Home Disney, Universal & Other Theme Parks Celebration, Florida: The Not-So-Perfect Town That Disney Built

Celebration, Florida: The Not-So-Perfect Town That Disney Built

by SharonKurheg

Not long ago, the Walt Disney Company announced they were going to be involved in the planning of a new residential community called Storyliving By Disney. Upon hearing about it, my first thought was, “Didn’t they learn from their last mistake of trying to build a town?”

Apparently they have, because this time they’re not planning on actually trying to build the place, which will be in Coachella, California. Instead, its Imagineers (Disneyspeak for planning/engineer type of people) will do the creative concepts, while its guest service cast members will handle things like wellness programming, entertainment and cooking classes. DMB Development will do the actual building and selling. And hopefully, it will be done better than Disney’s first (and only) town they built – Celebration, FL. It started as Walt Disney’s dream but turned out nothing like what he planned.

In October 1966 – just days before being diagnosed with lung cancer and a few weeks before his death, Walt Disney made a film touting that he called EPCOT – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Part of the 25,000 or so acres of land The Walt Disney Company had purchased, it was an introduction of his plan for a community in Central Florida where people could live, work and play.

Alas, Walt died in December 1966 and unfortunately, most of his dreams and ideas for Epcot went with him.

Although his plans for Disney World, by then named Walt Disney World to honor Walt, came to fruition when WDW opened in 1971, EPCOT was put on the back burner for a while. Of course, a theme park called EPCOT Center opened in the early 1980s, but it was nothing like Walt’s description of EPCOT; instead of being a community where people lived, it was still just a theme park with a theme of education.

But in the early 1990s, the Disney Development Company began working on a town where people could live, work and play, and that promised to have state-of-the-art everything. Located on roughly 4,900 acres in Osceola County that was annexed from the WDW property, “the community Disney built” was called Celebration.

In the early-mid 90s, information about Celebration began to be let out to the public and it sounded so perfect that many, MANY people wanted to live there. A lottery was held and the first lucky residents arrived in 1996. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this perfect, idealistic town to not be so perfect after all…

When Celebration was initially announced to the public, I was VERY interested in living there. I was a huge Disney geek at the time and was ready to spread my wings and move out of New York. The thought of living in a small town built by Disney, and right next door to WDW, was enchanting.

Celebration had a Preview Center in those early days before much of anything else had been built. It included full size, flat mock-ups of some of the house styles, guidelines about what the Home Owners Association (HOA) rules would be, etc. Although I loved the planned architectural styles, I was a little put off by the HOA rules. They just seemed to be SO VERY controlling. I distinctly remember reading about the only types and colors of curtains and blinds you could use in your house. Oh, and not only how many and what kind of trees had to be on your property (that was reasonable enough), but what type and color of mulch had to be around the base of each tree, the required diameter of the mulch, how deep it had to be, etc. The prices of the homes were also, well, crazy – as the video said, a good 20-30% higher than other, similar-sized homes in the area.

I eventually decided that living in Celebration was not for me.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Joe and I bought a house a few miles from WDW property – not in Celebration ;-). As we live in a planned community, we also have an HOA, but they’re generally reasonable.

Joe and I occasionally visit Celebration since one of our favorite restaurants in Central Florida is in their Downtown area. Coincidentally enough, right next door is a perfect example of the not-so-perfectness of Celebration, at the abandoned (and rotting) Celebration movie theater (the article about the movie theater is over 2 years old but I can assure you that it’s still sitting there, abandoned and decaying).

I worked in home health care for several years and over time, I had many patients in Celebration. So I got to visit several apartments, condos, townhomes and standalone houses over the years. Some of my patients were thrilled with where they lived, but I also heard stories about leaking roofs, mold, high prices (even today, they still run 25-30% higher than similar homes in the area) and thin walls. And as much as I loved the idea of living in Celebration way back when, it’s slowly evolved, to me, as others have said, of being something akin to The Truman Show.

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Like it or lump it, Celebration is a bona fide town and it’s still something of a tourist destination in its own right. With the town owners still wielding so much control over aesthetics, it’s still a pretty little place. So except for its strip mall near Rt. 192 that looks pretty much like any other strip mall in the country, it’s a fun place to drive around, just to look at. If you’re in town during Halloween or Christmas, it’s an especially nice location to admire the residents’ decorations.

Of course, some people who reside in Celebration adore living there and will not only sing its virtues but will defend the area, despite its problems, with their last dying breath. So as always, Your Mileage May Vary. As for me, as the old saying goes, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. 😉

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

18 comments

Mike-L July 29, 2019 - 10:47 pm

I looked at Celebration when new also. It was nice, but way overpriced. Fast forward to two years ago, I bought a house in Cypress Gardens. Came down to sign the paperwork, my father fell at the airport. We stopped at Celebration hospital. Really nice actually. Way nicer than any other hospital I’ve ever been to. But the clientele was kinda crummy. It didn’t look like the Disney crowd. It was immigrants and the scummy people you see in Poinciana. Was very glad we didn’t buy there at that point. Been to Winter Haven hospital half a dozen times since then (he died in January), and it’s not much better, so I guess you can’t judge a location by the hospital.

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Kieth Kayman July 31, 2019 - 9:41 am

You are a true humanitarian.

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Anna July 30, 2019 - 4:38 pm

Celebration is a wonderful place to live. Even though it may not be perfect, it is as close to perfect as a town can get. Do not judge it because you have never lived in our town even though you live close. It is funny how people like to comment on its imperfections but yet come to our town frequently to enjoy everything it has to offer. The residents here pay the extra cost of living so visitors like you can enjoy it and all its functions, too. It does not bother us though to pay the extra costs, because we love it and would not want to live anywhere else.

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SharonKurheg July 30, 2019 - 5:06 pm

Hi Anna and thanks for writing. I am genuinely very happy that you enjoy living in Celebration. However that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

As I said, the HOA rules had a lot of to do with why I didn’t want to live there, as did the price. So yeah, in my judgement, it’s not a place where I would personally want to live. Instead I found a house with more square footage on a 75′ x 110′ lot for 30% less than what a Celebration house would have cost, along with a HOA that cares much less about, for example, my mulch and curtains. And that is perfect for me, just as Celebration is apparently perfect for you.

So it’s all good. 🙂

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Lisa Harrison February 20, 2022 - 12:34 pm

I would love to live in celebration❤️❤️

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Joe Davison August 1, 2019 - 5:10 am

I worked there for 13 years, running the post office and was very involved in the community. The biggest misconception is about the residents. The people in the town are a much closer knit group of people than any I have seen elsewhere. When someone in town has any misfortunes people pull together to come to their neighbors aid like nowhere else. They had to live through more scrutiny from media around the world because of Disney. They weathered 2 books written about the towns beginnings in the first 3 years of existence and neither were close to accurate. The people make the town and Celebration has great people. There are problems like any town but it’s always magnified because it’s Celebration. There are enough families who have left and subsequently returned later because it is a unique place.

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Amy August 26, 2019 - 7:34 pm

What strip mall do we have in Celebration?

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Jeanne February 19, 2022 - 1:56 pm

The one just outside your gates on 192

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Lee S August 10, 2020 - 2:56 pm

Celebration is a wonderful place to live. It’s absolutely beautiful. There is a real sense of community here. There are a lot of planned communities with HOA rules. If that’s not for you, fine, but don’t criticize when those rules are what keep this town gorgeous. And it’s not the typical strip mall just outside of town. It’s beautiful and so convenient. And if this town is not perfect, it’s because we aren’t robots. We’re real people raising or families, working, and living our best lives.

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SharonKurheg August 10, 2020 - 10:59 pm

I’m glad you enjoy living there, Lee. And you are right – it is most definitely not for most people.

But that strip mall? Yeah, it’s exactly the same as any other strip mall out there. And so are the Panera, Walgreens, Five Guys, et al, down the block.

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Randy August 10, 2020 - 8:32 pm

Pretty sure that Disney bought 43000 acres, not 43.

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SharonKurheg August 10, 2020 - 10:54 pm

Would’ve been one dinky little park, if it was only 43 acres, huh? 😉

Fixed. Thanks for the heads up 😉

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Francesca Wellard August 11, 2020 - 8:49 am

We have lived here for 21 years and outside of our village in UK has been the best place we decided to live. We lived in UK, Hong Kong, New York State and in Florida. Joe was the best postal representative, new everyone, made us feel welcome. Very sad when he left. The “HOA” means we have a safe and clean town without having to deal with junk cars etc. You don’t have to live here there are many choices but we love it, the town, clubs, hospital, doctors, friends.

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Paul C February 19, 2022 - 8:00 pm

I know Franseca and I know Joe. They are incredibly nice people and the fact that I have been blessed to get to know them is what makes Celebration so special.

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Angela N February 19, 2022 - 11:15 pm

We visit celebration all the time and it is lovely. It’s beautiful, clean and the people there are always friendly. It’s not the “first and only” town Disney has built. They also built Golden Oak, which is a highly sought-after community to live in, much like Celebration still is. Also, the theater is not “abandoned and decaying.” It’s simply no longer in business, much like many other movie theaters these days.

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SharonKurheg February 19, 2022 - 11:48 pm

Hi Angela – visiting there and living there are 2 very different things. True, there are some who have pixie dust in their eyes about the place. But there are others who will tell you about the real life problems that exist because of the poor decisions that were made when the town was built.

As for Golden Oak, you’re right, people live there, but there’s no infrastructure. No supermarkets, pharmacies, houses of worship, schools, etc. It’s a different, smaller level of living and certainly not a community like Celebration is or what this Storyliving By Disney would be.

As for the AMC theater, I suggest you read the article that was from Business Insider – the link is in my post. It was written in 2018 and explains why the theater never did well, eventually closed and has gone downhill. A local non-profit is trying to get into it for its shows and such…hopefully they will do well.

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David M Wells February 20, 2022 - 6:23 am

Celebration was not Disney’s first community they were involved in creating. That community would be Weston, FL on the outskirts of Ft. Lauderdale. Weston was built by ARVIDA which Disney had a big stake in. When they celebrated the opening of Weston, Disney sent down a few parking trams, a horse drawn calliope and Mickey Mouse.

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Francesca W. February 20, 2022 - 2:41 pm

We are still living here in Celebration and still loving it. There are many things in your article that have not been mentioned. One example was yesterday at the playing field behind the library and dog park, a large tent was erected to house the 87 young adults from the Florida Youth Symphony Orchestra who played for an hour and a half to the approximately 150 Celebration residents and guests. This was just one of 5 scheduled concerts for early this year. We have numerous clubs in town and many sporting activities, including tennis, pickle ball, swimming, a High School where students from other parts of Osceola attend and a great Elementary School, Montessori, Advent Health Hospital and Rehab. Yes the cinema is not used at the moment but that was not the fault of our residents. We get numerous out-of-towers coming to our restaurants and hotel. Keeping our properties neat, tidy and clean is not a chore as standards should be kept.

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