Friday, June 25, 2004

Disney Forever

Once upon a time, Disney proudly touted its ties to the town of Celebration. You couldn't miss the connection from the moment you approached the town on 192. The water town at the entrance announced, "Disney's Town of Celebration" in big, bold letters.

But running a real town populated by real people 24 hours a day is much different than manipulating the controlled environment of a theme park. Cast members on the payroll have to dress and act in a certain way mandated by the Mouse. People in their own homes don't, even if those homes sit on land that was once Disney property.

I won't go into fiascos such as poor construction quality on some of the earliest homes or the failed experiment in "innovative" education. Those have been documented ad nauseum by way too many authors and reporters.

Suffice it to say that Disney soon felt an urge to distance themselves from their creation. They say it was all part of their ultimate plan, but they tend to say that about everything ("Yes, the freak inland hurricane that just destroyed the Magic Kingdom was all part of our ultimate plan of rennovation."). Personally, I suspect that the many gaffes convinced Mama Bird (Mama Mouse?) to kick the fledgling out of the nest a little sooner than planned.

One day, a long time back, "Disney's Town of" suddenly and silently disappeared from the water town. As the years marched on, Disney continued to back off bit by bit. Now, they're almost totally withdrawn. The last village, Artisan Park, was sold off for development by an outside company called (at the time) Arvida. The workers at the Preview Center, who were once employed by The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) were given the option of becoming Arvida staff.

The Celebration golf course was next; it was sold off to new owners, as was the entire downtown area. Now Market Street and the surrounding area are owned by a company called Lexin, although many people don't even realize it. Quite a few think that Disney is still in charge, and I've met more than a handful who still think that Disney owns the entire town.

Some Celebration residents see Disney's departure as a good thing, allowing the community to finally claim its birthright as a real, full-fledged town under the control of the people. Others are not so pleased about the changes. Only time will tell just how positive or negative the transition will ultimately be.

But at present, The Celebration Company isn't totally out of the picture. It still owns many large parcels of land located along the Celebration Boulevard ring that it is marketing for commercial development. Someday I know that the area will be clogged with hotels and offices and whatnot, but for now I love coming home from Disney World on World Drive and turning onto the circle with its lush thickets of palm trees and wetlands. It makes me feel like I live on a secluded little island ringed by a buffering oasis of green.

Of course, no matter what happens, the Disney name will forever be entwined with that of Celebration just as surely as hordes of tourists will flock to Orlando each summer. 10 years from now, 20, and even 50, Celebration will still be known as the town that Disney built.

How can I state this with such confidence? Well, aside from the fact that in 50 years I'll either be dead or too senile to remember what I said today, I know that it's human nature. It's the same cosmic law that comes into play when you work at a company for many years, doing the same job, and then eventually change departments. Even if you stay in your new position for a decade, people will call you with questions related to your old job forevermore. You might not be listed in that role in the company directory anymore, but it doesn't matter. People who can't remember what they had for lunch two hours ago will remember that 15 years ago you used to handle insurance questions. It doesn't matter that you've worked in finance for 10 years now. You'll be hearing from callers with questions about insurance until you quit the company or retire.

This principle definitely extrapolates to corporations. Disney Cruise Line is a perfect example. Well over a decade ago, the Disney characters could be found on the Big Red Boat, owned by Premiere Cruise Line. But eventually Disney terminated the licensing agreement and started a cruise line of its own.

For a while, Premiere featured the Looney Tunes characters in place of Mickey and the gang. Eventually they went broke, and their ship was literally repossessed while in port, leaving the passengers and crew members stranded.

Disney's ships couldn't be any more dissimilar to Premiere's. Unlike the Little Red Barge, the Magic and Wonder are elegant ships with blue/black hulls and with Mickey's trademark profile on a "wave" on the smokestacks (which are the only red parts of the exterior). There was never any connection between the two cruise lines. The characters are the only thing they ever had in common.

I have cruised Disney an obscene number of times. If you'd like to know just how obsessed I am, click here to read my Disney Cruise Line blog. I consider myself an expert on the topic, and if you look at the blog, you'll see why. But I constantly encounter people who say, "I sailed on Disney Cruise Line in 1992." I point out that they were on Premiere Cruise Line, and they say, "No, it was definitely Disney Cruise Line," even when I explain that Premiere used to have Mickey. Pointing out that Disney Cruise Line did not set sail until 1998 does absolutely no good. Nothing can convince them that their memory is flawed, no matter how many facts I spout.

I am a true crime book buff, and many of the books I read contend that eyewitness testimony is generally the least reliable type of evidence. Juries give it high credibility, but it is notoriously inaccurate. I found this hard to believe until I thought about all the "eyewitness" accounts of trips on Disney Cruise Line in the 1980s and 90s that I've been told about. The people who insist that they sailed on the Magic or Wonder back then would pass a lie detector test with flying colors, because in their minds they know they are telling the truth.

Just as Disney's ill-conceived alliance with Premiere will haunt them forever, or until Western civilization collapses, so too will their association with our town. No matter what the water tower says, no matter who runs the downtown, we're Forever Disney for better or worse.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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