Authors: Douglas Frantz, Catherine Collins
How I learned about it: My mom recommended it to me after I told her about Library as Place - she had taught it in a class on the concept of Place/Space and thought I might like it. And I did!
Celebration, Florida is a planned community that was originally developed by Disney as a way to turn a profit on some extra land that they owned. It was heavily marketed in the early 1990s, and people actually moved there and lived there. In 2004, Disney sold the business sector of Celebration to Lexin Capital, and in 2016 the residents of Town Center (the name of that business sector) sued Lexin over poor building conditions and lack of upkeep.
So things are not going so well.
Celebration, U.S.A. was published in 1999 after the authors spent two years living in Celebration along with their two young children, collecting stories from residents and preparing to write a book on the experience (this book).
This book was a very quick and enjoyable read (I finished it in two days); the authors are both journalists, and the entire book has the journalistic pace of anecdote - information - anecdote - information that keeps you engaged and alert. The authors interviewed residents, Disney employees, experts, and in a couple cases government officials, and these interviews were combined with their own experiences to tell the story of Celebration’s foundation and first two years of existence - the authors lived there for two years, in the town’s 2nd and 3rd year, but for the most part the book only talks about their first year there.
The overall tone that the authors choose to take is surprisingly neutral - they clearly enjoyed their time in Celebration in a lot of ways, made a lot of friends, and found a lot of community, and these themes underpin every discussion of the problems that Disney caused. Shared hardship breeds community, and they were met with very few cases of people not actively wanting to build community together. To take language from Library as Place, while Disney may have built a problematic space, the people there made it into a (for the first couple years at least) thriving place.
Failings of Celebration
The town center
I had interrupted reading Free To All - a book about a philanthropist who donated libraries to existing communities - to read Celebration, U.S.A. - a book about a company that built a new community without a library. The irony is not lost on me. Celebration opened without any library at all and eventually had some space reserved for one in its public school (p. 143). It wasn’t until 2006 that the West Osceola Branch Library opened.
Instead of showing off the town with a library, there was supposed to be a church as “the first civic building to welcome visitors when they drove along Celebration Avenue into town” (p. 163). Of course, this building never materialized as planned (chapter 13). So maybe it’s a good thing that there were no plans for a magnificent library, because all they would have guaranteed is that the library would not have gotten built.
Failings of education: scope matters
The cornerstones of Celebration were supposed to be “education, wellness, technology, place, and community” (p. 115), and the education cornerstone was supposed to be expressed through an adult education center called the Disney Institute. However, the planners were forced to give up on their original vision of this center. They had wanted something like Chapel Hill or Williamstown, both college towns. To take a term from user experience, this was their strategy, and they needed to scope within their strategy. But they were unable to scope properly, and because they were unable to scope it properly, they had to pivot (p. 67).
Their pivot ended up being to a public school - still in theory within the strategy of an educational focus, but the outcome of this pivot made it clear that they lacked the organizational experience to implement it; and their willingness to pivot indicates that they were not fundamentally committed to their strategy from day 1.
For why the school was such a disaster, see chapter 6, “School Daze,” as well as several of the other later chapters; here are some of the reasons:
- Too many revolutionary ideas were tried at once (mixed years of students, no letter grades, no textbooks)
- Too high a student-to-faculty ratio (p.145)
- Lack of prior training of teachers due to condensed time frame
- High turnover & short staffing - the first principal left after a year; the second principal was supposed to be two principals, but at the last minute she had to do the entire job herself and didn’t even get a vice principal at first
- Architecture codified policy inflexibly - if changes were to be made to policy, a new building or serious renovations would be required (p.144)
I will add my own somewhat baseless speculation to the list: There’s a quote from Peter Rummell, the “chief visionary behind Celebration” on page 35: “Those are the people who think their kids will never get a B in school and there is never going to be a weed in their lawn when they move to Celebration.” What better way to ensure no one’s kid ever gets a B in school than to never assign grades in school or issue corrections on homeworks? In a way, the most Disney system was formed: students learn as much as their parents want them to (because parental involvement is essentially required to have reasonable nine-week-long projects), and parents are able to have exactly the level of illusion of students’ achievements that they want. The cost, of course, would be the education of, well, every single student enrolled at the school.
Failings of social responsibility
It is unsurprising that when one’s goal is to earn a profit by capitalizing on people’s lifelong dreams that one will sacrifice social responsibility, especially when one is a giant corporation with essentially no checks by the government (see: the existence of Reedy Creek Improvement District and Disney’s army of lawyers with which they confronted Osceola County, chapter 3). There are two main areas covered by this book: provision of low-income housing and environmental impact of Celebration. Disney’s lack of care towards both leads to a lower quality of life for both the population of Celebration and of the world at large.
Disney’s failure to provide low-income housing results in an extremely non-diverse demographic in Celebration (p. 217). Worse, the authors also note overt symbols of racism baked into the town’s architecture: for example, the “two open-air pavilions in the town center” are designed to look like southern slave markets from the 1700s and early 1800s (p. 218). The authors note that a number of residents are troubled by the lack of diversity, but not all: on page 224, they recount a story of Lisa Baird bringing up increasing diversity as a goal and being shot down.
While lack of diversity and affordable housing is the topic of chapter 10, the environmental impact of development is discussed in chapter 11, “Swamp Song.” Disney had gotten itself out of a tree ordinance with the county and later “clarified” that it was indeed exempt from said ordinance (p. 226-9). It did, however, make a token effort to comply with the “spirit” of the ordinance when moving some trees to make way for additional development, and it additionally created the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a sufficiently remote piece of land as not to be in the way of development, that would remain preserved indefinitely.
Sort of the ultimate NIMBY and a great PR stunt (the nicer term is “mitigation banking"), this preserve would shield them from criticisms about aggressively developing within Celebration itself - even when, as the authors recount, they broke their own promises to residents about what to preserve (p. 239-242).
A couple non-Celebration-related things I learned:
- p. 45 - The Truman Show was set on a real-world town, a planned community called Seaside, Florida
- p. 111 - Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a utopian suburb concept called Broadacre City
Most stand-out background stories
There are two types of backgrounds told in this book:
- Residents who came because they wanted an adventure or wanted to see what it was all about and had the financial security to do so
- Those who were so desperate for a better life that they sacrificed everything
So, here’s a brief synopsis of what was to me the most memorable story in each category:
- p. 193-202 Dave and Teresa Haeuszer - After selling their garbage removal company and being set financially, they drove the country in an RV, homeschooling their kids and having adventures, idly looking for the perfect place to settle down if they happened to find it. They loved Celebration and decided to move there, knowing they’d eventually leave it.
- p. 107-109 - Lance and Karin Boyer - Lance made a decision practically overnight to move to the community, committed to a house $30,000 more than what he already couldn’t afford, and then took out credit card debt to pay another $5,000.
I’m not a fan of Disney, and it was somewhat satisfying to read a book talking about their failures - though at the same time, the authors made you want to see the community and place created by residents of Celebration succeed. Of course, we have the advantage of twenty years of additional hindsight and know that things just got worse, but the book ends with measured optimism that’s not necessarily uncalled for, just because of the strength of the town’s community.