PRINT February 1997



“THEMING” HAS BEEN a feature of urban design and planning for some time now: private and public properties alike are being gussied up like Disney sets, as if tailored from some grand wardrobe of stage effects, so that the new built environments of America’s developing neo-urban spaces smack of “variations on a theme park,” as Michael Sorkin put it. This phenomenon—what it actually feels like and where it is leading—has been discussed and theorized more than it has been documented on the ground. At the very least, we can say it must be different from living in a real theme park, as Uncle Walt did when he occupied an apartment above Main Street USA, in Disneyland.

The Disney company is now building a whole new town, called Celebration, in central Florida. On a recent trip there I met and talked to people who are themselves living in apartments above the main drag. Residents of this upscale, neotraditional town tastefully laid out around a sculpted lake and wetland areas to the south of Disney World can feel they have little connection to the thronged Kodak-picture spots around Cinderella’s Castle: perched above sedate retail stores that show no trace of Disney merchandise on the shelves, they live next to buildings designed by some of the world’s fanciest architects—Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Philip Johnson, Graham Gund, Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves. It’s more like Realtorland than Tomorrowland, and the lucky owner-occupiers don’t mind the fact that their investments are garnering a wave of media attention, not to mention a steady stream of visitor-gawkers. All of them know, but most probably don’t care, that they are living out a dream of Walt’s for a planned community “built from scratch on virgin land,” a “living blueprint of the future.” These words belong to the plan for an experimental community, EPCOT, that was sketched out and promoted in the mid ’60s, just before Walt’s death, but they went unrealized in the project’s built version. The contrast between Walt’s ambitiously futuristic EPCOT city plan and the early-century-small-town look of Celebration speaks volumes about the transformation of social and cultural values in the intervening thirty years.

The original, Corbusier-esque plan was for a rationalized ville radieuse, its center city enclosed by a climate-controlled dome and linked to a greenbelt and outlying residential areas by electric monorails, people movers, and underground automobile routes. The town was to be located at the center of the company’s Florida property, and its residents were to work in the Disney theme parks, or in an industrial sector that was to be an advanced fusion of “the technical know-how of American industry” and the “creative imagination of the Disney Corporation.” Here was a plan that was the essence of Modernism: rational, geometric, functional, soul-denying. It would have been the ultimate workers’ city of the Fordist era—triumphing over Henry Ford’s own unrealized plans for Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and improving on earlier company-built worker communities like Cadbury’s Bourneville and Lever’s Port Sunlight, in England.

EPCOT was always supposed to be more than a functional environment for living and working. Its layout suggests an ambition to control completely its residents’ labor, recreation, and consumption. Above all else, it was designed for show, by the masters of show business, who wanted it to be “a showcase to the world of American ingenuity and free enterprise.” Suburbanization and urban renewal had already taken their toll on America’s cities, and the ghetto uprisings in Watts, Newark, and Detroit lay just around the corner. The EPCOT plant owed its inspiration to an ideal of urban planning that would very soon be declared bankrupt. Top-down planning was already viewed with suspicion, and would soon be seen as arrogant and disrespectful of the needs and desires of residents.

During the internecine Disney family struggles that followed Walt’s death, his Modernist plan shriveled away, and when EPCOT finally opened, in 1982, it was a schizophrenic affair—one half an extension of the World’s Fair pavilions run by major US corporations, the other half an international food court on a grandiose scale. It was also nonresidential. Pictorial vestiges of Walt’s plan live on in a few of the pavilion rides, though these futuristic dioramas of floating cities, space colonies, and desert farms were already outdated in 1982 and are virtually museum pieces by now. To this day, these obsolescent visions of the future are populated by space-suited families of a kind that was satirized to death in Jetsons: the Movie (1990). By 1982, the decor for the iconography of white flight was being provided by the “back to the future” ethic of the Reagan revolution, and the gleaming futurist look was bequeathed entirely to the design of corporate buildings and hotels.

With its bright Victorian and southern coastal homes mingling with affluent colonial mansions, and its compact and picturesque downtown, Celebration is emerging as a full-blown example of the neo-urbanist vision, which harbors a seductive promise of a return to small-town innocence, where children play in safety and neighbors eagerly share each others’ lives. When fully built and populated, it will house the same number of residents—20,000—for which Walt’s EPCOT was designed, but that is about the only common feature of the two plans; in every other respect, the two communities are polar opposites, one racing toward the next frontier, the other yearning for lost horizons. Of the two, Celebration’s design seems more suggestive of the family values inveterately linked to the Disney name. Each plan, however, probably reflects the prevailing consensus of its day, respectively predating and postdating the great challenges to gender- and hetero-normativity that rocked nuclear-family doctrine in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Nor is Disney the same company it was in the entrepreneurial twilight of Walt’s last years. After 1984, executives Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg refashioned the company into the kind of sleek money-spinner that is so respected on Wall Street and so resented by its employees. As compensation for this predatory image, it has sought out cultural prestige, mostly in the form of famous architectural recruits like Stern and Graves, and industry-big-shot glamour, in the form of the recently departed Mike Ovitz. Celebration is a significant next step for Disney—from the business of selling make-believe to selling realty with an inbuilt belief-system.

Everyone I talked to in this half-constructed town—residents, retailers, company employees—told me some version of the consensus story that has been woven around its making. For many of its inhabitants Celebration recalls the small towns where they either grew up or visited relatives. It has the image of a kind of pioneer settlement—albeit without risk—where they can start a new life. Its experimental school and medical center embody philosophies—holistic learning, mind-body-spirit nurturing—that they associate with sustainable, human-scale growth. Its developer is a trusted corporation with a name and reputation synonymous with order, integrity, quality, and profit. It has no need for self-government (Celebration is unincorporated) because the kind of resident it will attract won’t need to make demands on the community—and besides, what authority could do a better job than Disney?

Most of all, the people I met unanimously sounded the mantra of “safety,” Celebration’s ultimate touchstone. Since Celebration is not a gated community, it stands or falls by its primarily white residents’ belief in their personal safety there. It is as if the whole spectrum of human aspirations had been reduced to the desire for a town where children can safely walk to school and roam at will through the parks and recreational areas. At a time when the doctrine of personal security has become the foundation of end-of-the-millennium America’s psychological condition, a risk-free environment is the ultimate amenity Celebration has to offer.

One resident, who works evenings in the deco-style cinema and who lives in a downtown apartment just fifty yards away, told me that, when she walks home in the evening, she feels safe: “I really believe I am safe, and I don’t think it’s just an illusion created by the company.” She has no reason to think it is, since a security force is on duty at all hours, watching over what must be the best-protected Front Street in the country. Still, she abides by her husband’s advice: be focused, and walk straight home with your eyes fixed front. Her concerns may sound a mite paranoid, but they are common currency in the waning years of the century. People of all races and classes have come to think of their personal safety as an end in itself—not simply as an element of their well-being, but as an all-encompassing goal, to be pursued as fiercely as earlier American aspirations to spirituality, wealth, and bodily perfection.

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American Studies program at New York University. His latest book is The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (Verso).