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Fantasyland or real town?

It was built to be a suburban utopia, conceived and run by Disney. A decade later, a lot of the magic is still there, but some reality has set in and the people who live there want to be their own town.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published July 1, 2006



CELEBRATION — On July 4, 1996, the first families moved to the town that Disney built.

Over the years, that town has grown from 350 to 10,000. They have christened a new hospital, a new high school and, soon, the town’s first Starbucks. Despite the growth, many agree that Celebration has retained the very qualities that drew them here: crime-free neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets and a near-universal desire to know one’s neighbors.

There’s one thing that Celebration doesn’t have, not yet, anyway: democracy.

Despite having a “town hall,” and a “town manager,” Celebration is really just an overgrown subdivision run by homeowners associations. The town hall is where visitors can buy a sheet of home sales listings, and the town manager works for the management company hired by the associations.

Now residents want Celebration to become a Town, with elected officials and a public works department and a police force.

“The system we’ve got now, it doesn’t fit at all with what we have become,” said resident Paul Collins, one of many leading the charge to incorporate.

Committees have been formed. A tentative date for  a vote has been set. The question remains: If Celebration becomes a real town, will people still live in harmony?

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Barb Nefer’s cats are named after Disney characters like Stitch  . She is 41 and has been on 50 Disney cruises. She has volunteered on several local committees since her arrival and absolutely, positively loathes the Chicago suburb she left, where she knew none of her neighbors.


Nefer and her husband moved to Celebration two years ago. Though they both have to work two jobs to afford their Celebration townhouse, they get immeasurable satisfaction from living here.

Maybe it’s the new friends — she’s become part of the Bunny Brigade, a social club that wears funny hats and eats dinner at different Disney restaurants. Or maybe it’s how she can hear the Magic Kingdom fireworks each night. Or maybe it’s because she knows her neighbors well enough that when Hurricane Charley swept through Central Florida two years ago, they checked on her house because she was out of town.

“I’ve never cared about a place I’ve lived before,” she said. “The only thing that will drive us away is if there is a fundamental shift and Celebration becomes like any other Florida subdivision.”

Nefer always had a vision of what a community should be, and it would look a lot like her childhood neighborhood, an inner-city enclave of working-class families in Chicago. She recalls people talking on their front porches, kids riding their bikes, visiting the corner store for candy.

It is as if Disney was reading Nefer’s mind when they planned Celebration. In 1989, Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new community on a chunk of vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The new place would be 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,” he wrote.

The town was planned using New Urbanism principles. Restrictions on the architecture ensured that the town looked like it was built before the 1940s, and front porches were the most important visual detail, not garages.

In 1996 residents started moving in. “The planning was almost flawless,” said Alexander Morton, one of the first residents and the publisher of the Celebration Independent, a community newspaper.

Critics called the town “creepy” and “too perfect,” likening it to the town in the movie The Truman Show, or, worse, The Stepford Wives. Worldwide media pounced on the community when residents expressed dismay that the town’s school didn’t have a gifted program and that Disney had promised parents too much.

The community was also criticized for its lack of diversity; more than 93 percent of the town is white, according to the U.S. Census. Less than 2 percent of the town is black.

Residents chafed under Disney’s restrictions, yet were powerless to do anything — Disney and its representatives controlled the property owners’ associations.

“Disney didn’t realize what they had gotten into,” said Morton. “They knew how to handle people at a theme park and make movies.”

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Over the years, Disney relinquished control. It no longer has representatives on the property owners’ associations, and last year it sold the entire downtown to a New York developer.

Still, some theme park-like magic remains: fake snow still blankets downtown in winter, and this weekend, an old-fashioned, mom-and-apple-pie Fourth of July parade will wind down Main Street.

Yet now that Disney is mostly out of the picture, residents are finding that they liked the company’s attention to detail. (Many were concerned that the fake snow in the winter would stop after Disney sold the downtown). Some complain that the downtown isn’t as clean as it used to be, and Morton’s newspaper discovered that the new trash removal service was simply throwing recyclables away instead of taking them to a recycling plant.

It took two years for two different associations to decide how and when to replace trees downed by Hurricane Charley.

Things like this don’t fly in a town of overachieving, type-A personalities. Maybe, folks wonder, Celebration should not just look like a traditional small town, but should also have the government of one.

“This is a town made up entirely of student council presidents,” said resident Jeff Hamilton. “Residents feel like they are not getting the level of standards that brought us to the town originally.”

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There are other reasons to incorporate. The town doesn’t feel the county provides adequate police patrol; if it incorporated, it could have its own public safety department.

Hamilton and other residents have formed an incorporation committee, and have raised $20,000 to pay the University of Central Florida to do a feasibility study. Hamilton says that the issue over whether to incorporate should be on the November 2007 ballot.

Andrew Ross, a New York University professor who moved to Celebration in 1996, lived there for a year and wrote a book about his experience, said folks have wanted to incorporate from the beginning.

“The challenge will be to shape some form of town government that is aligned with the original principles of the community,” he said.

In other words, will Celebration be able to maintain the feel of those early days, when every resident knew each other by first name and hundreds turned out for the pie-eating contest?

“There’s going to be debates,” predicted Hamilton. “Like anything else, people’s views will be polarized. But at the end of the day, the decisions made will be the best ones for the town.”

Maybe, muses Hamilton, Celebration is already something more than a subdivision. Maybe there are other benchmarks of becoming a community, ones that don’t require committees and votes and feasibility studies.
He recalls a time, nine years ago, when he and his wife would bike to the movie theater downtown — and, just like everyone, they would leave their bikes unlocked on the street while they watched a film.

“You will know Celebration has become a real town when one of these days, a bike is stolen,” Hamilton would joke to his wife.

Recently, he heard that someone swiped an unlocked bike parked in front of the theater.

“Pinocchio has become a real boy,” he said.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at lush@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8612.