Thursday, August 10, 2006

Celebration, Florida

It's surprising that, during my first hour in Celebration, I find the town kind of pleasant. Well, not kind of—pleasant, despite the oppressive humidity that hasn't let up since I left Gibsonton. This is surprising for two reasons. First, that Celebration is a new, planned community. Second, that its developer is the Walt Disney Company.

I have nothing against Disney in particular. I may or may not be a stockholder, in fact, because my grandmother used to buy my brother and I small bits of stock— shares, or 7 shares, or 1 share—as Christmas presents, leaving the nicely printed and embossed certificates in 8 ½ x 11 envelopes (or occasionally in No. 10's) for us to not play with and give to Dad to put in a safe deposit box. Still, can you imagine living in a community where the wreath on your door is not a standard circle, but three circles joined together to look like Mickey Mouse ears?1

Actually, I have something against Walt Disney, but Walt Disney the man, not Walt Disney Company. Jerome Pohlen's Oddball Florida, which has an entry on Celebration, quotes Walt Disney's vision for EPCOT, that Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, as “a city that caters to the people as a service function. It will be a planned, controlled community. . . . In EPCOT there will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them. . . . There will be no retirees. Everyone must be employed.” In the 50s Walt was also a rapid “anti-communist,” meaning that he was friendly to Joe McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee.

Instead of becoming what Pohlen calls a “voterless, work-until-you're-dead” paradise, EPCOT effectively became a branch of Disneyworld (sp?), and Disney's plans were unfulfilled. Until Celebration, that is. But Celebration doesn't share much of Walt's ideas, instead buying into New Urbanism, the idea that people are actually happier in communities that are walkable, denser, and less sprawling. And this is why, I think, Celebration seems so nice for what it is.

“I thought you might be pulling out before,” says a middle-aged man in a blue polo shirt outside of the Cafe d'Antonio. Celebration isn't really short on parking, but if you need to park less than a block from your destination, sometimes it can involve a lot of waiting. “Your car, I mean, in the parking lot. I thought I could just follow you to a space.” The man is smoking a cigarette casually and looks like he's on break.

Which he is. His name is Steve and he's the Entertainer for a timeshare company, taking the prospects all around town, though he tells me that he makes most of his money these days by flipping real estate, buying properties on eBay and then selling somewhere else. When I ask him why he sells timeshares, he shrugs and says that it's steady, and easy.

Entering Celebration you drive along a long, green stretch of Highway 192, marked by regular palms and, if you look closely, regularly spaced curb cuts. It's actually quite charming, and gives space to the town that adds to its appeal: The space makes the town feel like a discrete area, like a town. But the curb cuts are suspicious.

“I saw the cuts in the sidewalk coming in,” I say and describe the road. “Is all that going to be developed?”

Steve takes a last drag from his cigarette and heads back inside. “Disney'll always develop every square inch they can get their hands on,” he says. “You can count on that.”

Market Street, after two hours in Celebration, is the beginning of my disenchantment. Market Street is the main commercial drag, mixed-use, with housing above the shops, and parking hidden behind the buildings. It's very walkable, and to encourage that, music, mostly smooth jazz, comes from speakers in the sidewalk. Except that it's irritating, and things don't feel very real. But what's there, however bland it is, is not nearly as important as what's not, and indeed, what the town doesn't have at all.

Market Street:

  • Day Dreams, which sells dolls and stuffed animals
  • Cards & Candles
  • Market Street Gallery, which sells tchotchkes
  • Village Mercantile, a clothing store
  • Lollipop Cotton, a children's clothing store
  • Cafe d'Antonio

    and across the street, moving up now:

  • Market St. Cafe
  • Upper Crust Pizza
  • Hopskotch, which sells “Clothing for Today's Lifestyle”
  • Soft as a Grape, another clothing store
  • The Jewel Box
  • [empty]

    So it's mostly souvenirs. But the town doesn't have a hardware store, doesn't have a pharmacy, doesn't have a supermarket. That is, for all the New Urbanist speak, the town is missing the very things that a town needs to survive.

    Actually, I misspeak. Let's be fair: The town is missing the very things that people need to survive.

    1 Actual Celebration wreaths do, on occasion, look like this.

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