All a bit Mickey Mouse?

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The Disney Corporation began experimenting in urban planning years ago, resulting in the establishment of its new utopian community, Celebration, in central Florida in 1994. It was supposedly a return to small town values, a safer and less anonymous alternative to the modern American suburbia, with the obvious connections to the family oriented Disney franchise itself.

Reading about this place, it is hard to separate it from the idea of the Disney theme parks themselves, or the image of the old animated films with the immaculate lawns and picke -fences. Doug Frantz, American journalist and co-author of the book Celebration USA, explains that it was to hark back to the dreamy pre-World War Two years of close knit communities: a return to the days when “everything would be within walking distance”, in contrast to the “horrors of car-dominated suburbs” of today.

It’s perfection to some degree, but seems so controlled and artificial. During autumn fake leaves are sprayed from lamp-posts and in the winter suds are spread to replicate snow, while Christmas music plays from the pavements. It feels so cartoony and yet intriguing, like going to Magic Kingdom for the first time. But once you’ve been there a day, you don’t imagine living there forever. Or do you?

“When people come here they tend to think it’s an unticketed gate at Disneyworld,” says Frantz. “Well it’s not, this is a real town with real people.”

But developers seem to be forcing this way of life on these real people, when back in the past it happened naturally. How can they live the old American dream when they’re being controlled so closely? Residents must sign a document agreeing to a list of strict rules if they are to live there. Only the “right kinds of plants” are allowed in the garden, for example, and there can be “no two houses the same colour next door to each other”.

Albert Camus once said: “Utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality”, and that seems all too relevant after the murder of resident Matteo Giovanditto in early December, which was followed by an unrelated shoot-out between a man and the local police. The perfection of this place seems to have been hit with a reality check. The developers couldn’t manufacture human nature.

It could be argued that this is being blown a little out of proportion. Yes it all seems a bit too restrained and like living as one of Truman Burbank’s neighbours, but this is the only major crime the community has faced since it opened over 10 years ago. It does appear safer than many of the other suburbs and its popularity is growing. The population has risen to over 11,000 citizens from just under 3,000 in the year 2000.

On the one hand, Disney has such a big reputation as an icon of American consumption and for such an organisation to want to experiment with how an entire community is run seems like such an easy target for naysayers. But as the naysayers would point out, it is that contradiction of trying to create an old-fashioned small town American sense of values, which were originally founded on ideals of freedom, and yet having it so heavily controlled by one organisation. And Disney is a company which seems to embody that contradiction anyway.

Is it all just a bit too 1984? How can you live a real life in a place that’s so largely manufactured and lacking in a proper local electoral system? Many people who’ve visited have said it’s like stepping onto the set of The Stepford Wives. Professor Bruce Stevenson poses the question: “do you want a corporation, rather than a city council making your decisions? My answer is no.” But as for whether or not Prof Stevenson represents the views of the rest of society in our increasingly fearsome world of climate change and terrorism, remains to be seen. For some people escaping from reality into a Disney movie no longer cuts it: escaping from reality into a Disney world may hold more attraction.

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