Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Disney’s Neighborhood of Drooling, Mutated Trolls – A Trip to Celebration

My wife was recently holed up at a nice resort in Orlando for a conference, so I decided to go join her there for a long weekend. I had been to Disneyworld once when I was a kid and to Disneyland about a thousand times when I was the activities coordinator at an international summer high school. I am also kidless and cynical to the core. So going to Disney on this short trip was not in the cards. I asked everyone I talked to what there was to do in Orlando if you didn’t want to go to Disney. The general consensus seemed to be, don’t go to Orlando.

But there was one sightseeing destination I couldn’t pass up out of a morbid sense of curiosity. The town of Celebration. Celebration is a planned community that was developed by Disney in the mid 1990s. The idea was something along the lines of, if so many people love to visit the magical manmade paradise that is Disney, there must surely be lots of people who would love to live in that kind of world all the time. The whole thing sounded pretty contrived and twisted to me. I always assumed that if human beings tried to engineer a too-perfect society, there would always be some fly in the ointment that would cause the whole experiment to collapse into a horrific cesspool of anarchy. If this ever happened to Celebration, the reasons for the failure would be something like these (and I could still be right that Celebration will end up there; just give it a bit more time):

Inbreeding: Whenever a population starts getting a bit too cozy and too unwilling to socialize with outsiders, it’s just a matter of time before people who shouldn’t be breeding with one another go ahead and breed. If the Celebrationites aren’t careful, the whole process of picking out the perfect mates for their perfect kids, so that they can beget an ever-expanding stable of perfect grandkids, could go awry. And instead of schools full of above average students of the month with straight teeth, excellent moral compasses and high earning potential, you’d end up with a whole society of people with mixed up chromosomes, low SAT scores and the wrong number of fingers. As any realtor will tell you, once any neighborhood hits a certain critical mass of drooling, mutated trolls, you can kiss your expected real estate appreciation rate goodbye. With declining property values comes a decreasing tax base, then underperforming schools. And over the course of two or three short generations, bang - your peaceful, affluent oasis has morphed into a ghetto full of deformed mutants trying to screw their sisters.

Disease: Despite what you might think based on the extreme proliferation of Purel and anti-bacterial everything, human beings actually need to be exposed to some level of germs and disease to survive. Like just about any natural process, immune systems need to be used to stay effective. By completely eliminating from its territory certain disease-producing sources, Celebration may inadvertently be setting up its own future demise. Take, for example, an almost, but not quite, empty beer can with a cigarette butt floating in it. In college (I have absolutely no idea why), we called these Wallies. Suppose the person who didn’t quite finish the beer had one kind of minor infection and the person who put out the cigarette had some other kind of minor infection. That’s one infested Wally. At some point, a person living in an environment where lots of Wallies are present is going to cut his finger on a Wally and get some portion of that complex infestation sucked up into his bloodstream. Over time, it’s no big deal. His body has learned to handle it. And while no single Wally may ever make it over the threshold into Celebration, at some point, some rebellious Celebration teenager is going to sneak out to a party, cut his finger on a Wally and stumble back to his lovely home. With all the back patting and hand shaking that must go on at Celebration (not to mention the inbreeding; see above) the Wally germs could be transmitted across the whole town in a matter of hours. Just as colonizers have been wiping out indigenous populations wholesale over the years with their new-to-you diseases, one careless Wally finger cut could spread a lethal plague across Celebration.

Anarchy and US Military Intervention: Finally, there is the unknown sociological question of what will happen when children who have been raised in Celebration, who have never seen a blade of crabgrass or a payday check cashing store, are confronted with the ugly human world that surrounds them. Some such kids might just come of age, declare to their parents, “dude, this is the lamest place on Earth,” and move out. But others could be so severely traumatized so as never to be able to leave Celebration again. A wall could be erected. All ties to the vile creatures outside severed. But then how would the hired help get in? Who would scrub the sinks? Deliver the water cooler replacement jugs? At some point, the military would have to be brought in to free the hostages from themselves. However it played out, it would almost certainly involve some kind of Branch Davidian / Waco showdown. And those never end up well.

The Real Celebration: As of yet, none of these scenarios has played itself out. The video above is from the real town of Celebration. The town is just an immaculate, very well painted, nicely mowed little village. Cars aren’t parked on the streets. Lawns are perfect. Stretch golf carts have car seats buckled into the back. The kids at the Starbucks order complicated drinks as if it’s second nature. There’s even some degree of economic diversity (there’s no planned ghetto / place-you-absolutely-do-not-want-to-wander-into-at-night section of the town, but there’s a range from solidly well-off to preposterously rich). Wandering around Celebration, it was hard for me to put my finger one what it was that felt so horribly wrong about the place. I guess it has something to do with thinking you can, or even wanting to, create some kind of paradise just by putting up a façade of unblemished perfection. If whitewashing over all of humanity’s inherent blemishes is a person’s idea of the most wonderful place to live, then Celebration is it. But if you find life in spontaneity and weirdness and all the quirks that make people people, then I’ve got to imagine that Celebration would feel like a tomb. It was a fun place to visit, but I’m glad to be back in my neighborhood of untrimmed shrubberies and the occasional Wally.


Patricia Harrison said...

I recently read a fascinating article on how the real estate crash in Florida has affected Celebration. Now, houses that before were priced entirely out of reach of the masses are now priced more reasonably, and the article reported that A Certain Element was starting to infiltrate Celebration, people who previously wouldn't have qualified to buy a house there. I love that idea - when cache goes downmarket!

What really bothers me about planned communities is the tackiness of tastefulness: how many of those homes have expensively framed pictures by Thomas Kinkade, or carefully framed posters of Impressionist paintings, or those fake-o "Paris Bistro" signs hung in their kitchen? But now I am being snobby.

But that makes me think further: when we prefer to live in a "real city" where we have to step over the addict passed out on the sidewalk, or when we prefer the sight of "urban blight" because it confers some "authenticity" to our lives, are we merely accessorizing with our own version of Thomas Kinkade? I must take care not to be too smug about my version of "real life"!

Anonymous said...

You probably know this already, but Celebration was used as the setting for the Jim Carrey movie, "The Truman Show".

Unknown said...

Did I see a severed ear in the grass behind the gazebo?

Unknown said...

Stepford anyone...gotta bake me up a cake for them neighbors!

Joe Orfant said...

Now you've got me sorry I didn't make it to Ave Maria on my last trip to Naples, Florida.

Americans have a long, optmistic history with planned, utopian communities. We even have one here in Jamaica Plain and another just over the line in Brookline.