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Is Utopia a pointless dream?

Updated Thursday 4th September 2008

Not short of a bob or two, Ian Hislop must know what it’s like to live in a perfect world. Or does he? Ever Wondered sent him to America with nothing but a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia to find if there is such a thing as a perfect world...

Ian Hislop Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Ever since the first settlers landed, America has been an aspirational society, they want to do it better, they want to be happier. Just outside Orlando in Florida, the latest experiment in turning dream into reality is taking place. Ian goes to investigate Disney’s Celebration.

Doug Frantz Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Doug Frantz is a journalist for the New York Times and co-author of Celebration USA

Ian: Doug, what is Celebration?

Doug Frantz: Well, Celebration is an attempt by the Walt Disney Company to build an alternative to the suburb in America. Since the end of World War II what we’ve seen all across this country is a proliferation of big houses on huge lots. People who live there depend on their cars, and we’ve suddenly realised over the last 10 years that there’s a better way to live, and that better way to live - for many people - is going to be places like Celebration.

Although the residents here won’t admit it, Celebration is a Utopian community, and it’s a Utopian community because the planners who came here were trying to build a better town.

They created five cornerstones for Celebration. There’s health or wellness, we’ve got a big hospital and a grand fitness centre. There’s technology, most of these houses are wired with the latest access to the Internet. The third one is education, there’s a kindergarten through 12th grade school. And the other two are sense of place and sense of community.

A house in celebration Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Ian Hislop: Are there rules about living here? It can’t look like this by accident?

Doug Frantz: No, it doesn’t. There are a lot of rules that come with the territory. When you buy your house or rent your apartment you sign a book of rules from "don’t harass the alligators" to growing the right kinds of plants in your garden. You can’t have two houses the same colour next door to each other and you’re not allowed to put out a ’For Sale’ sign in Celebration.

Front of a house in celebration Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

When people come here they tend to think it’s an unticketed gate at Disneyworld. Well it’s not, this is a real town with real people and these rules have a real function even if we don’t always like them.

If you would like to find out more about Thomas More’s Utopia then have a look at course AA305 The Renaissance in Europe: a Cultural Enquiry.

So Celebration sounds pretty good on paper, and looks pretty good in reality. But is it Utopia? A Utopia has come to mean a visionary political and social system. It was a term coined by Thomas More in 1516. Thomas More was a lawyer, Renaissance scholar, Lord Chancellor of England, and eventually a saint. He was also a friend of Henry VIII, but this didn’t stop the King chopping his head off for treason. But despite all this, the thing that he’ll be remembered for most, is this Utopia.

Prof Bruce Stephenson and Ian Hislop Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Prof. Bruce Stephenson lectures at Rollins College.

 

Ian: What was Thomas More trying to do?

Prof. Bruce Stephenson: Like all Utopian writers, Thomas More was trying to give us a model. We always have to have a Utopia to compare our own lives too and I think the great thing about More and his Utopia is, it forces you to think about your lives and your society.

Ian: Do you think they’ve got the balance here?

Prof. Bruce Stephenson: Visually, and from architectural and planning design, they’ve done a wonderful job. But the question becomes: do you want a corporation, rather than a city council making your decisions and my answer is no.

Ian: So democracy will have to take over here?

Prof. Bruce Stephenson: Yes, and I think that’s the real story of Celebration and America, in the next generation we are going to be a nation of citizens not consumers.

Ian: Isn’t it odd that the Disney corporation of all people who seem to represent that American consumerism have come up as the benefactor of a town that’s trying to take America away from that?

Prof. Bruce Stephenson: Yes and, as an academic, I should hate Disney. But what Disney has done is that they’ve taken this really amazing complex issue of town development, put it together in a very meaningful way to establish a legacy, and it’s hard to separate this fantasyworld of Disney to the fantasy of this place, Celebration.

Thomas More’s Utopia is a peaceful, crime-free, ordered paradise. But it’s more radical than that. There’s no poverty, there’s no private property. There’s no unemployment, and idleness is forbidden. Divorce is allowed, and so is euthanasia. There’s democracy, good food, but no nice clothes, and no jewellery. The community eats together, listens to educational readings, and then goes to bed at eight o’clock. But what were the ideals of the real people who moved into Disney’s Utopia?

Catherine Collins lives in Celebration and is co-author of Celebration USA.

Catherine Collins Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Catherine Collins: This is a town where initially some people came with a great faith in Disney. They expected to move here and find their troubled marriages get fixed and their kids having straight A’s and world peace. Those perhaps were the people who’ve been most disappointed.

I think Disney is a company that people love, or love to hate, and regardless of what your criticism of the company is, you have to give it credit for putting its cards on the table and making this place. The success of this town I think is an indication of what people are looking for.

People are really unhappy with the suburbs today, with the anonymity of their suburbs, and really many people are unhappy with gated communities, with the isolation that they find there and people are concerned about the cities and what’s happening there. And this, while maybe not an answer for everyone, there’s at least something from which we can all learn.

Musician in celebration Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Perhaps you would like to find out more about philosophical issues and how they arise in familar questions. Then have a look at course A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation.

Update

Ian Hislop went in search of Utopia in 1999. In 2003, Disney started to scale back its involvement in Celebration considerably, selling much of the property it owned in the town and reducing the role of staff in taking decisions affecting the community. The New York Times reported these changes in more detail.

Take Utopias further

Books you can read

Celebration, USA
Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, Henry Holt and Company

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town
Andrew Ross, Ballantine Books

Utopia
Thomas More

 

Modern Utopia
H.G Wells

No Place like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept
Peter Blake, W W Norton and Co

Weblinks

The Celebration town website

American Studies on Disney's Dream Town

A virtual tour of Celebration with a Photo Gallery

Read More's Utopia online

What is to be gained by studying philosophy? Derek Matravers explains

Courses

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

 

 

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