You’ve probably heard of Celebration, Florida, the small town right next to Disney World that the company developed in the 1990s. If so, you probably also have an opinion of it, one that might not be so favorable. I lived in Tallahassee while the town was being built and recall how many people regarded the town with suspicion: “Internet? What? Why would I want to talk to my neighbors on a computer or live someplace where they can tell me what color my curtains have to be?” It seems funny now, but back then you could see why some perceived the town as too pre-fabricated, too Disney, and worst of all, too much like a town designed by Big Brother.
Years later the idea of “New Urbanism,” building smaller, compact, walkable cities as an alternative to urban sprawl, has been embraced by many communities and Celebration, no longer owned by the company, stands as a beautiful example of this concept. The benefit of this well-planned community extends to visitors, who can park and walk its immaculate streets, enjoy its eateries, shop, and admire the beautiful homes. If you’re looking for a day off from the parks on your next visit, Celebration is worth the quick drive.
Big front porches encourage owners to sit outside.
Garages in the back don’t mar the traditional looks of the house.
The biggest criticism of Celebration is that it’s a “manufactured” kind of town and while it’s true that it’s a thoroughly planned community, right down to those curtains (white backing only on windows facing the street, if you please), there are many styles of houses in the town. The result is a look that is overall typical of how older neighborhoods developed 100 years ago: A Victorian here, this one a craftsman style, a Colonial there, and a more modern Spanish style right up the street. Gardens, fountains and public parks dot the landscape of the town, which has special parking spaces for small electric cars. Public buildings as well are a mix of old Florida, the mid-20th century, and art deco. The movie theater spires, for example, are meant to evoke the futuristic feel of the 1950s.
This fun building would be at home in Tomorrowland, but that’s where the comparisons stop. Even the post office has a bit of charm.
Overall, the designs work well together, and despite specific requirements regarding fences and the placement of garages, Celebration appears less “cookie-cutter” than most newer neighborhoods today. Add to that trails, sidewalks, good schools, and easy walking access into town and you have a lovely little town.
If you’re planning a day out of the parks on your next trip, or if you’re looking for something to do in the evening, there’s plenty of good walking and window shopping in Celebration. Here are a few favorites you might want to check out while you’re there.
Celebration restaurants are a nice alternative to the many chain restaurants surrounding Disney World. Here’s just a sampling of what you’ll find.
Located on Front Street, Seito Sushi
is an attractive, modern restaurant with some of the area’s best sushi. It’s also some of the most expensive. Consider going during their happy hour for real deals.
Market Street Cafe, one of the oldest restaurants in Celebration, is also located on Front Street and is one of my favorite spots in Celebration. Calling it a “cafe” is somewhat misleading as its more of a diner, both in looks and in selections. While the food is diner style and by no means gourmet, there’s a lot of it, it’s consistently good, and the menu is huge. Like most diners, this one excels at breakfast; try the baked potato omlette. The black and bleu burger makes for a nice lunch, as does the Greek salad. At dinner, the beef pot roast tastes slow cooked and is flavorful, but I wasn’t impressed with the chicken pot pie. Surprisingly good Key Lime pie and coconut cake round out the dessert options, which taste homemade. The staff is friendly, but the service can range from slow to downright bad at times, especially on weekend mornings when it can get very crowded. A weekday breakfast in the outside portion of the cafe provides great people watching, a nice view of the lake, and a relaxing anecdote to the frenetic character breakfasts taking place just a few miles away. Highly recommended, but don’t expect to get out of there quickly.
When Disney developed Celebration, they offered retail space to family owned restaurateurs from throughout the state. The result is, happily, a lack of chain restaurants. Cafe D’Antonio’s
is one such restaurant. Located on Front Street, it’s possibly the most expensive meal in town, but well worth a trek south from Disney for local Italian food. The bread, served with the obligatory olive oil and Balsamic, could be better, but try the excellent linguine with clams or the wood-fired calzones and finish off with the Belgian chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and you won’t be disappointed. Good classics such chicken parm and and a huge lasagna. Outdoor seating offers great people watching. Reservations suggested.
I love staying on Disney property, but Celebration has some tempting and affordable rooms. One favorite is The Bohemian Hotel on Front Street, which offers lakeside and garden views. With only 115 rooms, it’s Orlando’s only luxury boutique hotel, with beautiful, elegant rooms that comparable in price to Disney moderates (without discounts).
Photo copyright Marriott Autograph Collection.
If you’re looking for unique gifts close to Disney, check out Front and Market Streets, where you’ll find more than the usual selection of T-shirts and other tourist trinkets.
Handmade jewelery, expensive toys, and clothing shops are conveniently located within steps of the best restaurants. If you have children, check out Day Dreams for unique German and French dolls and toys. The Jewel Box is a nice, if not also expensive, after dinner diversion.
There’s always something going on in Celebration, from car shows to concerts, even a yearly Oktoberfest. The Fourth of July fireworks are a local favorite and less crowded alternative to those on Disney property. They aren’t as elaborate as what you’ll find just a few miles away, but Celebration’s charming take on the Fourth, complete with a yearly themed morning parade open to everyone who wants to dress up, is sure to please.
If you don’t have tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and you’d still like to see “snow,” visit Celebration in December. Each night during he holiday season, Celebration downtown features live entertainment, carolers, visits from Santa, and yes, “snow.”
Most Disney World visitors overlook Celebration; there is, after all, a whole world to explore right on Disney property. But if you have access to a car and a few extra hours, consider spending some time in Celebration on your next trip. There’s plenty to do and see.
The first photograph is from the blog Wide Open Spaces.