Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Mayhem in the Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney was a dreamer at heart. The creator of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse had Utopian visions of a town where life would be perfect down to the last blade of grass. It wasn't built until three decades after he died, and now it has been rocked by violence--a SWAT team barricade, a suicide and murder.

It began with euphoria. One evening in late 1966, Disney stopped by my McCalls office for a drink. He could hardly contain himself describing a new addition to Disney World to be called Epcot, an ideal community he had pictured in detail.

The homes would be identical and perfect, there would be rules for everything, and he himself would choose the residents. (I recalled John Leonard once writing that as a teenager he had applied to be a Disney guide, but "I failed the physical, I wasn't blond enough").

After our second drink, I asked a question. "With so much control over everyone, aren't you worried some people might call you Fascist?"

"Oh, well," Disney answered with a wave of the hand, "everything I've ever done was so new it took the public a while to get used to it. But they always come around."

A month later, Walt Disney died, and his successors scrapped the blue-eyed Utopian blueprint and turned Epcot into just another section of the theme park.

But Disney dreams die hard, and in 1995, 4,000 people took part in a lottery for the chance to pay 25 percent over market price for one of the first 500 homes in what one visitor now calls a "‘Stepford Wives’ community. As soon as you drive in, it’s creepy...for people who don’t think anything bad is ever going to happen to them.”

Now, the town of Celebration, a few miles from Disney World in Orlando, has been shocked into the 21st century. After a wave of foreclosures and the shuttering of their movie theater, residents are struggling to keep the original dream alive.

A couple who moved away write that the recent history says "more about society’s enduring fascination with the unobtainable vision of utopia than it does about the town itself. Residents there long ago got over the idea that their home was another ride at the Magic Kingdom. They know that not everyone lives happily ever after, even in the town that Disney built."

But the founder himself would never believe that. If he were still alive, Walt Disney would still be building castles in the air, confident that people "always come around."

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