Disney Turns Its Dream Machine To Building Real-Life Community

ON 4,900 acres of piney woods just south of here, the world's premier fantasy maker is trying to create a new reality.

The Walt Disney Company is building what it conceives of as the ideal American town - not one inhabited by mice and dwarves but by real people.

Called Celebration, it's billed as a place of cozy neighborhoods, of picket fences and porches, where barbecues, hopscotch, and lemonade stands are the norm. Children will play in sun-dappled parks and along tree-shaded sidewalks. The school, offices, and downtown will be within walking distance.

The creation symbolizes a new trend in urban design modeled on the close-knit communities that thrived early this century - before the car and postwar housing boom carved suburbs into isolated subdivisions. Nationwide, more than 100 similar projects are now being planned. Designers call the trend "new urbanism."

These planned communities are generating rave reviews from many who long to buy a piece of ready-made nostalgia. Others, however, say they are another way for some to escape from reality and segregate themselves from the rest of society.

"They're neat ideas, but I'm afraid they're awfully utopian," because they tend to cater to the middle and upper classes, says Dean Wright, a professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines. "This may be the community of the future, but not everyone is going to have the same opportunity to get in."

Disney disputes suggestions that Celebration is exclusive or that it's trying to create a utopia. "Celebration will be a real town with real people who live and work in the area, and we believe it will appeal to - and provide opportunities for - a broad range of people," says Robert Shinn, senior vice president of Florida real estate development at Disney Development Company. Apartments start at $575 a month, and home prices range from about $130,000 for a town house to more than $500,000 for an estate home.

Many find Celebration appealing. So far, more than 65,000 people have toured the preview center. In November, organizers held a drawing for homeowners because interest was so high. Five thousand people showed up to see if their name would be drawn for the opportunity to purchase one of 350 residences in Phase 1 of the town.

The development, which will take about 15 years to finish, will eventually house about 20,000 people in 8,000 housing units. Now, however, it consists of sandy lots, winding streets, sidewalks, and a block or two of half-constructed homes, although many buildings downtown are nearing completion. The first residents will move in this summer.

Celebration embodies a number of new urban principles. Houses, which include six architectural styles ranging from Colonial Revival to Mediterranean, are set close together along the street to encourage neighbor interaction. Alleys behind houses lead to garages that are out of sight from the street. Sidewalks and bike trails promote a pedestrian-friendly environment. Almost everything is within walking distance.

"We are interested in bringing back images from the past," says Orjan Wetterqvist, who teaches at the University of Florida College of Architecture in Gainesville and is designing a new urban community north of Gainesville. "With this movement ... we are trying to save a sense of community that manifests itself in lots that aren't so big you don't see your neighbor, turn-of-the-century houses, front porches, sidewalks on both sides of the street."

But Disney representatives are reluctant to label the town a new urban development. "There are parts of new urbanism we've embraced, but Celebration is its own place," Mr. Shinn says.

Indeed, the town boasts amenities that other planned communities don't have. A fiber-optic network will link the town's homes, school, offices, stores, and hospital. Internationally known architects (Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, and others) have designed various pastel-colored buildings in the town, which is located on a wide promenade that circles a small man-made lake. The school is being touted as a model of innovation in education.

Alex Morton, a Miami resident who has two children, says the quality of the school is what first attracted him. He and his family will move into a Victorian home next year. "The whole concept is great - the neighborhood, the design of the houses," Mr. Morton says. "There's a lot to look forward to on this. It's like a new beginning for everyone. We can't wait to meet our neighbors."

To some, Disney's attempt to create a Norman Rockwell environment reflects a longing people have to escape from crime and other social problems.

"That kind of nostalgia for life the way it used to be is an expression of the pervasive sense of insecurity people feel today," says Nan Ellin, assistant professor of urban design at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a solution to the extent that people do report feeling greater security when they move to a place like that."

Others contend Celebration exemplifies a fortress mentality even though there are no gates. "It represents the next generation of gated communities," for the middle and upper class, says Kevin Archer, professor of geography at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Residents will be able to live, work, play, and retire without ever having to leave. Just like in the gates of Disney World, you're in a different sort of reality ... where you can blind yourself to some of the real social problems and conflicts that exist."

Many say there's nothing wrong with trying to build a model town. "I think it happens to make good sense," Mr. Wetterqvist says. "I think we have to be idealists in this business."

"From my philosophy, we need utopia," Mr. Archer says, "but it should be open to all. No matter what is said about the rents, they're too high now" to include everyone. "It's going to mean an isolation of classes," he says.

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