Celebration and Downtown Disney

Click here to launch a slide show on Day 4: Celebration and Downtown Disney.

I’ve spent three straight days inside the Disney World fortress. The incessant magicalness is starting to wear on me. I’m feeling a need to escape Big Rodent’s clutchy claws. At the same time, I don’t want to risk too much corruption from outside influences. I’d rather not stray too far—geographically or spiritually. The perfect compromise: a visit to Celebration.

This insta-town was conceived by Disney, built on Disney-owned land, and initially managed by Disney executives (though the company has shed much of its involvement over time). And it’s only a few miles from my hotel. I make the short drive, park my car downtown, and hop out for a look.

I’ve long been a fan of planned communities. I once lobbied my editor at Newsweek to let me write a story about Co-op City—those ugly brick apartment towers in the Bronx, N.Y., next to I-95. My resulting (very short) article included a quote terming Co-op City’s architecture “a disgrace to humanity.” The piece also noted that Co-op City had been constructed on the rubble of an abandoned theme park. The park was called Freedomland, and it was the creation of a former Walt Disney associate.

Celebration, though it wasn’t built until the 1990s, was in some ways the creation of Walt himself. Walt’s original plan for his Florida swampland was to create a brand-new living town—the true Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Celebration is the belated (and mangled) realization of that dream.

Walt had envisioned a high-tech, sci-fi city, in appearance not unlike Epcot’s Future World area (monorails whizzing by and whatnot). That’s not how things turned out. Celebration is instead backward looking, with neotraditional, faux-prewar houses. Its old-timey, Norman Rockwell vibe is less Future World and more Main Street U.S.A.

Celebration’s planners were proponents of New Urbanism (in itself a somewhat nostalgic credo, what with its emphasis on marginalizing the automobile). The town’s layout is pedestrian-friendly, the retail and restaurant district is a short stroll from many houses, and all the car garages are hidden in rear alleys not visible from the street. Sure enough, within moments of my arrival, I find myself smack in the middle of a New Urbanist/Rockwellian moment: children walking home from school together as a friendly crossing guard holds up his stop sign.

The thing is, I can’t help but wonder if these kids might be animatronic. Everything looks waaaaay too perfect. The town famously has a strict rulebook legislating things such as yard upkeep, what color your curtains can be, and what kind of furniture (if any) you can put on your porch. This results in a place so scrubbed of individuality that the houses seem to resent their human residents.

All the streets here have the same power-washed gleam as the streets in the Disney theme parks. The neighborhoods have the same built-all-at-once aesthetic. I actually like some of the downtown buildings designed by shnazzy architects. (Favorites include the toylike post office by Michael Graves and the retro cinema by Cesar Pelli—though I feel Philip Johnson’s town hall with its forest of pillars is a facile, unfunny joke.) But having spent the last few days surrounded by maddeningly perfect Disney habitats, I’m now getting the sinking sense that I haven’t escaped the Mouse at all.

Celebration forces upon you the same seamless, manufactured experience you get when you walk through the “villages” of Harambe and Anandapur. The inhabitants of Celebration are essentially living inside a theme park. (We might call it Suburb Land.) Each night when the park shuts down, they’re still inside the gates.

In the evening, I decide to check out Downtown Disney, back inside the fortress. It’s basically a very high-end strip mall—with a Planet Hollywood instead of an Applebee’s, and a Virgin Megastore instead of a Hot Topic. I grab dinner at Bongos Cuban Café (celebrity owner: Gloria Estefan) and then stroll over to Pleasure Island as it gets dark. [Update, Feb. 3, 2010: Slate is republishing this article, unedited and in its entirety from 2008. Disney closed Pleasure Island late in 2008.]

Pleasure Island is where adults on vacation at Disney go at night to escape their children. Also here: businesspeople stuck in Orlando for conferences and locals who treat this as their regular hangout. (Pleasure Island doesn’t require a Disney Pass.) There’s a club for every taste, from the disco lounge (8-Trax) to the hip-hop spot (BET Soundstage) to the mainstream, top-40 dancehall (Motion).

A single cover charge gets you in to all the clubs, all night. So people bounce back and forth among the venues. This creates the sort of nightlife melting pot that you rarely, if ever, find in the real world. Because it’s Disney, and we all feel safe and emboldened, no one’s afraid to venture into what might be perceived as alien territory.

Nerdy white people stride confidently into the “black” club. Older couples wade onto dance floors packed with whippersnappers. Gay dudes sashay through the redneck-y rock club. (When I say that, I’m not trying to play on a stereotype. I literally watched three gay men prance about and do ballet jumps while the house band played Lynyrd Skynyrd. These guys were egging each other on, trying to get a rise out of the crowd, but none of the lumpy heteros seemed to pay any mind.)

I find the whole scene oddly hopeful—at first. If people can all get along together here, maybe we can bring that tolerance back home with us. As the night wears on, though, different groups begin to self-segregate.

Early in the evening, for instance, I had a drink at a club called Mannequins. It had a mixed crowd: moms and dads in dorky khakis, some college-age kids getting blitzed, and one pair of gay guys dancing up a storm under the disco ball. I was heartened by the diversity. But it didn’t last.

When I popped back a few hours later, I ordered a drink and scanned the room again. It appeared the demographics had undergone a radical shift. Now there were 150 men positively swarming the rotating dance floor. They were accompanied by about three women. And I couldn’t help but notice that these men, as a group, seemed extraordinarily handsome, trim, and well-dressed.

Ohhhhhhhhhh. I suppose that name should have been a clue, now that I think about it.

Anyway, it’s all good in the Disney ‘hood. When we envision a “magic kingdom,” we, each of us, have our own ideas.