It’s a warm spring day as I navigate a borrowed beach cruiser through the paved trails and boardwalks that connect the neighborhoods of a Florida community. My only knowledge before visiting is that it’s the “Disney neighborhood.” One of the top questions to show up in my prior Google research was “Is Celebration, Florida, creepy?” I want to find out for myself.
After the popularity of Disneyland in California, Walt Disney and his company quietly purchased more than 27,000 acres of land in central Florida to build another park, Walt Disney World. Disney had a vision for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) to be not a theme park, but a real place where people could live. There would be a separate airport and advanced technology for residents. The community would also have access to transportation on the high-speed Monorail. But when Disney died in 1966, the plans were set aside.
When Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the land in Osceola County was reconsidered. Taking inspiration from Disney’s original EPCOT concept, ground broke for a residential community in 1994—it would be called Celebration.
Many of Disney’s original concepts for the futuristic neighborhood didn’t come to fruition, but not all of them were abandoned. Inspired by the New Urbanism trend that succeeded in the Florida community of Seaside, Celebration would have schools, including a small campus of a nearby university, churches, stores, and restaurants. The Town Center includes shops, but not enough for residents to avoid leaving Celebration for their weekly purchases. And like Levittown before it, Celebration prides itself on its community spaces, including 40 public parks spread throughout the town.
Eisner, a fan of modern architecture, enlisted architects Robert A. M. Stern, designer of Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts and a number of homes in Seaside, and Jaquelin T. Robertson for the master planning. Michael Graves designed the art deco cylindrical post office and Cesar Pelli designed the movie theater, which sits underneath a neon “Celebration” sign.
Levittown with a sprinkle of pixie dust
With the design established, Celebration needed residents. But it wasn’t as simple as purchasing a regular house: A lottery system was created for buyers to ensure fairness with thousands of people competing for 350 homes. Eisner encouraged executives and Disney employees to move there as well, and the first residents moved in during the summer of 1996.
During my visit, I start with lunch at Imperium Food and Wine, an art-filled wine bar. Then I go on a bike tour that leaves from a luxury hotel in Celebration. I throw my tote bag in the bike’s basket and follow my guide down the elevated boardwalks and paved paths that weave behind the houses and along the creek.
Along the way, I see the six architectural styles approved in Celebration, ranging from 1940s-inspired to over-the-top McMansions, and find hidden Mickeys in gates. Garages are located in the back and many houses have front porches in the spirit of welcoming neighbors. Around 10,000 people live here—and the community is still growing. Brazilian celebrity Silvio Santos owns one of the largest properties as a vacation home.
Perks of living in Celebration include being on the Disney power grid, so residents aren’t usually affected by hurricane outages, as well as a separate fire department and security force. Roads are maintained by the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Residents don’t get free theme park tickets, and homeowners aren’t free to modify their houses as they please. Community covenants prevent changes to houses, much like the Board of Architectural Review in historic cities. For example, if your house is in the Lake Evalyn neighborhood, you must have a picket fence. Homes in Downey Place must be painted Colonial Beige.
Leadership within Celebration isn’t managed by any elected officials as the town is an unincorporated part of Osceola County. Instead, decisions are made by groups like the Celebration Residential Owners Association, with members appointed by the Celebration Company.
The Happiest Place on Earth?
While Celebration prides itself on representing a simpler time without the crime and other issues faced by residents of bigger cities, the community hasn’t been without its problems. From the very beginning, homes have been inflated in value, selling for considerably more than comparable ones in the county. For example, a 2,000-square-foot home with four bedrooms in Celebration is currently listed for more than $800,000, whereas ones outside of town sell for half that.
Foreclosures have plagued the town in the past few years as residents found the homes difficult to sell. There have been lawsuits due to poorly constructed homes, some of which have leaky roofs. The first violent crimes struck Celebration in 2010 when a man engaged in a police standoff before his death. A few weeks earlier, a man was murdered in his Celebration condo.
There has also been a racial disparity over the years, so much so that the company advertised in publications with high Latinx and African American readership in hopes of recruiting potential homeowners.
Moving in with Mickey
Celebration wasn’t the first Disney community—or the last. In 1978, Disney-owned Arvida Corporation developed a planned community called Country Walk in Florida’s Dade County. The majority of the homes were severely damaged by Hurricane Andrew and a lawsuit that followed revealed faulty building practices. While the company was no longer involved in ownership by that time, the scandal still cast a negative shadow on the House of Mouse.
In 2010, Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort sold its first home sites. Unlike Celebration, the neighborhood located south of the Magic Kingdom Park highlights its Disney ties. Featuring multimillion-dollar residences, a clubhouse, and restaurants in eight different styles of architecture, Golden Oak is home to some of the wealthiest Disney fans looking for unrivaled access.
The concept of living in a “Disney neighborhood” has obvious appeal to some people, while others may find planned communities to be too uniform—and yes, even creepy. As I bike through the streets of Celebration, I mostly just feel as if I’m on a movie set, albeit one made of real people and real homes—or at least as real as anything created by a billion-dollar theme park company can hope to be.
If you go
Bike rentals and tours of Celebration are available from the Bohemian Hotel Celebration.