Two dozen or so teenagers sit cross-legged on the classroom floor at the Celebration School. On a nearby white board, this reminder: The "Create a New World" project is due at the end of the month.
Not much time. But of all places in America to be studying utopia today, this might be the most appropriate. Five-year-old Celebration, the town devised by the Walt Disney Co. as the newest in a long line of American experiments in living, is a utopia-in-progress. Or regress.
As part of their assignment, the kids will read samples of utopian/dystopian literature, such as "The Girl Who Owned a Town" and "Fahrenheit 451." Notably absent from the list are two new books by journalists who spent time living there: "Celebration, U.S.A.: Living in Disney's Brave New Town" by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins and "The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town" by Andrew Ross.
The reason, perhaps: The books are a little too close to home.
Talk to folks around Celebration and they wince at the utterance of "utopia."
"We run from the word," says Marilyn Waters, community relations manager of the Celebration Co., the Disney subsidiary that developed the town. "We're real families, real people, not plastic people."
But . . .
The Walt Disney Co. did try to assemble the best planners, architects, education and health experts it could find, Waters says, to "put in place all the elements that have been determined to best develop a sense of community."
Most of the 2,500 people who have moved here, says the Rev. Patrick Wrisley, a Celebration resident, "are not looking for utopia."
But . . .
Wrisley says they are looking for a safe place where they can live simply and meaningfully.
Celebrants--as residents are called--shy away from the word "utopia," explains author Frantz, because it "has come to mean 'folly.' What it really is, is a striving for utopia."
So were Frantz, Collins and Ross looking for utopia when they moved to Celebration from the New York area a few years ago? Naahh. They went to Celebration to write books.
Frantz, a reporter on leave from the New York Times, and Collins, his wife, who is also a journalist, and their two children rented out their home in Westport, Conn., and bought a house in Celebration in the summer of 1997. They stayed two years. "It was a great place for a new adventure," says Frantz from his home in Westport. "And something we could write a book about."
Ross, author of "Chronicles" and a professor of American studies at New York University, rented an apartment in Celebration in September 1997, and left a year later to return to Manhattan. "I knew it was going to be a unique opportunity for a writer," says Ross, who describes himself as part writer, part anthropologist. As it turns out, it wasn't quite as unique an opportunity as he imagined, since Frantz and Collins had the same idea.
The notion of a corporate utopia, Ross says, was quite different from the social, political, religious utopias of America's past. Celebrants, he says, are looking for a better place to live. Although, he sneers, "if you had grown up in the cheerless anonymity of suburbia, it's not that hard to find" a better place.
The tone of Ross's book is meandering and academic. He writes about the town without much affection. Asked what he misses about Celebration, he cannot really think of anything.
Frantz and Collins, on the other hand, tell their story in a well-written and balanced way. Their book has a logical flow, but because one topic (such as education) bleeds into another (such as community), the chapters are not always clearly delineated. Frantz and Collins say they mostly miss their friends in Celebration and the small-town freedom their kids so enjoyed. The family plans to return for New Year's Eve and see the first sun of 2000 rise over Celebration.
Front Porch American
Stand in Market Square, looking down the brick street toward the lake, and it sure looks as if Disney was trying to create a picture-perfect place. Though the resulting clash of styles looks like an architect's version of a demolition derby. To your right is the Preview Center, an information and real estate office designed by the late Charles Moore. Above the center is a stair-wrapped tower, the tallest structure in town (unfortunately, you can't climb to the top to look out over the town). To your left, the dark and uninviting town hall was designed by Philip Johnson. Michael Graves's toylike red-and-gray post office is next door. Kids Rollerblade past; parents breeze by in highfalutin golf carts called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles; old folks toodle down the sidewalk in motorized scooters. Even the sky overhead--stark blue with billowy clouds--looks like the backdrop screen for a utopian Web site.
Stroll through the Preview Center, past the glass cases depicting the Five Cornerstones of Celebration: education, health, technology, community and place. The town is proud of its public school and its not-for-profit hospital. Every house is wired by Honeywell with a high-speed cable Internet connection; many Celebrants run Web-based businesses from their homes. There's a local cable channel, and an Intranet with a Celebration Web site--called Front Porch. Community is depicted through group pictures of good clean people having good clean fun.
Place, says resident Kathy Johnson, is the hardest to define. "To me, it's the lay of the land, the types of architecture."
It's that feeling, she says, "that when you get to Celebration, you know you are there."
Are Celebrants looking for utopia? "To strive for utopia is wonderful," Johnson says, "but . . . people are people."
Drive around the ever-clean village and you see the William Rawn-designed Celebration School on a 36-acre campus, the golf course, fashioned by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son, and the immensely impressive Celebration Health hospital and fitness center that is run by the Seventh-Day Adventists. You'll also pass by swanky apartments and houses, designed in a half-dozen styles--Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean and French. The result resembles a sanitized Savannah or a cheerless Charleston.
This is meant to be the next evolutionary step of the New Urbanism, a style of architecture and city planning rooted in Seaside, another Florida development, and roasted in "The Truman Show" as too planned and plasticized.
An unsuspecting visitor might not know that Disney still calls the shots here. The company name has been removed from the billboards that advertise the town. The official Disney explanation is that the company intended to transfer the decision-making authority to the residents. Some Celebration cynics say that Disney can't stand the heat--and the adverse publicity--and is getting out of the kitchen. Celebration has been erased from maps of Disney destinations that include the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. But the town's governing board is still made up of three Disney developers. And, according to plan, as long as Disney owns a single solitary piece of property in Celebration, the company will have the final say-so on all architectural decisions.
Humankind has been trying to create utopia ever since we were kicked out of Eden, and writers have been struggling with the concept for nearly as long. Thomas More coined the term (a Greek word for "no place") when his book "Utopia" was published in 1516. More's Never-Never Land included: six-hour workdays, full employment, free food and lodging for travelers, unpretentious housing and clothes, no lawyers and no cosmetics, communal dining, and euthanasia. Rabelais, Montaigne, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift all tinkered with the idea of a more perfect world. William Morris and H.G. Wells offered their versions of utopia.
In America, striving to create new worlds is as old as Jamestown and Plymouth. The idea of creating utopian towns, however, was exported to the United States in the early 19th century and had an immediate effect on writers. New Harmony, Ind., was created in the 1820s by Scottish industrialist Robert Owen. In the 1840s, Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Mass., was visited by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the 20th century, communities based on certain utopian ideals continued to spring up in various forms. Suburban developments such as Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Levittown, N.Y., were designed to appeal to post-World War II Americans. Later attempts, such as Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., hoped to transform suburbia by creating viable, livable, self-contained centers.
A new genre of utopian literature evolved. Herbert Gans spent a year in the New Jersey version of Levittown and wrote "The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community," published in 1967. Katherine S. Newman interviewed a slew of suburbanites for her 1993 book, "Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream." And Evan McKenzie's "Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government," published in 1996, argued that private community associations--and the one that rules Celebration would be a supreme example--are pseudo-governments that are undermining cities.
The greatest obstacles to building Heaven on Earth are: human wants and desires.
In Celebration, the flash point of uneasy feelings is the community school. Designed for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the much-publicized learning center, run by Osceola County with the help of a three-member advisory committee, has open classrooms and multidisciplinary studies. Students follow a "values-based" curriculum cooked up by educational experts from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Kids are divided not into grades, but into multi-age "neighborhoods." A science teacher is called a "scientific investigator"; an English instructor teaches "human expressions."
In retrospect, says Andrew Ross, many people were probably drawn to Celebration in the beginning because of the promise of a world-class education. Many have been disappointed.
Some Celebrants turned out to be more socially conservative than Disney had anticipated. Scads of parents were frustrated by the school's lack of structure and discipline. As a result, the experimental school has engendered more harsh sentiments in the community than any other aspect. Families have feuded; some folks have pulled up stakes and left Celebration altogether. Attitudes toward the school have caused a major rift in the community, the authors report, much to the company's chagrin.
The school has made some changes, and at the end of last year a survey by Osceola County showed that some 70 percent of the parents were satisfied with the school, says the Celebration Co.'s Marilyn Waters.
Wrisley, 39, the peppy Presbyterian preacher who is an unabashed cheerleader for Celebration, is one resident who has taken his daughters out of the Celebration School. He drives them 25 miles away to a Christian school in Osceola County.
The town of Celebration, he explains, melds the best of yesterday with the best of tomorrow. The problem with the school, he says, is that "they threw out the best of yesterday."
"The Disneyphiles," he says, "are the most let down." They were the ones who moved to Celebration thinking that the town--and the Mouse--would solve all their problems. "I'm not a Disneyphile," Wrisley says.
His job, he says, is to establish the Kingdom of God in the Magic Kingdom. To help him out, the Presbyterian Church has purchased two acres on Celebration Avenue so that Wrisley can build a worship center. Burly, bearded, in shorts on his day off, Wrisley is a combination of brains and brimstone as he stops cars to jaywalk across Celebration Drive to show the church property to a visitor. As he walks the perimeter of the grounds, he uses his hands to describe the building, which will blend old-time religion and "Star Trek" technology. "An 85-foot bell tower, with a working bell, will be there where that pine tree is," he says, pointing to the heavens. Inside, there will be huge screens projecting images as Wrisley preaches.
Part of the original town plan, he says, called for an ecumenical worship center. "But Disney didn't want to be in the religious business," he says.
One of the most powerful and prescient companies in the world has discovered that it can't control two of the most basic shapers of community--education and religion. Community, it turns out, is a lot more than perfectly laid-out streets, movie-style settings and robotic architects.
The two new Celebration books point out that only a handful of black people live in the town. But many more work, shop and visit there.
Veronica Washington, a 36-year-old African American, has a 9-year-old son in the Celebration School. The Washingtons live in nearby Kissimmee. Her son is one of the 500 or so students who are bused in.
She's visiting the school on a late August morning to complain to the vice principal about the omnipresent bees and yellow jackets. Asked about the quality of the school, she swivels her hand in a comme ci, comme ca motion. It's too early to tell, she says.
To Washington, the fact that Celebrity is predominantly white is no big deal. "I'm mostly concerned about my son's education," she says. The freewheeling ways of the Celebration School are new to her. "I'm used to more structure."
"It's true," says mocha-skinned Delsy Ortiz, 32, who has worked for a builder in Celebration since it opened, but doesn't live there. "There are not a lot of people of color here."
Asked if she would move to Celebration if given the chance, she says, "Absolutely not. Too touristy."
Would it be difficult to live in Celebration for a person of color? Ortiz laughs: "Not if you have a lot of money."
Circling the Wagons
To hear Celebration residents tell it, the town has forged a strong sense of community. For one thing, it's still small. Eventually, plans call for some 20,000 people to live there.
For another thing, Celebrants have circled their wagons against all of the criticism and snide remarks from outsiders.
Outsiders like Brian Doyle.
In front of Barnie's coffee shop near the lake, Doyle, an art student from New York, hovers over a two-man film crew. Doyle is making a documentary about Celebration called "Yestermorrow." He's highly critical of Disney's town. "It's focused on a nostalgic past that's fictional, combined with a focus on a utopian future that eclipses the present."
And that, he says, "is oh so Disney."
As the film crew drives off, Neal and LaVergne Harris, both 84, choose a bench near the lake. The Harrises have been married 58 years. They have lived in a Celebration town house from day one. Just about every evening they hop in their 1980 Toronado and drive to the lake, where they sit and look out on the twilight.
"We like the outdoors," says LaVergne. "We don't watch TV or do the computer thing."
Many nights, Joe Davison, who works in the Celebration Store and as a window clerk at the post office, comes out to jaw with the Harrises. The Celebration Store is owned by Jerry and Dot Mathison, who also run the Village Mercantile Store on Market Street. Most days the Mathisons walk their pig Orval to work. In Celebration, everybody pretty much knows everybody. It's a small world after all.
In between the Celebration Store and Barnie's is White's Books and Gift Shop. The two Celebration books line six display shelves. The Frantz-Collins book is outselling the Ross book, says the manager.
From White's, you can see the Cesar Pelli-designed cinema and the Lakeside Promenade fountain created by landscape architect Todd Hill. Water geysers up as kids run through.
Hill, 39, his wife, Lisa, 33, and their daughter, Kyla, 5 months, live on Honeysuckle Avenue. There are nine similar houses in their block. Every Christmas, residents on the street post huge letters in front of their houses spelling MERRY XMAS. "We're the S," says Lisa, who enjoys walking Kyla around Celebration in a stroller. "When somebody moves, they have to leave their letter."
Lisa, who has bright, dancing eyes and a long dark ponytail, which she pulls through a hole in the back of a baseball cap, says, "You make your own utopia. No one else can do it for you."
Edges Rounded by Choice
In the end, Ross decides that the town, like any town, is a battleground of extremes--a resistance to authority and a desire to police one's neighbors--that can never be resolved.
For Frantz and Collins the town is too self-absorbed. "The town looked inward," they write, "sealing itself off from a world that ended at its borders. It was restrictive, almost tribal, and it left us feeling at times out of touch and uncomfortable in a place where life's edges were rounded and smoothed not by time but by choice."
And both books conclude that human problems, alas, cannot be overcome with "pixie dust." Near the end of the Frantz-Collins book there is an ugly, 911-calling domestic dispute between two of their neighbors. The husband is taken away by police for abusing his wife. She still lives in Celebration and many of the small-town residents don't think the authors should have named names.
That bothers the Rev. Wrisley a bit.
The most interesting aspect of all the writing about Celebration, the preacher says, "is the issue of domestic violence. There may be a problem here. But in all my conversations about the books, not one person, not one, has raised the issue." In other words, Celebrants are slow to talk about their problems.
Create a New World
"Celebration was never designed to bring a whole lot of profit to the bottom line," says Douglas Frantz. "It was visionaries trying to do something on an ambitious scale. Instead of constant praise, Disney has criticism it can't control."
Several residents and employees of the Celebration Co. say that if Disney had it to do over again, the company probably would not try to build a small American town. The company, folks say, is much more comfortable creating another theme park or corporation-controlled Potemkin village like Epcot, which originally stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
"Disney's gradual withdrawal from Celebration is a healthy thing," Frantz says. "Now the people are going to have to buckle down and build a town."
At Celebration School, where the students work now and then on their "Create a New World" project, "human expressions" teacher Jackie Flanigan can be found flitting around the Upper 3 Neighborhood, traditionally known as eighth- and ninth-graders. High-energy, in jeans, polo shirt, sneakers, a key on a lanyard around her neck, Flanigan's been with the school since it opened in August 1997.
What she and her husband, Dion, who works for Disney, love about Celebration, she says, is "there is that pioneering mentality. We aren't here to create a utopia. We're here to try to make right what went wrong with America's communities. And set a standard for solutions. We are figuring out a better way."
All the media attention, she says, is disconcerting. She occasionally has to tell visitors, "I'm not audio-animatronic."
On one wall of her classroom is a poster: "If you have built castles in the air, now put foundations under them--Henry David Thoreau"
On another: a picture of Goofy.
And on another: Words to Know--utopia, dystopia, balance.
The kids in Celebration School are studying balance in a variety of disciplines: science, math and literature. "Balance," says Flanigan, standing at one of the room's many computers, "is the critical word when talking about utopia."
She talks fast and enthusiastically. "Man is always seeking the perfect balance," she says.
"Imbalance," she adds, finger in the air, "creates progress."
And the children of Celebration are discovering, Flanigan says, "that there is no balance. Ever."
CAPTION: At 5 years old, the Walt Disney Co.'s model community of Celebration, Fla., is the subject of two new books and a certain amount of controversy.
CAPTION: Celebration's distinctive Preview Center, left, serves as an information and real estate office in the center of town. Above, Teresa Haeuszer drives a "Neighborhood Electric Vehicle" with Matt McMahan in tow.
CAPTION: "Human expressions" teacher Jackie Flanigan, with some of her Celebration School students. "We aren't here to create a utopia," she says. "We're here to try to make right what went wrong with America's communities. And set a standard for solutions. We are figuring out a better way."