The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town, by Andrew Ross

Celebration, USA: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins

Grade: B for both



I’ve been interested in planned communities and utopian endeavors for a very long time, but the town of Celebration is particularly fascinating. Celebration, for those of you who don’t know, was planned and built by Disney; it reminds me of what might happen if Thomas Kinkade got enamored with New Urbanism.

Both of these books were written in the late nineties, right after Celebration was established (I’m digging around now to find a more recent book on the same topic, since I’m curious to see how the town has fared ten years later). Both of them were good if not outstanding. (Those are old-style Bs: above average.) Frantz and Collins are journalists, and it shows; their prose is readable, but too consciously entertaining, and their account is low on critical reflection. (Also they talk about “pixie dust” way, way too much.)

Andrew Ross is an academic, so his cultural criticism is a little more pointed, but whenever I read Ross I have the same reaction: he’s so elitist, even when he’s trying to appreciate the Common Man, that I just want to hit him over the head with a copy of People.

I’m still mulling over exactly what I think about the whole Celebration enterprise. Both books talk a lot about how people moved to Celebration because they wanted to move backwards, not forwards; to recapture some sort of lost nostalgic past when things were better; to recapture the 1950s, only with better technology and (presumably) civil rights. I’m sure there’s some truth to this, but any planned community is a utopian endeavour; I think I’d like to read up a little more on Levittown or Seaside or Columbia in order to see just how Disney’s involvement ramped up this expectation.

One of the most contentious elements in Celebration was the school, which turned out to be the place where utopian dreams and nasty reality smacked into each other with the most force. The school was designed to be innovative and cutting edge–so innovative and cutting edge that it veered into chaos, didn’t provide grades or transcripts, and generally made parents so nervous about their children’s progress that they fled in droves. Fascinating to read about this from two different points of view–the journalists (married to each other, with two school-aged children) were among the parents agitating for reform, while Andrew Ross (single, an academic by training) concludes that the school would have been just fine if the uninformed, rabble-rousing parents had minded their own business and let the educational experts run the show.

“Nick and Becky brought home little homework, and there were few tests,” the parents write. “We were asked to trust the teachers to an unusual degree, and not everything we saw inspired trust….One of Nick’s nine-week goals was to learn to read more slowly because he kept getting ahead of his reading group in class.” (Insert sound of me hyperventilating at this point.)

Ross, on the other hand, writes, “Teacher-parent meetings were dominated by exasperated complaints, usually from male parents, based on badly digested information or opinion. Seemingly oblivous to the reasoning behind the teaching methods, parents posed the same questions again and again: ‘Why aren’t you teaching my son the basics?’ ‘How is he going to know your basic history, your basic geography?’ ‘Who’s teaching my child to diagram a sentence?'” These all seem like completely worthless queries to Ross; he concludes that the parent dissatisfaction with the school (remember, this is a school with open classrooms which at one point had two teachers supervising a group of over eighty middle-school students with no texts and no written curricula–the students were expected to come up with their own learning objectives and carry them out) stems from American anti-intellectualism, that the parents had “little enthusiasm for knowledge that offers no immediate practical use.” When the school finally buckled to parent demands and agreed to provide textbooks and standard grades (in large part so that high school students would be able to apply to college), Ross chalks the changes up to “the Disney training philosophy that ‘the customer is always right.'”

This, folks, is why home schooling is on the rise.

There are many great schools out there, with dedicated and skillful teachers. But if you’re unlucky enough to run into a Ross-style educator, convinced that parents are unqualified to have any opinions on what and how their children learn, you may find yourself doing what a number of the Celebration families did. Yanking your kids out and teaching them at home.

Showing 11 comments
  • Leah

    I’m a bit confused–these people moved to these Utopian communities looking to live a sort of 1950s lifestyle, but what they find is a 1960s/post-1960s educational philosophy in their schools. That seems very incongruous to me. Meanwhile, Ross does sound out of touch. But, I also question why the journalists with two young kids didn’t research the school’s philosophy before sending their children there. Given that the school’s philosophy sounds fairly extreme it doesn’t seem like it would have taken much research to discover that this school just wasn’t going to be for them.

  • Amanda Read

    I love your new blog design!


  • Katie Wilson

    Fascinating reviews. Isn’t it interesting how people with no children want “hyper” parents to calm down and trust the “all-knowing educators?” Let’s hear it for homeschooling. Don’t tell me not to worry about diagramming sentences, or basic history. That’s my privledge as a parent–to worry about my child’s education, and to DO something about it.

    BTW, since you are reading journalist’s accounts…I just finished an interesting book this weekend. You may want to add it to your list: “Little Pink House” by journalist Jeff Benedict. A fascinating look at the famous Supreme Court eminent domain case. Well researched and presented. Worth the read, I think.

  • e

    The school situation you describe is what my high school looked like when it was first built–in the early 70s, and, coincidentally, also in a planned (Utopian?) community (Reston).

    After the powers that be realized that the open floor plans didn’t foster education, only distraction, they erected cardboard partitions to help cut down on distractions.

    Thank goodness that’s where the comparison ends. We did get text books and had some semblance of an education.

  • Sharla

    Re: educating our own kids. I was browsing over the tiny homeschool shelf at Barnes & Noble last week when I picked up a book about helping your child become an avid reader. Mind you, I’m looking at the “homeschool” books. I flip the book open and the first page I see is “Whether to teach your child to read before he starts school.” First point on the page: “Realize that you, like most parents, are not qualified to teach your child to read.” I stood aghast! With my jaw gaping open I started looking for an absurd place to put the absurd book. But that just felt ridiculous so I put it back where it “belonged” and picked up the first volume of The Story of the World.

  • Susan

    Sharla, you’ve got to spill the beans…what was the book?

  • Sharla

    I’m pretty sure this is the book. After it told me I was not qualified to teach my child to read–which I’ve already done–I didn’t pay much attention to the cover since I immediately started to contemplate burning it. Then I realized that’s a dangerous train of thought to entertain even in jest.
    Have you ever posted about the differences in teaching four different kiddos? DD4 was easy to teach because she was more than happy to sit on my lap and learn to read on her own–total bookworm. But DS2 is a constant tornado of (mostly dangerous) activity. I think I’ll have to figure out how to teach him through a game of paintball or something! I would love to hear your thoughts on different learning and teaching styles.

  • J.S.

    I may have to pick up one of these books…You now have me wondering about the line between planned communities and the planned neighborhoods/gated communities that are becoming so popular. And where do elder living communities fit in this puzzle?

  • Maria

    I don’t hold much sway to the notion of a utopian society, but I think our urban planning could be more proactive in the development of a real sense of community. I think the best book about what urban planning and neighborhood design has been… and suggestions for what it could be… is “Suburban Nation.” I think it should be required reading for anyone considering buying a home, or building.

  • Amber

    The sad thing is that I am seeing far too many homeschoolers buy into the modern educational philosophies you describe in this utopian school. I’m thinking of unschooling in general and A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille in particular. They seem to think that all they need to do is make their kids work and then they will ask to learn when they are ready. DeMille talks about the classics and then sells modern childhood psychology methods as the way to obtain a classical education. And parents who want more for their kids, but have no experience in the classics buy into his flawed ideology. It is very disheartening to see parents willing to teach their kids at home and then not teach them. They rely on child-led learning and other modern educational philosophies. Thanks for being a voice and showing us what a classical education actually is, and that it is obtainable.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    You know you’re addled when you read up on the history of Disney before you take the kids to Disney World. But that’s just what dh and I did. I would recommend the books we read if you found the Celebration books interesting. Mouse Tails is written by a man who grew up near Anaheim and had lots of friends and family who worked for Disney Land. It combines a history of the park with a discussion of some of the darker aspects that don’t make it into the glossy brochures.
    DH read a great history of Disney World that covered topics like how Reedy Creek Improvement District was established in the first place, how fire service is provided, issues of police juristiction etc. I think that the title is Married to the Mouse.
    After reading these two books, we just about drove our family nuts with all the editorial comments we had as we went around the park.
    BTW, oddly enough searching Disney World History on has one of the volumes of Story of the World as result #119.

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