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A New 'Happiest Place on Earth'



In the most recent episode of the baby boomers' never-ending quest to turn all of life into one big childhood fantasy, the creators of "the happiest place on Earth" have entered the home construction business. The generation that grew up on the popular attraction "House of the Future" in Disneyland can now live in the town of the future--or is it the town of the past?

When the Walt Disney Company presented the grand opening of Celebration, Florida, two weeks ago, the masters of make-believe showed that they could build a real-life town. Set on 1,900 acres south of Orlando, Celebration is the name of a large-scale housing development which Disney built and will manage. The town was especially designed to facilitate community gatherings and neighborly interaction. Houses have front porches, picket fences and other amenities often overlooked in modern construction. Years before "family values" hit the limelight of the political scene, Disney had already begun planning this $2.5 billion project to bring the neighborhood of "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" to some 20,000 residents of the 1990s. "Family" issues are selling well in the political marketplace, and now they are selling on the real-estate market as well.

Don't expect a new, larger-scale House of the Future. Instead, Celebration was "imagineered" to appeal to many Americans' nostalgic desire for a retro ideal: a small-town life in which neighbors have cook-outs, streets are safe and the neighborhood schools act as the center of an active and friendly community.

Why has Disney shifted from giving us a glimpse of the future to granting us a memory of the past? Why does "small-town USA" attract a '90s crowd the way "21st-century technology" once attracted citizens of the '50s?

Perhaps the answer is that while the House of the Future ride was a success at Disneyland, what may be called the "House of the Future project"--the popular belief in the 1950s and onward that through new technology ultimate prosperity would be secured--failed in America. The House of the Future ride at Disneyland sent the message to those who viewed it that a newer, more advanced house would be a happier home as well.

Today, however, people no longer wait longingly for the day when technological breakthroughs will revolutionize life and cure all its ills. In fact, the looming shadow of technology giant Microsoft seems to scare people more than impress them. We have seen many of the technologies first displayed to Disneyland tourists--including microwave ovens and dishwashing machines--pop up in our own houses, but the euphoria which many imagined would accompany them has failed to arrive. We now live in the House of the Future, but many would rather return much of contemporary life to a display case. That is not to say these luxuries are unappreciated, only that they no longer represent for us "the future as it ought to be." Futuristic technology did not bring the peace of mind that many expected; today, people's search for happiness has begun to appeal to the older institution of family.

For many, the "House of the Future Project" has been replaced by the "Home of the Past Project." This new project is an attempt to find, in family, the happiness which many had hoped that technology would bring. It is a reaction against the trend which began in the 1960s and '70s, when the American family began to disintegrate as technological dreams materialized. Beginning in the 1960s, the family became open to attack as a nest of oppression and pathology. As one example, David Cooper, a psychiatrist of the time, denounced the institution of family as "a secret suicide ideological conditioning device in any exploitative society." It is therefore no wonder that three decades later, a New York Times op-ed piece would announce that the nuclear family is "fast becoming a relic of the Eisenhower era."

Yet despite the fact that the old technological dream has become a reality and despite the erosion of family structures many in the '60s and '70s saw as a hindrance to human flourishing, people seem as dissatisfied as ever. In fact, many baby boomers have found that no amount of material success could satisfy their desires for meaning. That generation which had been so eager to conquer the cold industrial world, now looks fondly upon the simpler time of its growing up and is anxious to restore it at any price. This is the type of sentiment upon which Disney hopes to capitalize by offering a town centered around its school and community. It appears as if the current idea of the American dream is less about having two cars in every garage than it is about having two parents in every household.

The idea that a high-tech house hold will be a happy one does not appeal to our generation as it once did to our parents' generation. People have found that it is easier for technology to help us escape the earth and tour the moon than to mend the planet's ills. In fact, many now harbor a level of resentment toward progress, which is sometimes viewed as an instrument to undermine the stability of society. We recognize the importance of having strong community goals underlying our technological advances. Indeed, both technology and community are required to move forward without forgetting where we have been. Without a vision of progress, tribalism can stifle growth. Without a grounding in community, life lacks the structure necessary to fully appreciate those material achievements.

It is as an attempt at combining these two projects, those of the House of the Future and the Home of the Past, that Disney's Celebration should be celebrated. Beneath the small-town facade lies a state-of-the-art system that includes a computer network designed to keep the entire community connected. The school's exterior may invoke nostalgia, but its curriculum will aim directly at the future. Here, however, it is hoped that individual progress will not come at the expense of community or family. Although Disney sets the guidelines for town policies, the planned community does not have the impositional overtones often associated with the "family values" agenda; there are no screenings for residents and no preferences in housing sales. In theory, Celebration is an attempt to facilitate the type of progress which the baby boom created without involving the sacrifices to the American family that have characterized the past three-and-a-half decades.

Will Celebration live up to its billing? I fear it will not. Whereas Disney's parks are insulated by walls and admission charges, Disney's town will have to face the realities of modern social dynamics. One fears that this town of the past will find its simplicity under siege by a world which is no longer as simple. Nevertheless, the fact that such a project has been fully implemented is a positive sign. It shows that venture capital can be employed in conjunction with social capital. It is a sign of remorse from those who, until now, chose individual prosperity over social continuity, and is a challenge to show that the two can coexist. Furthermore, it shows that communities can be assembled based on common values without an appeal to social or ethnic homogeneity.

Most importantly, we must root for the success of Celebration. The town will be a project closely watched, and its fate closely scrutinized. In an America which has often become extremely cynical about the dreams of prosperity it once represented, this most visible example of that skepticism must not fail. It is comforting to know that somewhere in America, a town which embodies both our nostalgia and our quest for progress looks toward the future. Maybe Disney can help bring life a little bit closer to what we would like to imagine.

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