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When Disney imagineered a $2.5 billion town

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In this “Nice Try!” bonus episode, dive into Disney’s utopian design forays from Epcot to Celebration, Florida

Avery Trufelman and Caity Weaver sitting in chairs and speaking animatedly on the stage of 92Y in New York City
Nice Try! host Avery Trufelman and New York Times writer Caity Weaver discuss Disney, utopias, and more in a bonus episode of the podcast taped live at the 92Y on August 6.
Vivienne Gucwa

Every costume, every ride, and every moment in a Disney theme park is scripted to suspend reality and make visitors believe they’re in a magical world filled with happy people, beautiful princesses, fantastical animals, exciting rides, and idealistic visions of the future. But a theme park is a temporary experience—guests have no choice but to go back to their ordinary lives at the end of the day. In the 1990s, Disney moved beyond the realm of fantasy and cooked up a plan for an actual town for actual people, where the Disney dream didn’t shut down every night: Celebration, Florida.

In this Nice Try! bonus episode, taped live at the 92Y on August 6, host Avery Trufelman and New York Times writer Caity Weaver dive into Disney’s utopian design forays, from Epcot—an acronym for the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”—to Celebration, Florida.

In 1984 Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company and ushered in an architectural golden age for the business, commissioning work from the most famous practitioners of the era: Michael Graves, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Arata Isozaki, César Pelli, Charles Moore, Philip Johnson. It was all a strategy to impress people from the film, television, music, and art worlds and help the company regain competitiveness in its film production business, which suffered in the 1970s.

One of Eisner’s ideas included revisiting Walt Disney’s ideas for Epcot. Today we recognize the theme park by its impressive geodesic sphere, but it actually began as an idea for a model city of 20,000 residents that would be updated continuously with the newest and most exciting technology, according to the newest planning philosophies. When Disney died in 1966, the company decided it couldn’t maintain a fully functioning city, so the idea was tabled. Eisner’s 1990s resuscitation of the ideal community wasn’t about replicating Epcot’s focus on the future of technology—but it was centered on the same utopian idea that the right houses, right streets, and right transportation could lead to a better life.

Eisner hired Robert A.M. Stern and Jacquelin Robertson to design a master plan for the community, which was based on New Urbanism, a design movement that believed in human-scale neighborhoods, streets that support multimodal transportation, homes within a brief walk from shops, ample public space, and the power of placemaking, or creating attractive public spaces through artwork and landscaping. It’s rooted in traditional town planning and rebukes 1950s-style suburban sprawl and all its isolation, car dependency, and homogeneity. In 1994, Disney broke ground on the town—which cost an estimated $2.5 billion to develop—and in 1996, the first residents moved in.

A colorful street corner in shades of peach, pink and teal against a bright blue sky. Palm trees line the clean street. Photo. Shutterstock

“There once was a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight,” the original sales brochure for Celebration read. “Where children chased fireflies. And porch swings provided easy refuge from the cares of the day. The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery store delivered. And there was one teacher who always knew you had that special something. Remember that place?”

If Celebration’s brochure reads like a screenplay, the town itself is like a Hollywood set. The new houses are done up in old architectural styles—cherry-picked from places like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans—and painted in pastel colors mandated by Disney. The streets are lined with palm trees and the manhole covers are stamped with the town’s logo, designed by branding guru Michael Bierut of Pentagram. There’s a movie theater designed by Cesar Pelli, a bank by Venturi Scott Brown, a town hall by Philip Johnson, and a medical center by Charles Moore.

Celebration was instantly popular: 5,000 people entered Disney’s lottery for the first 475 houses in 1995. Reception has been mixed, as all that planned perfection reads as artificial—Sweet & Low’s chemical saccharine to the real sweetness of sugar. It’s the uncanny valley of small-town idealism, and is about as authentic as the fake snow made from shaving cream that falls every hour on the hour in Celebration’s town square.

Slate’s architecture critic, Witold Rybczynski, wrote, “While Celebration was artfully designed to return to small-town values, it has suffered the fate of many attractive small towns, such as Aspen or Nantucket: Its downtown has become a tourist destination.” Gizmodo called it “The Town America Just Couldn’t Trust.” A Guardian writer compared it to The Truman Show.

Aesthetic assessments aside, the cultural diversity Disney originally wanted never came to be. The town is mostly white, even after Disney advertised in newspapers that catered to African Americans and Hispanics. Median household income in Celebration is about $75,000, compared to just $39,000 in the county it’s in. And then there are the issues with the quality of the buildings themselves: In 2016, Celebration’s residents sued Lexin Capital—the private equity firm that bought the town from Disney in 2004—for shoddy construction and mold infestation. What good is living in a Disney bubble if the roof leaks?

Listen to the complete first season of Nice Try! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app.