When The Walt Disney Co. announced plans to establish a brand new community near Orlando’s Disney World in 1991, detractors imagined something akin to Tomorrowland, with Mickey Mouse as the mayor and cartoon characters parading daily down Main Street.
But the truth is, you can’t even buy a Mickey Mouse doll in Celebration, Fla. Now in its sixth year, the town has weathered criticism and, for residents, become a great place to live.
“A lot of us feel that it was pretty brave on Disney’s part to try this,” offers David Berelsman, who moved to Celebration with his wife, Lyn, in April 1999. Upon returning to the United States after years in Australia, they wanted to find an environment similar to the one they were leaving. “We were really planning to use (the move to Celebration) as a jumping off point, but we liked it so much that we decided to stay. They did a really wonderful job of creating community.”
In the mid-1980s, Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner challenged his staff to come up with a way to use a 10,000-acre parcel of land separated from the Walt Disney World Resort. “The best idea was to build a community that would raise the bar on how future communities would be built,” explains Andrea Finger, Disney’s director of Celebration public relations.
After extensive research and discussion, the developers identified five cornerstones that seem to be woven into America’s best towns: a sense of community, sense of place, health, education, and technology.
“We realized that when you knit all of these things together, they created a social impact that is found in great towns,” explains Perry Reader, president of The Celebration Co., which is in charge of development. That strong sense of community has “little to do with the physical, but has to do with the social.” To that end, the developers worked on ways to foster interaction among residents.
Instead of creating a futuristic village or gated community, Celebration is reminiscent of a small, Southeastern town with pre-1940 architecture. Most homes have front porches, which Berelsman says “is reflective of what we want the town to be.”
Aside from the architecture, the town went a bit further.
“Early on we set up The Celebration Foundation, a grant-giving, administrative support, incubating organization,” Readman says. The sole purpose of the nonprofit entity is to enrich the sense of community by helping establish various kinds of civic and special-interest groups, as well as numerous special events.
One of its creations is “Lights and Lemonade” nights. Neighbors sign up to make a simple commitment: They promise to be at home on a predetermined evening for two hours with their lights on, a plate of cookies, and a pitcher of lemonade. The porch lights signal an open invitation to have a seat on the porch and get acquainted.
“Everybody is from someplace else,” observes Berelsman. “It’s very friendly . . . because we’re a new town, no one has established cliques that go back for generations.” He notes that, “It seems like the brightest and best come here”—an eclectic mix of interesting people from all over the country.
Planned as a pedestrian-friendly city, the Town Center is home to merchants, restaurants, a cinema, a post office, and the town hall. Celebration’s public K-12 grade school is part of the Osceola County School District. Stetson University, Florida’s oldest private school of higher learning, partnered with the town to establish a campus in Celebration. And a 60-bed hospital and office buildings also are nearby.
For recreation, Celebration offers a public golf course, parks, a downtown lake, and miles of walking paths and nature trails. Neighbors can keep up with each other and community activities through their own Intranet system.
The town’s current population is 5,000, with a projected maximum of 12,000 people residing in Celebration’s mix of apartments, townhomes, and manors. To date, 1,300 homes have been erected, with completion of the residential community expected in two or three years.
Although Disney’s presence is lessening as the town’s residents take more responsibility, the mythical impression remains. When visitors wander through the carefully maintained community, the near-perfection of it all often elicits a question: “Does anybody really live here?”
The Berelsmans just shake their heads and laugh.