Celebration impacted by DeSantis’s feud with Disney

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CELEBRATION, Fla. — Ted Baker voted for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, strongly supporting his policies during the pandemic and leadership after Hurricane Ian plowed through the state last year. The lifelong Republican had also hoped to see DeSantis run for president and flush former president Donald Trump off the national stage.

But as Baker lounged on a folding chair near the “Happiest Place on Earth,” the 58-year-old retiree said the governor has lost his support due to his relentless squabbling with the builder and quasi-overseer of this idyllic town, the Walt Disney Co.

“He has done a wonderful job for the state of Florida, so why he has decided to pick a fight with Disney just doesn’t make any logical sense to me,” said Baker, who bought a $300,000 condominium in Celebration eight years ago after he retired from a public utility company in Ohio. “I now have people from Ohio calling me asking me, ‘If this is going on, is the governor screwing up other things in the state? And I will be very honest with you, as a moderate Republican, he’s lost my vote for presidency. And my wife’s too.”

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American flags decorate a home in Celebration in 2019.

Throughout Orlando and the bustling resort towns that have sprung up around Disney’s Florida theme parks, the intensifying political and legal battle between DeSantis (R) and Disney is being met with growing skepticism and concern from residents, business owners and elected officials who are eager for the dispute to subside.

Perhaps nowhere are those tensions more acutely felt than in Celebration, which Disney constructed in the early 1990s. Residents here bought into a dream — to live in a place with echoes of the magic of Disney World. Streets in Celebration are exceptionally clean and lawns immaculately manicured. A quaint downtown features pastel-hued buildings and ice cream shops. Many homeowners relocated from other states, hoping they’d found a place free of chaos and conflict.

Now, residents fear the feud between Disney and DeSantis could cast a shadow over their tranquil existence, as they find themselves caught in the middle of the dispute and forced to take sides.

“You have a lot of Disney fanatics in this town, a lot of them moved here or bought a second home here because of Disney,” said Lauren Gunnyon, the executive director of Celebration. “But you do have a wide range of political views.”

DeSantis’s battle against Disney began more than a year ago when the entertainment company spoke up against a new state law forbidding lessons related to sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade. DeSantis immediately pounced, orchestrating a state takeover of a special taxing district created decades ago to help build and maintain roads and utilities around Disney properties south and west of Orlando.

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The Disney character Ariel from the movie “The Little Mermaid” waves to the crowd at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

The drama intensified this spring after the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board, whose five members DeSantis appointed, discovered the outgoing Reedy Creek Improvement District had stripped them of most of their powers over the entertainment giant. On Tuesday, as DeSantis and the new board worked to undo the old board’s final actions, Disney sued the governor over what it called his “relentless campaign to weaponize government power.”

Amid broad confusion about whether the new DeSantis-backed panel will follow through on threats to enact new regulations and raise taxes, potentially hurting tourism, several Central Florida business owners spoke up this week to urge both sides to settle the spat.

“If you do something that affects us, thousands of Central Florida residents will suffer,” Shawna Heninger, president of a company that owns three businesses catering to Disney parkgoers and nearby residents, told board members at the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District meeting Wednesday. “It’s sort of like trickle-down economics.”

In Celebration, most residents and community leaders are hoping that the governor’s quarrel with Disney is a fleeting drama, more geared toward television sound bites than lasting public policy. The unincorporated town is governed by 10 community and homeowners associations as well as Osceola County, but some aspects of daily life are still ruled by Disney, and now, the DeSantis board.

The latter has a role in Celebration’s storm water and sewer management, as well as the distribution of natural gas. Some residents also receive electric service controlled by the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board. At the moment, some homeowners are engaged in a discussion with the DeSantis board over another testy topic: permitting for eight new pickleball courts.

“We are pretty much isolated in our little bubble,” Gunnyon said.

According to the book, “Celebration: The Story of a Town,” Disney co-founders and brothers Walt and Roy Disney had ambitions to reimagine urban living even before their first Florida theme park opened in 1971. By the late 1980s, Disney executives finalized their vision for Celebration, which was built as a neotraditional town based on five pillars — health, education, technology, sense of community and sense of place.

Disney broke ground on Celebration in 1994, opting to first build a commercial center of vibrantly painted restaurants and shops on the edge of a small lake. It then began selling single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums marketed to people who couldn’t get enough of the Magic Kingdom.

Potential buyers arrived, often had a meal, and then visited model homes. They then could climb a tower to see exactly where their new home would be built on the marsh.

The first residents arrived in Celebration in 1996, and today about 16,000 people live in the community. The town includes about a dozen distinct neighborhoods, some designed by world-renowned architects, and dozens of miles of walking trails and bicycle paths that meander through residential areas and ponds.

City streets and trails also connect residents to swimming pools and tennis, volleyball and basketball courts and three soccer fields. The community also has its own hospital, golf course, community church and library.

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American flags hang from businesses in Celebration in 2019.

“Disney just kind of makes magic happen,” said David Grasso, 38, whose family was one of the first inhabitants of the town and still owns several properties there. Grasso recalls how Disney would frequently bring actors and other celebrities to visit students who attended school in Celebration.

“Disney really invested in us, and they were very invested in making Celebration work,” he said.

In 2004, Disney handed over control of downtown Celebration to an independent developer. But a board appointed by Disney still has final say about what sorts of aesthetic and cosmetic changes can be made to the community — including the color of properties and whether a business can hang a sign over its front door.

Despite the town’s being only marginally linked to the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, Gunnyon said that the battle between it and Disney has gotten the attention of residents in Celebration, where voters were nearly evenly divided during the 2020 presidential election.

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For 26 years, Debra McDonald has been a resident of Celebration, Fla., a residential and commercial community built by Disney in the 1990s. At a recent Central Florida Tourism Oversight District meeting, McDonald spoke out against the “feud” between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney, which she believes is hurting her local community.

“I had one resident who was just in here saying he is very supportive of Governor DeSantis,” she said. “And I just had another resident here saying, ‘He’s crazy. What is he doing? This is Disney!’”

As residents licked ice cream cones and nibbled on fudge while wandering around town this week, many said they moved to Celebration to avoid political discussions. But they concede that’s harder to do now as residents stake out opposing sides or grapple with their own views about the battle between the governor and Disney.

“Disney should have never gotten political,” shouted one angry homeowner who has lived in Celebration for more than 20 years but declined to identify themselves, except to say they supported DeSantis’s backing the law that critics refer to as the “don’t say gay” bill. “Disney lost a lot of support. They had a good thing going, but they put their foot in their mouth.”

But a few yards away, Bonnie O’Connell and Dale Lack, both of whom moved to Celebration about seven years ago, said they are thrilled that Disney is challenging DeSantis in court. As they sipped coffee in front of Le Macaron French Pastries, both women said they lean politically toward the Democrats and hope the controversy scuttles DeSantis’s presidential ambitions.

“He’s very vindictive about everything,” O’Connell said.

Lack noted that one of DeSantis’ appointees to the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board, Bridget Ziegler, was a founding member of Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that is engaged in testy battles over textbooks and how race and LGBTQ issues are taught in schools.

“No one is really sure what will happen to us and what power the board will have over us,” Lack said. “Disney is still involved with us, and we are just smack dab in the middle of things.”

Beyond uncertainty about the political environment, Lack said left-leaning Celebration residents are stressed over whether the feud could eventually lead to higher costs for homeowners. Two weeks ago, the governor threatened to hike utility costs on Disney-aligned properties. He even tossed out an idea to build a competing theme park or a state prison next to Disney-owned land.

“I think the possibilities are endless,” DeSantis said.

Homeowners in Celebration pay $1,166 in annual membership dues, in addition to condominium or HOA dues. Lack said some condominium owners are already struggling to pay special assessments for maintenance projects linked to new state regulations implemented in response to the collapse of a condominium building in 2021 in Surfside, Fla.

“There are a lot of people who lived here who have already gotten priced out,” Lack said. “I just hope this new board doesn’t impact us.”

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A lakeside view of Celebration on June 28, 2019.

But for now, Celebration continues to boom. Mirroring trends in other parts of the state, home values here soared during the pandemic.

Dana Hall-Bradley, a real estate agent at Better Homes and Gardens Fine Living, said two-bedroom condominiums sell for an average of about $350,000 in Celebration. Single family homes can top out at about $2.5 million.

“People were buying homes sight unseen [during the pandemic], and it just never stopped,” said Hall-Bradley, adding that home prices jumped from about $220 to $320 per square foot since 2020. “The majority of people who we worked with told us they moved here because we never shut down [for the covid-19 pandemic] or for political reasons.”

As he lounged in a rocking chair watching turtles bob around Celebration’s Lake Rianhard, James Stronge said he enjoys his impeccable quality of life in the town. The education professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., moved here three years ago and now rarely has to drive a vehicle.

A political independent, Stronge said he supports much of DeSantis’s agenda and said he was a strong leader during both the pandemic and Hurricane Ian. He believes both Disney and DeSantis are to blame for getting entangled in what he referred to as “public spitting match.”

“I don’t think it was Disney’s business to try to assert what elected officials in Florida decide for their constituents,” Stronge said. “It’s not Disney’s business to try to tell Floridians what to do.”

“And the governor,” he added, “went way beyond what he needed to do. He’s just a political creature, and probably mean-spirited.”

Both Stronge and Baker, the Republican who will no longer support DeSantis, said they had hoped that the governor’s feud with Disney would have ended in December, when the company’s board ousted former CEO Bob Chapek.

The board instead hired Robert Iger, who had previously served as CEO from 2005 to 2020. Iger has referred to DeSantis as “anti-business and anti-Florida” — a point that also helped persuade Baker to abandon his support for the governor.

“I am not the kind of person who he should want to lose,” Baker said. “I am the kind of person who wants the Republican Party to move back away from where it’s headed, and right the ship.”

But Baker, who has been visiting Disney theme parks annually for more than two decades, knows that Celebration will far outlast DeSantis, regardless of whether he also becomes president.

© Melina Mara/The Washington Post
Celebration is a master-planned community developed by Walt Disney Co. with picturesque streets, manicured lawns, perfect homes, family parks, and miles of trails.

It’s the sort of place to which people keep returning.

As Neil and Julianna Ricketts ate ice cream on Celebration’s Front Street, the couple recalled how they got engaged 25 years ago in the town’s Lakeside Park. A month later, the couple got married in Celebration.

The couple, who live about 30 minutes south of Orlando, are politically conservative and religious. They named their five daughters after spiritual or Biblical references — Liberty, Glory, Grace, Justice and Faith — and the family often returns to Celebration for dinners, staycations and family walks.

“This was a pretty new place when we first came here, but it still always feels new,” Neil Ricketts, 51, said. “We still spend most of our anniversaries here, and I don’t think it’s changed.”

Asked about DeSantis’s dispute with Disney, Julianna Ricketts, 58, cringed. She felt an emotion she almost never feels at her happy place, Celebration.

She felt stressed.

“I do like Ron DeSantis,” she said, adding that she hopes he runs against Trump for the GOP nomination. “But I love Disney, too. I don’t know which way to lean and hope I don’t have to decide.”

Reporter Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.