In 2011, Disney opened Golden Oak, a luxury residential community on the grounds of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Designed by Walt Disney Imagineers, it consists of five neighborhoods and nearly three hundred individual homes ranging from $1.5 million to $8 million. The Golden Oak development represents both a continuation and a departure from the company’s earlier forays into urban planning including E.P.C.O.T. and Celebration, Florida. While communal buildings and green spaces are part of the development, Golden Oak does not incorporate many of the key elements of urban planning like schools, hospitals, or public transportation. By examining three short sales movies produced to promote Golden Oak (and hosted on its website), we can see how shifting corporate and institutional priorities influence the relationship between community development and corporate branding. The result has been a noticeable shift in Disney’s conception of community through the blurring of distinctions between resident and fan and even between employee and family member.
1966 Promotional film for E.P.C.O.T. starring Walt Disney
Disney’s first foray into urban development was its proposal for E.P.C.O.T (the Experimental Community Prototype of Tomorrow). In a 1966 promotional film, Walt Disney explained the principles behind the planned residential and industrial community to be built on the new property in Florida. It would be a modern, integrated environment that would rationalize all elements of public and private life including housing, labor, parks. Disney’s plans incorporated public services such as schools, churches, playgrounds, mass transportation (using the Monorail and People Mover technology that was already in use at Disneyland), and even climate control, through a proposed glass dome that would protect residents from inclement weather. These plans were shelved when Disney died shortly after the film was produced. (The name EPCOT was repurposed for the theme park that opened in Disney World in 1982, although any connections to urban planning were dropped).
Some of the ideas behind Disney’s urban development strategies were revived for Celebration, a planned residential community that was unveiled in 1996, and currently has approximately 10,000 residents. Though developed by Disney to invoke the small-town nostalgia that was central to much of the Disney park experience, Celebration was geographically separated from the parks (and the company sold much of its stake in the town in 2004). The town was rooted in the principles of New Urbanism, and emphasized pedestrian-friendly communities, accessible public spaces, and mixed-use zoning. It would offer progressive schools, top health facilities, and innovative technology. Yet, the utopian ambitions of Celebration quickly ran into a myriad of problems, including a growing economic and cultural disparity between the town and the surrounding Osceola County, where median incomes are about half the size and outside corporate development is permitted. The ambitious plans for the schools and technology were scaled back or abandoned. While this disparity has been blamed by residents for chipping away at Disney’s communal ambitions for the town, in the case of Golden Oaks, a sense of exclusivity was emphasized as a reason to relocate and purchase one of the homes in the community.
In comparison to E.P.C.O.T. and Celebration, the sales movies for Golden Oak foreground the community’s connection to the adjacent Disney theme parks. The proximity to the parks are framed as more than just an incentive to relocate to Orlando, as the movies are addressed to an ideal Disney consumer who sees no distinction between regular visits to the theme parks and investing in a luxury real estate development. In other words, Disney recruits new residents by positioning Golden Oak as the apex of fan engagement with the company, albeit one that is inherently limited. For instance, in one of the videos, residents are taken on a private safari at Animal Kingdom Park, which is notably absent of all other parkgoers. One of the attendees explains that though he has been coming to Disney World for all these years, he “never knew some of this stuff existed…I learned a lot when I was becoming a resident here. Its like you’re in the know.” Residency here is synonymous with knowledge of the park, and even Disney’s emphasis on the operational aesthetic, enabling a deeper fan engagement that only be obtained by purchasing a Disney-developed property. Another video shows a meal being prepared for residents at the high-end clubhouse restaurant using organic vegetables harvested from The Land pavilion at Epcot Center. The promotional videos thus help blur the line between resident and tourist as well as between the public space of the theme park and private homes.
Nicholas Sammond argues the Disney theme parks have historically hailed an ideal visitor– wealthy, white, and upholding the company’s long-standing investment in family and gender normativity. Likewise, the Golden Oak movies attempt to appeal to this same resident. All of the videos show families who present as both Caucasian and wealthy enjoying themselves – while wearing Disney-branded clothing – in both the private homes and communal spaces. In the videos, Disney links the company’s traditional emphasis on family values to its revived role as private real estate developer. Many of the recreational spaces in Golden Oak make this connection even more explicit, and are branded with physical representations of Disney’s animated movie characters. The introductory video for instance includes footage of a manicured park and pond with bronze statues from The Little Mermaid. Other areas have statues of characters from Bambi or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Golden Oak differs from Disney’s earlier attempts at urban development in its abandonment of an attempt to connect residency to some larger sense of public good, even it is only participating in a city planning experiment. To assuage concerns of elitism and ensure that residency in Golden Oak is compatible with the company’s democratic rhetoric, company employees do much of the labor of selling Golden Oak to prospective buyers in the videos. Rather than speaking directly about the benefits of buying into the development, Disney employees including an event planner, chef, and van driver explain how much they enjoy working at Golden Oak and how they feel as though they are part of the community. Residents reinforce this sunny conception of their labor, as one explains, “We get so close to the cast members, they’re just as much a part of our community as we are.” So here the videos blur distinctions that have historically defined the Disney theme parks (and Disney company more generally if we account for events such as the 1941 Disney Animators’ Strike), not only between employee and owner, but also between the ultra wealthy and working class.
Golden Oak has been a financial success for Disney, and more than six years after it opened, it is planning for additional home expansions and park developments. This success is seemingly due to Disney’s marketing of Golden Oak, not just an ideal community but also as the ideal place for its most dedicated fans. But unlike the more ambitious planned communities of E.P.C.O.T. and Celebration, the implications for urban planning seem much more limited here since many of the functions of local government are left for other communities to address.