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When Celebration saw its first residents move into town during the summer of 1996, everything seemed great.
The town center was beautiful, the houses looked idyllic, the streets cozy and inviting.
It was figuratively a Main Street USA that you could actually live in.
However it wouldn't be long before the flaws and troubles of the town began to surface
and it would start to receive criticism from the outside.
What was meant to be a perfect town was apparently not so perfect.
Announcer: “When it was first announced, demand to live here was so high Disney ran a lottery.
Bill and Susan Bona were among the first 400 winners.”
Susan: “I think people came here because- thinking they were gonna be living on Main
Street USA and you know the pixie dust would be sprinkled and their life would be perfect
and they wanted the monorail to pick them up at their front door and you know this is
real life, real mortgages, real jobs.”
While many residents of the brand new town were quick to praise the sense of community
that the neotraditionalist design aimed to foster, they were also quick to highlight
a pretty glaring flaw, which is that the houses… well… they kind of sucked.
Back in its initial stages, Disney opted to use contractors to build the homes of Celebration
rather than building the houses themselves.
It would hurt their bottom line since they had to pay the third party companies to do
the building, but the benefit was that they wouldn't have to manage the logistics of
constructing thousands of homes over the decade or so they expected it would take to complete the town.
So they reached out to a number of different companies who specialized in home construction
and put them to work as fast as they could, and while that speedy construction would prove
helpful in the growth of Celebration, it would ultimately hurt the homes themselves.
Problems with the houses began to spring up, and they ranged from small issues like outlets
not working to major ones like leaking roofs and moldy walls.
Many residents found themselves requesting repair after repair.
Some of the contractors would later argue that a large factor in the sub-par construction
was the time crunch they were under and the sheer number of homes they had to complete.
On top of that, the quick turnaround between planning and building meant that many of the
out-of-state companies had no time to foster working relationships with good local subcontractors
who would provide quality building supplies and additional labor.
They also claimed that having to stick to Disney's strict style guidelines ultimately
slowed them down and increased costs.
Lastly, Celebration came about at a time where there was a housing boom in central Florida,
which led to a shortage in skilled workers who really knew what they were doing.
Some outlets, like the Tampa Tribune, also made the case that perception played a big
role in how bad the situation looked.
Many of these homeowners were die-hard Disney fans, and they bought into the idea of a house
in Disney's town on Disney's property with the thought that Disney would be the ones
involved and taking care of everything.
Yet the reality of the situation was that once that contract was signed, it was pretty
much out Disney's hands.
Eventually the complaints would pile up so high that in 1999 the town would commission
an independent inspection of the homes, and the results would show that of the initial
batch of houses, over 70 would need to have their roofs completely replaced to meet industry standards
Thankfully over the years as the town expanded at a much slower rate, the quality of the
homes would improve and that list of problems would shrink.
Celebration's K-12 school would also find itself getting off to a rocky start.
The school was meant to be cutting edge and use experimental educational techniques.
For example, rather than typical classrooms of 20-30 students with one teacher, classes
were made up of 80+ students from different grades with three teachers collectively overseeing everyone.
Instead of traditional grading systems, report cards were made up of more individualized
and detailed assessments.
In general many of the techniques attempted were ones that were already being tested elsewhere
in the country, however where other schools would try to implement one technique, Celebration
was trying to do it all at once.
It lead to a confusing and hectic initial school year that resulted in six of the nineteen
full-time teachers, not to mention the principle, quitting.
Now all of this on it's own would be worrying, but it was made even worse by the fact that
the following year the campus would be completed which meant that more students outside of
Celebration would begin attending the school.
The student body would grow from just over 200 students to as many as 900 students.
The school would need a larger and capable faculty, yet it didn't even have a small
capable faculty at that point.
For a few families in Celebration, that first year was so bad that they'd list their houses
for sale and move out.
The criticisms of Celebration weren't just coming from within the town, however.
Early on in it's development, the concept faced a lot of ridicule.
Now in all honestly, this was largely an extension of the ridicule that Disney as a whole had
received since the early days of Disneyland.
For many people, the promise of escaping reality to a perfectly designed and maintained fantasy
world is an appealing one.
It's a way to shed the stresses of daily life and embrace your inner child.
But for plenty of other people, the idea is unsettling.
They find the artificial nature of everything and the perceived forced happiness as creepy.
Celebration was no exception.
Some argued that while striving to create a nicer and more communal town was a noble
goal, trying to force it through design regulations and the appearance of perfection was going too far.
And while that level of control and escapism worked when it came to a day or two at Disney
World, what would it mean to live it 24/7?
For instance how would it affect children who would grow up there?
Would the overly safe bubble of a “perfect town” do more harm than good?
After years in the town, would they be prepared to face the real world, which would look and
operate nothing like Celebration?
There was also the matter of accessibility.
When the town was originally conceived, the idea was to include houses of affordable varied
prices as well as different styles of apartments.
They'd be blended together in their layout in order to promote more diversity so that
there wouldn't be a “rich part” of town or “poor part” of town.
But with the rising costs of the elaborate town center and school, not to mention the
very specific and detailed architectural guidelines, Disney quickly learned that the houses needed
to lean towards the expensive side to make up the costs.
And so the homes in 1994 began at $125,000, which put the price at almost 20% over the
county average at the time.
The result, was a town that served as an example of the growing socioeconomic divide.
Celebration, Florida was over 80% white, and had a median income that was nearly double the county's
There were people working at shops and restaurants in the town center who couldn't afford to live there.
Now to be fair it certainly wasn't the first or last community like that, but again, Disney was
trying to market this as the ideal American town for other towns to emulate.
Trying to sell that idea without any economic or racial diversity did not look good for them.
And then there was the matter of crime and accidents.
Now really, neither was much of a major problem in Celebration.
That said, like any other town in the country, it still happened.
1998 would be the year Celebration would see its first armed home invasion, as well as
the first death due to a car accident.
And while it would be unreasonable to expect a perfect town with zero crime and zero accidents,
it's not surprising when the spotlight is turned on both when you try to sell your town as perfect.
It was, more than anything else, a marketing problem for Disney.
When someone crashes a car into a pond and drowns, as far as the media is concerned it
didn't happen in Celebration.
It happened in Disney's Celebration.
With every house sold, Celebration inched forward towards all of the issues and troubles
that came with most every town out there.
At the same time, with every house sold, Disney's investment in the project was literally shrinking.
A new home meant that much less land to sell, and that much less ownership over the town.
They could, of course, retain ownership over the town center, but would it really be worth it?
After all, the lion's share of the revenue was in the land they were selling for houses.
So in 2003 Disney began to divest itself from Celebration, announcing their intentions to
step back from the development and put the Town Center up for sale.
The town center would be purchased by a private investment firm called Lexin Capital for an
estimated $42 million dollars.
Knowing that their name would be tied to the legacy of the town anyway, Disney included a stipulation
in the sale that the new owners would uphold the same design and building standards that
they first established back when the town began.
Between those sales and the land sales over the years, it put Disney's take on the project
at an estimated $550 million.
Not bad for a chunk of land they weren't using.
The news prompted mixed reactions from residents.
Some welcomed the change in ownership, and hoped that it would mean more relaxed homeowner
association rules down the line.
Others, however, felt abandoned.
They had bought into the idea of Celebration as a town designed, built, and run by Disney,
and now Disney was leaving them.
How do you measure the success of a town?
On the one hand, it was a financial success for The Walt Disney Company.
It helped with Osceola county's tax revenue, and it provided a place to live for many families
who, despite all these troubles I just mentioned, were often still proud of the sense of community
that developed there.
Disney wanted to build a town that would foster the idea of community, and it worked.
On the other hand, Disney also pitched the idea of a perfect town that the rest of the
country could use as a model to base theirs off of, and with that they failed.
It was a development that many people were happy to live in, but it was very much one-of-a-kind,
not a template for the new suburbs.
Roy: “Celebration is really EPCOT I think in the end, in the sense of what Walt was
looking for.
A really nice place where people really live real lives and have the advantages of modern technology."
So was Celebration successful?
Personally, like the Disney parks themselves, I think it'll depend on who you ask.
For many it's a dream come true, and for others it's a failure.
The reality, as is usually the case, probably lies somewhere in between.
If you're new to the channel and want to get fresh Disney history videos every week,
I'd ask that you consider subscribing.
And if you're looking for a good next video to check out, I suggest the history of the
Disney Cruise Line, which had a somewhat unique origin.
Thank you for watching and I'll see you next time.
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Celebration Florida: Disney's Not So Perfect Town

1447 Folder Collection
jeff published on January 8, 2019
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