A perfect place for paradise

<i>Celebration: life, liberty and the pursuit of property values in Disney's new town</i> by Andrew Ross (Verso, &pound;17, 340pp) | <i>Next Exit Magic Kingdom: Florida accidentally</i> by Rory MacLean (HarperCollins, &pound;14.99, 256pp)
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It must be something to do with the weather. In Florida, a passion for utopias propagates like hibiscus. Graced with a climate that fosters exotic flora, the peninsula is also punished by winds from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico that collide viciously to produce hurricanes capable of blowing entire communities into oblivion. As many have discovered, perils cohabit with splendour - as reality does with ideals.

It must be something to do with the weather. In Florida, a passion for utopias propagates like hibiscus. Graced with a climate that fosters exotic flora, the peninsula is also punished by winds from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico that collide viciously to produce hurricanes capable of blowing entire communities into oblivion. As many have discovered, perils cohabit with splendour - as reality does with ideals.

In the 16th century, one of Columbus's crew-members was stirred to action by an afflatus: somewhere under the cerulean sky, among the oleanders and palmettos, amid the cicadas and flamingos, lay an abundant city of eternal youth. It was the first of several attempts to find a Floridian wonderland. Ponce de León found only searing heat, suffocating humidity, mangrove swamps, mosquitoes, alligators, disease and hostile natives who denied the credulous visionary his everlasting life, at the same time serving notice that this beguiling land secreted unseen dangers.

For runaway slaves too, Florida seemed a sort of utopia, or at least a safe sanctuary from their captors to the north. But those who stayed on after the abolition of slavery were soon reminded that they had not reached the promised land. A poll tax designed to keep blacks away from the ballot box ensured that there was to be no "Negro government". Hooded votaries, determined to create misery for blacks, vanquished dreams of a racism-free state.

After the Civil War, Florida served as a frontier haven, its offer of free land to military veterans earning it a reputation as a "soldiers' paradise". Big business ensured that was a short-lived reputation.

Florida later functioned as a utopia for the aged, wealthy "snowbirds" from the north seeking the refuge of a retirement free of cold weather and almost free of taxes. In the early 20th century, the supposedly curative mineral springs brought sufferers of asthma and rheumatism south in pursuit of good health and relaxation. Adding to the myth of Florida as an epicurean land of plenty, Henry Flagler launched his project of an "American Riviera".

Flagler drove his East Coast Railroad deep into southern Florida, where he built luxury hotels and homes for geriatrics, as well as the bootleggers, gangsters and exiles, all of whom found sanctuary in a place that soon gained the epithet "the Sunshine State."

Designers of utopias are legion. More, Bacon, Howard, Wells, Skinner, Thoreau and many, many others were drawn to visions of a perfect society. Walt Disney seems an odd travelling companion on the same road. Yet the developer of Never-Never Land, or at least the corporation he founded, is a legitimate utopian. And what better place to pitch a Disney utopia?

Built to the south of Orlando, where Disney World had transfigured the landscape, the town of Celebration looked a sure thing. Conceived and constructed by one of the most profitable and beloved companies in history, the town was created ex nihilo as a neo-traditional model: the integrity of the past combined with the application of the present, "where Victorian dormer windows vie with Windows 98".

Disney's portentous alternative to America's sick society was inspired by the New Urban movement, which encouraged - as Andrew Ross calls it - "the restoration of civic spirit in tightly knit new traditional neighborhoods". Mixed-income housing, compact residential density, pedestrian or public transport and, above all, a strong sense of community, were to be key properties of the new town of Celebration.

The imprimatur of Disney was helpful in its early period, though the efforts of Celebration to be taken seriously as an important social development necessitated submerging all Mickey Mouse-style iconography. Similarly, any association with urban sprawl, dysfunctional families, or any of the other pathologies of modernity, were studiously avoided by the planners and citizens.

Ross took a sabbatical from his job at New York University and spent it in Celebration, trying to detect whether the "packaged good life" was actually being lived, or whether Disney's "privatopia" was a false, sanitised culture. Inside the White Vinyl Fence that girdled the town, Ross found that the fabled sense of community so dear to American life was not easily commodified.

While Celebration prided itself on its restorative virtues, citizens exhibited genuine community only when they felt their rights threatened or when they believed others to be under the cosh. Educational provision became a rallying point when the local school introduced a progressive style of teaching that residents considered at odds with the town's otherwise traditional manners.

"Far from the vices and vexations of urban life, and secure from the physical hazards of the central city, there would be no excuse for ill health," writes Ross. "Celebration had been designed to cultivate healthy people."

This demanded an element of surveillance. If the individual was to remain fit and functional, he or she needed to be available for inspection. "Surely only the deluded would move to Celebration if they were truly seeking privacy."

Ross compares the experience of Celebration with the films The Stepford Wives, in which biochemical technology allows the male residents of a small town not unlike Celebration to re-make their womenfolk as servile and acquiescent automatons, and The Truman Show, another essay in control, this time by surveillance. For me, Ross's account excited thoughts of two other movies: Pleasantville, the story of two young people who time-travel back to a 1950s small-town America in which everything appears cheerfully free of today's problems, but which has all sorts of other secrets beneath its surface; and Gattaca, the futuristic vision of a sterile world owned and governed by corporations which have decreed that physical perfection is the ideal.

Rory MacLean missed out Celebration during his zigzag tour of Florida, Next Exit Magic Kingdom, though he too found vestiges of utopias. The "pseudo-Iberian Valhalla" of Miami, a resort "nirvana", was once marketed as "a health good-life fantasy land". According to MacLean's informants, it remains a city of romancers and romantics: "Miami is the only city in the world where you can tell a lie at breakfast that will come true by the evening."

MacLean's "accidental" visit (he was originally scheduled to write a book on Germany, but changed his mind after reading an ad in the Daily Mail) is mazily narrated, telling of encounters with women with loose morals who offer casual sex (declined) and women of higher moral causes who provide soup and blankets for the homeless.

Like most travel writers, his mission is to reveal the "real" rather than the tourist version. His cover blurb describes the effort to "find the soul of the sunshine state", though, in Florida, it is the "hyper-real" presence of Disney that dominates. Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan and attracts 32 million visitors a year; the original Disneyland in California would fit into its car park.

Here MacLean dreamily convenes with Chip'n'Dale and Peter Pan and, less dreamily, a couple shagging inside Cinderella's fibreglass castle. They were ejected and banned from all places Disney. This is "utopia reduced to a trade fair", snipes MacLean.

Yet, in a town called Bristol, there is a kind of coup de foudre. Residents claim it is the original Garden of Eden. Preposterous as it sounds, MacLean confesses that his encounter made him reflect on his motives for visiting.

"At first I thought that chance brought me to Florida," he writes. "Then I saw that I've come looking for something different. It's the same instinct that brought Ponce de León, George Colby, Flagler, the invalids, even the endless ranks of retirees dreaming of extending their mortal days - the attempt to create here an ideal society as a bastion against nothingness. In an ersatz Garden of Eden, I realise that I'm hunting for the pure in a muddled world."

Ellis Cashmore's book 'The Black Culture Industry' is published by Routledge