A Theme Park You Can Live In

No one wears mouse ears, and there's no pixie dust in the air--none you can see, anyway. Still, Celebration, Fla., a new housing development 15 minutes from Orlando, is unmistakably a Walt Disney production. It's immaculate, it's high-tech, and it's Middle America. "It's like living in a Norman Rockwell painting with all the modern technology," gushes visitor Patricia Gorman.

In mid-August, Disney unveiled plans--and a few model-home facades--for its 4,900-acre development, a vision hatched long ago by founder Walt Disney and the product of nine years of work by dozens of architects, town planners, and consultants. The plan: a self-contained village, modeled after pre-World War II Southeastern towns, featuring specific architectural styles and shopping, learning, and recreation areas.

While such all-in-one projects have been undertaken before, says architect Andres Duany, Disney "will give it a corporate imprimatur." Indeed, Celebration will be rooted in six architectural standards, from colonial to Mediterranean, all including wide front porches with garages banished to the rear. Builders must follow "pattern books" designating myriad specifications, from ceiling heights to front detailing. "The project is so canned, there is no creative crossover," grouses Orlando architect John Henry.

Canned or not, rumors of Disney's plans generated more than 2,000 inquiries before the preview center even opened; when it finally did, 4,000 visitors appeared in the first weekend. Terry and Beverly Neff were so impressed, they put their home in nearby Hunter's Creek up for sale the very day of their visit--even though the first of Celebration's homes won't be ready until mid-1996. Its first phase will include 350 houses, starting at $127,000 for a 1,300-square-foot townhouse, and 123 apartments for rent.

Much of Celebration's appeal has to do with its approachable, human quality. Anchoring the mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family houses will be a "town center" with shops, a bank, and a two-screen cinema. Bike and walking trails, parks, and an 18-hole public golf course will provide recreation. Next to a separate office center, called Celebration Place, will be Celebration Health, a health-and-fitness center focusing on wellness programs.

Flanking the town center, a public school will accommodate kids from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Disney consulted five universities, contributed $11 million in land and capital, and will spend $9 million more for teacher training and other enhancements for the school, which is being built and operated by Osceola County. Next door, at the planned Celebration Teaching Academy, teachers will learn innovative teaching methods. A fiber-optic link will connect the school, health center, and homes.

For all this, Disney is charging $90 to $100 a square foot, roughly 30% more than homes command in surrounding communities. The prices put off some would-be Celebrators: "For New Jersey, they're not bad, but for here, they're on the high side," says Doug Samuel, who is moving to the area from the Garden State. Celebration officials, though, say prices are comparable when all of the extras are considered. Seven-year-old Colleen Gorman puts her finger on the biggest extra of all. "I like being close to Disney," she says. Many of the grownups here agree.