REVIEW: The Celebration Chronicles
Once upon a time, Walt Disney dreamed of creating a utopian city called EPCOT. Far from the cultural melting pot of present-day Walt Disney World, this EPCOT was designed as a functional space for residents and employees to live, work, and create together.
While Disney’s idealistic city was canned by future presidents of the Company, his dream was realized in some small part when the city of Celebration, Florida was founded just a stone’s throw away from the resort. In The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town, author Andrew Ross ventured to the tiny town when it was first erected in 1997, committing to a one-year stay in the city to chronicle its history and discover how much control the Disney Company was exerting over its residents.
Far from the picture-perfect Main Street of the Magic Kingdom, things got off to a rocky start in Celebration. Snafus with contractors led to collapsed driveways, doors that wouldn’t close, and stoves that were not properly installed. Housing regulations were strict, and community guidelines prevented residents from straying too far from the rule book – for instance, painting their shutters anything other than the specific brand of off-white that fit with the themed residential areas.
The problems extended well past poor standards of construction. Prospective buyers were lured with the promise of cutting-edge technology and quality education, only to find spotty Internet (and this is back in the 90s, remember) and unorthodox, sometimes ineffective teaching methods in the school. Perhaps worst of all, Disney pulled out of its project, leaving the community to deal with these roadblocks itself.
Although Ross tackles these subjects in-depth, his narration of the town’s history cannot be described as unbiased or objective. Instead, his book reads like a snarky report card, often docking the residents for doing or saying things that he finds stupid. To one resident bent on attending graduate school and pursuing academic work, the author dismisses these dreams and dissuades the man from carrying out his plan. “As a friendly caveat, I drew his attention to the local newspaper currently running a series of Doonesbury cartoons about the desperate plight of low-wage adjunct professors in the rapidly downsizing academy,” Ross writes. “Confronted with the bad edge of the economy, where labor contracts can sour or dissolve overnight, Miller’s buoyant mood subsided.”
When Ross is not disparaging the citizens of Celebration, he is lauding himself for being a part of the community, whether remarking on his prominent position as George Washington in the Fourth of July parade or patting himself on the back for taking the “high road” when a couple more journalists move to town and refuse to have dinner with him.
Overall, Ross’s history of Celebration offers some unique and pointed insights into a Disney project that faced legitimate setbacks and crises. It also provides a nice sweeping picture of the state of education and the economy in the United States several decades ago, and isolates the factors that had a heavy influence in the shaping of the town. These are fascinating subjects and, if not for Ross’s often patronizing commentary, ones that I would be happy to explore in further detail.