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Consumerist expectations mar "ideal" town

by Balbir Gill

What would it be like to live in the town designed by a company known for fairy tales and adorable cartoon characters? Well, it's not exactly what you would expect.

The Disney corporation built Celebration, Florida, one of the largest planned communities in North America, to be an ideal neighbourhood. Beautiful green spaces and lakeside views would be public spaces to be enjoyed by all, children would have spacious parks as their playground, and there would be an active community life.

For a year, Andrew Ross, professor and director of the American studies program at New York University, lived in the town that Disney built. Ross spent his sabbatical there, and has published a book, Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in Disneys New Town.

The town is not littered with Disney souvenirs. In fact, Ross points out, "Celebration is probably the only place in central Florida where you cannot buy a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. If you didn't know it was a Disney town already, you would be hard put to figure that out."

The town's design incorporates elements of the latest urban planning ideas, making it more environment-friendly than the typical suburb. It is fairly high-density, with small lots, a mixture of incomes, pedestrian-friendly streets and community-oriented development.

"There were a lot of rumours in the town. People tell stories about environments they care about, so I took it as a good sign. The rotunda of the post office was rumoured to be the top of a subterranean nuclear power facility."

Another civic building features a tower where the outdoor staircase mysteriously ends halfway up to the top. Some people in Celebration claim that Walt Disney's body is buried at the top. Others say that only his head is buried at the top of the tower.

Celebration's residents are, "mostly white late-boomer parents with three or four kids, a lot of them affluent downshifters who wanted to bring up their kids in a children-friendly environment."

Celebration's public school was designed to attract these families by bringing together some of the most progressive elements of curriculum all in one place. Ross found that the school was the centre of controversy in Celebration.

"It was the site of a battle of wills between relatively affluent townsfolk and fairly low-paid public school teachers from the Asceola County region. A lot of the parents who had moved there were pretty well educated, and felt that their own ideas about education were superior to those of the public school teachers."

"One of the most discouraging experiences of my stay was to watch as parents, for the most part, grew dissatisfied with the school. A critical mass proved crucial in persuading the school administrators to move the school away from its original mission, and I watched as a lot of school teachers were fired or left."

Ross has a theory that many of the people who moved to Celebration were Disneyphiles who were used to getting high satisfaction as Disney customers during their vacations. "People continued to have those consumerist-type demands, and they weren't the type of demands that were very easily met by the town's public institutions, least of all the public school."

Ross says that the ultimate challenge for the community will be to see if they can use their sense of community activism to do outreach to their [Osceola County] neighbours who are less privileged than they are, to see if they can become good neighbours to those who are outside Celebration's property line.

Ross's lecture was sponsored by the Department of Communication Studies.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.