February 21, 2019


A Decade of Celebration

The community has succeeded, but not exactly in the ways its founding visionaries imagined.

Cynthia Barnett | 11/1/2005
Along traffic-choked U.S. 192 near Orlando, a bucolic wooden water tower stands apart from the rest of the tourist-gaudy highway, set off by expansive green lawns and a white split-rail fence. A decade ago, a promotional banner on the tower heralded the entrance to a new, made-from-scratch community: "Disney's Town of Celebration."

Today, the banner is gone, revealing the tower's permanent letters. It reads simply, "Celebration."

The change is more than symbolic. The Walt Disney Co. is disengaging, by stages, from what has become the most famous master-planned community in the U.S. In 2003, the company shifted majority membership of the homeowners' association board to residents. Only one Disney executive remains on the board, and next year there will be none. Through a subsidiary, The Celebration Co., Disney also has sold off most of its Celebration holdings. Last year, it sold the town center, Market Street, to a Madison Avenue real estate investment company called Lexin Capital.

Disney executives say the company always planned to extricate itself from the project and that the degree to which Celebration could operate independent of its founder would be a measure of the community's success. As Celebration nears its 10th birthday, few question that the community is an achievement -- although it hasn't turned out exactly the way its founding visionaries hoped it would.

In 1984, the new, young CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, brought together the most progressive minds in architecture, technology and town planning to figure out what to do with 10,000 acres the company owned in Osceola County. The concept for a neo-traditional town took 10 years to refine. It originated in part from the late Walt Disney himself. Disney imagined a Buck Rogers-type City of the Future, but he also yearned to recapture the Main Street kind of hometown ideal lost as Americans moved to the suburbs.

Peter Rummell, then president of Disney Development Corp. (now chairman and CEO of St. Joe Co.), wrote to Eisner in 1989 of establishing a "wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World."

HIGH-END: While Celebration was designed to be home to a mix of people from all income levels, affordable housing in the town is hard to come by.

Planners decided that everything in the town would look as if it were built prior to the 1940s. Streets and sidewalks would curve gently around dozens of parks, a public golf course, an artful lakefront, a mixed-use town center. Neighborhoods would combine affordable cottages and higher-end homes. Disney's social engineering, highly criticized, would aim to bring together a mix of people and income levels.

In 1995, more than 5,000 people showed up at the Celebration construction site to enter a lottery to buy one of the first homes. They hadn't seen a model home -- or even a drawing of one. "We looked at it as a chance to give our kids the sort of childhood we had when we were growing up in south Florida," says Vicki Puntonet. The Puntonets, of Coral Gables, were among the town's 350 "pioneer" families who won the drawing and moved to Celebration in 1996.

Ten years later, plenty of traditional indicators point to success. More than 10,000 people now call Celebration home. Property values have skyrocketed. Celebration has a full-service hospital; a public K-8 school and public high school; a branch campus of Stetson University; five churches and a Jewish congregation; a major grocery store; hundreds of kids in youth soccer and Little League. "This town has exceeded our expectations in almost every way," says Puntonet, mother of two and a shop owner in the town center.

No less an observer than New Urbanist architect Andrés Duany calls Celebration "one of the most intricate and accomplished examples of urban development since the 1930s." Celebration, for example, has been far more successful than Duany's own Seaside community at discouraging vacation homes. (Disney controlled speculation by requiring anyone who sold a house within a year of completion to turn over profits above the Consumer Price Index to the Celebration Foundation.)

Whether Celebration has been financially successful for Disney is something only the company knows; executives will not say if the venture has been profitable. Walt Disney paid an average of $200 an acre for Celebration's 10,000-acre footprint in the 1960s. But the company put far more money, time and effort into the project than the typical community developer would. As Eisner himself has said, "If all we wanted to do was make money, there would have been a lot of easier ways to do it."

"We don't measure our success here just in terms of profit," says Matt Kelly, president of Celebration Co. "We tried to raise the bar on what community-building is all about, and that's been one of our greatest successes."

Indeed, the sorts of people drawn to Celebration give it a sense of community that some neo-traditional towns lack. Celebration is full of type-A personalities highly involved in everything from the schools to the dozens of civic organizations they've formed in town. But they've also made Celebration something of a homogeneous, red-state enclave: Residents are generally conservative and have some of the highest voter registration and election turnout rates in central Florida. Big SUVs clog streets that were designed to promote walking: Downtown Celebration has a parking shortage. The median household income is $87,000, compared with surrounding Osceola County's $38,200.

A recent tour of real estate for sale showed the cheapest property in town was $199,000 -- for a one-bedroom townhouse. Estate homes were going for $3 million. The rental apartments in town were being converted completely to condos. Duany says two key mistakes led to the failure of an economically diverse Celebration. First, developers didn't build enough townhouses to meet demand. Second, they didn't set aside affordable housing.

Growing pains
SCHOOL OF THOUGHT: Many families have moved out of Celebration, unhappy over a huge new high school with 1,800 students. Other families, including Bob and Dianne James, are committed to improving the school. Their daughter, Sarah, is a freshman at Celebration High.If reaction to a huge, new high school that draws from a diverse range of students outside the community is any gauge, Celebration residents seem happiest in their middle-class comfort zone. The town's toughest growing pains in recent years involve 1,800-student Celebration High. Kids from Celebration who used to attend public school with their neighbors now are classmates with children from the broader Osceola school district, where 48% of the students are Hispanic and there's a large population of children of agricultural and tourism-industry workers.

Several families have left town, "feeling terribly injured at the lack of a world-class high school," says Bob James, president of the board of directors of the Celebration Foundation and father of a Celebration High freshman.

Many parents who've left say Disney didn't deliver on promises to provide the best public education in Florida. Celebration's early years were marked with turmoil over the community's first public school, the now K-8 Celebration School. The community was under such a microscope then that the New York Times covered school PTA meetings, with reporters looking for a "Stepford Wives" story to tell. Some residents charge that the conflict unnerved Disney, making the company back away from its high expectations for Celebration.

James and several other longtime residents say they don't feel misled, however. "Whether you go to Winter Park or Tampa, the No. 1 conflict in a community is the schools," he says. "You're talking about your kids -- that's at the very core of who we are as parents and as people. Of course we're going to have conflicts over it."

Disney officials, for their part, say they never shared some residents' overly Utopian vision for Celebration. Some local professionals concur. "Because it was Disney, you had people who thought moving here would make them whole -- that it would fix a marriage in trouble or turn a mentally disabled child into an Einstein," says Keith Kropp, a Realtor with FrontGate Realty who's been selling homes at Celebration since it opened. "I think those people have now either moved on or adjusted their reality. The place has evened out."

The future
No matter whose view you believe, Disney clearly brought extraordinary energy to Celebration for its first decade: The company subsidized Celebration's downtown, acted as a powerful political lobby, brought in the latest technologies, gave the town its own public relations staff and other corporate tools unheard of for a town its size. Disney even made it snow each winter. Residents now are taking over those functions and more. Kelly, who heads up the Celebration Co., says the company "will always be a friend of Celebration," though Disney plans no official role in the community in the future.

TOWN BY DISNEY: "Every week, someone building a new community comes to take a tour of Celebration," says homeowners' association President Lee Moore, with daughter Samantha, 6, and son Mason, 3. "Yes, there are things they could do better, but I don't think anyone else could put in the time and the money that Disney did."

As Disney lessens its role and as the community matures, some residents are calling for incorporation. A feasibility study recently completed for residents by University of Central Florida researchers indicates the move could make sense. For example, residents feel they don't get adequate police protection from Osceola County despite their significant contribution to county coffers. The homeowners' association pays off-duty deputies to patrol Celebration 24/7, to the tune of more than $300,000 a year. In addition to its own police force, incorporation would make it easier to start up a charter high school -- a top goal for some incorporation advocates.

"We have our problems, and we're working through them, and that's part of what makes us a real town -- not a Disney company town," says Lee Moore, president of the homeowners' association, who buzzes through Celebration's picturesque streets in his green electric vehicle with his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son strapped in car seats in the back. "Disney set up the plan, but now it's up to the residents to execute it."

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