Tuesday, June 01, 2004

A Spontaneous Decision

Celebration is a town like any other, not the magical, mythical place of popular lore. But there must be a bit of magic somewhere. How else can you explain the number of people who make a spontaneous decision to move here? Some literally give up their jobs, pack up their families, and move in with nothing more than the possessions they can cram into a moving van. I would have happily been among them, but for financial reasons, my husband and I had to take it a bit more slowly.

We didn't take the plunge until 2002, but Celebration has actually been around since 1994, albeit as a barren patch of ground with a sales trailer and the Ghost of Towns Yet to Come looming over it. I won't go into all the hoopla surrounding the initial sales kick-off and the lottery for the very first homes. There has been enough written about that already. Although it has reached mythic proportions, it has since been overshadowed by the kick-off of other, similar developments.

I had heard about Celebration for years, and somehow the idea of living there had always appealed to me, even sight unseen. Of course, both my husband and I are major Disney fans. We progressed from visiting Disney World once or twice a year early in our marriage to buying annual passes and flying out to Florida as often as possible.

When Disney Cruise Line was launched in 1998, we altered our passion slightly and became frequent cruisers, sailing half a dozen times a year or more. Our park visits dropped off as the cost-cutting measures began to rise and the effects at Disney World became more evident. Fortunately, the cruise line kept up the quality.

Even though we'd visited Kissimmee dozens of times, we'd never made it over to Celebration. I don't like to drive when I'm on vacation, so we always used a towncar from Happy Limo to get to our hotel. We stayed on Disney World property and relied on their internal transportation system to hop around to the various parks. For our cruises, we took a towncar to and from Port Canaveral, and we took the Mears shuttle for visits to Universal Studio and Islands of Adventure.

Since we were spending so much time in Florida, we often discussed the possibility of moving there for good. I am a wimp when it comes to heat, but my husband likes it hot and muggy. For him, the steamier the better. Each time we flew out for another visit, I would watch as the towncar headed down I-4 or 417 and the neighborhoods zoomed by. I saw stucco-sided condos and rows of cookie cutter houses with pools and Florida rooms. I wondered if one of those neighborhoods would be our future home, and I dared to dream of a quaint little Florida room with a swimming pool and a lush garden. But I always thought that the dream would be many years distant.

On one of our Disney cruises in late 2000 or early 2001, I chatted with a woman who lived in Celebration while we were both relaxing in the Tropical Rainforest sauna room. I told her I'd often dreamed of living there, but I was sure that it was far too expensive. She said, "Oh, no, the prices are quite reasonable!"

I guess we all have different ideas of "reasonable," but since she didn't define the word, I thought that maybe my impression was wrong. Who knows...maybe Celebration was at least somewhat affordable. She regaled me with stories of relaxing downtown by the lake in a rocking chair or enjoying the pools on a hot summer day. I filed all this information somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasn't a priority, but I knew that someday my husband and I would be taking a look at the "Disney Town."

As luck would have it, in October of 2001 my employer sent me to a conference held at Disney World, in the Swan and Dolphin hotels. My husband still had some spare vacation days, so he flew down to join me and we extended our trip over the weekend. I bid on Priceline for a hotel, and we ended up at the Marriott World Center. This meant that, for once, I was forced to drive.

We knew that the home office for Disney Cruise Line was located in Celebration, and with all cruises we were taking, we were quite curious about it. We decided to take a drive by and check it out. Since we were there, we decided to drive into town and finally see this quaint slice of Americana that people in the media seemed to either love or hate.

We spent some time driving around, just soaking up the character of the town. I'd heard the usual rumors about Celebration and how the home styles and colors were stringently controlled. This didn't jibe with the lovely mix of architecture that we saw, nor the beautiful gardens and the eclectic mix of yard decor. We saw everything from quaint gingerbread Victorians with homey porches to Spanish style mansions to a house that could have doubled for the Bates motel.

Many people claim that Celebration is a throwback to the towns that used to exist in the 1950s and 1960s, but I don't really think so. I grew up in one of those towns, and it was quite different. For one thing, Celebration's business and residential districts are quite separate. In the old neighborhoods, there was a corner store (and often a tavern) every few blocks so you never had to run too far for a newspaper, bread, or milk (and Dad could always stop for a quick beer on the way home from work).

Also, those old towns certainly didn't have common areas and parks like Celebration's. Sure, there was usually a community park, but not countless little spreads of well manicured public land every few blocks. The downtown district of those old towns had businesses like pharmacies, hardware stores, and mom and pop groceries that catered to the residents. Sure, Celebration has a Gooding's Grocery downtown, but it bears no resemblence to a traditional supermarket, and the other businesses are mostly geared to tourists.

No, Celebration is not an old town teleported forward in time. It is its own place, with its very own character and personality. The one parallel with the old towns is a strong sense of community, but that has nothing to do with the phyiscal make-up. I think that friendliness and community spirit are something people bring with them because it's one of the reasons that many of them move here.

After circling Celebration Boulevard and Celebration Avenue a couple of time, and being stopped by an endless parade of golf carts crossing the road, we found our way to the Preview Center. This was the place where you could get information on the various home types. It also featured an impressive model of Celebration and an enthusiastic promotional video.

Originally, the Preview Center was located in the "tower" building downtown, but by the time we came around, it had been moved to a house just off Celebration Avenue. The original building now houses a Bank of America branch.

The center is pretty much defunct now, as sales have moved over to Artisan Park, the last area to be developed, way down at the end of Celebration Avenue. But at that time, the center was still in full swing, and most of the model homes were located nearby.

We poked around the models, but when we saw the prices, I realized that the woman I met on the cruise definitely had a different definition of affordability than I did. Still, it was fun to check things out. We were hoping to see the bungalows, which are the cheapest single family homes, but they were located in Roseville Corner, adjacent to East Village. Since we had no idea where that was, we never found them. We just checked out the models that we could find on foot near the center.

We were told that a new development (which is what eventually became Artisan Park) was going to be added soon, and that although it would be aimed at people aged 55 and over, there would be no specific age restriction. It was going to have condominiums and townhomes, which might be closer to our price range, so we thought that perhaps we would return in a year or two to check it out.

We were glad that the new development was a few years down the road, since we weren't quite ready to make the plunge yet. Heck, before we'd come to town, moving to Florida was still a vague dream, perhaps as far off as retirement. But somehow Celebration had shifted that dream to a more immediate context. We had only visited, and we were trying to work out how we could move there sooner rather than later. We had no interest in looking at other neighborhoods. Somehow we instinctively knew that Celebration was the place for us.

We did some bumming around downtown, enjoying the lakefront rockers and marveling at the "old-fashioned" movie theater (only two screens), ice cream shop, and Art Deco-style diner. It was touristy rather than authentic small-towny, right down to the Muzak piped into the streets. But however corny some people might find it, we immediately fell in love. We spent some time on the walking trails, which lead out of the crowded, tourist-heavy downtown area and into the residential streets. We soaked up the atmosphere, and somehow the spell that had snared many others before us was taking over our rational brains.

By the time we had to leave to catch our flight home, we were trying to figure out how we might buy a home in Celebration as soon as possible. To this day, I still don't know how "retirement," which had moved to "a few years down the road," suddently became "right now." But somehow it did, and we've never regretted that spontaneous decision. I think a large part of it was that we realized that soon we'd be priced right out of the market. Even with new condos going up within a few years, I strongly suspected that their prices would be much, much more than the going rate in 2001 (indeed, time proved me to be correct).

So somehow, without even really discussing it, my husband and I made the decision that we were going to buy a place in Celebration, and soon. To heck with the fact that our jobs had us tied to the Midwest, not to mention that we had no idea how we might handle it financially. We're not poor, but neither are we independently wealthy, and we work very hard to finance our frequent vacations. And of course house hunting might be a bit of a challenge, since I had run out of vacation days for the year.

But we were determined not to let these minor hurdles stop us. Just when we least expected it, our quest to become Celebration residents had somehow begun.

Next time...hunting for a home long distance.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

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