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Disney’s Dream Town

by Joe Moran

American Studies Today Online

Disney theme parks have always offered a sanitised version of the American experience. In Celebration, this vision has now expanded to cover town planning, and, some argue, social engineering. In this slightly sardonic article, Joe Moran explores the reality behind the façade of Main Street come to life

Joe Moran is a lecturer in English and American Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, where he teaches a course on Disney

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in reading this one in ASToday Online 

American Theme Parks and the Landscapes of Mass Culture - by Steve Mills - Disney World in Florida has become the yardstick by which theme parks throughout the world are judged, but its influence spreads far beyond the design of tourist attractions, and even impacts on the design of shopping malls and residential districts. However, with their emphasis on creating a tidy, idealised and self-contained world, do they run the danger of excluding the poor and the disadvantaged from a growing range of public facilities? In this wide-ranging article, Steve Mills investigates the pervasive influence of the Disney concept and philosophy. (44k)

In all the publicity that surrounded the hundredth anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth in December 2001, another significant Disney anniversary was rather overlooked: the fifth birthday of Celebration. Five years ago, in November 1996, 350 people became the first residents of the town, built by the Disney Corporation on mosquito-ridden swampland in Osceola County, Florida, next to its World Resort. This model town is now a thriving community of 5000 residents, with a projected population of 20,000. The early brochures for Celebration immodestly described it as a massive project in social engineering, an attempt to recreate the kinder, gentler America of the past: ‘There was once a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight … There is a place that takes you back to that time of innocence … A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets.’

Celebration taps into the American frontier spirit, the perennial dream of moving on and starting anew, while relocating the frontier in a prelapsarian, and arguably non-existent, past. All the houses in the town are of ‘neo-traditionalist’ design, with their clapboard exteriors, pastel colours, front porches and picket fences. The town is thus an extended, real-life version of Main Street, the centrepiece of all the Disney theme parks, which reproduces a ‘typical’ Midwestern American street at the end of the nineteenth century, complete with ice cream parlour, theatre and candy store.

It’s no news that Disney pedals a soft-focus version of America’s past. The more serious charge is that this rewriting of the collective memory - what the cultural critic Stephen Fjellman has termed ‘Distory’ - conveniently censors those aspects of American history that white, middle America might prefer to forget. This is perfectly captured in the ‘American Adventure’ attraction at Disney World, where audioanimatronic figures of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain narrate a cosy, down-home version of ‘the American pageant’ from the Mayflower onwards. Celebration forms part of this heritage mentality. The idea of the smalltown has often functioned in American culture, not least in Hollywood films from the work of Frank Capra onwards, as a source of nostalgia for pre-urban, WASP America, untainted by the modernity and multiculturalism of the city.

 Celebration, though, does not advocate a wholesale return to a life lived inside Normal Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, but a perfect blend of old and new. With its emphasis on ‘education, technology, health and sense of place,’ it seeks to combine a Waltons-style ambience with a hopeful vision of the future, in keeping with Uncle Walt’s original dream of a planned community in the mid-1960s, EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). So Celebration also boasts the involvement of American software companies, a state-of-the-art hospital and an innovative, techno-friendly school.

With its wide sidewalks, open spaces and abundant greenery, Celebration certainly does not look an unpleasant place to live. This new community is paved with the good intentions of restoring a civic spirit to American public space, supposedly blighted in the postwar period by soulless subdivisions and shopping malls. The basic idea is that residents will accept less space in their own property, and smaller gardens, in return for communal space in the form of parks, squares, walking and cycle paths. The houses are even spaced tightly together, in order to discourage the detached existences of American suburbanites. Above all, everyone in Celebration is within easy walking distance of the town centre, where the main thoroughfare, Market Street, has small, friendly stores and no corporate brand names. In fact, this town is one of the few places in Florida that is not teeming with Disney merchandise.

Celebration has quickly become the flagship for an increasingly influential movement in town planning called the ‘New Urbanism,’ which is essentially designed to wean America off its love affair with the automobile. The New Urbanism envisages small, pedestrian-friendly, close-knit communities, as a way of countering the placelessness of the post-war Levittowns and their imitators. An early prototype for the New Urbanism was Seaside, the picture-postcard town in Florida that served as the model for Jim Carrey’s hometown in The Truman Show. This film perfectly describes the dilemma of these ideal communities, though, in that it shows how a perfect world can easily become a nightmare of social control. Half a century ago in his book The Organization Man, W.H. Whyte warned against the ‘benign tyranny’ of suburbia, and this danger also applies to the new urbanism. There are certainly plenty of bylaws in Celebration, aimed primarily at maintaining property values: no more than two people are allowed to sleep in one bedroom, the curtains are all a regulation colour (white) and lawns have to be mown regularly. As ever, the freedom to live in a manufactured Eden comes at the cost of other freedoms.

Is Celebration another example of middle-class flight, reminiscent of the postwar suburban dream which it implicitly critiques? Certainly, the vast majority of the town’s residents are well-off and white. This is not because of any actively discriminatory selection process, but simply because a piece of the dream comes at a premium. The average price for a house in Celebration is $220,000, which means that workers at the neighbouring Disney World, many of them Hispanic immigrants on the minimum wage, could never afford to live there. In this sense, Celebration mirrors the worst aspects of suburbia, in that its all-mod-cons utopia is only achieved at the expense of an escape from the rest of the human race.

In his recent book, The Celebration Chronicles (Verso, 2000), the academic Andrew Ross recounts his experience of going native, when he spent a sabbatical year living in an apartment in Celebration. He notes how the Celebration Company quickly encountered the discontent of the residents over the shoddy construction of their homes and the progressive, non-competitive education at the local school. The Disney theme park experience has always entailed high maintenance to perpetuate the fantasy of a magic kingdom, to the extent that it’s a sackable offence for the actors who play Mickey Mouse and Goofy to remove the head of their costumes in view of the ‘guests,’ even if they are suffering from heat exhaustion. A community of real people leading real lives was always like to prove harder to handle than an enclosed tourist experience, where holidaymakers willingly suspend their critical faculties.

No knee-jerk Disney basher, Ross identifies a strange kind of civic spirit emerging out of the dissatisfaction of the Celebration residents with the tarnishing of their dreams. These people simply refuse to conform to the Stepford Wives stereotype, as one of them cries: ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’ve got pixie dust coming out of my ass!’ But if Celebration’s version of the New Urbanism is a precursor of other communities in America and elsewhere, its attempt to marry private money with the sense of a public sphere has worrying implications. In the absence of real government investment or public funding in housing or social spaces, communities like Celebration will continue to demonstrate the high price paid (by those who can and can’t afford to live there) for ‘the dynamic and special place we call home’.


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