Celebration was supposed to be the perfect town. Entirely planned by the Walt Disney Company in the early ’90s, the Central Florida development — located less than a dozen miles from Magic Kingdom — was billed as a 1950s-style suburb for the twenty-first century. Celebration would be “a place that takes you back to that time of innocence,” one early ad for the community promised, “a new American town of block parties and Fourth of July parades. Of spaghetti dinners and school bake sales, lollipops, and fireflies in a jar.” More than a development, it would be a real community.
Nothing about Celebration was left to chance. Disney hired world-renowned architects, including Philip Johnson and Michael Graves, to design the buildings in its town center. The brochures advertising Celebration to prospective homebuyers were designed by Pentagram’s Michael Beirut, as were the street signs and manhole covers. In an attempt to foster a diverse community, Disney placed ads for Celebration in publications that catered to black and Latino audiences. To maintain a cohesive look, each home was required to adhere to a 70-page pattern book dictating everything from appropriate paint trim colors (white for coastal-style homes; pale blue, green, or ochre for French) to the types of vehicles residents could park in their driveways (boats and “unsightly” cars were both prohibited). The goal was for Celebration to be picture-perfect but not exclusionary; walkable but not dense or crowded; suburban but not sprawling; aesthetically nostalgic but nonetheless innovative. It would, in short, be as magical as every other Disney-branded property.
And then the fairytale came to an end. In 2010, Celebration experienced its first murder. The details were more suited to a true crime podcast than to a Disney movie: a private school teacher hacked to death in his apartment and posthumously accused of sexually preying on his students. A few days later, another Celebration resident shot himself in his home after a standoff with police. The back-to-back deaths — just down the street from the Happiest Place on Earth, — became a national spectacle, prompting outsiders to speculate when and how the “Disney dream died” in Celebration.
Anyone who had bothered to look closely knew that the cracks in the town’s classical-meets-Victorian-meets-Colonial facade had been present from the beginning. Celebration had been meticulously designed, but its homes had been built quickly and shoddily. According to Andrew Ross’s The Celebration Chronicles, residents complained of “porches and roofs that had to be torn down and rebuilt, tilted beams and uneven rafters, plumbing leaks… cracks in the foundations, collapsing floors and driveways,” and countless other structural issues.
Celebration was supposed to be a corrective to one of the prevailing anxieties on the eve of the new millennium: that people were more alienated, less connected, less happy. But Celebration was, at its core, a conventional real estate development masquerading as a utopia. And the minute Disney realized it could get a better return on its investment by selling Celebration for parts, it did.
The death knell came when Lexin Capital, a New York-based private equity firm, took over the town center in 2004. By 2008, some Celebrationites were losing their homes to foreclosure; those who managed to stay saw their property values fall to less than half of what they had originally paid. The handful of residents who lived in Celebration’s downtown apartments had for years complained of leaky roofs, pervasive mold, and structural collapse — and since they were owners, not renters, they couldn’t leave their homes even as they fell apart around them.
Nearly twenty years later, Disney is getting ready to construct housing again. In early April, the company announced its plan to build a new affordable housing development in Orange County, just north of Celebration. Over 80 acres of land will be set aside for more than 1,300 units for “qualifying applicants from the general public, including Disney employees,” according to a press release. The development “has been in the works for a long time,” it continues, “and builds on the Walt Disney Company’s long legacy of bringing positive, lasting change to the communities it calls home — and making an important difference locally to address one of the nation’s greatest challenges.” It’s true that the lack of affordable housing for low-wage workers is a national challenge, but in the Orlando area, it’s a problem of Disney’s own making.
Disney World asks a lot of its employees. The 77,000-plus people who work in Disney’s Florida parks and resorts — “cast members,” in company parlance — aren’t allowed to frown, chew gum, or slouch. They can’t dye their hair unnatural shades or paint their nails bright colors. They must always be chipper and are never allowed to utter the words “I don’t know.” Expected to go above and beyond to provide guests with “magical” experiences, they are occasionally asked to comply with outlandish requests; in one instance, employees catering a Beauty and the Beast-themed wedding had to learn the choreography to “Be Our Guest” — sung in the film by anthropomorphic furniture-servants — and perform it during dinner. Disney considers all its customer-facing workers, not just those dressed as princesses and cartoon characters, to be performers. “No matter where you work or what your role is,” the company’s employee lookbook reads, “anytime you are in a public area, you are onstage. Your attitude and performance are direct reflections on the quality of our Disney show.”
When the show ends, cast members’ lives are far from magical — most of the workers who make guests’ dream vacations possible live in poverty, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Pay at Disney starts at fifteen dollars an hour, more than the state’s ten-dollar minimum wage — it’s the most competitive in the region, though not because of the company’s largesse, but rather as the result of a protracted, bitter negotiation between Disney and the three unions that represent its cast members. The company’s lowest-paid workers earn so little, and the cost of housing in Orlando is so high, that it’s not unheard of for employees to commute 50 or 60 miles each way. In 2019, a Disney cast member who had worked at Magic Kingdom for seven years told the Orlando Sentinel that after a long shift, she occasionally sleeps in her car instead of making the 63-mile drive to her home in Lakeland — not because she’s too tired, but because she can’t afford the gas it takes to get there.
That cast members are in need of affordable housing near Disney World is clear; whether Disney should be the entity providing that housing is less so. There was a time when the government viewed building affordable housing as its own responsibility, and had no interest in pawning off the task onto the business community. “One of the most stubborn obstacles in the way of any constructive housing program,” President Harry Truman said in 1947, after signing the Housing and Rent Act, “has been the opposition of the real estate lobby.” Under Truman, the federal government undertook a massive program of what was then called urban renewal, with the goal of constructing a major public housing program. Inspired by utopian cities designed by the Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier, many of the housing projects we see today — clusters of brick high-rise buildings that break up the city grid — arose from this program. The projects were intended to be model cities of their own, in miniature. To build them, the government engaged in “slum clearance,” the practice of evicting poor people from their homes to raze them to the ground. Not everyone thought the new buildings were worth so high a price. In her paradigm-shifting 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued that top-down planning was destroying the very things that made urban life vibrant. “This is not the rebuilding of cities,” Jacobs wrote. “This is the sacking of cities.”
Indeed, by the time Disney World opened in 1971, few people still had faith in the government’s ability to carry out urban planning projects. The following year, New York Magazine architecture critic Peter Blake issued a somewhat tongue-in-cheek declaration that Disney’s two parks were the only significant planned towns built anywhere in the country after World War II. “It is Walt Disney Productions, and not our innumerable U.S. city planning agencies and experts, that has really created the first, great, vibrant New Towns in America,” he wrote. In the years soon after World War II, Blake had been part of a generation of young architects convinced that, with the help of government, they could house a growing urban population, as well as deal with problems of congestion and poverty; in the mid-century, as he later wrote, modern architects “were concerned with problems of housing for everyone, with problems of planning humane and healthy communities for all, with sheltering a human family that was about to burst at its seams.” By the time Blake wrote about Disney World for New York, though, his optimism had waned. Dreams of successful, widespread government housing had failed. The best way to do any urban planning project, he decided, was “to take it away from the do-gooders and lease it to Walt Disney productions.” Florida, it turned out, was ready to test the theory.
“The best place to live,” get-rich-quick guru Charles Givens declared in 1991, “is where everybody wants to vacation.” That may have been true for Givens — who became a multimillionaire by writing books like Wealth Without Risk, and for charging gullible middle-class investors hundreds for financial planning courses — but living in a permanent vacation town doesn’t offer much leisure for the tens of thousands of low-wage workers who make those vacations possible.
Givens was one of a handful of prominent Orlando residents interviewed for a Time Magazine cover story on Disney’s effects on the city. Tourists, the journalist Priscilla Painton declared, saw one Orlando: a family-friendly vacation town where “they vacuum the streets at night and disinfect the public telephones with Lysol.” The people hired to vacuum Orlando’s streets and wipe down its phone booths, meanwhile, lived in motels and mobile home parks in greater Osceola County. Like Orlando, Osceola had grown around Disney. In 1970, the year before the theme park opened in Orlando, just over 25,000 people lived in Osceola County; by 1990, it had more than 107,000 residents.
Florida was a major tourist destination long before Walt Disney World’s gates opened in 1971, but Orlando wasn’t. Visitors usually skipped the city and its surrounding areas — which were known for orange groves, cattle ranches, and not much else — in favor of more exciting locales like Tampa and Miami. The Tamiami Trail, the 275-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 41 connecting the two cities, was dotted at the time with tacky roadside attractions and kitschy theme parks: Weeki Wachee Spring, where tourists could pay to see “live mermaids”; Cypress Gardens, which Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother, once visited in 1950. All the park had, Roy reported, “is some flowers and girls,” and yet it was drawing 2,500 to 4,000 people a day. Disney had already been thinking about getting into the theme park business by then; whatever some backwoods Floridian could do, they figured, the company could do better.
When the time came to open its first park, Disney opted for California, not Florida, due to its proximity to the company headquarters. But three years later, realizing that just two percent of visitors hailed from east of the Mississippi, the company sought a second location that could draw a bigger audience and help Disney reduce its reliance on “the damn fickle motion picture industry.” Walt wanted a blank canvas, a site with enough undeveloped land for him to exert complete control in pursuit of his vision. Everyone knows what happened next. Walt Disney World opened just outside Orlando in 1971, attracting nearly eleven million visitors in its first year; the previous year, the entire Central Florida area had drawn only three-and-a-half million tourists.
But theme parks were never the only plan. Walt Disney was also interested in building model cities from the ground up — or, at least, that’s what he told Florida lawmakers. In November 1965, Disney held a press conference with the governor of Florida about his intentions for the nearly 28,000 acres of land his company had clandestinely purchased in Central Florida through five shell companies. “I would like to be part of building a model city, a City of Tomorrow, you might say,” Walt announced, “because I don’t believe in going out to this blue-sky stuff that some architects do. I believe that people still want to live like human beings.” The subtext was clear: urban renewal had failed. The Watts Rebellion had broken out in Los Angeles just two months earlier; America’s cities were in crisis, and the government was in no place to solve it — but Disney could.
Shortly before his death in 1966, Disney recorded a video addressed to officials in Orange and Osceola Counties, where Disney planned on building its new park. “Finding solutions to the problems of our cities,” he told the lawmakers from beyond the grave, was one of the most important challenges of the day. He agreed that tearing down old cities wouldn’t cut it. “The need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities,” he said. “We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community.” Who better to build that special community than Disney?
Just a few years earlier, the company’s Imagineers — its research and development team — had built a miniature version of Walt and Roy’s Missouri hometown in its Anaheim park. They called it Main Street, USA. It was the quintessential American town, the kind of place that doesn’t exist anymore and maybe never did. Its streets were walkable, clean, and lined with ice cream parlors, art galleries, and other wholesome businesses. It looked more like a town that had developed organically — or at least a reimagining of one — than the entrance to a theme park. Now Disney was promising to build a real city in Florida. All the company needed was full control over the land.
“The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project — in fact, the heart of everything we’ll be doing in Disney World — will be our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” Walt said in the posthumous video. “We call it EPCOT.” Walt envisioned EPCOT as a radial city with a dense urban core and less populated periphery. Its 20,000 denizens wouldn’t need cars, because a “PeopleMover” on an elevated train track would get them around the city, and a monorail would transport them to Disney’s soon-to-be-built park. Housing would be affordable, but no one would own property; all EPCOT residents would be renters. (In internal memos about the project, Walt crossed out every mention of “permanent residents” and replaced the phrase with “temporary residents/tourists.”) Somehow, the entire thing would exist inside a climate-controlled dome.
Roy, the less charismatic and more money-minded of the Disney brothers, later clarified that the theme park would come first, and all remaining construction — including his brother’s utopian city — would follow in phases. But Disney needed a few things: municipal bonding authority (meaning it could apply for the same federal funds as local governments, despite being a private business), three new highway interchanges, and control over two political districts. If it had to adhere to local zoning codes or building ordinances, Disney argued, it wouldn’t be able to bring Walt’s dream to life. “We were all just spellbound,” the director of the tri-county planning agency told historian Richard Foglesong, whose 2001 book Married to the Mouse details the history of Disney’s parasitic relationship with Florida. Even after his death, Walt had managed to work his magic on Florida’s state legislature. No one wanted to go against Disney, and with the Reedy Creek Improvement Act of 1967, the state legislature ceded operational control of Disney’s holdings, making the company the de facto government of a parcel twice the size of Manhattan. The act gave Disney the power to issue bonds, write its own building codes, maintain its own police department, and even build a nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, the plans to build a model city never materialized: when Disney did eventually open EPCOT in 1983, it was as a theme park modeled on the World’s Fair — not as a place for anyone to actually live.
By then, the Orange County government had already begun to sour on the social consequences of Disney’s projects. A 1972 study by the regional planning council found that Orlando’s growing tourism sector was unsustainable and could lead to “higher than normal” government spending due to the costs associated with providing social services to low-wage service industry workers. Michael Eisner’s 1984 appointment as CEO of Disney did little to help the company’s increasingly fraught relationship with local officials. Under Eisner, Disney began aggressively developing its unused land in Reedy Creek, building several hotels and entertainment facilities in the district. In 1990, when Orange County applied for first-come-first-served bonds to build low-income housing, officials were shocked to learn that Reedy Creek had beaten them to it. Disney had been awarded the entirety of the $57.7 million in bond money the state government had allocated to Central Florida — it planned to use the funds to finance the construction of a new sewage treatment facility to handle the increased needs of its new hotels. (Disney eventually agreed to loan the county $1.8 million of the funds for down payment assistance grants.)
Celebration, announced a year after the bond scandal, was part of a public campaign to repair Disney’s increasingly negative image. More importantly, though, it was a message to Orange County legislators — a reminder that Disney also owned property in Osceola County, and that it could choose to develop its unused land there instead. To the public, Celebration was presented as the realization of Walt’s dream for a City of Tomorrow, a place that would use the best ideas from the past to build a forward-looking community. “That was all press copy stuff,” a former Disney executive told Foglesong. To state and local officials, and to Celebration residents, Disney’s refusal to build affordable housing in the town — instead donating only $300,000 over three years to Osceola’s Housing Assistance Plan — signaled a far more exclusive vision of utopia.
Today, Osceola advertises itself as the “vacation home capital of the world.” The most expensive property in county history — a 20,000-square-foot, fifteen-bedroom house with a movie theater, a spa, a gym, and an indoor basketball court — recently sold for $11.7 million. It’s not meant for long-term inhabitants, but for a rotating cast of out-of-town visitors.
This isn’t entirely Disney’s doing. Florida’s developer-friendly government is just as culpable. Although the state’s hotel tax can only be used to fund “capital construction of tourist-related facilities, tourist promotion, and beach and shoreline maintenance,” money from Florida’s affordable housing trust can be diverted to the state’s general fund whenever lawmakers want. Since 2001, the state legislature has redirected more than two-and-a-half billion from the affordable housing fund; in 2021, a quarter of the money was used to pay for sea level rise mitigation.
Indeed, Florida is a developer’s dream. The state welcomes rapacious growth, rewards avaricious landlords, and prioritizes the endless construction of sprawling, poorly planned suburban developments. Under the tenure of former governor Rick Scott, Florida eliminated its Department of Community Affairs and replaced it with the developer-friendly Department of Economic Opportunity. Scott also gutted a regulatory measure that required developers to include plans for affordable housing. And Disney, it’s important to note, has historically backed Scott’s vision for the state: in 2016, for instance, the company donated a quarter of a million dollars to Scott’s campaign war chest.
What does it mean, then, for Disney to get into the affordable housing business in 2022? “The lack of affordable housing is affecting many people across our country, including right here in Central Florida,” Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle said in a press release announcing the new Orange County development. Of course, what Vahle’s statement doesn’t acknowledge is that many of those people in Central Florida work at Disney, where meager pay raises have come thanks only to union negotiations. And even if Disney’s new affordable development is entirely populated by its underpaid employees, 1,300 units of low-income housing will hardly make a dent in the housing crisis in Orlando, where more than 90,000 renters spend at least half their monthly wages on housing and utilities.
Disney’s foray into the affordable housing business reflects a broader abdication of governmental responsibility for the housing crisis. Nationwide, rents have increased by seventeen percent since February 2021, and across the country, legislators have shifted toward addressing the lack of affordable housing through public-private partnerships — or by letting the private sector handle it altogether. In Tampa, some members of the city council recently attempted to circumvent the state’s ban on rent control by calling for a local state of emergency; Mayor Jane Castor, who has received more than $500,000 in campaign donations from real estate-aligned interests, said such a measure would “kill development” in the city. “It’s supply and demand,” she said. If Tampa were to cap rents, even temporarily, developers would “go to other locations… that will welcome their projects.” Private developers are increasingly considered the only ones capable of building affordable housing on a mass scale — and perhaps the only ones capable of developing it at all.
Ironically enough, the special zoning provisions that turned Disney into Central Florida’s de facto government are finally being reconsidered — and not because legislators care about the affordable housing crisis. The move was retaliation for Disney’s stated opposition to the Parental Rights in Education bill (dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics), which prohibits public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with kindergarten-to-third-grade-aged kids. Disney waited until after Governor Ron DeSantis had signed the bill into law before speaking out, and for some Disney employees, the company’s publicly stated “disappointment and concern” about the bill was insufficient: in late March, several hundred workers in Anaheim walked off the job in protest. Meanwhile, Disney’s conservative fans, of whom there are many, threatened to boycott.
Disney’s opposition to the bill was a shrewd calculation, not a moral stance. The company wants to keep its employees content, but it’s also hesitant to risk its relationships with Florida’s pro-development Republicans. It wants to sell rainbow-colored merchandise and align with dominant liberal cultural values, but it also wants to guarantee that conservative families visit its properties. Disney has gotten this far by appealing to everyone and offending no one, at least those in power. This time around, its calculations were wrong — and the people who will have to deal with the fallout are the same locals who have borne the brunt of Disney’s growth for 50 years and counting.
If the Reedy Creek Improvement District is dissolved, as it’s currently on track to be by June 2023, residents of Orange and Osceola Counties will be left worse off than before. The change will saddle both counties, which are already struggling to provide adequate social services for their masses of impoverished residents, with nearly a billion dollars in outstanding bond debt. Even though most corporations in Florida don’t pay business tax, Disney does pay property tax, and Reedy Creek levies its own tax on Disney on top of that. Without Reedy Creek, Orange County’s tax collector has estimated that local property taxes could go up by as much as twenty percent. Disney’s affordable housing project could also end up being a casualty. If Disney loses the ability to build whatever it wants wherever it wants, the pittance of much-needed affordable housing the company has promised will likely be delayed or called off altogether. Still, it’s also possible that DeSantis and his cronies are bluffing. Florida needs Disney just as much as Disney needs Florida. Floridians, of course, would be better off with simply a functioning government.
If Disney’s history in Florida is any indication, its recent zeal for affordable housing is for show. An affordable company town is still a company town, after all; it may take on the appearance of a community, but it exists for the benefit of the corporation. In many ways, this makes Disney just like any other private housing developer. They’re in it for the money. None of Disney’s developments, from Reedy Creek to Celebration, have been in the public interest — but if there’s one thing Disney knows how to do, it’s tell a good story. These are fairy tales, and the adults in the room can’t help but believe them.
Gaby Del Valle is a reporter and the co-founder of BORDER/LINES, a newsletter focused on immigration. She lives in Brooklyn.