STORYLIVING: A tale of ego, branding opportunities, the California desert and Celebration, FL
An artist concept rendering of Cotino, complete with artificial lagoon. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

STORYLIVING: A tale of ego, branding opportunities, the California desert and Celebration, FL

Disney has just announced STORYLIVING, a series of master-planned communities that will be themed around Disney’s many different intellectual properties (IPs). More specifically, they’ve announced Cotino, a 600+ acre community including nearly 2,000 homes, a massive hotel, an elaborate promenade and most shockingly, a 24-acre artificial lagoon. For those assuming Cotino—much like Disney’s 90s brainchild Celebration—will be founded in Florida, fear not! Cotino and its artificial lagoon will be placed smack dab in the middle of the California desert.

The origins of Disney master-planned communities are ingrained in the origin of the parks themselves. Walt Disney might have spent his youth as a creative (or, at least, as somebody who managed creatives), but as he aged, he always desired to be taken seriously. He lost interest in being seen as the purveyor of children’s media, and wanted to be perceived as a serious, seasoned industrialist, like Henry Ford.

Disney’s need to be a respected urban planner shines through in much of his later life. His early designs include a Burbank animation studio and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) campus, where he hoped to create communities where artists could live and work, all under his watchful purview. While CalArts has done exceptionally well for itself, the Burbank studio was a cataclysmic failure. The Burbank was an ostentatious and flashy studio that seemed devoid of character, and was a key component of the animation strike that would soon come close to bringing down Disney altogether.

The invention of the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT) could take up 10,000 pages of writing, but to briefly summarize, Disney wanted to create a massive, planned community. He desired to build a perfect, pedestrian civilization, a permanent world’s fair where his employees would work, live and spend all of their time. He also desired desperately to be the sole architect and master of this city. Insightful readers might consider that a planned community where the final say was given to Disney, an out-of-touch millionaire obsessed with legacy, on literally every aspect of life in its borders, sounds like more of a despotic city-state within Florida than the city of tomorrow he hoped to create.

Walt’s death left EPCOT unfinished, if it was ever going to be truly finished at all, but the Disney dream of a planned community did not go away. Celebration was the next step. In the late 90s, the Disney Corporation built Celebration in the hopes of creating a city where hardcore Disney fans could essentially live at the parks. (This should start to sound familiar.) Celebration initially seemed to be a success, with many New Classical architects building the city, but soon the issues became apparent. Celebration was overwhelmingly white (almost 90%), in spite of the attempts at building a diverse community. As the years have gone on, the shoddy construction has become more and more of an issue, with some residents suggesting that they might not be able to even sell their homes as they grow increasingly dilapidated. They saw a standoff with the police, ending with a suicide in 2010. Most interestingly, their school seemed to toe the line between the new wave work of New College and totally disregarding the students’ education entirely, with them not requiring books for the children.

This brings the Disney company to the present. Over 20 years after Celebration, the Disney company is again leaping into the fray to build Cotino, and it is hard not to see echoes of the past already forming. The STORYLIVING communities are expected to be themed around different Disney properties, indicating a chilling reality where grown adults can buy and move into a Star Wars shantytown in the middle of California.

The residents of California seem troubled by the prospect of this move. Many have already decried the upcoming spike in water prices, as the drought-ridden state doesn’t seem the ideal location to try and build a massive artificial lagoon. There is little real, tangible information on the project, presumably by design, but many fear a repeat of Celebration is in store.

There’s nothing available (yet) on other planned communities, which begs the question—will the Disney company wait to begin on new communities until Cotino is a success? Will Cotino even happen at all, as it faces increasing push back from other Greater Palm Springs residents? What other communities does Disney have in store? Disney will most likely look to expand into Florida again if Cotino is at least at first successful. As the beginning rumblings of this story come into place, though, it is hard not to look back at the rotten balconies of Celebration and wonder if Cotino will be any different.

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