Sunday, June 20, 2004

The "Real" Celebration

Celebration is a special town. Maybe it’s not physically special, but there is an odd mystique that has sprung up around it. Countless news articles have been written about it, in everything from the Orlando Sentinel to the Wall Street Journal. It has been the subject of multiple books, and it even starred under the pseudonym “Jubilation” in a short story in Playboy magazine. People still write research articles about it and it still makes the news with some regularity, although not as frequently as in the early days.

Celebration is lauded by some and reviled by others. Incidents that would be considered run of the mill in any other town are big news when they happen in Celebration. The more I’ve come to know about my adopted hometown, the more I wonder why. The myth has taken on a life of its own, but it bears no relationship to the reality. I think the only people who know the "real" Celebration are the ones fortunate enough to live here. The others, who know it from what they've read or perhaps even a short visit downtown, never discover the real town beneath all the hype.

If you had never visited Celebration before and somebody blindfolded you and drove you there, you’d never be able to tell it apart from other, similar planned communities. Well, okay, maybe the logo on the street signs and manhole covers would give it away, but in terms of houses and people it’s not much different than dozens of other places.

Perhaps the expectations and beliefs sprang from the association with Disney. Because it was developed by the Mouse, perhaps people believed that Market Street would always be as squeaky clean and controlled as Main Street in the Magic Kingdom and the houses would be as tidy as the facades on Residential Street on the Disney MGM Studio backlot tour.

But Celebration is a town of real people who live there 24 hours a day, not tourists who come between specified hours. The homes and stores and streets are real. Sure, Disney used to own them once, but they sold the land for development just as countless other corporations and development companies do every day across the country. Even if Celebration sat in the exact same spot, I doubt that the media would have shown it any interest if it had formerly been Farmer Joe’s cattle ranch or its developer had been Acme Land Conglomerate or some similar faceless, generic corporation.

Of course, Disney played its brand name for all it was worth, but who can blame them? Like any other corporation, they are in the business of making money. If surrounding the launch of Celebration with hoopla will drive up demand and prices, it shouldn’t be surprising that they did what they did. After all, this is the same company who made such clunkers as Cinderella 2 and Little Mermaid 2 to squeeze extra dollars out of those franchises. Whether the commodity is cartoon characters or land, it’s not surprising that the basic business practice remains the same.

But Disney doesn’t own the land anymore, or at least not most of it. The downtown has been sold to Lexin, and the golf course was sold to a private partnership. Someday the land still controlled by The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) will all be under new ownership and full of hotels and resorts.

If you walk down Market Street on any given day, you’ll see trash and cigarette butts on the streets, and you might hear teens cursing as they hang out near Lakeside Park. Keep looking and you’ll spot junk vehicles (although the town’s most famous junker, Skippy, an old tan Dodge Dart that used to welcome all comers right at the entrance to town, his gone now because “his” owner moved away). Drive down the residential streets and you’ll find faded paint and occasional messy yards. There is dog doo and even the occasional splotch of graffiti. If you happen to come to a construction site, you might think that you’ve inadvertently wandered into a fast food wrapper graveyard.

I don’t mean to imply that any of the above problems are rampant in Celebration. I simply mean that they do exist, no matter what the media hype and the mythical tales would have you believe. The Disney association doesn’t mean that Celebration is any more immune to real life problems than any other similar town.

Crime happens in Celebration, too, from thefts of mail to auto theft, burglary, and even armed robbery. Criminals don’t say, “Oh, wait a minute, this is that Disney town. I can’t do anything here.” The affluent demographic, coupled with the town’s proximity to major roads like 417, 192, and I-4 make it a tempting target; the nearby pixie dust of Disney World offers no special protection.

But for all its faults, I still love Celebration. Any town will have its problems, but for me the negatives are far outweighed by the positives. Some of the positive traits have nothing to do with the town itself. I’d enjoy living in any town located so close to a plethora of tourist attractions. Disney World is just one part of the Orlando/Kissimmee Tourism Juggernaut that grows larger each year. Sure, that attracts droves of people and causes traffic jams that snarl the roads for miles. But where else could I watch an Arabian horse show, watch a gator “jumperoo” show, surf in a wave pool, swim with dolphins, go on a simulated mission to Mars, fight criminals with Spiderman, do a reverse sky dive in a wind tunnel, or be shot 300 feet in the air, all within minutes of my house?

And of course there’s the famous Central Florida weather. Sure, the summers are intolerably muggy (although there’s never enough humidity to suit my husband), and during the rainy season a short but torrential downpour is a daily occurrence. But for me, that is balanced out by the wonderful, mild winters. I’ve lived all my life with snow, so if the only snowflakes I ever saw again were the soap bubbles at Disney World and in downtown Celebration, blowing in the balmy 70 degree air among the palm trees, I would be perfectly content.

But Celebration has its own special attractions. It’s a friendly, welcoming community full of people who care. They’re involved with the community and committed to making it a better place, even though they might disagree on what “better” means or the best way to accomplish it. Better to have bickering among passionate souls than to live in a place mired in apathy.

It also seems that people move to Celebration specifically because its friendly reputation, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within weeks of closing on our home, we were closer to some of our new neighbors than we ever have been with people we’ve lived literally on top of for almost a decade. Our midwest home is in a twelve story condo building, and we were one of the first families to move in after it was built. We’ve outlasted almost everyone, and even the handful of original residents are nothing more than vaguely familiar faces to us. We say a quick hello, but I don’t even know their names or anything about them. When our condo complex was new, we used to have an annual block party. That lasted perhaps two years, and then it died out due to lack of participation. Once upon a time, elections for the condo board were hotly contested races. Now, the board literally has to beg for new members.

I hope that the same thing will never happen in Celebration. I love the block parties and the events like Founders Day, the Holiday House Walk, the Farmers Market, and the Fourth of July Parade that embody that small-town spirit. Many towns try to do things like that, but most don’t succeed. Our original hometown started a Farmers Market and put out some chairs so people can sit in the downtown area, near the fountain (a traditional one, not a cool run-through fountain like Celebration’s). But there is one big difference that embodies the thing that draws me to Celebration: In my new hometown, the rockers downtown are loose, and you can move them anywhere you want on the lakefront. In my own home town, all of the chairs are chained down to prevent theft.

No, Celebration isn’t perfect, but it’s about as close as I’ve found. Don’t believe what the media says, neither good nor bad. You’ll never know the real Celebration until you come and experience it (the whole town, not just the downtown area) for yourself.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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