It has been 20 years since the first residents moved into the Disney town of Celebration, Florida. My family has lived in Celebration since the beginning so it was a pleasure to attend the "Building a Dream" conversation with Michael Eisner and Peter Rummell, sponsored by the Celebration Foundation. Michael was the CEO of the Walt Disney Company and Peter Rummell the President of the Disney Development Corporation when Celebration was designed and constructed in the mid to late 1990s. Celebration, Florida has become a model of neotraditional towns and new urbanism. Michael and Peter shared some stories on the ideas and experiences that went into the development of the town.
Mr. Eisner stated that when he became CEO of Disney he inherited the purchase of the Arvida Corporation, which was done in 1984 before he joined the company. Further research shows that the purchase, which was for $200 million of stock, was done when the company had little money. It was at a time when Disney was experiencing a hostile takeover and the purchase of Arvida brought with it the largest stockholders, the Bass Brothers, who controlled over 70% of the Arvida stock. Giving the Bass Brothers a large number of Disney stocks allowed them to be major stockholders and be the white knights that saved the Disney Company. One of their first demands as major stakeholders was to insist that the Board of Directors hire Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to run the company. For more information on this scary time in Disney history, I suggest you read "Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the Raiders, and the Battle for Disney", which chronicles the time after Walt's death until the saving of Disney by the Bass Brothers in 1984.
Peter Rummell had been general manager of Arvida, and although he was not with Arvida in 1984, he was known as a real estate expert with Arvida experience and was hired by Michael in 1985 to head the theme park development and the large amount of undeveloped land at Walt Disney World as President of the Disney Development Corporation. Peter had started his career in 1971 and was involved in the development of Hilton Head Island and Amelia Island. This experience, along with 3000 undeveloped acres that Disney owned south of US Route 192, gave Peter the idea to create a new community and he pitched the idea to Michael in 1989.
When asked about the inspiration for creating a community, both Michael and Peter referenced Walt Disney's dreams of EPCOT, a community of tomorrow where people live, work and play. Walt passed away before EPCOT was built and the dream turned from a community to a theme park. When asked the most common question that they are asked by colleagues and peers, both responded that they are asked "Why...Why would an entertainment company want to get into residential real estate?". The answer to the question included Walt's dream of EPCOT, the availability of free land that Walt purchased at a low price and the availability of world class architects that they had worked with on other Disney projects. One option on the table was to sell the land but both felt that the better option was to create Celebration.
Michael and Peter also talked about the design of Celebration and mentioned goals that included "no trash", "garages not visible from the street" and "front porches". They had visited a community in Beverly Hills and saw the alleys behind the houses and knew that Celebration needed the same design to keep the trash and the garages away from the front of the house. They wanted to get away from the suburbs that are prevalent in the United States and get rid of the gated communities and build an environment where estate homes backed up to smaller, more affordable homes. The also wanted a healthy community with walking and biking paths and the ability for residents to walk to downtown. They also discussed the challenges of working with eight world class architects and the egos involved with their ideas of Celebration.
Focus groups were done prior to the decision to create Celebration and Peter said the results were "positive" but "unrealistic". The focus group saw a town created by Disney that would never have any problems, no crime and a place where their children would "never receive a C on their report card". As a founding resident of Celebration I can attest to the expectations of many early residents as many felt that if their children were having problems in other schools, moving to Celebration would magically make them an "A" student and their problems would disappear. That first year our daughter was the youngest child in kindergarten and the curriculum was designed by world class educators to be book free and a pod architecture where students would learn to work as a team and build social skills along with their education. Many parents could not understand this concept and within a few years Celebration reverted to the classic teaching style found in schools throughout the state and nation. The expectations are sometimes still seen today as I work as a realtor in Celebration and I emphasize that Celebration is a great place to live and we work through the same issues that any other community experience. It is the people who make a difference and the sense of community and pride are high in Celebration.
The demand for homes in a Disney community was so high that a lottery was held in November 1994 with over 5000 families vying for the first 350 homes in five different types: Estate Homes, Village Homes, Townhomes and Condominiums. Although there have been may communities that have used Celebration as a model, one thing that Celebration did different is build the downtown first, before there were ever residents. Although it was an expensive strategy and many of the first businesses struggled with low demand because there was no resident base, building the downtown first created an early sense of community. I can remember after we moved into our first home in Celebration, my husband would walk downtown every weekend to get the newspaper and coffee at Goodings and knowing everyone who worked there.
Michael and Peter also confirmed the rumor that Michael's wife, Jane Eisner, was the person who named the town Celebration. Michael, Jane and Peter were driving around the town site and Jane said the town should be named Celebration. The name was on a short list of potential names and the three agreed on the name at that time. Peter knew nothing could really be done until the town had a name so he was delighted that the naming exercise had come to an end...and Celebration, Florida was born.
The evening ended with a question about how Celebration can keep itself relevant to the times as it matures. Michael stated that the town should continue to evolve and the buildings and homes need to be fresh and maintained. Michael said, that like his children have grown up and moved out, some things never change. The kids still return and do their laundry at home. And the family still enjoys being with each other and love each other. Having lived in Celebration for 20 years I can say that I still love the town of Celebration and the people that have shared and shaped my life and my family.
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Kim Hawk is a founding resident of Celebration, Florida and specializes in Celebration Florida real estate. If you are interested in a home in Celebration, Florida please contact her for more information.