CELEBRATION, Fla. -- If you've been to...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CELEBRATION, Fla. -- If you've been to Disney World, you know Highway 192, or any of the other commercial strips developed to bask in the reflected glory of the Mouse: Shoney's jammed up against HoJos, IHOPs squeezed between water slides, souvenir shops and the kinds of places you'd never go to at home but prove inexplicably alluring on vacation.

But off in the distance, a group of small houses appears on the horizon, mirage-like in the heat waves rising from an otherwise empty stretch of 192. On closer inspection, though, it turns out to be a faux neighborhood of two-dimensional cutouts, facades of pastel-pretty, white-picketed houses representing a world that once was and, the builders promise, can be once again.

It's a small town after all.

Welcome to Celebration, Fla. 34747, a new town under construction not just in the shadow of Disney World but very much of it as well. The builder is none other than Disney itself, perhaps the world's foremost creator of imagined worlds, now trying its hand at real life as well.

People will actually live here, not just visit on vacation. They will work here, their kids will go to school here, they will walk down to main street to shop and visit with neighbors on their front porches. "Just like," the ads say, "the town your grandparents grew up in."

If your grandparents were, that is, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Rockwell.

Depending on your level of cynicism, Celebration is either a welcome return to the American small town of the past or the ultimate triumph of the ersatz, a theme park re-creation of something that existed more in myth than reality. This, after all, is Central Florida, home not just of Disney's Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, but also a new Key West attraction for those who find the real incarnation some 375 miles to the south just a little too real.

And yet Celebration makes perfect, and entirely marketable, sense: As aging cities continue to falter and suburban alternatives prove lacking in vibrancy, the small town looms larger and larger in the American imagination.

It is such a potent myth that more than 5,000 people turned out for a lottery to buy into Celebration, which was held in November before the first house was anywhere near ready for residents. Next month, these so-called "founding families" will begin moving into the 350 apartments and homes that are being built in the first phase of what ultimately may be an 8,000-resident development. The first Celebration citizens, though, will move into a largely unbuilt community, with the neighboring houses, downtown shops and school and hospital in various stages of construction.

What sets Celebration apart from the other so-called neo-traditional towns that have generated interest in recent years -- the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, for example -- is the Disney name. There is perhaps no brand name so associated with controlled environments and clean, family-oriented fun. Even the name, picked by Disney chairman Michael Eisner, signals what to expect -- a certain imposed cheeriness, a sort of anti-spontaneity that has residents restricted to six traditional designs for their homes, each with approved colors and window, door and trim options.

"If it wasn't Disney, we wouldn't be moving there," says Joe Erhart, 50, who with his wife Susan, 48, will sell their "typical tract-type home" in Rockville to move to Celebration. "We can live pretty much anywhere we want."

Their three children are grown, and their work allows them to live just about anywhere: She is president and he is principal designer of Apple Designs Inc., in Rockville, which creates information systems for large public facilities like airports.

After pulling Number 65 in the Celebration lottery, they negotiated to buy an estate lot and expect their home to be built by February. The final cost of the four-bedroom home and lot will be about $550,000, he estimates.

Eager to move

If the Erharts didn't exist, Disney might have invented them -- they are baby boomer Disneyphiles, visiting several times a year and jumping at the chance to live in the Magic Kingdom's neighborhood. Joe Erhart has fond memories of the time that he was the smallest Boy Scout in a California troop that visited Walt Disney himself as he was creating Disneyland.

"He picked me up and sat me on his desk so I could see," Erhart says fondly. "It's something I've never forgotten. Every major anniversary, my wife and I go to Disney World. We've always looked at it as an escape from reality to go there. And now Celebration is providing us with a way of living there in a Disney environment."

With Celebration, Disney is bucking the trend toward retreat: the perceived need to gate ourselves off from the dangers of the outside world of carjackings and street crime. Even neighborhoods like Baltimore's Guilford attempt to turn public streets into dead-ends, aping the cul de sacs that have lured so many to the suburbs.

Celebration, of course, has the advantage of location -- far from any inner city, fully in the embrace of Disney's protective cloak, a gate would seem to protect it more from marauding tourists or perhaps a runaway Goofy than the criminally minded.

Still, Celebration can ally itself with the progressive school of thought called "neo-traditionalism" or "new urbanism," which seeks to create the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly small towns of the past. With retail and entertainment amenities downtown, a state-of-the-art school and hospital in its midst, Celebration hopes to put a modern spin on the traditional town.

"Gated communities are very common today. People want to pull away from the outside world. We didn't want to be a part of that," says Dan Killoren, vice president and general manager of the Celebration Company.

The lots have been designed as narrower than most suburban developments, and some of the expensive estate lots bump up against the smaller "townhouse," "cottage" and "village" lots.

"Many will come in and decide it's not for them. They don't choose to live next to apartments," Killoren says. "That's fine. We say Celebration is not for everyone. We have certain self-selection processes. We want people to understand what we're about."

Most houses will be close enough to walk to the golf course, the school and downtown. Much has gone into planning and design. One of the town's master planners is architect Robert A.M. Stern, and individual buildings bear the stamp of a veritable dream team of his colleagues -- the town hall is by Philip Johnson, the post office by Michael Graves, the movie theater by Cesar Pelli and the bank by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. To make the town affordable for younger residents -- houses will range from about $128,000 to nearly $900,000 -- downtown shops will have apartments above them.

Advanced technology

Celebration is also boasting advanced technology and education. Houses will come pre-wired to link residents to a fiber optic network, and residents will be able to communicate via computer with the school, hospital and other community facilities.

The K-12 school will be a public facility, but Disney has pumped in a lot of money and expertise, hiring educators from universities like Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Stetson to plan its curriculum.

"It really was a clean slate," says Ralph Fessler, director of the Hopkins division of education. "It's a really exciting opportunity to start out without any of the assumptions of existing structures."

Fessler said he and the other educators used some of the best current thinking in the field in their plan for the Celebration school, such as the non-graded concept that erases some of the boundaries between, say, first and second grade and allows students to flow through the curriculum; the division of a class into smaller cooperative learning groups; and ways of getting students to approach learning in an interdisciplinary way.

Fred Bemak, an associate professor and chairman of the Hopkins department of counseling and human services, also worked on the plans for the school, concentrating on ways that parents can be encouraged to participate in their children's education.

"We're designing a school that doesn't have the traditional boundaries between the school and the community," Bemak says. "We've set aside space in the school for families, and looked for ways to make them comfortable in the school environment and not feel removed from it."

Both say the school -- with an adjacent training academy for teachers -- could serve as a national model.

Preferences

Educators, architects and others will be watching Celebration as it develops. The standard, suburban mode of houses arrayed on winding and ultimately dead-ending streets, with office and retail spaces segregated elsewhere and usually a car ride away, remains the dominant preference.

"A lot of people, if given the choice, want to live on a cul de sac," says Roger K. Lewis, an architect and a professor at the University of Maryland school of architecture. "The perception is that the safest, most secure and most private place is on a dead end.

"That, of course, very much flies in the face of the new urbanism, these neo-traditional towns. The idea there is to connect, not to Balkanize," says Mr. Lewis.

What may help the new urbanist movement forward is a shift in lifestyle, says Uri Avin, chief of comprehensive planning for the Columbia-based LDR International and former Howard County planning director.

"A certain portion still wants half-acre lots and more of a suburban-rural setting," he says. "But with the changes in the family itself, with both parents usually working, people want lower maintenance and the convenience of mixed-use communities. No one wants to mow a half-acre lawn."

Pub Date: 5/20/96

MICKEY HOUSE; Lifestyle: The Walt Disney company moves into the area of real life by building a town in central Florida. It will be cute as a bug's ear, of course.

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