The Walt Disney Company developed and built an innovative school in Florida, and the fallout was nothing short of disastrous. Perhaps the company should learn the value of staying in its lane.
Disney is second to none in immersive family entertainment, incomparable theme park offerings, Broadway-style stage shows, and travel opportunities. Add to that Disney’s extensive merchandise around the globe, inspired by every imaginable Disney character, story, film, and series, and it’s easy to see why The Walt Disney Company is considered the entertainment giant around the world.
But, as is characteristic of many publicly-traded entities, enough is never enough, and throughout the years, Disney has become one of the most diversified companies on earth. Not only has the company acquired multiple entities, including PIXAR, 21st Century Fox, Marvel, Star Wars, Miramax, and many more. But Disney has long had an itch the company just cannot scratch. As such, Disney’s myriad of acquisitions was only part of the company’s attempts at continually boosting earnings, as well as at branding the Disney name so that it remained synonymous with entertainment authority.
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Disneyland Resort opened to Guests in July 1955, and almost immediately, Walt Disney began making plans for his next family theme park resort, this time amidst the alligators, snakes, and humidity of the swamplands of Central Florida, just outside of the City of Orlando. In 1971, nearly five years after Walt’s untimely death, the first Guests walked through the turnstiles at Magic Kingdom, and Disney made history yet again. It cannot be overstated that over the years, The Walt Disney Company has enjoyed wild success in almost all of its endeavors.
But twenty years later, Disney would go to work on a brand-new project unlike anything ever attempted by the company up to that time–one that was successful in its own right, but one that would lead to another project that was nothing if not disastrous.
During the early 1990s, Disney films were booming at the box office, and Disney’s theme parks were enjoying continually increasing attendance numbers. It was a period of even greater success for The Walt Disney Company. Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then known as Disney-MGM Studios) was only a couple of years old, and Guests loved it. As such, Disney’s Imagineers saw an opportunity for more growth and expansion on a portion of Disney’s unused property located just east of Interstate 4 in Osceola County, Florida.
The idea for the development of a Disney-owned city was really a culmination of the imagination and efforts of Walt Disney Imagineering, the Disney Development Company, and the Walt Disney World Resort. Then-CEO Michael Eisner led the charge to construct a dream town of sorts–one that would be named “Celebration.” The interest in living in Disney’s new town was so high that a lottery was held to determine who would be given the chance to become a resident of Disney’s Celebration, Florida.
The town was officially created in 1994, and the first resident moved into Celebration, Florida, as a permanent resident in 1996.
The town is home to structures that feature architecture reminiscent of Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, and even Main Street, U. S. A., at the Walt Disney World Resort. There was an obvious “Disney difference” in the town, and residents and visitors alike noticed the nods to Walt Disney himself as Celebration showcased a vintage Americana charm–something Walt had always included in his projects.
Though Celebration was not the EPCOT for which Walt pined, it seemed to almost have a utopian feel to it, especially in the time following its inception.
But Disney kept moving forward in its development of Celebration, Florida, in which the heart of the community was supposed to have been its innovative, cutting-edge school for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. In a promotional video created for Celebration’s first home buyers, a narrator explains the town as a “place of caramel apples and cotton candy” and “a place where even the daily grind of school is a sepia-tinted celebration.” But the school, which was planned and promoted as a focal point in the Disney-owned community, quickly became only a flash point–and things would only get worse from there.
The New York Times featured an article in March 1999 about Celebration that highlighted “reasons to celebrate” the new Disney-owned community. In it, the writer talks about Celebration School, which, at the time of the publication, boasted an enrollment of 800 students in grades K through 12.
“[Celebration School] offers hands-on instruction in multigrade classrooms. Recently, some of the high schoolers created web pages for local businesses. The school is operated by the Celebration Company in conjunction with the Osceola County School District. The government for the unincorporated development is run by the five-member Community Development District, elected by property owners. Fees, averaging about $400 a year, paid to the association for the maintenance of public areas, are added to the bill for property taxes. But the lifestyle is clearly not for everyone.”
In a span of fewer than three years, Celebration School was no longer seen as the innovative next-generation school situated in Disney’s thriving little Town of Celebration, Florida. Instead, according to The Orlando Sentinel, Celebration School was at the center of heated controversy fueled by “high expectations and intense limelight, innovative teaching methods praised as progressive by some and derided as kooky by others, and sometimes-disappointing test scores.”
The controversy over Celebration School became so intense that “some parents pulled their children out to drive them long distances to other Osceola County schools or school them at home.” Some families went so far as to sell their brand-new homes and move away from Celebration, “convinced that their kids would never get a proper education at the neat, pastel-toned school just a few blocks from the town center.”
“In any new community, the school is always a flash point,” said Andrew Ross, the director of American Studies at New York University, who spent a year living in Celebration so he could write his book titled, The Celebration Chronicles, published in September 1999. While many communities face the growing pains of rapid growth coupled with limited resources, the atmosphere of the community and the history surrounding the Town of Celebration lent themselves to a greater sense of pressure regarding the school.
For starters, parents of students enrolled in Celebration School had extremely high expectations, largely because of the role Disney played in Celebration. Additionally, residents who paid higher home prices when compared to other non-Celebration homes in Osceola County, Florida, said they expected a private school education for their children, despite the fact that Celebration School was a public school.
“We’ve got the same problems that every other school has: not enough money and trying to keep teachers,” said Dan Bumpus, chairman of the school’s advisory committee, who has two children in the school.
Celebration School saw uncharacteristically rapid growth, from only 200 students when it opened to almost 1,000 students in less than three years. According to education experts, new schools don’t “hit their strides” in less than three to five years. But that did little to quell the uproar over the school, which was financially supported by Disney. And the very selling point of the school ultimately became parents’ reason for attack when their expectations weren’t met.
While lots of parents enrolled their children at Celebration School because of its “innovative” teaching and learning methods, many of them began attacking that innovation, saying they weren’t ready for the “ultra-progressive” methods used by the school. Per Click Orlando, Celebration School’s outside-the-box methods were very different indeed:
“Students are taught in ‘neighborhoods’ of 100 students by teams of four teachers. The neighborhoods include children of different ages, who sometimes help teach one another. Teachers write detailed essays on each student’s progress, which are viewed as even more important than grades and test scores. The neighborhoods meet in large open rooms where several activities are going on at once. There are no orderly rows of desks.
The practices were developed based on recommendations from experts at a host of universities, including Harvard, Stetson, Auburn, and the University of Central Florida. Some of the experts continue to study the school and its progress and have been asked to write reports. While their reviews have identified such problems as heavy teacher workload and insufficient planning, the experts remain committed to the overall concepts.”
But when students began earning failing test scores, many parents laid the blame at the feet of the school and its “chaotic conditions in the neighborhood classrooms” and began demanding more traditional methods of teaching. While some of the assessment results showed Celebration School students scoring highest among Osceola students in reading and math, other assessments showed students with below-average abilities in writing.
“The academics are about on par with other Osceola schools, and the kids are safer,” said resident Joseph Palacio, a vocal critic of the school, “but we’re not paying Osceola County housing prices to be here.”
Because the school, like the community in which it was located, had Disney’s name written all over it, educators faced national media attention, intense scrutiny, and high pressure.
“Expectations are on the moon,” Celebration teacher Jackie Flanigan said. “Everything you do is under the scrutiny of a public that is not necessarily receptive to anything that is not conservative. That’s a lot of pressure for the school’s teachers.”
High teacher turnover, as well as low teacher pay, only served to make matters worse. In 1999, despite Disney’s financial backing, Celebration School teachers were being paid the same as other Osceola County teachers–between $25,000 and $46,000 annually. Under such scrutiny from parents, the community, and the nation, what incentive did educators have to remain at their posts?
Troy Braley was a teacher at Celebration School with more than 15 years of experience in education. But after just one year at Celebration School, Braley said he wasn’t hired back for the next school year and decided to leave Celebration. According to Braley, the school failed in many ways. Textbooks and computers didn’t arrive until midyear, and some of the school’s science labs had no water or gas.
“[Celebration School] is a very toxic environment,” he said.
Today, Disney is no longer associated with the Town of Celebration or with Celebration School. Current enrollment at the school is more than 1,500 students, and according to GreatSchools.com, the school has an average rating of three stars out of five, and test scores indicate student performance that exceeds state averages.
“Students at [Celebration School] are making more academic progress given where they were last year, compared to similar students in the state,” reads an online report at GreatSchools. “Strong progress with high test scores means students have strong academic skills, and the school is doing a better job at supporting academic growth than most other schools.”
Perhaps The Walt Disney Company doesn’t have the Midas touch in every enterprise after all, suggesting the House of Mouse is better suited for setting the standard for film and theme park entertainment, as well as for leaving education to the experts.