Since Downtown Celebration's earliest days, it had a bright neon icon: the Art Deco-style towers of the AMC Celebration movie theater. Like neighborhoods of the past, Celebration featured its own movie theater. Its sign became a symbol of Celebration, appearing in countless tourist photos and news stories about the town.
With only two screens, the AMC Celebration was downright tiny by today's MegaUltraPlex 100 Screen monstrosities. It reminded me of my childhood in Chicago, when it seemed that every city neighborhood and suburb had its own movie house.
I grew up going to movie theaters with names like the Roseland, State, Normal, and Lyric. They were small affairs, with only one screen each, but their artery-clogging butter-clotted popcorn was a taste treat unlike the sterile kernels served up today, and you got a double feature for your money.
If you went to a weekend matinee and liked the movies (or just wanted to hang out with your friends), you could stay to see them again and no one would kick you out. The seats were ragged, the floors were sticky, but those old-time movie theaters were neighborhood staples.
Alas, as the years progressed, they closed down one by one as the March of the Shopping Mall Cineplexes ground them down under its boot heels. For a while, you could still find one or two ancient theaters struggling for survival, but they'd be showing second-run dollar-admission fare that was already released on DVD.
The AMC Celebration was an anomaly, especially with the Downtown Disney AMC theaters just a hop, skip, and jump away. Even in its earliest days, it was never crowded, and the handful of people dwindled each time I went there. The last time I ever saw a movie there, I think there was only one other party in the whole theater.
Its fate was sealed just as surely as the fate of those other neighborhood venues. The AMC Celebration finally shut its doors for good. It was soon a blight on the face of downtown, with ripped, faded posters and a general look of abandonment and despair. Worse yet, someone threw the switch on the famous neon beacons. The unofficial town icon was dark, shabby, and desolate.
In a way, I supposed it was somewhat appropriate. The pre-real estate bubble Celebration I'd known many years ago had given way to a post-bubble wasteland. While it certainly doesn't look as bad as some Florida neighborhoods, it's not uncommon to see at least one unkempt, disheveled foreclosure on just about every block. You'll see a row of pristine homes, and smack dab in the center of them is a place (or two) with faded paint, a jungle lawn, mildew-encrusted stares, and blank, empty-eyed windows. Celebration might be just eight miles from the Magic Kingdom's gates, but it's certainly no Fantasyland immune to economic troubles.
There's been an ongoing local outcry about the theater. It remains empty and lonely because of a rumored legal battle between AMC and Lexin, the downtown's owner. Nothing else can locate there as long as it's tied up in strangulation-tight red tape. Meanwhile, the icon stayed dark, a victim of cruel circumstance and the economy.
Then one day, as Christmas was approaching, the people of Celebration looked up into the sky and saw a miracle. No, it wasn't the Christmas star, It was the Art Deco towers once again shining in all their neon glory. I don't know how or why, but somehow they got turned on again. Perhaps it would've just looked to shabby to have them darkened for the nightly holiday snowfalls. Tourists who come to Celebration want to embrace the fantasy of the “Disney town,” not be slapped in the eyeballs with the reality that we're just a hard-hit place like anywhere else in this recession.
I have no idea what the theater's ultimate fate will be. Since I've moved to town, Downtown Celebration has been a veritable revolving door of businesses, with shops closing their doors with roughly the same frequency as gators are spotted in the lake. Thus far, another shop usually springs up to replace the casualties, but you can see obvious vacancies now, in addition to the theater.
In the meantime, the icon still lights of the night, a memory of what once was...and, dare I hope, what might be again in the future.