Mickey Mouse Utopia

A Floridian named Allan Oakley was walking his dog through downtown Celebration, Florida—the town built by the Disney company. Along the way, Oakley ran into a man walking his dog, and they stopped to exchange pleasantries. According to Oakley, the other man said "Is your shift over soon?" He told Oakley that he and other Disney employees were paid to walk dogs around Celebration because "it makes the town seem more real." Disney has vigorously denied the story, but it certainly fits with the artificial, cotton-candy feel of this town. But if you know anything about the history of grand utopian schemes, you know the dangers inherent in them. Before he died in 1967, Walt Disney dreamed of building what he called "a special kind of community" on the 40,000 acres he owned in Central Florida. The vision was fulfilled by Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and people began moving in last year. Prominent architects were hired to design the town’s main thoroughfares. They’ve given Celebration an architectural style that represents an idealized small American town. It has a Main Street filled with attractive stores that look like they’re right out of Mayberry RFD. Children splash rocks into an artificial pond near the Town Center. The streets have names like "Sycamore" and "Mulberry." The result: As USA Today put it, "walking down the streets of Celebration is a bit like walking onto a movie set." And to ensure that nothing goes amiss in their idealized community, Disney is exercising the same kind of control over Celebration that a director exercises over a movie set. For example, front window curtains must be white or off-white. Residents are not allowed to work on cars on the street. Even shrubbery must be approved by Disney. As one reporter put it, "Like all utopian communities… Celebration is pretty creepy. Already, a growing list of by-laws is in place to ensure the town is kept squeaky clean: no hanging out washing to dry and grass must be kept crew cut. This is a happy town, one big family. Right?" The most disturbing attempt at total control involves the religious life in Celebration. According to church leaders involved in setting up a church in Celebration, Disney wanted to have a say in the programming life of the church. It also wanted a Disney representative on the pastoral search committee. Fortunately, the church refused, and Disney backed off. But it’s a sign of how far Disney is willing to go to impose its prefab utopian vision. Think of it: Even the teachings of the church were expected to fit into Disney’s utopian vision. This story is a metaphor about the danger of all utopian schemes. Instead of the communal vision coming up from the people in the community, it is handed down from above—in this case, from a multi-billion dollar entertainment company. You end up with the "soft despotism" that de Tocqueville warned about. Religion is the first freedom—the foundation of all other freedoms and the basis of true community. Once that goes, true liberty goes out the window. The pretty pastel shutters on Celebration homes can’t hide the fact that beneath utopian schemes is coercion. Now, Celebration is in America, and if the residents tire of their loss of liberty, they can always move elsewhere—thank goodness. But this cotton-candy town is a reminder of how even an All-American utopian vision is really nothing to celebrate.


Chuck Colson


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