Walt Disney Co. built Celebration, Florida, as an idealized version of a circa-World War II small town, where litter-free streets are lined with white picket fences and front porches entice neighbors to sit after dinner.
Now, there’s trouble in the 16-year-old paradise set within earshot of the nightly fireworks at Walt Disney World Resort.
Celebration’s foreclosure rate is about double the state’s pace as homeowners who paid a premium for a vision of utopia fall behind on their mortgages. Earlier this month, a resident on the verge of losing his house shot himself after a 14-hour standoff with police. Three days before that, the town had its first murder when a man was bludgeoned with an ax.
“A lot of people bought homes in Celebration thinking Tinker Bell had sprinkled the town with pixie dust,” said Michael Olenick, chief executive officer of mortgage-data firm Legalprise Inc., referring to the character in Disney’s “Peter Pan” movie whose magical dust allows people to fly as long as they think happy thoughts. “Reality is hitting hard.”
The foreclosure rate in Celebration since the beginning of 2009, based on notices of so-called lis pendens that initiate a case, is one for every 20 residents, compared with one per 48 people in Florida as a whole, according to Legalprise, in West Palm Beach. Celebration home values have dropped as much as 60 percent from the 2006 peak, while statewide values are down 51 percent, data from Seattle-based research firm Zillow Inc. show.
Celebration foreclosures are happening at a faster pace in part because property owners in financial trouble are walking away from vacation homes in the town, where real estate sells for about 30 percent more than surrounding communities, said Olenick. Before the recession, people were willing to pay more for living in a Disney “fantasyland,” he said.
“The harsh reality is, bad things happen in Celebration too, both in real estate and in life,” Olenick said.
Craig Foushee, 52, barricaded himself in his home on Dec. 2, shooting at sheriff’s deputies and members of a SWAT team before turning the gun on himself. No law enforcement officers were injured. Foushee’s home had been in foreclosure since October 2009, according to legal filings.
The Osceola sheriff’s department said there was no connection between Foushee’s death and the murder of Matteo Giovanditto, 58, who was found in his home by a neighbor on Nov. 29. On Dec. 6, David-Israel Zenon Murillo, an acquaintance of Giovanditto, was arrested and confessed to killing him, according to a statement on the website of the sheriff’s office.
Different Movie Set
Residents are “in shock” after the deaths, said Angela Sessoms, who has lived in Celebration for 10 years. In the past, visitors have commented the town looks like the set of a Disney movie, she said. She heard a similar description with a dark twist last week, as word of the killings spread.
“With the SWAT team, the roads barricaded, and the school in lockdown, it was like a different kind of movie set,” Sessoms said. Before the deaths, a stolen bicycle was considered Celebration’s biggest crime, said Sessoms, a real estate agent at Century 21 Premium Properties’ downtown office.
The community has marked the events by tying yellow ribbons to the oak trees that edge its quiet streets, as a memorial.
Disney started building Celebration in 1994, and the first residents arrived in 1996. Located on the southern border of Disney World, 25 miles south of Orlando, it was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, and Jaquelin Robertson, a founding partner at Cooper, Robertson & Partners in New York. The style of the development is called New Urbanism, also known as neotraditionalism, emulating 1950s mixed-use neighborhoods where it was easier to walk than to drive.
Kilwin’s, Woof Gang
In the center of town, bordering a lake constructed by Disney, stores include Kilwin’s, a seller of ice cream and fudge, and the Woof Gang Bakery, where dog owners buy gourmet treats. At the Market Street Cafe, there’s an old-fashioned soda counter where diners can order the restaurant’s specials: meat loaf and chicken pot pie, followed by apple or pecan pie.
Lexin Capital, a New York-based private real estate investment firm, bought the 18-acre Celebration downtown from Disney in 2004. Mike Nunez, a spokesman for the company, didn’t return calls seeking comment. Disney still owns some commercial property in the town, according to Marilyn Waters, a spokeswoman for the Burbank, California-based company.
Twice the Value
Living 12 minutes from Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, with a backdoor access road, comes at a price. Buying in the 10,000-person town requires paying what locals call the “Celebration Premium.” The median home value, including single-family properties and condominiums, was $250,800 in October, almost twice the $127,300 for the entire state, according to Zillow.
Properties in Celebration are priced as high as $3.9 million for a six-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot (743 square-meter) mansion on a three-quarter-acre lot, according to Realtor.com. At $529,000, buyers could get a four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot home with a wrap-around porch on about a sixth of an acre.
For condominiums, $90,000 will buy a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot unit, according to Realtor.com. At the top of the market, a five-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot, townhouse-style condo is priced at $675,000.
Four years ago, at the height of the real estate boom, the least expensive single-family house in the June to December period sold for $350,000, according to Kathleen Carlson, owner of Imagination Realty in the town’s center. In the same period this year, it was $210,000, she said.
The lowest condominium sale in the boom was $193,000, compared with a sale at $70,000 for the 2010 period, she said.
All owners pay about $860 a year for private trash pickup and recreational facilities, including parks, community pools and baseball fields. Condo owners pay an additional maintenance fee that varies depending on location.
The town’s Architectural Review Committee maintains strict control over the appearance of properties, dictating paint colors, regulating holiday decorations and overseeing the size of political signs that can only be posted in the 45 days leading up to an election.
Most residents see the rules as “protection,” said Carlson, who lives in a Celebration home with a wide front porch where she drinks coffee with neighbors on Sunday mornings.
“Most of us came here not because of Disney -- we came because we wanted that type of control over our neighborhood,” Carlson said, “You don’t have to worry that your neighbor will suddenly start parking an old pickup on his front lawn.”
Six Acceptable Styles
Like Carlson’s house, most properties have front porches that encourage neighborliness. There are six accepted historical architectural styles for homes: Victorian, Classical, Colonial Revival, Mediterranean, French, and Coastal.
While white picket fences outline most front yards, not everyone is allowed to have them. That would look too fake, said Laura Poe, a spokeswoman for the town. The architectural committee decides who can have the old-fashioned fences and who must have short, trimmed hedges.
The town shows its Disney heritage in annual seasonal shows, each with special effects originally designed by the entertainment company. In October, leaf-shaped confetti shoots out of lamp posts in the village center to simulate colorful falling foliage. During the month of December, the posts emit what locals call snoap -- soap suds that look like snow.
Unlike in real life, the snow falls four times a night, on schedule, and dissipates without shoveling.
“Two of my grandchildren think we live inside Disney World, with Mickey Mouse,” said Celebration resident Sessoms, referring to a four-year-old and a five-year-old. “Except for the recent violence, I can understand why they would think that.”