A 'real town' revolt
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
CELEBRATION -- All the picket fences are white. All the lawns are edged with precision. And when a house goes on the market, the sign out front is a small, understated oval that whispers, "Home Available."
That's how The Walt Disney Co. wants it in this sunny little community of long front porches, dirtless gutters and uniformly stylish American homes.
In exchange for their conformity, the 5,000 people who have moved to Celebration since it opened in 1996 get to live in a clean, ordered, handsome town with its own hospital, schools and offices, not to mention a picturesque town center where evenings are spent in wooden rocking chairs along the lake.
But something uncharacteristically messy and un-Disneylike is brewing along the narrow avenues lined with adolescent oaks and sycamores. A growing number of residents are in open revolt against a Disney plan to add 1,000 hotel rooms to the town's official master plan.
The change, they say, will turn an award-winning town -- the nation's best example of "new urbanism" and the envy of city planners everywhere -- into one more bustling tourist stop along Interstate 4. That, some residents contend, is not what they signed up for when they bought into Celebration.
"They've lost focus on the town. We were created as a town. We bought, we put our money down as a town," said Rod Owens, a retired dentist who 5 1/2 years ago moved to a blue Victorian home a short walk from the town center. Today, he is organizing a group called the Celebration Patriots to fight the change.
"We're trying to make Disney stay by their own plan," he said.
Officials at The Celebration Co., a Disney subsidiary, counter that more hotels are needed if Celebration's office buildings are to compete for Class A tenants in Central Florida's busy commercial market. The demand is for conference space and nice rooms for company executives, said Perry Reader, Celebration Co. president.
With 40 percent of Celebration's 4,890 acres set aside for residential space, the focus so far has been on the town's quaint neighborhoods. But office space is a major component as well, with nearly 3-million square feet of it slated for development by the time Celebration is complete in 2020.
Rooms at the new hotels will be priced for business customers, not tourists, and the changes support Celebration's goal of a vibrant workplace close to homes, Reader said.
None of the four hotel sites, he argued, would be within a mile of the fastidiously maintained homes in Celebration's famous core.
Unmoved by Disney's explanations, the Celebration Patriots plan to go head-to-head against the same corporate giant that created the home town of their dreams.
The company originally planned 810 hotel rooms in its 1994 master plan, then upped it in 1997 to 1,039. Now it wants 2,039 rooms, most of them soon.
According to Disney's plans, work on more than 1,300 of the rooms would be under way within the next 30 months. The first pro-ject is said to be a Four Seasons luxury resort in the southern end of Celebration.
Judging from the 150 e-mails and letters they've received from wary Celebration residents, Osceola County officials expect packed chambers this week when the Planning Commission meets to consider Disney's request. Later in the month, another public hearing is scheduled before the County Commission, which will make a final decision.
Like many residents, local planning officials are concerned that Disney's revised plan departs from the company's original vision for Celebration. While they recommend approval of the added hotel rooms, they add that any future changes would bring extra scrutiny.
"Our hope is with the commissioners," said Owens, 59. "There's only five of them, and we only need three votes. That's what it's going to come down to, and we hope to really pull their chains."
Another resident, attorney Jeffrey W. Hamilton, predicted lawsuits, saying in a recent letter to the county: "We will not accept this land use change quietly."
Celebration's residents have tangled with Disney before, most recently over a decision to build a new high school in the development. But that pales next to the looming hotel fight, residents say.
Together, the disputes signal more than a mere change of plans. They herald Celebration's continuing evolution from a controlled Disney creation to something that more closely resembles the outside world.
"All of a sudden we were no longer an amusement park; we became a town," said Floyd McCollum, an architect who moved to Celebration in 1998, recalling the high school debate. "We had people here who weren't going to take (the company line), "This is how it will be.' (Disney) had people questioning things."
In that sense, Celebration has become what Disney planners promised years ago: "A real town."
The evolution is apparent on an Internet discussion site known as "The Xone," where Celebration residents grouse about Disney's controlling hand, quarrel about neighborhood issues and poke fun at each other in ways that sometimes get personal.
Some postings have portrayed Owens and other "patriots" as complainers who are upsetting the Celebration way of life. An anonymous poster questioned their level of support and urged them to move if they didn't like the place.
"Even the heated discussion about small things encouraged us about the quality of the people in Celebration," said Scott Almond, 33, a North Carolina transplant who moved to the town in 2000 after finding the rest of Florida "completely nauseating."
"These people were active," he said. "These people were vocal, these people were really thinking about what was going on in the town, and everything was getting scrutinized."
In April, when Almond found out about the added hotel rooms from a Disney newsletter, "I just could not believe it," he said. "A thousand hotel rooms. It's so absurd."
Last week, as Owens began to organize an anti-hotels petition drive, support among Celebration's small population was hard to gauge.
Clearly, not everyone opposes the change, including Larry Haber, who with his wife, Terry, and two children, were the first residents of Celebration in 1996.
"There are already hotels across the street, around the corner, everywhere," Haber said, referring to older developments across U.S. 192. "We bought homes knowing we live in a tourist corridor."
Haber's wife works for The Walt Disney Co., but he said that did not influence his opinion.
"It's so easy to be mad at Disney," he said. "Sometimes they don't do the right thing. But I'm not going to bash them when I don't think they deserve it."
A disclaimer at the bottom of Celebration's marketing materials states that all of its plans are "subject to change or cancellation (in whole or in part) without notice." It also says they can't be "relied upon" by anyone.
Some Celebration Patriots attribute the revised plans to a change in leadership at The Celebration Co. Gone, they say, are many of the visionaries who made the community special. What remains, they contend, are executives who don't share the project's initial goals.
"That's not true," said Reader, the company president. He said many of the original master planners are still on staff and that acclaimed architects Jaque Robertson and Robert A.M. Stern are involved, as they've always been, in new buildings.
"I think we've maintained a very firm hand at the helm," Reader said.
Still, the change is frustrating for residents such as McCollum, 43, a Pennsylvania native who first noticed Celebration after reading about it in architectural magazines.
Today he worries that three of the proposed hotels would be located near the town's new high school, which is under construction. Young drivers and students on scooters will not mix well with confused tourists in rental cars, he said.
"Even after these hotels, it'll still be the best place," McCollum said. "I'd just hate to see anything happen to it."
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