Leaks and Mold Are Ruining the Disney Magic in Celebration, Florida

By Gabriel T. Rubin

CELEBRATION, Fla.—In November, 1996, Walt Disney Co. unveiled the nation’s first Disney-built theme town, an 11-square-mile enclave near the Magic Kingdom designed to be a modern-day suburban Utopia. Homes the color of orange sherbet and buttercream frosting were graced with picket fences and Southern-style porches, intended to create an old-fashioned sense of community.

Celebration, as it was called, was the outgrowth of a fantasy dreamed up by Walt Disney himself.

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, some of Celebration’s residents aren’t doing much celebrating. Condominium owners say they are battling leaky roofs, balconies that have become separated from the sides of buildings and mold spreading in their walls. Their properties have become so dilapidated, they say, they’re having trouble selling them.

“We bought cabins on the Titanic,” said Cookie Kelly, 73 years old, who has lived in Celebration since 1998.

In a civil suit filed in April, the condo owners’ association is seeking to force Lexin Capital, which took control of part of Celebration in 2004, to pay for upward of $15 million to $20 million in repairs.

“The town does have wear and tear. I’m not going to dispute that,” said Metin Negrin, president of private-equity firm Lexin Capital, although he estimated repairs would cost closer to $5 million, including $1 million already spent. “If you think I’m enjoying this you’re wrong.”

Disney’s utopian experiment actually began earlier, in 1965, when the company bought 27,000 acres in Florida for about $5 million, a tract twice the size of Manhattan, according to “Celebration: The Story of a Town,” a book on the town’s history by Michael Lassell.Some of that land became Celebration. The company sold the town center to Lexin in January 2004.

Originally, Disney planners had a rosy vision. The town’s logo featured a pigtailed girl

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riding a bike by a picket fence with her dog running behind her. There were sidewalks and old-timey streetlights and the locals would know their neighbors and walk to the grocery store. The community hosts autumn leaf festivals and nightly fake snowfalls during the Christmas season. Residents decorate their properties with Mickey Mouse memorabilia and street signs point the way to “awesome Sunday brunch” and “casual conversations.”

When it designed the community, Disney was determined to remove the unsightly elements of typical American suburban life—even garbage bins. “Get the garbage behind the house,” former Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Eisner said to residents at a talk earlier this month commemorating the town’s 20th anniversary, according to a recording reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Eisner acknowledged some early touches—such as music twinkling from inside bushes—were a bit over the top.

 

Celebration now has a population of about 10,000 people, spread across 105 condo units and about 4,000 single-family homes. Paul Collins, one of the town’s original homeowners, says the community brings together Republicans such as himself with “bleeding-heart liberals.” Celebration, he added, “is the solution to a lot of problems this country faces.”

On the home front, however, Mr. Collins said he has been having problems with a leak in his brick estate home, which, he said, wasn’t properly constructed especially given Florida’s humid climate.

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“Truly as a kid I loved Disney, loved everything about it,” said Ms. Kelly, a longtime fan of Disney movies, especially Pinocchio. Ms. Kelly, who did graduate work in architectural history, said she took the subdivision as a serious experiment in New Urbanism—a movement that promotes neighborhoods with housing, shopping and public space in proximity.

At 4’10,” she was also the perfect height to play characters at the nearby theme park—though she isn’t supposed to say which ones.

In the early days, she recalled, Disney threw lavish events in the town center, including bringing in dump trucks full of sand to create a fake beach with buried treasure, and setting up a “little phony farmers market.”

“People would say, ‘Isn’t this cute?’ I would go, ‘No this is not cute! You need to understand … it is stunning how they organized it.”

Over the years, the community has struggled a bit, she said. The foreclosure crisis that battered Florida also hit Celebration. The general store closed, as did the movie theater, a bakery and a kitchen store.

Today, Mr. Negrin said the retail and office space is 90% leased—mostly with restaurants and clothing stores. The downtown that once eschewed chain stores now boasts a Starbucks.

Leaking condo roofs are draped with blue tarps, balconies are buttressed with temporary beams, mold is blooming inside apartments and columns holding up some buildings are rotting, residents said.

“They’re harassing my team every day. They’re cursing them,” Mr. Negrin said of the residents. “It’s easy to ask for everything new when you’re not paying for it.” He said the condo association has shirked its responsibility over the years to pay its dues for upkeep of the buildings, demanding he do all of the work.

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While Disney hired world-famous architects to design many of the buildings, the company neglected the basic integrity of the structures, Mr. Negrin said. Balconies slope toward some buildings instead of away from them, and some walls are lined with nylon, which traps the water and causes rotting.

“No amount of maintenance could have avoided these kinds of issues because it wasn’t built properly. We feel we are victims here too,” he said.

Disney said it owned the buildings in the town center for about eight years and didn’t experience structural problems. The company said it hadn’t had responsibility for maintenance since the sale.

Disney still retains some input into the aesthetics of the town—exterior paint colors, roof tiles, the style of front porches—but little direct control over maintenance. Still, residents said they believe Disney should step in because the neglect is destroying the town’s charming look.

“There’s nothing more insulting with the 20th anniversary…than to parade people through, whitewash the front of the buildings, put lipstick on a pig,” said Laurel Rousseau, the condo board president. “Meanwhile we have condos we can’t sell.”

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