How Celebration, the real-life town Disney created inspired my piece about fake nostalgia

Greg Wohead’s new piece, Celebration, Florida, was prompted by the entire town created by the Walt Disney Company

Greg Wohead
Greg Wohead
(© Greg Wohead)

Celebration, Florida is a master planned community in Osceola County near Walt Disney World. It was originally developed in the '90s by the Walt Disney Company as the ideal American town. Every aspect of Celebration was created to evoke a sense of nostalgia; the modern houses are built in historically themed architectural styles (Gothic, Victorian, American plantation house), the residential areas were designed around a walkable central shopping square just like in quaint small towns of America. The town is even fully branded – everything from the street signs to golf course graphics to trail markers to manhole covers incorporated the heartwarming Celebration logo. One ad slogan read: "The destination your soul has been waiting for".

A view of downtown Market Street, Celebration, Florida: the city designed and planned by The Walt Disney Company.
A view of downtown Market Street, Celebration, Florida: the city designed and planned by The Walt Disney Company.
© Bobak Ha'Eri// CC BY-SA 2.5

My theatre show called Celebration, Florida comes from a personal place. It's not really a direct exploration of the town in Florida, and there's no cute story about visiting the town and encountering the locals, but by telling you about the actual town I'm telling you something about the show, what it means to me and what it might mean to those who come to see it. I wrote Celebration, Florida at a time when I was often at a distance from people and places I loved and felt attached to. I found myself longing for these people and places, and the way I experienced this nostalgia, this rosy idea of what wasn't there in front of me, made me think of the town of Celebration and how it was created to evoke a nostalgia for things that never really existed.

Critics said the over-designed, controlled atmosphere of Celebration, Florida was creepy

Celebration's nostalgia is in some ways unearned, but in other ways is nevertheless real – the evocation of nostalgia is just a feeling, no matter what provokes it. In some very material ways, the cracks in the town of Celebration, Florida began to show through, revealing its fakeness and the fact that in some ways it was just a stand in for a 'real' town. Critics said the over-designed, controlled atmosphere was creepy (one of the things they may have been referring to is when the town pumps leaf-shaped confetti out of pipes in the central square in the autumn as the temperate Florida climate means the leaves don't naturally turn). After the 2008 financial crisis, Celebration started experiencing home foreclosures like many other American communities. Around the same time, Celebration experienced its first murder, adding the image of a dark underbelly to what was portrayed as a shiny dream town.

My show is enacted by two new unrehearsed performers each night

The show Celebration, Florida operates in some similar ways to the town it is named after – it uses deliberate fakeness in the form of stand ins. The show is enacted by two new unrehearsed performers each time (for the upcoming Soho Theatre run this includes people like Lucy McCormick, Ursula Martinez, George Heyworth, Charlotte Cooper and more). I speak to the audience through the two unrehearsed performers who are guided through the show via headphones, and in various ways they create an obviously faked sense of nostalgia. But unlike the town's harshest critics (and maybe like the town's remaining residents) I wonder if the emotions provoked by something as fake as stand ins can still be real. In the show, there's a way in which the town of Celebration almost becomes a person; someone whose streets we explore, who reminds us of someone but we can't quite figure out who, who bores us, frustrates us and shows us strange things.

Maybe the town of Celebration is like some of our memories of people and places we love. Maybe both the town and our memories are full of contradiction. Maybe they're not quite right. Maybe ultimately their value is in giving us what we want emotionally. And maybe that's OK.

Celebration, Florida runs at Soho Theatre from 19 to 21 June and then runs at the Tobacco Factory between 14 and 17 November.