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A Disney You Can Go Home To

As families move into the 'imagineered' Florida town, expectations run high. But only time will tell if the front porches and designer downtown are forerunner or facade.


CELEBRATION, Fla. — Recalling his boyhood in Rochester, Minn., Joel Kostuch pictures in his mind's eye an idyllic yesteryear of front porches, community songfests and friendly neighbors. "I want James to experience those same things," he says with a nod to his 2 1/2-year-old son.

A couple of blocks over from Joel and Laura Kostuch's home on Teal Avenue, the Thomases--Larry, Paula and their 15-year-old daughter, Sara--have settled into their own small-town dream, a four-bedroom house on Veranda Place.

"For us, the overriding decision-maker was the school," says Larry Thomas, 47, a computer consultant. "Sara didn't want to change schools, but she was so excited by what she saw here--the challenging curriculum, the Teaching Academy.

"Of course, we assumed that Disney would do it right. We believe in their philosophy. We feel like we're getting the best of the best."

The Thomases and the Kostuches are pioneers. They are among the first 150 households--about 450 people--to move into a real-life experiment sponsored by the masters of make-believe, the Walt Disney Co.

If Celebration were an amusement park, the theme would be "back to the future." But Celebration is what Disney calls "an American town," where, within a decade, 20,000 people are expected to live in a planned community that combines the comfortable tradition of a 1930s Main Street with the technology of Tomorrowland.

Celebration has not been inhabited long enough for a real rhythm of life to have set in, or for residents' great expectations to be fulfilled--or dashed.

But there are signs of the "Mayberry" ambience that Disney hopes will take hold. Merchant Dottie Mathison says residents are eager to greet each other on the street and know each other by first name.

"People moving here are coming with a community spirit," says Larry Rosen, an education professor who moved in a month ago. "They want to talk to each other, get out and socialize, do things together.

The first restaurant is scheduled to open Monday, and shopkeepers are moving in merchandise and stocking shelves. "People living here just walk by the shops every night to see what's going on. They are so anxious," says Mathison, whose casual clothing store opened this week.

Set on 4,900 acres south of Orlando, Celebration includes a picturesque downtown of shops, offices and apartments surrounded by homes on tree-shaded streets.

Nine years and $2.5 billion in the making, Celebration has been as carefully engineered as any of its Disney World corporate kin, the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT and Disney-MGM Studios. But Celebration has also been "imagineered," in Disney's coinage, to appeal to many Americans' nostalgic desire for a retro ideal, a small-town life where residents know their neighbors, where the streets are safe, where parents are involved in their children's schools and where a friendly, lakeside city center becomes a community meeting place.

Celebration is not a gated community, and residents are screened only by their ability to afford a home, at prices ranging from $127,000 to $750,000, or apartments with rents starting at $600 a month. Thus, Celebration residents have shown up with all the usual human characteristics, virtues and foibles. "Nobody expects utopia," says Larry Thomas. "There will be people you get along with and those you don't."

Rosen, a professor at nearby Stetson University and director of the Teaching Academy, moved with his family into a Colonial house on Teal Avenue. He says he already has seen changes in the behavior of his 14-year-old son, Ryan. "We lived in a small Florida town before, but there he stayed in a lot, didn't connect with the neighbors. But here, he is out in the neighborhood, making friends.

"We've had neighborhood barbecues, although the downtown isn't really open yet.

"Last night we had a community meeting of all the parents with kids in the school. And in 23 years as an educator, I've never seen people so excited about education."

For Disney, a company renowned for operating its theme parks with authoritarian zeal, setting the stage for the free-form flow of life is a risk. And, indeed, Disney engineers, along with an all-star cast of architects and town planners, have tried to think of everything: Street patterns and lot plans are designed to foster relationships between residents. A thick handbook of restrictions governs everything from the color of the front door to where to store a canoe.

Disney officials insist that Celebration is a one-of-a-kind project and not an attempt to "Disney-ize" America. But the mere fact that Disney, one of the best-known brand names in the world, has taken the plunge into what is called the new urbanism has changed the landscape of community planning.

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