism elements could be worked into urban areas with the right amount of planning, promoting a more open, neighborly environs.
“If you’re talking about transplanting something learned from Celebration, it would be the reestablishment of small centers in large urban environments. Being able to walk and bike and not have to use a car is something to take away. Through careful zoning, and the addition and development of public parks and other public spaces, and making places centralized again for accessibility, the ideals of Celebration can be realized.”
Celebration isn’t perfect in the Stepford Wives, Truman Show way that it invokes with its Disney connection and emphasis on uniformity—there have actually been a few documented murders in Celebration and Potochney recalls clandestine drug use by teens like in any other town—but the residents have a palpable pride. It stems from a sense of connectivity and community that careful planning often provides, and that hopefully we can learn from and try to implement in less logically structured neighborhoods in the country.
Apart from restructuring our cities to include more parks and town centers, it would do us a bit of good to pretend we’re in Celebration once in a while, and acknowledge our neighbors with a wave. You don’t need to live in a master-planned city to say hello.
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