Nice place to visit . . . but would you want to live there?

THE CELEBRATION CHRONICLES By Andrew Ross Ballantine 340 pp., $25.95

CELEBRATION, U.S.A. By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins Henry Holt 342 pp., $25

When Disney announced in 1991 that it was designing a town from the ground up, the reaction was immediate. Some snickered about residents being forced to wear mouse ears; others started packing their bags for Florida.

Whether one loved or reviled the company, it was irresistible: The builders of Cinderella's Castle wanted to try their hand at real homes. "Devised by the original developer of never-never land, Celebration simply could not avoid its baptism as an instant utopia, nor could it ever live this identity down," writes Andrew Ross in one of two new books about the planned community.

Hundreds of articles assessing almost every aspect of the town have been written, and the town is a tourist destination, although a number of visitors seem surprised to discover the residents are "real people." In fact, the first time Ross stepped onto his balcony, his picture was taken by tourists "as eager to document a native resident of this town as they would be to snap an Amazon rain forest dweller, a kilted Highlander, or a Bedouin on a camel."

Jokes about Mickey Mouse construction aside, Celebration was designed to recreate a mythologized era "where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the care of the day," as the promotional materials put it. And many people were willing to stake their life savings that if anyone could combine Norman Rockwell with the latest technological amenities and progressive thinking, it was Disney's dream factory.

Both Ross ("The Celebration Chronicles") and Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins ("Celebration, U.S.A.") uprooted their lives to live in and document the birth of the community. And, as both books relate, fulfilling people's dreams for a week's vacation is far different from creating their dream home.

Celebration was built as an answer to the car-driven, strip-mall existence of suburbia. Its much-written-about porches, squashed-together houses, and pedestrian-friendly designs were constructed to promote neighborliness.

The ultra-progressive public school - one of the chief selling points for many families - promised children a nurturing, creative environment designed by the company that had enchanted parents when they were children.

More interesting than a discussion of New Urbanism, or neotraditionalism (Ross prefers the first term; Frantz and Collins the second) are how these theories play out in the lives of residents.

As both books note, what shocked many residents, who associated Disney with quality, were widespread construction woes and months-long delays. Frantz and Collins, for example, wake up one morning to discover that a neighbor's porch had been built on their property; a crane fell on another home; and one house had such fundamental problems the builders had to knock it down and start over.

A great deal of gentle fun is poked at the rules laid down by the company: Residents aren't allowed to complain about the mosquitoes, palm trees are forbidden in front yards, and no one is permitted to harass the alligators. (As Frantz put it, "No problem.")

Both books report on the controversies surrounding the school. Ross, a professor at New York University, is clearly taken with the bold experiment of combining all the techniques of progressive education in one curriculum. He devotes one-third of his book to the debates that surround the educational system, and is clearly dismayed at the steps taken back toward a more traditional form of schooling.

Frantz and Collins, whose youngest two children attended the K-12 facility, reflect more the parental dismay at the lack of textbooks - or any kind of books - and the practical difficulties of trying to apply to college with no grades to show for your education.

No one can ignore the town's lack of economic and racial diversity. Both authors count five or fewer African-American families and only a handful of Hispanic or Asian families.

Ross is perhaps stronger in laying out the environmental cost to the region, as well as the many angles played by the company while building the town.

But Frantz and Collins, whose conversational and evenhanded style contrasts with Ross's more academic approach, understand that it's the people, not the buildings, who create a community. As a result, "Celebration, U.S.A." provides a clearer picture of life in the early years by introducing readers to pioneers like Dave and Teresa Haeuszer, who traveled the country for two years in an R.V. "searching for Mayberry" before settling in Celebration.

Their book also highlights to a greater degree the town's undeniable successes in creating true neighbors, as well as block parties and pot-luck suppers. (Some of this may be due to the fact that many of those who moved to Celebration were tired of the isolation of suburbia and therefore ready to reach out.)

Celebration hasn't finished construction yet, so it may be early to pass judgment on its success. But in the spirit of recording new community ventures that has been alive since Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brook Farm, both books stand as worthy records of this latest, corporate-sponsored experiment with the American dream.

*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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