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CELEBRATION, U.S.A. by Douglas Frantz


Living in Disney's Brave New Town

by Douglas Frantz & Catherine Collins

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-5560-6
Publisher: Henry Holt

A fairly objective look at the easily scorned planned community near Orlando, Fla., created by Disney to incarnate that company’s vision of small-town America. The 5,000-acre town opened in 1996 with a promise of the kind of lifestyle, amenities, infrastructure, and hometown atmosphere Wait Disney himself would have approved of. Husband-and-wife writing team Frantz and Collins, both seasoned journalists (and co-authors of Teachers: Talking Out of School, 1993, etc.), moved to Celebration in 1997, believing “it seemed like the biggest experiment in social engineering since Levittown. . . .” The reality was more mixed. Homeowners, who’d gone through a festive real estate lottery to buy their plots, would face the usual problems with contractors; and the Disney Company didn’t always prove responsive to their complaints. The greatest conflict, though, arose over the community’s school, a unique K—12 system, based on Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” which eschewed textbooks, tests, and grades in favor of “detailed and personalized assessments.” That kind of unexpected progressiveness, combined with failed promises of funding and equipment, plus poorly prepared teachers, sent 20 families packing after the first school year. Disney then made the public relations error of trying to manipulate the complainants into silence. The authors had forked over $302,000 for their “mid-price” home, a fact that highlights their chief criticism of Celebration: its lack of low-income housing or subsidies for low-paid workers, thus creating a homogeneity that the authors conclude “reflected a narrow definition of who makes up a small town.” Was Disney, they ask, ’selling nostalgia? Or peddling collective amnesia in an America increasingly divided by race and class?” Even though they began to miss literary conversation (few of the homes, they discovered, even had bookshelves) and dinner parties with informed discussion of current affairs, Frantz and Collins opted to stay on in Celebration, at least until they find their version of utopia. Interesting, if not always engaging, and the authors provide a good mix of personal and sociological observation with a decent historical survey of American planned communities.