Celebration Myths and Facts

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Disney Company has grown so tremendously, especially since the mid-1980s, by expanding into all sorts of subsidiary businesses, that even a visionary like Walt Disney himself could not have foreseen all the different things that the Walt Disney Company has flirted with briefly over the last three decades.

For instance, I lived in the Los Angeles area when the Disney Company took ownership of the historic ocean liner, the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

Michael Eisner really, really wanted to own the Disneyland Hotel across the street from Disneyland but millionaire Jack Wrather was not interested in selling.

With Wrather's death in 1984, Disney began negotiating to buy all the Wrather assets (like the complete rights to The Lone Ranger) just to get the Disneyland Hotel, and accomplished that purchase in 1988. Part of that purchase included managing the legendary Queen Mary and the adjacent display of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose airplane.

Disney really had little if any interest in this asset although it did invest in upgrading the restaurants, shops, and entertainment in hopes of recouping some money. For every paid admission to Disneyland, guests got free admission to the Long Beach attraction, but few took advantage of that offer.

Disney created a subsidiary company, WCO Port Properties, to oversee the lease of the property.

Disney even created a celebration called "Voyage to 1939" (and somewhere in my huge videotape collection that really needs to be transferred to some other format for preservation, is a half-hour KHJ-TV special promoting it in the Los Angeles area).

All year it would be 1939, a similar concept that was used for awhile at WDW's Pleasure Island, where every night was New Year's Eve.

The 1939 theme was chosen to reference the last trans-Atlantic voyage of the Queen Mary before she became a World War II troop transport ship. Disney cast members in period costumes wandered the area, interacting with guests as if they were 1939 passengers.

(It was a similar concept to what was originally intended for the cast members at the Hollywood Tower of Terror. The cast members at Tower of Terror are not supposed to act as if they are dead but that they are trapped in time in 1939 and are interacting with people as if they are VIP guests staying at the hotel. That's what was supposed to make it seem "spooky", that these people were lost in "a dimension of time and space" and completely oblivious.)

There were Big Bands playing nostalgic music (and even a special nightclub, Club 39), a classic car show (with pretty girl models in late 1930s swimwear), an aerial show (with Captain Cloud and the Royal Flying Circus), and an English carnival.

You can check out the brochure (PDF).

However, while everyone knew that Disney was running this show, it was never specifically "branded" as a Disney entertainment venue. At one point, the ship and the plane would have been the centerpiece of the Port Disney project for Long Beach that would have included a Disney theme park called Disney Sea.

However, many of us in the Los Angeles area felt that announcement was just a ploy by Disney to leverage better perks from the City of Anaheim to build a second theme park near Disneyland.

That ploy worked and resulted in what became the original Disney California Adventure instead of the originally proposed WestCot (a smaller version of Epcot).

In 1992, after roughly only four years, Disney gave up the leases to the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose, and the icons reverted to the City of Long Beach. Disney stated publicly that after examining their involvement, they felt the venue was a bad investment.

Of course, behind the scenes, the discussion was that the City of Long Beach and the Port Authority were playing hardball in negotiations about costs and perks in Disney's proposed expansion, and Disney just walked away when Anaheim provided a better deal.

So is the Queen Mary a part of Disney history worth exploring or just a quick "hiccup" that had no real impact on the Disney Company like other things Disney briefly owned and abandoned?

I think the same question can be asked about the city of Celebration in Florida. While many fans still think of it as a "Disney city," it is not and, once again, has had no lasting impact on the Disney Company.

Celebration, Florida is a planned community that was originally created by the Walt Disney Company in 1994 on Disney-owned land. The land was roughly in the location where Walt Disney had considered building a small airport to make it easier for people to come visit his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (E.P.C.O.T).

However, as plans for the WDW property changed, the area remained undeveloped and was sometimes used as a place to relocate alligators found in nearby Walt Disney World.

Initially, Celebration covered approximately 4,900 acres with an additional 4,700 acres of wetland left in pristine condition.

In general, the purpose was to create a romanticized modern version of a small town with homes clustered around a pedestrian-friendly central business area with restaurants, shops, offices, and a movie theater.

Celebration does not have a road named "Main Street" because that name is already used elsewhere in Osceola County. The main roads in the downtown area are Celebration Avenue, Market Street and Front Street.

Disney enlisted many famous architects to design the buildings, and while it was not specifically intended to suggest the storybook small town atmosphere usually associated with some Disney projects, the city does invoke what many feel is a Disney-esque "feel".

The architects included Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, Charles Moore (and his partner Arthur Andersson), Caesar Pelli, William Rawn, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott-Brown.

The overall "master plan" was the work of architects Robert A.M. Sterrn and Jacquelin Robertson, who also designed the commercial and residential buildings downtown.

Stern stated in 1996 that the idea behind Celebration was, "To recapture the idea of a traditional town, traditional in spirit but modern in terms of what we know about how people live."

Stern and Robertson were influenced by towns as geographically disparate as East Hampton, New York and Charleston, South Carolina. The houses in Celebration are representative of a number of regional prototypes—in particular, Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French.

Ray Gindroz of the Pittsburgh UDA Architects created a "pattern book" using these prototypes that was meant to ensure "both diversity and harmony in the architecture."

According to a 1996 guidebook to Celebration, "Celebration is designed to offer a return to a more sociable and civic minded way of life. It is a walking town. The town plan places special emphasis on restoring streets and sidewalks to the public realm on the assumption that streets should belong to people, not cars….All the residential areas in Celebration Village are within reach of one another and of Downtown Celebration, which means that everyone will be able to walk to school or to the movies."

The Italian architect, Aldo Rossi, was the designer of Celebration Place, the office buildings north of the downtown area near U.S. Route 192, where Disney Cruise Lines, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Institute, and other Disney divisions have maintained office space for over a decade.

On November 18, 1995, a lottery was held for the opportunity to buy one of 351 home lots. Those lots were sold quickly, and a six-month waiting list was established for the next openings. However, rushing to complete those early homes resulted in some less-than-perfect construction.

I vividly remember being told as a cast member at the time that the houses would be directly connected to Celebration Hospital through fiber optic cables connected to individual home computers.

If you were feeling unwell, you wouldn't need to go to the hospital but just turn on the computer, which could monitor vital signs like blood pressure, and put you directly in contact with a doctor.

Those type of dreams did not become a reality, like the announcement that the Disney Institute campus would be in Celebration. Other proposed elements included an enivronmental education center adjoining the expansive wilderness area that would teach residents and guests about the heritage of Florida wildlife and forest lands.

There was concept art for a future transportation station to "respond to the needs of the region and able to accommodate all forms of rail and other ground transit systems." A performing arts center and a fitness spa were also in the plans.

Interestingly, there were also plans for "The Workplace," described in a Disney press announcement as a "mini-Theme Park" where manufacturing and research would blend with entertainment. All of these additions were scheduled to be built in the first 15 years, roughly no later than 2010.

"When completed, the town will have about 20,000 residents and will create about 15,000 jobs," stated a press release in 1992. "The town, upon completion, could represent a total Disney and third party investments of over two billion dollars."

In the early years, the city was not run by elected officials but by the Celebration Company, a fully owned subsidiary of the Disney Company, which made decisions based on the good of the Disney Company rather than necessarily the desires and needs of the residents.

It truly was a "bedroom community" with no gas stations, fast food outlets or other facilities that would encourage travelers to casually stop there. It was actually a bit "unwelcoming" for non-residents who wanted to extend their visit.

With Disney's de-annexing the property from the Reedy Creek Improvement District, that situation changed significantly. Disney divested the property to Lexin Capital, a private real estate investment company, in 2004.

However, many myths still exist about this "Disney" city.

For this year's Flower and Garden Festival, friend and curator of Yesterland Werner Weiss and his always charming wife dropped down to Walt Disney World and decided to take an under-employed orphan to dinner. I really liked being taken to the Celebration Town Tavern.

I had a Bison Burger and it was pretty good. It has been years since I stopped by the restaurant since I usually don't go to the city of Celebration unless I have business in one of the Disney offices located there.

As the restaurant's website states: "Originally from the Boston area, the family started in the business thirty years ago with a successful seafood restaurant in Weymouth called Kelly's Landing. The family then moved to Fort Lauderdale to open a second Kelly's Landing. Once again they relocated, this time to Celebration, where they opened the Celebration Town Tavern."

They opened this New England-style restaurant in Celebration in early 2000 with an extensive "family friendly" menu.

Speaking of menus, I was impressed that the front of the menu had a page of fun facts about Boston and even more impressed that the back of the menu had a page of fun facts about the city of Celebration debunking some of the most common myths.

I asked for a copy of that page to share with friends and, after some consultation with the manager, the server was able to provide me with a photocopy of that page and indicated that no one had ever asked for a copy.

Since many of you might not be able to get down to Celebration and I have found that things like menus change, I am reprinting it here. It is fairly accurate, although it still includes that false notion that Walt's plans were to cover the entire city of EPCOT under a dome.

I will leave it to my friend, urban planner and historian Sam Gennawey to better explain that misunderstanding just as he did with me when we visited after the release of his first book:

"I would say that you were spot on in your assessment (that Celebration is a romanticized modern version of a small town). Celebration's design was meant to tame the car but EPCOT would have tried to eliminate it," wrote Sam. "Walt Disney was fascinated by the Astrodome in Houston, Texas and felt that placing his city under a roof would protect the visitors and residents from the harsh oppressive Florida weather. After all, he was a guy from Southern California. In reality, the final form would have likely been a series of arcades, or covered passageways, which were easier and cheaper to build. From a distance, the overall central structure would appear as a dome."

While you are thinking of it, you might want to pre-order his new book, Disneyland: The Evolution of a Dream.

I've read a rough draft of the manuscript. and even with all the books about Disneyland out there, I feel that Sam's book covers some new ground and with a new perspective and should be in a Disney fan's library.

Here is the information from the back of the Celebration Town Tavern menu and you might want to visit the restaurant and check out some of their tasty offerings for yourself:

Celebration Facts

Established: 1994

Drawing (Lottery): November 18, 1995

First residents: June 18, 1996

Population in Celebration: 8,502

Households in Celebration: 4,086

Land Area: 10.54 square miles

Persons per square mile: 704.9

Elevation: 82 feet above sea level

Average annual rainfall: 48.35"

Average annual snowfall: 0"

Average February temperature: 70 degrees

Average August temperature: 92 degrees

Annual chance of sunshine: 76%

Average household income: $92,199

Median home cost: $543,800

Area codes: 407 and 321

Did You Know?

MYTH: Celebration is owned by the Walt Disney Company and/or is part of Walt Disney World.

FACT: It is true that Celebration is located on land that used to be part of Walt Disney World Resort. However, it is now part of Kissimmee and Osceola County. Disney retained ownership of some assets, like the downtown area and the golf course, for a while, but they were both sold.

MYTH: Ownership of homes in Celebration reverts back to Walt Disney Company after 30 years.

FACT: This rumor started most likely due to a mix up with the Disney Vacation Club, which has a fixed duration.

MYTH: People who move to Celebration get free lifetime tickets to Disney World theme parks.

FACT: This rumor most likely began as a mix-up with the Disney Vacation Club also. When DVC first started, people who "bought in" received Disney passes that were good until 2000. Somehow, this fact got twisted into a "lifetime of free passes for Celebration residents". Not true, but that would be nice!

MYTH: Celebration is the embodiment of Walt Disney's original concept for EPCOT.

FACT: The name EPCOT stands for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow". Before his death, Walt Disney had created ambitious plans for a city; however, they bear little resemblance to Celebration. For example, in Walt's city, there would be no home ownership, just rentals, and there would be no unemployed people. Traffic would zip from place to place on underground roads, and residents wouldn't have to worry about the weather because they would be protected in a climate controlled environment under a dome. In contrast, Celebration is not a futuristic prototype but rather a modern version of an idealized small town.

MYTH: Celebration is a gated community.

FACT: There are no gated areas in Celebration. Anyone is welcome to visit any of the neighborhoods, although recreational facilities like pools are restricted for resident use only.

MYTH: Potential residents of Celebration must pass an interview to move here.

FACT: The only "interview" you need to pass is the mortgage application, and if you pay cash, no worries at all.

MYTH: There is Audio-animatronics wildlife in Celebration.

FACT: Tourists have been overheard asking if the turtles and fish in the lake downtown are real. Rest assured they are, as are any other critters you spot, including alligators.



  1. By Jeff Kober

    Great read Jim. Curiously I was delivering a program in DC a few weeks ago and I ran into a woman who said she worked for Disney Development Company as a temp years ago. She said she was handed the assignment of figuring out the names of all the streets. One of the leaders of the project insisted on one particular name (can't remember what it was), but she pushed back because there were already two other streets in Kissimmee/Osceola County with those names. She also took credit for naming the parks, one of which is named after Theodore Geisel of "Dr. Seuss" fame. She enjoyed the job along with other responsibilities she was given, and was surprised she was given as much freedom to do what she did when in reality she was only a temp.

  2. By schnebs

    Interesting article about an interesting place, Jim. It's a pretty place to live, but it has it's share of problems based on what I've observed on my visits.

    While we're on the subject, I recall a couple of books being written about the town right after it first opened. Any opinions on these books, and have there been any recent books or newspaper articles that talk more about how Celebration actually developed as opposed to what was promised?

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