Looking from the inside out

The Celebration Chronicles
By Andrew Ross
(Ballantine, $25.95)

Celebration, U.S.A.
By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins
(Holt, $25)

Given all the hype about Celebration, it was only a matter of time before someone hit on the idea of writing a book about living there. In fact, three writers did. The husband-and-wife team of Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins have produced "Celebration, U.S.A.," while Andrew Ross offers "The Celebration Chronicles." All three lived in the town at the same time, and subsequently the two books cover much of the same material.

Both describe the inner workings of Disney and the Celebration Company in telling anecdotes that speak volumes about the Disney ethos. For example, during initial planning, Disney's Imagineers gave the town a fictitious historical past, describing the area as a place reduced to rubble when Sherman's Army passed through during the Civil War. Not only was this blatantly inaccurate -- Sherman marched through Georgia, not Florida -- but it was a potential public-relations fiasco, since few actions of the Union Army did more to poison the minds of the Southern populace against the North. The real facts -- never publicized, either -- are more interesting: In the nearly 30 years it owned the land before it became Celebration, Disney used the area as a dumping ground for alligators that got too big to keep in the ponds and lakes of its theme parks and golf courses.

Both books also offer an instructive corrective to earlier coverage of Celebration. Most of that coverage was written by reporters who sampled life in Disney's new town for only a few days and who understandably focused on its startling physical appearance, with buildings designed by some of the most famous architects in America, a land-use plan embraced as cutting-edge by urban planners, and period exteriors on all houses.

Frantz and Collins are experienced journalists who bought a house and moved in with their two youngest children. Those roots result in a profile that presents more of the flavor of daily life, with thumbnail sketches of their neighbors and fuller explanations of the reasons that brought people to Celebration. Not all is perfect on their street, however. Domestic abuse rocked one household. And though Frantz-Collins found people to be friendly and the lack of pretension refreshing, in the final analysis they felt little intellectual stimulation -- observing, for example, that few other homes had many bookshelves -- and after two years the authors were ready to move on.

Ross, who directs the American Studies Program at New York University, proved to be the more intrepid investigator. Despite living in a rented apartment, he not only examined more aspects of the town's life, but also spent time in other parts of Osceola County, putting Disney's project into a wider context. His view is more that of the detached academic; we don't hear extensively about his neighbors' personal lives, although revealing details occur here and there, as when he is startled to observe that many people don't have much furniture in their homes; they spent all their money just to make the move.

Benefiting from their lengthy stays, the authors in both cases describe critical flaws in two of the most touted aspects of Celebration -- the houses and the public school.

Residents remained reluctant to discuss the poor construction of their homes with outsiders because they feared the impact on their property values. Many had purchased houses in other places and were generally sophisticated consumers. But they had assumed -- wrongly, it turned out -- that Disney would hold the home builders to the same high standards observed in Disney's theme parks and hotels. Though the temptation to dump on Disney must have been great, the writers are reasonably balanced as they describe how Disney's much-vaunted search for "the best home builders in America" became a bust, prompting some residents to say that "buying a house in Celebration was the worst experience in my life."

In both class structure and curriculum, Celebration School was so radical and experimental that trying to integrate it into a poorly funded, nonprogressive public-school system was a prescription for disaster, which Frantz and Collins describe from their perspective as parents. Among other innovations, the class structure grouped grades K-5 together, with as many as 90 children and just three teachers in one room. Such a set-up would alarm any parent. The apprehension felt by Frantz and Collins was confirmed by an elite private-school headmaster, one of Disney's many consultants on the project, who told the authors: "You have to have a ratio of one teacher for every six to nine students to make something like that work."

Ross spent time with the town's high-schoolers, and we learn that many of them had problems in their previous traditional schools. They loved Celebration's individual attention and lack of letter grades, even if their parents were dubious. It was difficult, however, to transfer the unusual curriculum and grading system to other schools and colleges. To remedy this, unbeknownst to parents, say Frantz-Collins, the school simply added fictitious courses and grades to transcripts.

Beyond the day-to-day, Ross offers his insight into Disney's No. 1 priority -- the bottom line. Forget the noble sentiments expressed about creating community; Ross argues that Celebration was a money-making venture, structured so that Disney would incur minimal responsibility. A reader concludes the Celebration Company's motto might well have been "Not My Problem" : "Conflicts with the builder? Not our bailiwick. Problems at the school? Our hands are tied. Retail sales hurting? We're not responsible. Tax assessment hikes too high? Don't look at us."

Yet the profits to be gained at Celebration were miniscule compared to what the company could earn by controlling development rights for the rest of its as-yet-undeveloped acreage, Ross suggests. If Disney could assure this land could be developed, it would maintain its value as an asset; Celebration gave the company that leverage. By wrapping all the requisite permissions into its Celebration project, Disney could not be blocked in the future by environmentalists and lawmakers, even if its future proposals were deemed environmentally inappropriate, Ross asserts. Developing the town enabled Disney to expand a highway network that could bring customers to whatever their future attractions might be. If buyers knew these priorities, they would have approached Celebration with a more jaundiced eye.

As a real-estate writer, I was disappointed that neither book put the problems encountered by home buyers into a wider context. The story here is not just that Disney messed up big time. What happened in Celebration could happen anywhere, because the lack of consumer protection for buyers of new houses is appalling. In most jurisdictions, buyers of new houses have far less consumer protection than buyers of new cars.

Indeed, despite the books' length -- more than 300 pages each -- neither makes room to expand the narrow focus on Celebration to connect with issues of larger interest to nonresidents. For example, why is bringing change to public schools so hard? With pockets as deep as Disney's, why didn't the company endow a private school? How much money would have been required to generate an annual operating budget large enough to hire sufficient staff? What does "best school" mean, anyway? Best for the average pupil, the gifted, the learning disabled? Or does it mean assured admission to an Ivy League college?

The general reader also would expect some discussion of the exalted position that Disney occupies in the collective American psyche, and how this clouded the judgment of everyone who moved into Celebration. When Disney announced it was building a town, hiring the best home builders and starting the best school, no one questioned its ability to deliver. Yet the reasons for its failures would have been evident from the start to anyone who had done some research. Did Disney get bad advice, or were they unwilling to seek it? Neither book really explores this, and no one, including these authors, has asked the more pertinent question: What does an entertainment corporation know about education or town-building, anyway?


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