Celebration by night: Seeking imperfection 8 miles from the ‘happiest place on Earth’

By Emily Hoover | ehoover@flagler.edu
Photos by Rob Heinrich

We headed west, my boyfriend Rob and I. Southwest to be exact. We meant to head back to Winter Park after enjoying the capitalist decadence that is the nightlife in downtown Disney, but some indescribable force coerced us into merging onto I-4 West. Perhaps, subconsciously, we wanted to continue to celebrate.

Upon getting off at Celebration, Fla.—US 192, the same road that takes one to Magic Kingdom in Kissimmee—we expected a voyeuristic journey into a sleepy little town. It was Sunday after 8 p.m. I envisioned us walking down deserted streets, holding hands as lovers, peering through shop windows and making up stories for the denizens of this mysterious little town, so close to Disney World—built as a utopian community by the Disney Company in 1994—that it had to be worth thorough exploration.

By the interstate, it looked like a typical Florida town—transplanted palm trees, shopping plazas containing gluttonous steak houses and a Chinese food franchise. They had a discounted Disney t-shirt shop. Hell, they even had a Golden Corral. For what more could a tourist ask?

We decided to turn right and were bombarded by white picket fences and winding roads. The picket fences served as décor, a shield of protection for the retention ponds that mimicked the many lakes of Central Florida. I laughed, searching in vain for June Cleaver and the whole crew, before Rob sucked me out of my self-righteous cynicism. He turned Primus down, which was playing loudly, almost too loudly, on my CD player.

“Oh God,” he said, slowing down and taking his right hand off my thigh. “People live here.”

Large, ivory houses with double balconies, columns, wrap-around porches and towers blanket both sides of Celebration Avenue. Rich tourists call it a suburb, I know, but it’s a suburb with houses that have to cost six figures, at least, especially when combined with the Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Hummer and BMW cars parallel parked oh-so-perfectly in front of them. This neighborhood looked like it cost more than my life, so we edged on in my little oxidized Volkswagen Cabrio, hearing only the click of my failing starter and relishing in the fact that we looked out of place.

Celebration Avenue is the main artery of this creepy town, we discovered, for it brought us directly into the downtown area of Celebration. It looked pretty busy for a Sunday night, so we decided to park, walk around, and observe the behavior of the American Dreamites who actually call this place home.

This place, almost like another dimension, looks exactly the way it looks when one walks into Magic Kingdom. There is a quaint little park with a fountain. There are pastel apartment complexes lit up with bright florescent streetlights. The only recognizable brands are Starbucks, Columbia Restaurant, and Kilwin’s Chocolates and Ice Cream; the latter two familiar to me in my home of St. Augustine, a more authentic tourist trap.

In addition to these businesses, other shops, pubs and restaurants exist in Celebration. However, devoid of American brands, they are somehow generic. They don’t seem real, kind of like the way a movie set seems real but isn’t. There is a Market Street without a market. There are clothing shops and bakeries given the tag of Market Street this and Market Street that. There is an Irish pub called Shannon’s of Celebration and a New York style pizza place called A Cut Above.

As my eyes studied the shops, noticing the perfect nature of the stylishly dressed mannequins, I found myself looking for a real person sitting on a quaint park bench or leaning against an even more quaint building. I could hear them chattering at the pub but I wanted to see them up close. I felt like I had stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone and expected to see Rod Serling around the corner, smoking a cigarette and narrating the next chapter.

According to Flagler College junior Lauren Benetti, whose family moved to Celebration when she was 10, the lure of Celebration is all in its appearance.

“It looks picture-perfect,” she said. “People go there to fix their problems. But, it’s not perfect. The foundation of the family is messed up. There are couples divorcing, having affairs and gossip in families.”

Benetti, an English major, said her family stumbled upon Celebration while on vacation from Wisconsin. She said they got lost looking for Disney World and “fell in love with the place.” While she said she arrived in Celebration when it was under the ownership of Disney, she likes it better now that it has become its own city. According to an article in the New York Times, Disney sold it in 2004.

“I was there when [Celebration] was a baby,” she said. “It’s gotten better after Disney, because it’s not so picture-perfect. The cops are really cool; they’re not out to get you. It’s a really safe community, more relaxed.”

I didn’t see anyone of color while I was in Celebration, apart from a Latin waiter smoking a cigarette outside Columbia. Everyone else looked the same—blonde hair, blue eyes, smiling in pearls, pea coats and high-heeled leather boots. They looked like the Pod People from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” thrust into a life with no pain, anger or love. Everyone looked so incredibly happy, I felt sick.

According to city-data.com, Celebration’s population was about 7,109 in 2009. Rob and I meditated on this number as we sat on a bench by Celebration’s man-made lake in the town center. I looked out into the lake, trying to imagine the undisturbed wetlands that used to grow there years ago. The water looked so calm, the lily pads looked as if they were sucked out of one of Monet’s landscape paintings. The silent serenity was deafening and I knew that this land really was perfect before being destroyed by Walt Disney’s kooky utopian dreams. I was standing in imperfection, looking at imperfection, insidiously resilient in its illusion of perfection.

We passed by the park’s quaint fountain on our way to the recreation center, where we sat in perfectly comfortable chairs and listened to the perfect sounds of cars as they left the now deserted town. Where were they going? Didn’t they realize they didn’t need to pay $15 for parking at Magic Kingdom to experience paradise?

As we got into our car, driving towards reality, I watched Celebration dissolve in my rear-view mirror. I remembered touching the artificial turf, which served as grass at the recreation center, as I watched the houses bloom around me, trying to recreate the Old Florida life Disney so happily destroyed. Rob again put his hand on my thigh as I removed my right hand from the steering wheel to touch his.

We could see the fireworks at Disney through the trees. Although I’ve been to Disney many times as a child, I cannot convey how badly I wanted to get back on I-4. As we drove east, we drove through downtown Orlando. We watched a homeless man quake on the street just to see the sadness in the world, so we could feel once again.

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