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What is Celebration: The history of a community developed by Disney

Not a town, not a city: Celebration is a community founded in 1996

A rendering of Celebration.
A rendering of Celebration. (WKMG 2019)

Celebration, Florida is an experiment in community planning called “New Urbanism.” It was often called “Disney’s Town of Celebration” in its early days but it’s not actually a town and it’s no longer owned by the Walt Disney Company.

The census-designated place of Celebration in Osceola County backs up to the Walt Disney World Resort situated to the north of the community.

Despite some similarities with Walt Disney’s vision of a Utopian city he called E.P.C.O.T., Celebration was dreamed up as Walt Disney World, Walt Disney Imagineering and The Disney Development Company took a good look at the roughly 27,000 acres in Osceola and Orange counties Walt and his team secretly purchased in the late 1960s.

By the late ’80s and into the ’90s, Walt Disney World was undergoing a building boom that included the addition of numerous resort hotels, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, a nightclub district known as Pleasure Island, the Typhoon Lagoon water park and the Disney Vacation Club time-share resort business.

In developing a master plan to manage growth, executives decided the land, largely East of I-4, was not part of the resort’s growth strategy.

The roughly 4,900 acres Celebration sits on was part of Walt Disney World and controlled by Disney’s governmental arm, The Reedy Creek Improvement District until development started. It was de-annexed from Reedy Creek so as not to dilute Disney’s control of the governmental entity, but two Reedy Creek utilities provided power and telecommunications to the “town.” In keeping with Walt Disney World as a whole, about half of the land is permanent nature conservation land.

Downtown Celebration.
Downtown Celebration. (WKMG 2019)

Disney announced plans for Celebration to the public in 1991 and broke ground “founding” the town in 1994, but the architectural competition for ideas and master-planning happened in 1987. At the time, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was championing the use of high-profile “celebrity” architects across the company, reasoning that it cost roughly the same to build something memorable and creative as something bland. One of those architects, Robert A.M. Stern, developed Celebration’s master plan along with Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

Stern’s firm also developed one of the area’s crucial amenities, Celebration Health, which was part of a then-new trend toward whole-health care with a more spa-like feel. Florida Hospital --now AdventHealth-- developed, runs and has since expanded the hospital.

The community plans also promised an experimental school and state of the art infrastructure linking all homes and businesses digitally.

Crucial to Celebration was the development of “pattern books” that ensure no matter who ultimately built the homes, the community would all be unified in design favoring a “small town” feel with porches in the front and parking in the back. That uniformity also led to numerous criticisms comparing it to the too-good-to-be-true town from the movies “The Stepford Wives” and “The Truman Show.”

The idea caught on with the public enough that Disney actually held a lottery in November of 1995 to decide which families would be the first to buy plots of land and contract to build the first homes. A small preview center showed what they would look like.

According to the Celebration Foundation’s website, the first family moved in to the first village on June 18, 1996. November 12, 1996 is Celebration’s “Founders Day” -- marking the completion of the downtown, which was designed by numerous celebrity architects. Disney sold the downtown to private investors in January 2004.

Celebration was meant to be a place to live and work. An office complex facing U.S. 192, Celebration Place, was announced and built early in the process. Several Disney divisions occupy much of that office space, including the headquarters for Disney Cruise Line.

According to U.S. Census data, roughly 8,540 residents called Celebration home in 2017, with a median income of $83,228 and a median property value of $401,600.

Celebration is considered a relatively low-crime area, with its first murder occurring in 2010. There have been several high-profile lawsuits over the years, largely over building practices used in the homes and management of condos and rental properties.

There are roughly 4,300 homes and condos, six houses of worship, two public grade schools, a Montessori Academy, a branch of Stetson University, a public library, along with shops, hotels and businesses, all linked by more than 40 public parks and miles of walking trails and boardwalks.