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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

For years, Disney World in Florida was just a tourist destination. Then the Disney Corporation built a town called Celebration, planned right down to the crosswalks. Now, its residents are striving to build a community.

MORTON: Celebration's divided into several groups. There's the Rah-rahs, which are Disney all the way, don't question it. And another group, which we haven't named yet, possibly the Rebels. And then there's another group, a third group, the Escapees. So, there are factions. It's become a factionalized community.

CURWOOD: And in a small town in Washington State, winter goes by faster, thanks to their annual outhouse race.

ZIPPERER: Each device must have a seat no more than 36 inches above the ground, with an appropriate hole. Toilet paper must be on board. Reading material is optional.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this.

(NPR News follows)

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Every year millions of people travel to Florida to visit Disney World, and then go home. But there is a select group of people who now live the Disney experience all the time. Thirty-five hundred people already reside in the planned town called Celebration, and 20,000 more are expected to move in during the next decade. The late Walt Disney wanted to capture Main Street America and design a town where folks can walk most everywhere and chat with their neighbors from their front porches. So far, Celebration is a financial success for the Disney Corporation. But some residents say there have been some hard lessons in finding the true meaning of community. Pippin Ross reports.

(Ambient voices)

ROSS: At Celebration's fourth annual Founder's Day, a few townies huddle around a TV and watch videos made to showcase the town and its residents.

(Laughter; background music)

ROSS: There are plenty of tears, smiles, and sighs, as images of neighbors at past events appear on the screen. Maryanne Woodcock and Helen Cardenuto are typical Celebration advocates, bursting with enthusiasm about their town.

WOODCOCK: It's a walking town.


WOODCOCK: Which we really like.

CARDENUTO: Which we walk from home.

WOODCOCK: Yeah. We don't have to get in our car. Every whip stitch we can just walk -- out of bread, out of milk, or to the library, or, well, post office.

CARDENUTO: Yeah. And we have a wonderful post office. I think everybody enjoys that. It's a post office store, and the clerks are part of the community even though they don't live here.

ROSS: Several years ago, Disney head Michael Eisner gathered together some of the nation's best urban planners, architects, and educators, and asked them to design the ideal community.

STERN: Those were our marching orders.

ROSS: Architect Robert Stern.

STERN: And it had to be a real town, not a Disney experiment. And it had to also be a real town in the sense that it was supposed to make, and it is making, money.

ROSS: The key, says Stern, was to foster community spirit by encouraging interaction. So, Celebration was designed to bring homes, shops, and public spaces close together.

STERN: You've got to have the life of the town played out on the stage of the town. We created the stage, but by putting the school there, by mixing the uses: park, apartments, shops, bicycling, pedestrians, cars, all of those things, and the school of course, right in within a two-block radius.

ROSS: The result is a development that looks and feels like a small town.

BUONCHERVELLO: As you might notice, there's a lot of porch. That's a screened-in porch there...

ROSS: That's Sonny Buonchervello, Celebration's self-appointed unofficial mayor. He's giving me a driving tour of his neighborhood, where manicured streets have old-fashioned names like Mulberry Avenue and Wisteria Lane, and where nearly every house has a front porch.

BUONCHERVELLO: Because when you're sitting out on your porch and somebody drives by and they're your neighbor and they see you out there, they'll stop and they'll visit with you. And then, someone else will drive by and see the two of you sitting there, and then you know they stop. And, before you know it, you've got ten or twelve friends sitting on the porch.

ROSS: Buonchervello is on his way to welcome a parade of tourists who've come to check out the town Disney built.

(Plates clatter)

ROSS: Inside Max's Cafe, a recreation of a classic diner, he plays the gracious host.

BUONCHERVELLO: Nice to see you today. Are you just visiting or are you living here now?

MAN: No, I'm visiting.

ROSS: The visitor is from Pinehurst, North Carolina, where a Celebration clone is being built.

MAN: The people from Celebration, they're going to build a Celebration village there as well.

BUONCHERVELLO: Really. That's interesting information...

ROSS: Celebration's panache and its financial success has inspired imitators. Nearly all of Celebration's original planners are now overseeing construction of other planned communities. Kathy Johnson heads the Celebration Foundation, which organizes community activities and events here. She's leaving Celebration to start a similar development in Monterey, California. And she's taking a few lessons with her. Johnson says despite the cheery demeanor, there's plenty of conflict and confusion among Celebration residents, especially over the community's purpose.

JOHNSON: People were buying homes and buying into a lifestyle that was all on paper. And so, they interpret, each of them interpreted that a little bit differently. And so, people had different expectations of what was going to unfold here.

ROSS: A lot of people came to Celebration believing it was a real town. It's not. Celebration is a planned community, run by the Disney-owned Celebration Company. As in any private development, residents must abide by rules governing everything from the color they can paint their houses to what types of plants they can landscape with. And even though people go to a building called Town Hall to voice problems and concerns, there's no democratic process. No select board, no town meeting. Complaints and conflicts go before Town Manager Pat Wasson, who brings them to a Board of Directors: four Disney employees and a representative from Celebration's bank. Although Celebration has its share of crime, including muggings, burglaries, and domestic violence, Wasson says most problems are relatively minor.

WASSON: Pets not on leashes. Speeding. If their trash didn't get picked up on time. Recycling.

(Several voices; typing on a keyboard)

ROSS: Alex Morton and his ex-wife Marlina started a newspaper called the Celebration Independent two years ago. They felt the community needed an alternative to a Disney-published weekly.

A. MORTON: They were taking the recycling and putting it in the garbage, which was going on, it was a scam. We were paying for that. We were paying for recycling and trash.

ROSS: Marlina Morton points to the recycling incident as a good example of what happened when Disney put money ahead of its mission to create an ideal community. The community, she says, became polarized.

M. MORTON: Celebration's divided into several groups. There's the Rah-rahs, which are Disney all the way, don't question it. And another group, which we haven't named yet, possibly the Rebels. And then there's another group, a third group, the Escapees. So there are factions. It's become a factionalized community.

(Keyboard typing continues)

ROSS: Since Celebration began, dozens of families have moved out, most of them disappointed by the school's curriculum.

(Children, voices)

WOMAN: Have a great day. Have fun. I'll see you later tonight, okay?

ROSS: The centerpiece of Celebration, and without question the biggest draw for hundreds of families, is the K through 12 public school. Its curriculum merges traditional and cutting-edge concepts, and that's been a source of friction in the community. But it hasn't hurt the school's popularity. Disney's original $17 million investment hasn't been enough to keep up with the school's growth. And a massive expansion is underway.

(Heavy vehicle beeping)

MUMEY: This space here there will be a tree put in, very large tree. It's just kind of a nice, shaded spot where kids can sit out or teachers can sit out...

ROSS: Jackson Mumey teaches history at Celebration High School. And history, he says, teaches us that from Jamestown to Levittown, conflict is typical at any new settlement. But Celebration's case, he says, is complicated by people who truly believe Disney's magic.

MUMEY: The expectations were that you sprinkle pixie dust, you put it together nicely, and everything will be perfect, and my child who was, you know, failing somewhere else will suddenly be going to Harvard. And, you know, our marriage that was falling apart will suddenly go back to being wonderful, and everything will be great. I mean, you know, there's no community that can do that.

ROSS: For its part, Disney denies it ever portrayed itself as anything other than a developer. Still, Celebration has raised the bar on the traditional role of the developer, according to company President Perry Reader.

READER: It's a social responsibility that America is putting back on the developer. Don't give me a subdivision any more. You need to really step up and give me a place. I'll make it what it needs to be as the people when I start to arrive there. But I need the resources that the developer can bring and help.

L. BOYER: Here, we laid up the pictures and the statue, and this tract will lay up the pictures here .

CONTRACTOR: Well, you would need a tract to go this way, a tract to go this way, and a tract to return...

ROSS: Lance Boyer and his wife Karen are talking to their contractor about making changes to the Savannah-style home they bought for $235,000. Celebration homes, available in six styles and six colors, range in price from $130,000 to several million dollars.

CONTRACTOR: You know, you can put spots, like three this way and maybe two this way.

L. BOYER: Okay, perfect.

ROSS: The Boyers are lucky. Most people who used Disney's designated builder have been forced to make thousands of dollars of repairs. Boyer admits he's been disappointed by several of the Celebration Company's decisions. But he chastises residents who complain about the lack of democratic process. After all, Celebration, he says, is a company town.

L. BOYER: Certainly people didn't say, "Oh, great, you know, Town and Country's building homes there, I'm going to buy there. Oh, great, Osceola County's running the school there, I'm going to buy there." People came here because Disney was involved with it. And with that comes the understanding that Disney's going to have a certain level of control.

ROSS: And because it's Disney, there is exhaustive scrutiny from the outside. The Boyers' house is filled with articles and books about Celebration.

(Music up and under)

ROSS: The Boyers' son, Brandon cues up a song about Celebration by the group, Chumbawumba on the CD player. The Boyers are offended by the song, particularly a line that says, "Social engineering gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling."

(Music up and under)

K. BOYER: The fact that Disney designed a town where there were front porches and there is little land between homes, yes, I think that engineered a certain atmosphere that the people have responded to in a positive way. There is no community we've ever lived in where I felt closer to my neighbors.

WOMAN 1: And how are we today, young lady?

WOMAN 2: Fine, thank you. You?

WOMAN 1: Good, thanks.

ROSS: Beneath the neighborliness, Celebration's residents are divided. Some worry that once Disney makes a return on its investment it will sell to another developer. Others want Disney out now. As long as Disney has ultimate control, they say, the community will never truly belong to its residents. And then there's His Honor, self-appointed Celebration mayor Sonny Buonchervello who says life is easier without the passion and polarization of democracy.

BUONCHERVELLO: If we were incorporated, we would actually have a mayor and there would be elections. We're not incorporated, and therefore no one ever runs against me. So it's nice to be the self-proclaimed mayor.

ROSS: Eventually, Celebration may get an honest-to-goodness mayor. Under Florida law, once a development reaches its planned capacity, in Celebration's case, that should happen in about ten years, residents assume control and can vote to become a real town. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in Orlando, Florida.

CURWOOD: Coming up: Hard sell or sell out? Marketing the message of environmental protection. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Coming up: Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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