MENSIONAL LIVING

The late Walt Disney created many enchanted worlds in his films, but what he really wanted was to impose his vision on real life. Now his dream has come true. The tittering has already started. But is there more to Celebration City than meets the eye?
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The Independent Culture
FIFTY YEARS ago, when Walt Disney bought up 40 square miles of central Florida, people thought he was insane. Forty square miles of flat, dull swampland, with nothing but trees, cattle and sunshine. For Walt, that was the point. If there's nothing there to begin with, you can replace it with... well, whatever you like. And that's what he did: today that swamp is covered by the Magic Kingdom, at its heart the Walt Disney World theme park and its concomitant hotels. Amid the fantasy factories, however, there are other, perhaps stranger, manifestations of the Disney dream which reveal another side to the cute cartoonist: that of zealous social reformer.

Today, on Highway 4, which runs flat and straight past the Kingdom from Tampa to Orlando, there's a dogged file of trailers, searching for a permanent resting place, a place to call home. Florida is full of these humble, questing larvae, displaced by urban chaos and expensive grandchildren. If only they'd pull over, I could lead them to Celebration City, the latest addition to the Magic Kingdom and the flowering of Walt Disney's lifelong plan to translate the magic he conjured on screen, made three- dimensional in Disneyland, into a permanent, live-in community. Walt's grand design of planned wholesomeness may sound absurd - sinister, even. Yet, seen from modern America, the idea of rethinking community - from street width to school texts - may seem like the only hope for a happy life.

CELEBRATION CITY officially opens on 4 July. It is still mostly unbuilt, but already it's a wild success: more than 70,000 people have trooped through its Preview Center since it opened on 18 November last year, Mickey Mouse's "birthday".

On the periphery of the 4,900-acre site, like moneylenders hugging the temple, are the low-rent outsiders: a Howard Johnsons, a House of Pancakes, a 7-11; down the road, factory discount outlets. Here outside also are all the agencies that service those to whom fate has dealt a short hand - the social services, the emergency wards, the repo man... none of those are wanted in Celebration.

Celebration is a high-toned operation, a place of world-class architecture, interactive fountains, scenic bike paths and ecological consciousness. The architectural style and the communal features exude a small-town Never- never land. There's a boating lake, a golf course, an open-air concert bowl and tracks for running and walking. Pavements, sacrificed to cars in many American towns, are wide enough for people to pass, with shade trees and places to sit and rest. There was going to be a treehouse in the woods, but it had to be abandoned because of what are coyly known as "liability issues". Eventually the town will house 20,000 people in 8,000 homes, from one-bedroom apartments to luxury villas.

Most of them are as yet only realised in the architects' models in the Preview Center, a series of billboards, artfully done up to look like a cottage, ringed with a plastic picket fence. Inside it's a Portakabin artfully done up to look unfinished. A video monitor, surrounded by a fake gilt picture frame hiding its controls, is playing a Celebration infomercial, which includes fake home movies recounting fake memories. The place it describes is a very idyll: "Secret forts and hopscotch on the streets... a life as comfortable as a pair of worn-out jeans... where playtime doesn't end till mom calls you in... bake-sales, lollipops and fireflies in a jar."

The message is delivered in a classic Disney hook-line: "Imagine living 50 years ago with all the neat gear you have today!" Fifty years ago, depending on who you were, you might have been a war cripple, a war widow, a migrant worker or a polio victim; but of course this is not at all what is meant.

THE PLANNED community is not a new idea to the US or the world. Nor, indeed, is it new to the Disney Corpo-ration. When he bought his slice of Florida in 1964, Walt was most interested in his project for the plot next to the theme park. EPCOT, or Experi-mental Prototypical Community Of Tomorrow, was to be a full-time, permanent home for a select group of human subjects. His vision was of infinite progress through technology. The residents were to be guineapigs in a constantly unfolding series of experimental programmes in living arrangements, political structures and engineering miracles. ("These homes will be built in such a way as to permit ease of change, so that new products may be continuously demon- strated," promised the promotional material.) Tidiness was paramount, not just tidy living but tidy thinking; everything sorted and separated like buttons in a box. Perhaps not surprisingly, life as Walt's lab rats did not prove to have wide appeal, and today EPCOT is just another theme park: a baffling quilt of World's Fair pavilions with polyglot shopping and eating opportunities. But, 30 years after Walt's death, in an America where rap musicians are the clear-eyed realists, a Utopian community no longer seems like such a bad or naive idea for prospective home-owners. In the last decade, grime, crime and fear have precipitated a new exodus from American cities. All over the West and South, in Arizona, California, Nevada and Texas, people are holing up in pink stockades of fake adobe, huddled forts of identical houses ringed by electric fences to keep out invaders and keep in - what? The expensive ones at least have private amenities, four-car garages and brick-built poolside barbecues; the starter homes for nervous young families offer little more than walls, electrical sockets, and a dismal trail to the strip mall by the highway. In these ghettos, drugs and alienation are becoming as rife as anywhere else; the difference is that the kids are mostly white and the parents, leaving at 6am and returning late at night from their three-hour commute to work, aren't actually around to witness their children's delinquency.

It appears that physical fabric alone, however exalted, does not necessarily make people feel better. What does? Disney! After all, it's already built the "Happiest Place on Earth". The Walt Disney Attractions Corporation is pre-eminent in the world at controlling how people feel and behave by controlling their environment. That's why Disneyland has no forks in the paths (forks can lead to arguments and crying children), and why walking down Main Street you reach the end sooner than you expect to, thanks to a little trick called false perspective. Walt Disney conceived of Disneyland as a kind of re-edited and heightened reality, which did to three-dimensional immersive space-time what his movies did to life - cut out the boring and unpleasant bits to make the whole thing more exciting and fun. To the extent that the company can translate these principles to a real town full of real people, that's just what the Disney Corp- oration planners of Celebration want to do for its residents, 24 hours a day.

BOB SHINN, Disney's organisation and research senior vice president, is here at Celebration to tell me how the town has moved on from those earlier, more primitive visions of estate living. He is wearing a tie with golfers all over it. Golf seems to be big in Celebration. Bob describes how the golf course will have three lengths of tee, rather like the porridge bowls and chairs Goldilocks found, so that families can play together without boring the adults or frustrating the kiddies. But the golf course is also politically significant; there will not, as elsewhere, be houses actually around its edge, keeping access from less privileged residents. And some of the houses near the golf course - not many, it has to be said - will be quite small.

Bob is at pains to point out to me this departure from convention, to emphasise that his organisation has done its homework. They have gone into the literature of urban planning and discovered that there seem to be rules, like the one about the forked paths, which, when properly applied, conduce to happy citizens. Accor-dingly, Celebration proposes to bring back small, medium and big houses on the same streets. This idea, radical in the literature of planned communities, would not be such a surprise to denizens of London's Notting Hill, New York's Tribeca, or any other mixed-income urban neighbourhood commonly described as "vibrant". Where these mixed, higgledy neighbourhoods also contain a range of income levels - in Santa Monica, California, for instance, where my friendly local corner store is also the hang for all the friendly local drunks, and where the homeless people snooze in the park opposite the posh restaurants - the inhabitants understand, willy nilly, that there are all kinds of people in the world. We also have plenty of opportunities to observe the way strangers and near-strangers deal with each other, when they step in to offer help or prevent a fight - and to learn that these are also the responsibilities of adult citizens.

But the planned community of today, though accepting the theory of mixed communities, is still not quite ready to throw open its doors to happy drunks; to wait and see what develops spontaneously. In Celebra-tion, for all the talk of diversity and the choice of house-size, it sometimes seems that the nearest the planners actually get to this social mix is a bit of exterior trim. Dave Pace and Joe Barnes, respectively a former tax consultant and a refugee from New York architectural practice, are running the housing programme. They're also both planning to live there. Short-haired, chunky and dapper in standard Disney style, they exude none of the aesthetic elitism and glimmering megalomania the profession often engenders. They also seem to be coping well with the stress of their customers' demands. "For many of them, this will be their dream home - and maybe the last home they will build. They come to us with expectations of a Disney-type experience and, frankly, house-building isn't usually like that."

In its mission to surpass reality, Disney exacts prices, both literal and otherwise, somewhat higher than the local norm. (Houses sell for anything from about $160,000 to more than $1 million.) It also imposes rules - Houses come only in variants of six basic styles: Classical, Victorian, Colo- nial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean and French. The permissible architectural combinations are dealt with exhaustively in a "pattern book", whose rules, as Joe and Dave proudly point out, are based on the purest Palladian traditions.

It's assumed that most owner-builders will want to distinguish their houses from next door, but in case by some fluke everybody on one block wants the same style of house, there's a rule against it. Conversely, there are rules to prevent too much diversity. Curtains in windows visible from the front must be white or off-white. Landscaping has to be appropriate not just to the local climate but to the style of the house - no palm trees in front of French-style houses. No palms in any front yard, in fact - this is the South, they point out severely, not the Tropics. Anything, in fact, in the front gardens or the visible parts of houses has to be approved by Disney. No cars on the street; garages and driveways behind. No boats or dismantling or rebuilding of cars on view - if people must do messy white-trash things like maintaining their own vehicles, they must do it inside the garage, with the door closed. As Joe explains: "When you build a house here, you're not building an individual home, you're building part of the community." Which translates as: lowering the tone lowers property values for everybody.

SO PUBLIC life of the kind that spontaneously develops when people are allowed to have paddling-pools on their front lawns and half-built sports cars in their open garages is not what Celebration is after. The strategy here is forcibly to generate community by eradicating private space. Only the inside of the house itself is sacrosanct - and any small patch of back garden that can be squeezed between the house and the garage. But privacy is to be reborn in a digital form. Marooned inside, behind their off-white blinds, the people of Celebration can sneak past the nosey neighbours down the Information Highway. A firehose bandwidth of fibre links every home to the Net, offering a quaintly familiar-sounding list of futuramas: home security linking each resident to a central monitoring point, interactive banking, voting from home, virtual office, easy access to each other.

Of course, the easy access that communities traditionally provide is over the garden fence and not down the wire; but this doesn't trouble DeEtte Abeyta, a homemaker who, with her husband Mike and 11-year-old son, is planning to move to Celebration. She thinks the Internet technology sounds wonderful. "We're real excited about moving here," she said. "They were saying that with every- body being on the Internet you could watch your child on TV in the school play even if you couldn't be there."

The school is proving one of the most powerful magnets to this mouse- made community. Such is the panic among middle-class families about getting a decent education - any education - out of the public school system elsewhere, that a high proportion of prospective residents - including DeEtte - cite this as a major reason for their move. Bad luck, however, to anybody hoping for a return to anything they'll recognise from their schooldays when hopscotch-players ruled the playground. The curriculum of the school is based on "values-based learning". Nobody seems quite clear what this is, but it seems to translate as getting as far as possible from boring old rules and information, and into a world of computer-mediated, "follow- your-joy" learning. Even maths anxiety, now a certifiable medical condition, is soothed with ethereal Nineties' nonsense: "We didn't want to teach algebra as a separate subject; algebra can be embedded in a deeper experience." (Rage, or horror, perhaps?) Each "education neighbourhood" will have 100 dataports, so that the children can log on from wherever they are. It will also have a "hearth". In this world where symbolism hangs in the air like smog, a hearth is not a hearth, but a gathering-place for the children to tell stories and - once again - reaffirm their community.

COMMUNITY, a word which is rapidly being debased to the level of "experience" and "natural" in popular American argot, is very big in Celebration. Charles Adams is vice-president of community development. He's energetic and enthusiastic, and palpably a true, not a bumper-sticker idealist. "We understand that houses and bike paths only go so far. This community has to be values- driven."

This sounds as admirable as sugar-free apple pie. But how do you know what people's values are? You can't exactly invite them over for brunch and bolt the door till they fill in a questionnaire. Yet shared values finally are what separate a community from a housing estate. How exactly will an instant community, populated by mutual strangers, arrive at its peaceful consensus? Disney history yields a solution. The twin to Walt's pillar of faith in technology was the power of education, albeit fashioned to hide the bitter pill under a mighty dollop of jam. Education can take many forms, and Celebration's attitude appears to be that modern American adults need an urgent injection of education in how to live together. The solution they've come up with is "brainwriting". Brainwriting is the social glue that will stick the physical fabric of Celebration together.

In its practicalities it's simple. A group of people sit down at separate workstations networked together, and what they all write individually ends up on the same screen. It's digital brainstorming, and all the adults of Celebration will be "invited" to participate in it. "We wouldn't force anybody into it, of course," says Charles Adams, "But we do feel it would be very helpful to the community, so we'll be offering it several times a year as people arrive here, and to reaffirm the values on a yearly basis after that."

At the end of each brainwriting session, what the residents have consensually decided will be written up and become part of the official literature of Celebration. So far, so innocent. But the planner's mind couldn't leave it at that. Rather than allow the residents to meander unguided to a mutual understanding, the Disney organisation decided to kickstart the deliberations by bringing together, in turn, representatives of the various groups and institutions which help form the community of Celebration. On the list of these institutions, in the internal planning documents for brainwriting, are the school, the library, the health centre - and Disney University, or DU. DU is the institution on the model of Ray Kroc's Hamburger U for McDonald's employees, where all new hires to any Disney operation are sent to get "pixie-dusted" (their term) with the core values of the corporation. Courses with names like "Disney Traditions" or "The Stuff Americans Are Made Of" teach Disney people not merely to wear their hair short or avoid pierced noses and ears, but also transfer to them "the dreams and ambitions of Walt Disney". The wholesome results of the DU training are visible in the scrubbed and smiling face of every Disneyland employee.

With DU's participation in the brainwriting sessions, the "values" of Celebration won't just emerge from what its residents decide together. They will be infused with Disney ideology from the fountainhead itself. In fact, Celebration could become the perfect Disney incubator, and DU the perfect guiding hand on the formless mass of Celebration's soul: as Celebration's children learn from DU, so Disney will grow its future in Celebration.

Back in 1966, in the promotional film for his first planned community, Walt Disney had no hesitation in declaring an ambition to seed the planet from this example. "In other parts of the country, a city the size of this prototype could become part of an entire complex of many such communities," he said. "With your cooperation I am sure that EPCOT can influence the future of city living for generations to come." Like the atom, EPCOT could split and replicate as fast as science and business could fuel it.

Today, the Disney Corporation wouldn't dare repeat such expansionist dreams; its official line is that Celebration is a one-off. The talk is all of "replicability", Celebration as an experiment which others can emulate if they choose. But with values guided by Disney University's expertise and hardwired into every home, it's easy to believe that this first prototype will clone itself across the country, wherever people with the money and the means, the bright kids and the functioning bodies, are clamouring to get away from all those other people who just seem to spell trouble.

Make no mistake, most of America is seriously in need of some kind of magic, and Disney's vision of community, though easy to mock, is arguably a great deal better than no vision at all. What his successors are offering - so far, to the self-selected few - may well be an earthly paradise compared with their alternatives. For the confident, unstoppable executives, evolution itself can be planned, if it's the right kind of planning. It'll probably work just fine, with a little false perspective. !

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