6 Bizarre Realities Of Life In A Town Owned By Disney
So-called "gated" communities have been around ever since cavemen realized they had more rocks than other cavemen, and decided to live in fear and seclusion rather than risk sharing them. Now, not only have we added actual gates to our isolated communities, we've added stupid novelty themes! Welcome to Celebration, Florida -- a city that Disney designed and created from scratch to be an ideal utopia. As you can probably imagine, "Florida" and "utopia" go together like orange juice and toothpaste. We sat down with some former residents of Celebration to find out what a small, unsettling world it is, after all.
Celebration Is So Perfect, It's Creepy
Celebration was designed to be the perfect city to live in. Its proximity to Disney World, while still being tucked away from Orlando traffic, was a huge boon for folks who worked at the park in various capacities. And at least from an aesthetic standpoint, it sure looks nice. Surely that couldn't turn against you, right?
"Have you ever had a neighbor who had to have everything just right?" asked Sydney, a former Celebration resident. "Like they would tell you when to take down Christmas decorations, or tell you to trim your shrubs? Celebration is like that."
We really have to hammer home the point that aesthetics were everything to the folks behind Celebration. For example, there's a city ordinance banning franchises like McDonald's and billboard advertisements. That might seem like a cool idea in theory (and was definitely a major selling point for some folks moving there), but Sydney remembers that freaking some people out.
"I know several adults who looked around and decided not to buy," she remembered. "A Cuban immigrant who loved Disney was originally going to buy a house right next to ours, but on the day he came to check the city out he said no. He said everything being blank and sterile reminded him more of Cuba than a small town."
That "small-town" feel was important to the designers of Celebration, but the residents are all too aware of how over-the-top it is. As Sydney told us, "Celebration tried too hard ... it was artificial. Everyone was paying to be kept away from other cities." Another former Celebration resident, Charlie, explained that there's even a term for it -- "being in the bubble."
"My aunt recalled how she was an "insider" of "The Bubble" for years," he remembered. "But how once you leave their bubble you are out. It's a very strange place in that way. People whom she thought were her friends, and went to her wedding, do not talk to her any longer because she left "The Bubble" and, yes, they really do call it that.
"The longer you stay, the more you realize Walt Disney would most likely not approve of the reality of what the town is now, compared to the Disney dream, and magical feeling I believe it used to possess."
Or perhaps he would -- Walt had a bit of that "Mr. Rogers, but with Steve Buscemi's eyes" vibe, himself.
Non-Disney Offenders Shall Not Be Tolerated
Sydney had a surprising statement to make, for somebody living in Disney World town:
"I have never gone to Disney World."
"At my middle school, this shocked everyone," she remembered. "My parents held the ground of 'it's only an amusement park.' It didn't make sense to them. It got to the point that [members of the community] offered to get me in for free, but I really didn't want to go inside. It reached the point that I got scared to go in. It was too much pressure, and by then, I kinda liked being the only kid in the entire school not to step foot in there."
"When I was introduced, it would be, 'And this is Sydney. She's never gone to Disney World,'" she continued. "It's that big a deal there, because everyone either works there, or knows someone who works there, and not even going to the biggest moneymaker in the area was that much of an identifier. It singled you out. There is such a thing as Not-Going-To-Disney-World shunning."
"It happens at the adult level, too," Charlie added. "You live in Celebration because you love Disney. If you told someone you never went, they wouldn't believe you. I remember getting coffee and the cashier offering a coupon to the person in front of us for inside the park. He refused and told her he 'never had gone inside' so he didn't need it. Everyone, including me, looked right at him. He paid and left, and I asked the cashier if he really said that and she said, 'Yeah! How could he have never gone to Disney World?' It's frankly a surprising thing to say."
Then, of course, everybody pointed at the man and shrieked until the authorities could detain and 're-educate' him.
Imagine An HOA, Run By Big Brother
Homeowners Associations are notoriously annoying. Now imagine your HOA is run by a company that thinks enormous cartoon topiaries are normal, and you've got a rough idea of how aggravating it must be to live in Celebration.
"I was walking down Front Street with my family when someone in front of us tore open a pack of cigarettes and let the plastic covering flutter down," remembered Sydney. "He walked ahead maybe five steps when he saw two men in uniform ahead, and he ran back to get it because he didn't want to be punished with a litter fine. Another time my Dad was one day late in taking down our Christmas decorations and he was fined. We had a perfectly valid reason too. Our flight had been delayed coming back from Christmas vacation. But it didn't matter."
Celebration gets so bogged down by complaints and negative press over their crazy strict laws that they dedicate a part of their website just to reassuring people that the rules aren't that restrictive, despite that being, well, a complete lie. You don't get to make a 166-page community charter, and then claim that all the rules are used "to make life more pleasant for everyone." There are literal fascist dictatorships that would balk at that booklet.
The problem is that a lot of residents have a vested interest in keeping things this way. Even though Disney sold off Celebration back in 2004, a whole hell of a lot of residents still work for them in some capacity, and have a compulsive desire to keep things all Disney-fied. Further complicating it is the fact that only landowners in Celebration have the right to vote on things in Celebration, and that ensures that only the wealthiest (i.e. top-level Disney employees) can enact change.
This results in some creepy laws getting passed. In addition to "normal" HOA nonsense, like having to ask permission to make changes to your lawn, you have to get a government ID which grants you various privileges based on the number of -- we're not making this up -- heartbeats per bedroom in your household.
That's so creepily authoritarian that right now there's a spunky young girl gearing up to take down their regime, with the help of her quirky best friend and two boys that she can't decide between.
Celebration Is Forced 1950s Americana
Sydney hasn't lived in Celebration since they sold to Lexin Capital, but very little has changed there from when she grew up. She grew up in a safe neighborhood, the way all kids deserve to grow up, and later her family moved to a new town.
"I knew there weren't going to be any [homeless people] there because, at the time, I equated cities that looked like suburbs with [safety]," recalled Sydney. "We had moved from a neighborhood where there were factory workers and people who owned stores. Everyone had money."
It doesn't take too many realty videos to get an idea of how much money you don't have.
Everyone in Celebration wanted to live there because it was this idealistic world where old people could "leave their doors unlocked, like when they were kids." According to Sydney, at one point, townspeople petitioned to get an actual milkman who would deliver milk bottles to their front doors. We won't bore you with numbers, but by nature of its location and the nearly-six-figure median income, Celebration made it impossible for homeless people to even walk around town. As you might expect, this has also led to a racial demographic of upwards of 90 percent white people.
This makes the "over the tracks" town of Kissimmee look like Detroit in comparison. According to Alyssa, Kissimmee is where the "cheap and shady motels, gift shops, illegal ticket sellers (yes, that's a thing) and some restaurants" are. To use a dumb Disney Parks analogy, living in Celebration is like staying at the Grand Floridian, and Kissimmee is the Hilton across the street from the parks. There's nothing wrong with Kissimmee, it's just off-brand, and that's a big no-no to the folks in Celebration.
Leaving Celebration Forces You To Adapt To Modernity
"Both of my parents were getting annoyed with the area," Sydney said, though she noted that there was a good and bad side to this. "I really disliked Celebration, but it also really made me like small towns. It was a fake-looking small town, to be sure, but having everything revolve around the square, walking everywhere ... It's what a lot of people envision a town to be like."
Everyday tasks in the real world required adapting in some seemingly dumb ways. For example: Thinking you can walk everywhere, no matter how your new town is arranged.
"I got in trouble for walking to school," Sydney remembered. "I got a detention for it because students were either supposed to be dropped off or bused. I was so used to walking in Celebration, and the path to the school actually had crosswalks for once, so I thought this was OK. Third day of school the school secretary asked me what bus number I was and I told her I didn't know, that I walked. She freaked out, dragged me by the arm into the principal's office, and called my parents. My mom and dad actually laughed at her when she told them why I was in trouble."
Celebration is an experiment in tranquility, but it's not reflective of the real world. That means that when bad things happen -- when the city gets hit by the housing bubble bust, or when people get murdered (remember, this is still Florida) -- people are wholly unprepared. There's no such thing as perfect safety, is what we're saying here.
Celebration Isn't The Only Weird-Ass Disney City
That sale in 2004 actually opened the door for change in Celebration -- the chance to start becoming its own city. For example: There are now some bars, and other things open past 5 p.m.! But Celebration wasn't the only Disney City.
While Celebration targets the upper-middle class of the area, and sits outside Disney World, Golden Oak is actually inside the park area, and property prices are in the seven-figure range. They still have insane rules of their own, like "rounded gutters only, no square gutters," and "needs to have several hidden Mickeys on site." If you want to live like that, Be Our Guest. Get it? That's a Disney joke about volunteering to live under lightweight tyranny.
One of our sources, Lisa, went to a party in Golden Oak once and told us all about it.
"The host, a lady my mom knew, kept showing off where Mickey was inside her house, and telling us 'Oh look, there's Charming Park!'" she remembered. "Someone at the party could care less, and he was all but abandoned by everyone else the rest of the night ... If you aren't into it, you're cut out. Only people who love [Disney] move here, so if you don't, you're out ... I'm OK with Disney, but even I was creeped out after a bit. She had a Mickey everything. It's rich Disney-fan City."
And there are even more of these corporate-owned towns out there, and they're somehow more secretive, too -- so much so that Sydney, Alyssa, and other sources we talked to had only ever heard of them, and knew very little firsthand. From what we could gather, these aren't elite, rich enclaves: Just a few trailer park-style towns filled with a couple dozen people each, who don't pay a lot to live there. The reason it's so cheap? Residents are expected to vote in line with Disney's interests when it comes to ordinances that might affect Disney property.
A single family, the Palfreymans, actually make up 40 percent of one town's population, and they're enticed to vote Disney's way. As one Disney researcher put it, "If they didn't vote Disney's way regularly, you can be sure they wouldn't be Disney employees, or living on Disney property, much longer."
It's certainly not 1930s Germany, but if the Nazis ever need help marketing a lite version, maybe they should pick up the Mickey Phone.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview finder for the personal experience team at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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