Town-Building Is No Mickey Mouse Operation

The sun was barely up over the brand-new town of Celebration, Fla., and the Rotarians had gathered in the clubhouse at the golf course for their weekly breakfast meeting. I’d come fully expecting to meet a bunch of white guys in polo shirts who’d remind me of my father, and there were quite enough of them. And yet right there across the table sat several other Celebration Rotarians who, in age and outlook and appearance, reminded me a whole lot more of, well, me.

Only two years ago, the spot on which we were getting acquainted, these implausible Rotarians and I, was an impenetrable cypress swamp on the farthest edge of Walt Disney World. Now there is a handsome and lively town (population 1,500, eventually to reach 20,000) built by Disney, which has deployed its considerable capital and place-making skills to create, in the choral refrain of just about every company executive I met, “not just a housing development but a community.” Viewed from that perspective, Celebration is nothing more than an elaborate contraption for the production of Rotarians—for transforming isolated and disaffected American suburbanites (not unlike myself) into civic-minded members of a community. By one measure the contraption seemed to be working: scarcely 18 months after the first family moved in, Celebration has become ground for a luxuriant growth of scout troops, religious groups and hobbyist clubs of every conceivable stripe. No doubt any housing development that markets itself as an old-fashioned town would tend to attract more than its share of joiners. There is, too, the fact that Disney has been quietly working behind the scenes (for there is always a “backstage” at Disney) to seed and nourish all these groups.

But none of this explained the presence, across from me at breakfast, of someone like Todd Hill—an urbane landscape architect from Atlanta who doesn’t fit anyone’s stereotype of a Rotary member. Hill is, by his own lights, living proof that the “neotraditional” design of a subdivision can transform a young urban professional into what can best be described as a neo-Rotarian.

“Before I moved here I was not a big volunteer type,” he told me over microbrewed beers on his porch one evening. “I worked all the time.” Hill, who is 37, and his wife, Lisa, live on Mulberry Street in a Charleston side row, one of the six historical-house styles permitted in Celebration. They moved here from a condo in Atlanta, and their home has a two-career, no-kids spareness about it—lightly inhabited, with somewhat less in the way of furniture than high-end home audio and video equipment.

As a design professional, Hill had long been familiar with the ideas of neotraditionalism, the planning movement, also known as the New Urbanism, whose principles Disney has drawn upon in building Celebration; his experience living here has already convinced him that “it works”—that walkable streets, attractive public spaces and a close-by downtown can profoundly affect peoples’ daily lives.

“It’s a physical thing that becomes a spiritual thing,” Hill said, by way of explaining his belated discovery of his Rotarian self. “About two months after we moved to Celebration, I was back in Atlanta on a job, and it hit me: for the first time in my life, I felt as though I was part of a community. That’s when I decided I should join something. Me! When I first went to Rotary, I thought it was going to be, you know, Fred Flintstone in the bullhorn hat. I mean, what was all this ‘fellowship’ stuff? It’s kind of hokey, and I’m not ordinarily that kind of person, but I see it as a community thing.”

“Community” is a word we hear a lot these days, not only in the speeches of the President and in books by self-described “communitarian” thinkers in several different fields, but also in the focus groups and brochures of real-estate developers. (Community has emerged as one of the “features” most prized by new home buyers, according to the trade journal Builder.) Americans seem to sense, and regret, the fraying of our “civil society”—the informal network of clubs, volunteer groups and civic and religious organizations that traditionally knit a community together.

The town of Celebration represents the Disney Company’s ambitious answer to the perceived lack of community in American life, but it is an answer that raises a couple of difficult questions. To what extent can redesigning the physical world we inhabit—the streets, public spaces and buildings—foster a greater sense of community? And what exactly does “a sense of” mean here?—for the word community hardly ever goes abroad in Celebration without that dubious prefix.

Disney occupies a special place in the American landscape and culture. Few companies are as skillful at making places, at shaping the physical environment to affect our behavior. Disney’s theme parks deserve credit for helping to keep alive not only a large part of America’s vernacular architecture but, on Main Street, the very experience of walkable streets and pleasing public spaces—this at precisely the time when Americans were abandoning real Main Streets for their cars and suburban cul-de-sacs.

But Disney’s expertise is in building theme parks for paying guests, not towns for citizens. A real community is messy, ever changing and inevitably political—three adjectives that pretty much sum up everything the culture of Disney cannot abide. Very soon after the first homeowners moved into Celebration, Disney got its first taste of the unpredictability of community life, and of the difference between consumers and citizens. A bruising controversy erupted over the curriculum at the Celebration public school, and Disney suddenly found itself in a most unfamiliar environment, one that has tested the company’s vaunted skills at managing reality.

Disney’s expertise at making places and synthesizing urban experience cannot be separated from its legendary obsession with control; it is, even more than most, a corporation that lives by scripts of its own scrupulous devising. At Celebration, however, Disney has set in motion a story whose script it can only partly control. It is this experiment that I recently traveled to Celebration to observe: just how does a corporation go about manufacturing a community? And what happens when it actually succeeds, and that community starts to act like one?

The Street

One Sunday afternoon, I took a long walk through the streets of Celebration, hoping to understand just what Robert A.M. Stern meant when he told me that “the street is the key to everything else we’re trying to accomplish here.” Stern is, along with Jaquelin Robertson, a fellow New York architect, Celebration’s master planner; the two laid out the town’s network of streets, its downtown commercial district, its parks and school and “wellness center.” If a neotraditional town like Celebration represents a technology for the creation of community, the street, Stern was suggesting, is its most crucial component—its flywheel or microprocessor.

The streets of Celebration are loosely gridded, which means lots of stop signs, and narrow enough to force cars to crawl, so a pedestrian senses at once that he belongs here. The first thing I noticed as I headed up Longmeadow toward Hippodrome Park was just how much there is to look at. The houses are close enough to one another, and sufficiently varied in style, to unfold before the pedestrian in a pleasing rhythm. Even the grandest houses—and Longmeadow is a street of “Estate Homes”—are on tiny lots pulled up to the curb, and their faces engage the passerby with ceremonial front doors, nicely detailed windows and columns and sociable front porches.

Though I spotted no porch sitters on my walk, I spoke to several residents who swear by their porches, especially in the winter, when Orlando’s temperatures and mosquitoes let up. Lise Juneman, a young mother of two, said her family “spends every Saturday morning out on the porch, having coffee, playing Barbies with the girls, catching up with the neighbors strolling by.” A cliche, perhaps, but not an unappealing one.

Stern had spoken of the importance of making the street into an outdoor room—a public space in its own right, not just a connector—and the best of Celebration’s streets have already achieved this quality. The orderly ranks of trees (Disney has planted thousands of handsome, mature specimens) present a unifying street wall, the dead faces of garages have been banished to backyards (where they are accessible by service alleys) and the house fronts have been carefully scaled so as not to overwhelm the space. I found it easy to strike up conversations on the street, and my notebook quickly filled with slightly astonished testimonials to the forgotten pleasures of small-town life: “I used to just wave at my neighbors from the car. Now we stop and gossip on the corner.” “Everyone’s so friendly here, it’s like the first week of college.”

If the typical suburb represents a kind of monoculture, street after street of architecturally and socioeconomically identical houses, Celebration has already achieved a striking degree of diversity. During my walk, I strolled down a street of million-dollar homes facing the golf course, and then turned to find a lane of modest cottages that sell for a fifth as much; walking another block or two, I came to a broad crescent of town-house apartments that rent for as little as $600 a month. This sort of diversity, while limited—there are no poor in Celebration, and the town is extremely white—is nevertheless rare today in the suburbs, where it is an article of the real-estate faith that people will live next door only to neighbors of the same class. In Celebration, houses of roughly the same price do face each other across a street, but the service alleys behind those houses deliberately mix high and low, forcing the surgeon and the firefighter to mingle while taking out the trash or getting into their cars. Stern spoke of deliberately setting up such encounters as one of the many ways that “design can help to orchestrate community.”

This is, of course, a very old utopian idea, with deep roots in the American landscape: that the proper arrangement of streets and houses can help usher in a specific sort of community. When, in the 1630′s, the Puritans established a town on Massachusetts Bay, they specified exactly how far from the meeting house anyone could build—no more than a mile and a half—and laid out their village in concentric circles to enforce the social compact. In our own century, a long succession of middle-class utopias—Radburn, N.J.; Reston, Va.; Columbia, Md.; Levittown, N.Y., and countless unheralded others—have been staked out, platted and built on blank stretches of land in the conviction that a considered arrangement of streets, houses, public spaces and, increasingly these days, walls and gates will help to realize a specific vision of the good society.

In the mid-60′s, Walt Disney decided he had something to add to this tradition. He originally conceived Epcot (an acronym for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) not as a theme park but as a high-tech model city of 20,000 residents. But it was not to be: shortly after his death in 1966, company executives, no doubt worried about profit margins and the likelihood that a city populated by real people might prove more difficult to manage than a theme park, decided to shelve Walt’s utopia.

Today, Disney executives from Michael Eisner, the company’s chairman, on down speak of Celebration as the fulfillment of Walt Disney’s old dream to build a City on a Hill—a model held up to the world.

“Eisner was very clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to do just another residential community,” Bob Shinn said over dinner downtown at Max’s Cafe. Shinn is senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, giving him responsibility for the company’s operations in Florida. “With Celebration, we’re giving something back, trying to blaze a trail to improve American family life, education and health. This project allows us to fulfill Walt’s idea for a town of tomorrow.”

Of course, fulfilling the founder’s vision was not the only motivation for building Celebration: if it is a City on a Hill, it is at the same time an element in a larger corporate strategy and, very simply, a $2.5 billion real-estate deal, a creative way of packaging and selling Florida swampland. (Disney paid approximately $200 an acre for this land in the 60′s; it is selling quarter-acre lots at Celebration for upward of $80,000.)

According to Tom Lewis, perhaps the Disney executive most closely involved with Celebration’s early planning, the town had its more earthly origins on Wall Street, in the bloody battle for control of Disney in the early 80′s. Part of what made the corporation such an attractive takeover target was the vast acreage of undeveloped real estate it owned in Orlando—the theme parks and hotels occupied only a small fraction of the company’s 27,000-acre holdings. After Michael Eisner took over the company in 1984, he ordered a study of the real estate that determined that some 10,000 acres of it, lying on the south side of Route 192, would never be needed by Walt Disney World. Developing that land in some way would render Disney that much less attractive to a raider.

Another consideration was the fact that Disney’s relations with local governments in central Florida had grown somewhat strained. Walt Disney World occupies a state-chartered and virtually sovereign municipality called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which contributes relatively little in the way of taxes to Osceola County, one of the two counties it straddles. By “de-annexing” the 10,000 acres and populating them with taxpayers, Disney could please local governments and smooth the approval process for future theme-park projects, like its new Animal Kingdom. (Had Celebration remained within Reedy Creek, it would also have given Disney’s private municipality something it can’t afford to have: independent voters.)

Of course, Disney could have accomplished these goals far more cheaply and easily by building a conventional housing development or resort community—and this is where the company’s old utopian streak probably came into play. In a bit of local lore cherished by Celebration residents and executives alike, Eisner is said to have instructed his real-estate-development team that Celebration—the town’s name was chosen from a focus-grouped list by Eisner and his wife—needs to make money for stockholders, but if it’s not going to be state of the art, Disney shouldn’t bother.

The state of the art has changed considerably since Walt Disney’s time. Disney’s corporate vision of the future has undergone a revolution since 1966, from Epcot’s sleek technological sublime (the city of tomorrow was to have people movers and a vast dome overhead) to neotraditionalism. Perhaps most closely identified with Seaside, the Florida resort community designed in the 80′s by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, neotraditional town planning has until now enjoyed rather more success nationally with the media than the marketplace. Many New Urbanists are counting on Disney’s success at Celebration to sell developers and home buyers on the idea that the next American utopia should look like a neotraditional town.

They could be right. Some 5,000 home buyers entered a lottery for the privilege of purchasing the first 350 homes at Celebration, and sales since then have been brisk enough (Celebration is currently the fastest-selling development in its price range in the Orlando area) to catch the attention of developers and planning officials from across the nation. Indeed, walking the streets of Celebration, bumping into visitors from all over the world doing much the same thing I was, I realized that Disney’s town has already become what Disney’s founder intended—a stop on the architectural tour of the American future.

It was hard not to come away from that tour impressed by the extraordinary care Disney has taken in every aspect of the town’s physical design. And yet by the end of my walk the very designed-ness of Celebration had started to weigh on me. Eventually the streetscape began to feel a little too perfect, a little too considered. After a while my eye longed for something not quite so orchestrated.

From my research I knew that every last visual detail my eyes had taken in during my two-hour walk, from the precise ratio of lawn to perennials in the front yards to the scrollwork on the Victorian porches to the exact relationship of column, capital and entablature on the facades of every Colonial Revival, had been stipulated—had in fact been spelled out in the gorgeous and obsessively detailed “Pattern Book” that governs every facet of architectural and even horticultural life at Celebration. I knew all that, yet now I felt it, too, and how it felt was packaged, less than real, somewhat more like a theme park than a town.

When I offered these impressions to Robert Stern, he said, wait for “the buildings to take on the patina of age, the landscaping to get luxurious” and for time to put its mark on a place that is still very, very new. I noticed that he spoke of time leaving its mark, not people. In fact, no one can make the slightest change to his house’s exterior without first obtaining written permission from the company; even the choice of trees and shrubs is subject to approval, and will remain so indefinitely. That doesn’t leave much room for history.

“Will Celebration always look so newly minted? That’s a real question,” Stern acknowledged. “They do have people power-washing the streets at night”—which is exactly what they do in the theme parks. But then the architect, who also happens to sit on Disney’s board, remembered himself. “You know it’s a really sad commentary,” he said, “that for something to look ‘real,’ it has to be run-down.” That is one sort of history, certainly, though not the one I had in mind.

Downtown

From the air, Celebration vaguely resembles a river delta, with the residential lanes flowing south and collecting at the head of Market Street, a commercial thoroughfare lined with stately palms that carry down to a pretty man-made lake. The whole neotraditional town idea is predicated on providing residents with a vibrant downtown area, a center of social gravity. Downtown Celebration is a sleepy little grid of streets lined with upscale shops and restaurants, a two-screen movie theater (designed by Cesar Pelli), a bank (by Robert Venturi), a neat toy of a post office (Michael Graves) and a visitors’ center (really a sales office, designed by the late Charles Moore). Leaving aside these generally whimsical “signature” buildings, downtown resembles a miniature Santa Barbara—vaguely historical, lots of pastel stucco (actually a synthetic material called Dryvit), with most of the parking deftly hidden behind Main Street.

It is tempting to dismiss Celebration’s downtown as a shopping mall without a roof, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate: for one thing, there are no big national chains (most of the shops are appealing mom and pop operations); for another, there are rental apartments and a handful of offices above the shops. Andres Duany judges it “a spectacular achievement.”

Many residents regard living within a five-minute walk of downtown as one of the best things about life at Celebration. “I am much less dependent on my car,” Lise Juneman said; some, like Ramond Chiaramonte, have actually scaled back their fleets. Kids in particular enjoy a freedom in Celebration that is almost inconceivable today anywhere else. By the time children have reached the age of 10 or so, most parents are willing to let them wander freely, and after-school hours once filled with television are now taken up with Rollerblading to the parks and pool or expeditions downtown, where preteens go to check out the clothes at Village Mercantile or cadge samples of the coffee coolers at Barnie’s.

For grown-ups, downtown offers a quasi-urban experience that can’t be had elsewhere in the suburbs. Brian Haas and his wife, Dianne, are doctors who met while in medical school in Manhattan in the 80′s. Career took the Haases to the Orlando area, but both miss the experience of walking to bars and jazz clubs in New York. They can get some of that here, Brian said.

“We’re a high-powered New York-Washington couple,” he explained, as I joined him early one morning for breakfast before he walked his children, Julian and Zachary, to school. “Morning Edition” was on the radio, that week’s New Yorker on the kitchen counter. Except for the cavernous space, the Haas home could easily pass for the apartment of an overscheduled two-income Manhattan family.

“I’m an inveterate New Yorker,” Brian said. “I could not at first imagine ever living in a Disney town—too Mickey Mouse, to use a cynical New Yorker’s expression. But cynicism is often a mask for frustrated idealism. After visiting Celebration, I realized there were virtues to Disney’s involvement. With all the publicity”—and here he gestured in my direction—”they can’t afford to let Celebration fail.”

After a while I began to see how someone as “high powered” as Brian Haas, a busy surgeon who probably devotes very little time in a day to doubt, might learn to suspend disbelief about something like the urbanity of his adopted hometown. “It’s the best of New York,” Brian declared. And then, a moment later, “I love it because of the kids.” Which is, of course, the classic pre-neotraditional rationale for moving to the suburbs.

So what is Celebration? A town or a suburb? A subdivision with a few streets of restaurants and shops, or a plausible alternative to the general sprawl of suburban cul-de-sacs spilling their cars onto commercial strips? From one perspective, Celebration allows people like Brian Haas, Todd Hill, Lise Juneman and their children to have a different life style than they would in a subdivision without a town center. Yet one has only to climb the tower at the visitors’ center to see that the new town is really just one more in a series of residential pods hanging off the classic suburban strip—in this case, Route 192—by a single asphalt thread. Like all but a very few New Urbanist projects, Disney’s town offers few real places to shop—there’s no hardware store or pharmacy—and few serious employment opportunities; it also leaves the larger patterns of transportation undisturbed. Celebration might look like a railroad suburb, and its residents may walk downtown on the weekends, but on Monday morning most of them will have no choice but to climb back into their cars for the half-hour commute to Orlando.

Rosemary Cordingley laughed when I asked her whether she felt as though she lived in a town: “Oh, yes, a new town! We’re pioneers! Please. I can’t even get my hair cut downtown. Oh, it’s very nice, you can walk to the movies with your friends—that part is great. But a town? It’s not even close.”

The School

Celebration School, a dignified campus of classrooms linked by covered walkways, is right in the middle of town. In brochures for Celebration, Disney resurrects Walt Disney’s dream of “a school of tomorrow” and depicts its K-12 public school “as a model for education into the next century.” Florida schools are notoriously poor, and the promise of a “state-of-the- art school” in central Florida has proven to be the town’s strongest selling point—the main reason home buyers are prepared to pay a 25 percent to 40 percent premium over comparable real estate to live in Celebration.

Given the expectations, it isn’t surprising that the school should have emerged as the first real test of Disney’s management and Celebration’s community. Very soon after school opened in fall ’96, a couple dozen parents began expressing dissatisfaction about the quality of the education their children were receiving. Many objected to the school’s notably progressive curriculum: there are multi-age classrooms; reading is taught using the “whole language” method; tests are few, and there are “narrative assessments” instead of grades. (“This is a place,” the principal said, “where nobody fails.”)

Some of these approaches are quite controversial—the state of California, for example, is currently abandoning whole language in the face of plummeting reading scores, and while multi-age classrooms are catching on in places, combining six grades in one space is virtually unheard of. So why would Disney have opted for such a radical school, particularly in a neotraditional town? Possibly because a more conventional school would have been hard to distinguish from any other Osceola County public school.

At any rate, problems—or, as the company prefers to call them, “growing pains”—emerged right away. A group of some 30 parents began meeting to discuss their concerns and push for changes—hardly an unusual occurrence, but Celebration is an unusual place, and it all but suffered a nervous breakdown. Here was a faction of its young community flexing its muscles for the first time, and it gave everyone a chance to see how Disney would react. As parents trooped in to complain, executives listened patiently, even sympathetically, but finally disclaimed responsibility—this was, after all, a public school, and the company had its hands tied. All of which was true, but did little to assuage the anger of parents who had put so much faith in Disney.

For Roger Burton, a successful small-business owner who had moved his family to Celebration from Chicago largely because of the school, the episode was disillusioning. “Sure it was a public school, but we figured if Disney was behind it, it would be as fabulous as everything else they do,” he said. “I knew Celebration was going to be a very controlled situation, but controlled in a good way. But as soon as you run into a problem, you find there is no mechanism to change things. The only person you can call is a corporate vice president, but he’s not interested in the school, not really. He’s interested in selling real estate.”

Frustrated at the lack of response, Burton and a group of his neighbors began speaking out in the press. Celebration residents have discovered that they possess a powerful political tool few of the rest of us can lay claim to: merely by picking up the phone, they can put a local school squabble on the front page and the evening news. The press descended on the Celebration School story, and Disney realized it had a problem.

Soon after the first negative articles appeared, the great majority of Celebration residents suddenly rose up in full-throated support of the school, though just how spontaneously is open to question. One Disney executive told me that “the negative publicity galvanized the whole community in support of the school,” but several residents see Disney’s hand behind a lot of the galvanizing. Jackson Mumey, one of the parents most articulate in support of the school, was put on the Disney payroll as an “educational consultant”; he gave interviews to the press, educated benighted parents about the curriculum and helped organize something called the Dream Team—a parents organization that lent moral support to the teachers, who were thought to be demoralized by the controversy. A plane was hired to fly a “Great Job Bobbi” banner above downtown Celebration on Teacher Appreciation Day. (Bobbi Vogel, the principal, quit not long after, as did 6 of the 19 teachers.)

Brent Herrington, Celebration’s “community services manager,” emerged as one of the school’s biggest cheerleaders. Herrington is paid by Disney to manage town affairs, but professes to represent “all the stakeholders.” From his office in town hall, Herrington helped to organize a series of “pep rallies” and picnics for the teachers and helped raise funds to buy them small gifts—things like Celebration School jerseys.

All of this might seem harmless enough, yet there was a dark side to the frenzied show of support. At one point early in the controversy, Herrington used his monthly newsletter to solicit contributions for a “positive parents” fund, and school boosters soon took to calling themselves “the positive parents.” Surely this was an insidious choice of words, for it immediately cast critics of the school as “negative parents.” Dissent had been framed as destructive. The critics took to calling themselves “refuseniks.”

Tensions quickly mounted, to the point where “the Hatfields and McCoys”—as Brian Haas described the warring factions—virtually stopped speaking to one another. “As soon as you say anything,” Burton told me, “you become an outcast. If you don’t like Celebration, you should leave, people would say. Keep quiet or get out.” Rosemary Cordingley, another school critic, told of being harangued on the street by Margo Schwartz, a single mother in her 40′s who emerged as one of the most vociferous “positives.” I can imagine it, for when Schwartz spotted me on Water Street interviewing a refusenik, she strode up to us and, jabbing her index finger at my notebook, informed me that “Beulah here was one of the negative ones who only wants to bash this place.” (Schwartz and I had never met before.)

Cordingley refers to the positive parents as the “pixie-dust” brigade.

“Those of us who weren’t quite so sprinkled with pixie dust were ostracized,” Cordingley said. “And it was orchestrated by Disney. We were treated in a very ugly manner. There was a lot of talk about property values. Instead of facing up to the problems—and believe me, the majority agrees there are problems—they hold pep rallies! Disneymania is fine at the park, but not in a school.” Cordingley pulled her children out of school, and now drives them 25 miles to a parochial school. All told, some 30 children—16 percent of the total—withdrew from Celebration School last year, and the defections have continued.

Joseph Palacios, who has been active in efforts to reform the school, lays much of the blame for the polarization of the community at the steps of town hall: “A real town manager isn’t going to try to create division in his community, but Brent Herrington did exactly that. Brent treated everyone as either positive or negative, and if you were negative, he would literally turn his back on you on the street. Your phone calls to town hall wouldn’t get returned.” Palacios, the father of a second grader, was one of the few residents willing to criticize Herrington on the record, but three others reported similar treatment.

“Brent is supposed to represent all of us,” Palacios said, “but it became clear during the school fight that he’s representing Disney.” Asked about this, Harrington told me, “This perception is mistaken.” It would appear, however, that “community building” has been less of a priority than damage control. Large unscripted public meetings where residents might speak freely have been scrupulously avoided; in their place, Disney has held “focus groups” about the school.

Perhaps the most telling episode in the whole school drama came a year ago when a handful of families—including Roger Burton’s—decided to pack up and leave Celebration. According to the contract that buyers sign, a homeowner may not profit from the sale of a house held less than one year unless he can prove hardship. Disney offered to exempt the disgruntled families from the rule but only on condition of signing an agreement promising never to reveal their reasons for leaving Celebration. “They were treating me like a Russian dissident,” Rich Adams said. “You know, ‘Sign here and you can go.”‘ Adams, who was one of the first to move to Celebration, became the first to move out. In the end, he signed nothing and Disney did nothing to stop him or the others. Herrington said that in retrospect the confidentiality agreement “probably wasn’t the best choice.”

Town Hall

Celebration’s town hall is prominently situated at the head of Market Street, and to see it for the first time is to wonder if its architecture doesn’t represent one of wily old Philip Johnson’s more clever inside jokes. Johnson’s design begins with the obligatory white columns, the same ones that have symbolized democratic values in American civic architecture since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Yet Johnson has taken this venerable convention and multiplied it ad absurdum, until the entrance to Celebration’s town hall is all but lost in a shadowy forest of columns—52 of them in all. A straightforward symbol of republican self-government is thus transformed into a disconcerting image of obscurity. It couldn’t be more fitting, for Celebration’s town hall is privately owned—by Disney.

“Town hall offers residents one-stop shopping for services” is how Tom Lewis, the Disney executive, characterizes what happens in the building; “shopping” is not a bad metaphor either, because the whole panoply of municipal services—everything from garbage pickup to street lighting, from the provision of recreational facilities and (a portion of) public safety to the enforcement of town rules—has been privatized at Celebration, as indeed they have been at hundreds of thousands of other master-planned communities across America.

The responsibility for managing these private governments—for that is what they are—generally falls to a homeowners’ association whose board is elected by the residents. Homeowners’ associations are now the fastest-growing form of political organization in the country, forming a kind of alternative political universe in which one of every eight Americans now resides.

The Celebration homeowners’ association has its offices in the town hall, and that is where I met the town manager, Brent Herrington, the man Tom Lewis had called “sort of the Mayor of Celebration.” Herrington is a big, bluff 37-year-old Texan whose friendly demeanor was hard to reconcile with the image of Disney enforcer that several residents had painted. He is a product of the master-planned world: he grew up in Kingwood, a “highly amenitized” community in Houston, and has spent most of his working life as a professional manager of various master-planned developments.

When I mentioned to Herrington that I’d heard him described as Celebration’s Mayor, he smiled and demurred. “I’m more like a small-town manager—I’m the go-to guy, but I don’t see myself as a politician.” Indeed, Herrington sees running a town like Celebration not as a matter of politics at all, but of “good communication and consensus building.”

In Herrington’s view, his actions during the school crisis fall squarely under that heading. When I suggested that some residents felt he had taken sides, and that the rhetoric of “positive parents” is perhaps not as post-political as it sounds, Herrington said, “There was no perception on my part or the developer’s part that we were pursuing a controversial path or taking sides.”

Surely the most ticklish part of Herrington’s job is enforcing the myriad rules that typically govern life in a master-planned community. To anyone living outside the walls of such a community, these rules can sound outrageous, but inside residents generally view them favorably, as a way to keep property values high at a time when many suburbs have entered a period of decline. As one Celebration resident explained it, “The rules are there to make sure your neighbor’s front yard doesn’t turn into ‘Sanford and Son.”‘ It should be said that this was the only racist remark I heard at Celebration.

All the rules governing life at Celebration would (in fact do) fill a book, but here are some of the more striking: All visible window coverings must be either white or off-white. A resident may hold only one garage sale in any 12-month period. A single political sign (measuring 18 by 24 inches) may be posted for 45 days prior to an election. Any activity that “detracts from the overall appearance of the properties” is prohibited—including the parking of residents’ pickup trucks on the street.

“A violation is usually just an oversight,” Herrington explained. “We try to solve problems as neighbors.”

While I was walking around Celebration, I noticed some bright red curtains in the windows of a new Victorian on Longmeadow. Only then did I fully grasp the import of a cryptic little item I’d spotted in Herrington’s monthly newsletter: “Please refrain from using colored or patterned material in the windows. This can look pretty ‘icky’ from the street!”

Icky?! So this is the voice of private government in the 90′s? It all struck me as fairly creepy, Big Brother with a smiley face, but then I am probably not temperamentally suited to life in Celebration. As Kenneth Wong, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, pointedly reminded me, “Everyone is here on a voluntary basis.”

Master Planner Stern is vigorous in his defense of Celebration’s rules: “In a freewheeling capitalist society, you need controls—you can’t have community without them. It’s right there in Tocqueville: in the absence of an aristocratic hierarchy, you need firm rules to maintain decorum. I’m convinced these controls are actually liberating to people. It makes them feel their investment is safe. Regimentation can release you.”

The best defense of the regulatory regime at Celebration is that the people here have chosen to live under it and, if not now then eventually, those people can vote to change it. At least that’s what I kept hearing from both the past and current “mayors” of Celebration. “In 8 or 10 years,” Herrington assured me, “all power will revert to the homeowners.” Lewis said the same thing.

But it turns out that matters are not quite that simple. Buried in the legal hickets of Celebration’s “Covenants, Codes and Restrictions,” the quasi-constitution that all home buyers are required to sign, can be found the underlying political script Disney wrote for the future of its town, and it reads very differently from the public script about community building and participation that company executives lay out for residents and reporters.

For while it is true that Celebration residents will eventually elect the directors of the homeowners’ association, the covenants guarantee that that body will remain a creature of Disney’s for as long as the company wishes—specifically, for as long as it owns a single acre of land within, or adjacent to, Celebration. The homeowners’ association cannot change any rule or restriction in Celebration “without prior notice to and the written approval of the Celebration Company,” according to the covenants. Disney further retains the right to control every aspect of the physical character of Celebration as long as it wishes to. Thus, however vital the community that evolves in Celebration turns out to be, ultimate power over its affairs will remain backstage, with Disney.

“It is absolute top-down control,” said Evan McKenzie, a lawyer and expert on homeowners’ associations, when I showed him the copy of the covenants I had obtained from a sales agent. “The homeowners are powerless against the association and the association is powerless against Disney. I can’t imagine anything more undemocratic.”

When I went back to Tom Lewis for clarification, he said that, as far as he understood, Celebration’s covenants were “standard master-planned community boilerplate” and referred me to Wayne S. Hyatt, the Atlanta lawyer who was the principal author of them. Hyatt specializes in master-planned governments; he is, in effect, the “framer” of Celebration’s constitution, which he has described in speeches to professional groups as “progressive,” part of a “shift from people and property management to building community.”

Only after I cited specific articles of the covenants did Hyatt acknowledge that Disney would indeed retain a veto over the homeowners’ association indefinitely and that this was unusual. “The residents can still make decisions, but the veto stays with the developer,” he said. I asked him if he saw any contradiction between the goal of building community and the fact that Disney planned to keep that community’s representative body on a short and permanent leash.

“Not at all,” he replied. “This will result in more progressive governance: you can’t change things arbitrarily to my detriment, and I can’t change things arbitrarily to your detriment. It’s a system of checks and balances. This is not a dictatorial Disney. This is a participatory Disney.”

For many residents, it is precisely Disney’s participation that attracted them to Celebration in the first place. Most people I met expressed complete confidence in Disney’s ability to run the town just as well as it runs its other enterprises. “Who’s going to do a better job of it?” a prospective homeowner I met at the visitors’ center asked me. “The homeowners? Come on!” Lise Juneman said: “Disney gives me a sense of security. They will insure a quality product, and keep property values up.”

Somewhat sheepishly, I started asking everyone I met if they felt they were living in a democracy. To a great extent, the answers I got depended on where a resident stood on the school issue. Predictably, school critics did not feel they were living in a democracy; the far more numerous “positive parents” did. But what was striking was that the two groups held entirely different conceptions of what a democracy is. Critics like Rosemary Cordingley and Joseph Palacios described democracy in terms of power and voting, rights and self-rule, the traditional copybook maxims learned in elementary school.

The “positives” spoke with equal fervor of something more … well, neo. “It is definitely a democracy,” Margo Schwartz said, “because we can go to town hall and express our feelings. It’s a very responsive government.”

Tom Lewis said, “Democracy is being listened to, so I’d say it’s clearly a democracy.” Charlie Rogers, a Rotarian who heads up the Sun Trust Bank branch in town, told me: “Everyone’s input is welcome. Disney’s doing an excellent job of staying in the background. Behind the scenes they’re doing a lot, and while they have to control things, I think they really want to step back.”

It may be Disney’s boldest innovation at Celebration to have established a rather novel form of democracy, one that is based on consumerist, rather than republican, principles. For many of the people I met at Celebration, the measure of democracy is not self-rule but responsiveness—they’re prepared to surrender power over their lives to a corporation as long as that corporation remains sensitive to their needs. This is the streamlined, focus-grouped responsiveness of the marketplace, rather than the much rougher responsiveness of elected government—which for many Americans was discredited a long time ago. Of course, the consumerist democracy holds only as long as the interests of the corporation and the consumer are one. So far, this has largely been the case, if only because all the community’s “stakeholders” have dedicated themselves to the proposition of maintaining high property values—which is one way, I suppose, to define the public interest.

Todd Hill’s answer to my question about democracy was slightly different than his neighbors’ and, befitting his general post-modern slant on life, completely without illusion and undefensive. “This is no democracy, I know that. But, hey,” he shrugged, “it’s the 90′s.” Hill sees no necessary connection between community, which he cherishes, and self-rule, which is … old.

Maybe Hill is right. Maybe Disney has developed a new kind of community for the 90′s, one that has been shorn of politics and transformed into a commodity—something people buy and consume rather than produce, an amenity rather than an achievement. Certainly Celebration is, as many residents noted, an “apolitical” place. Mention the word “politics” to people here, and they will talk about “divisiveness”; for in this view, politics is the enemy of community, rather than its natural expression.

I put this idea to Daniel Kemmis, who served until recently as the Mayor of Missoula, Mont. (population 88,520), and is the author of two books about community and place. “I don’t believe you can create genuine community in the absence of self-government,” he said. “Community finally depends on people taking responsibility for their own lives and the place where they live. That’s a messy, troublesome—and also deeply satisfying—process.

“The interesting question here is, What will people do with the civic skills they’re apt to acquire in this community? My guess is they will put them to political use—that there will be building pressure for the people to have more of a say.”

Kemmis hasn’t been to Celebration, but he may be onto something. For Disney seems to have set in motion two powerful forces that are bound sooner or later to collide. They have built a most impressive landscape of community—a place expressly designed to encourage neighbors to engage one another, to form associations and acquire the “civic virtues”—yet they have built it atop a subsoil of authoritarianism, which limits participation to only the most trivial matters of that community’s business.

Why would Disney do two such contradictory things—undercut the very community it has worked so hard to create? Tocqueville suggested an answer 150 years ago when he pointed out that “civil associations … facilitate political association” by teaching people the “strength that they may acquire by uniting together.”

It may be that the very same contraption that produces neo-Rotarians like Todd Hill will eventually produce political activists, too.

If Disney truly believed in its benign, post-political vision of community—as an end in itself, as something that confines its energies to block parties and rotary meetings—it would never have bothered to make everyone in it sign such an onerous constitution. But Disney, who is nothing if not an astute observer of the American character, understands that sooner or later the people of Celebration will find their political voice, and when they do they’re likely to make a mess of the company’s carefully crafted script.

In a future history of the town of Celebration, the skirmish over the schools may well mark the beginning of that process. Certainly the episode has been a political education. “A real town has a voting process,” Rosemary Cordingley said, “but this place is run by Disney. Could it ever change? There might have to be an uprising first.” For now, people like Cordingley are keeping their heads down. “Last year was traumatic,” she explained. There’s talk among residents of an informal “moratorium on bad press.” But politics could rear its head again at any time.

No doubt the school crisis has been an education for Disney, too. Brian Haas, who is generally supportive of the company, believes that “Disney has learned a lesson—that this isn’t just selling someone on a theme park. You’re playing with people’s lives.” That’s one lesson. Another is that a community of citizens is a lot more difficult to control than a community of employees or tourists, especially when those citizens have access to the microphones of national publicity. Robert Stern mentioned that the company has been “amazed” by the amount of attention, good and bad, its City on a Hill has received, and is now “mindful of the fact its name will forever be linked with Celebration.” To a degree Disney couldn’t have foreseen, it has tied its good corporate name to the destiny of this town—and therefore to the deeds and words of people like Roger Burton, Rosemary Cordingley and Joseph Palacios. For a company like Disney to suddenly find itself in such an environment—volatile and, despite heroic efforts, ultimately unscriptable—must be disconcerting, to say the very least.

When I first visited Celebration early in 1996, before any people had moved in, there was enthusiastic off-the-record talk among executives of rolling Disney towns out nationally. Not anymore: Celebration is an experiment the company has decided it won’t repeat.

Indeed, there are signs, subtle but unmistakable, that the company would like nothing better than to put a little distance between itself and its unruly new community. Early in the fall, a crew of workers climbed the fake water tower at the entrance to Celebration and took down a banner proclaiming “Disney’s Town of Celebration.” Now there are just the words “Town of Celebration.” It got people talking, so in last month’s newsletter, Brent Herrington wrote an item aimed at dispelling the rumor “that Disney may be ‘pulling out of Celebration.”‘ There’s nothing to it, Disney’s sort-of Mayor wrote; the company has merely been “eager for the public to begin recognizing Celebration as a real, thriving community with its own unique identity.”