“We’re almost there,” I exclaimed as we approached exit 64 on I-4 in Kissimmee, Florida. The exit sign noted this was the exit to Disney World but we were not here to visit the Magic Kingdom. Instead, we turned left onto 192 and headed for Celebration, the planned community built by the Walt Disney Company back in the mid 90’s inspired by the architecture and layout of small southern towns such as Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. We were going to check out the town over the next few days exploring it as a potential new place to call home once my wife relocates here for a new job this summer. Later in the evening we would check into our hotel at the nearby Disney Boardwalk Resort where my wife would be attending a medical conference over the next few days and the highlight of our trip would be a visit to Epcot on New Year’s Eve.
Celebration, Florida- First Impressions
Celebration is the very first right on 192 after exiting Interstate 4. Upon entering the property we were faced with a road that dead ended in front of several modern office buildings and a choice to turn left, towards Market Street, or right towards “new home sales.” Luckily I remembered from my extensive research of the town before arriving that the downtown area of Celebration was on Market Street so we turned left eventually making a right onto Celebration Avenue before arriving in Celebration’s Town Center area. I immediately recognized the distinctive architecture of the multi-columned Town Hall, Bank of America observation tower and the quaint little post office so we immediately began looking for a spot to park. Luckily we found one spot on the street right across from the Bank of America building on Celebration Avenue and I tried to recall my parallel parking skills from the days when I lived (and parked) in Savannah, Georgia.
We walked past a canal that seemed to run through the middle of town with two one way streets on either side of it called Water Street. From here we crossed the street and walked towards a small park that looked identical to the many small oak-lined squares found throughout Savannah’s Historic District. Standing here, it was eery how much this spot looked like Savannah. Had you blindfolded me and dropped me off in this location I would have sworn upon opening my eyes that I was in Savannah, Georgia. But this is downtown Celebration.
The park was decked out in Christmas decorations with a massive Christmas tree at the end of the street behind it. This street, Market Street, was lined with shops. It was closed to traffic for Winter festivities and featured a fake ice skating rink and an area covered in what looked to be soap foam. (We would learn later that night this foam was called “snoap,” for snow soap, which was part of a fake snowing event that happened hourly every night on Market Street during the Christmas holidays.) Beyond the Christmas tree was a sizeable lake known as Lake Rianhard.
Market Street ends at Front Street which fronts Lake Rianhard. From here we noted a walking path around the lake and playgrounds in the distance. We assumed there would be bathrooms here as well so we headed in this direction. Known as Lakeside Park, the area was alive this Friday evening with people of all ages and ethnicity: families out for a stroll, a couple teaching their little girl how to ride a bike as well as joggers, bicyclers and dog walkers .Whether these were residents or tourists like ourselves was unknown but likely a combination of the two. It reminded me of the Village area on St. Simons Island, Georgia which I frequent and that also attracts tourists and locals alike to its oceanside park and pier.
We did notice that the playground was for “Celebration Residents Only” unlike the two public parks on the St. Simons Island waterfront. Curiously we didn’t see any children playing on this private playground so I’m not sure why the community felt the need to lock it away from use by “outsiders.” We also noticed several teenagers on skateboards despite a “No Skateboarding” sign at the entrance to the sidewalk that circles the lake. They were soon off their skateboards and hanging out with someone fishing from the grassy bank of the lake.
Once we completed the circuit around the lake we returned to the downtown area and looked for a place to eat. We noticed the movie theater was closed down which is a shame given its convenient location. Apparently residents now have to drive down to the multiplex at nearby Downtown Disney.
We finally settled upon a restaurant called Euro Bistro: Tapas & Copas. We’ve eaten tapas before and so were excited about our meal. The atmosphere of the restaurant and its location were perfect and our wait staff were pleasant enough. Unfortunately the food left much to be desired. It was basically tasteless and overpriced.
Once done with our meal we headed back to Market Street. There was loud Christmas music playing and the street was packed. We then noticed it was “snowing.” The “snow” was really just soap bubbles but it did look like snow falling. The kids and their parents seemed to enjoy this rare treat in central Florida. My daughter found an empty spot on the sidewalk where the snoap was being blown and went spastic trying to catch it in her hands. Luckily she stayed on the sidewalk because the kids in the street were covered up to their ankles in the soapy snoap mixture. I pity the poor shop owners who have to deal with soap-covered children and their parents wondering into their shops after an evening of snoaping.
We ended our first evening in Celebration by petting one of the draft horses used to pull the carriage rides offered to tourists. This, again, reminded me of Savannah, Georgia with its numerous horse carriages gathered in the City Market area of downtown. After a quick photo-op in front of the Christmas tree on Front Street we returned to our car to head to our next destination: Disney’s Boardwalk Resort.
Disney’s Boardwalk Resort
Luckily, Celebration has its own “backdoor” to Disney properties. World Drive, the main thoroughfare through Disney World connects directly to Celebration. This made it a quick and painless trip to the Disney Boardwalk Resort. We arrived, unloaded our luggage, parked and checked into our room without incident although the long walk to our room made us wish we had asked for luggage assistance. The room was nice but basic with probably the smallest bathroom I’ve seen outside of a Motel 6. Considering this was a $400 a night hotel room I was less than impressed. (Luckily my wife’s employer was picking up the bill since she was attending a medical conference here.) One of the sinks was cracked and the small safe in the closet wall was big enough for jewelry perhaps but definitely not my laptop. You can get rooms just as nice at Disney’s Value Hotels (Art of Animation, Pop, etc) for $100 a night but since this was walking distance to Epcot and had an old-time Atlantic City style boardwalk resort on property it commanded a higher price. The bath towels layed out on the bed in a Mickey Mouse design was a nice touch that my daughter got a big thrill out of.
After unpacking we headed down to the boardwalk. Here were a variety of restaurants, shops, carnival games and street performers. We watched an amazing juggler and a little later a talented magician. My wife and daughter competed in one of the old timey carnival games where you use a water pistol to cause your car to race up the wall in hopes of reaching the finish line before your opponent in order to win a stuffed animal. My daughter walked away with a stuffed blue dog and was quite thrilled with the whole experience.
It was getting late so after grabbing an ice cream in the sweets shop on the boardwalk we headed back to our room so we would be fully rested for Day 2 of our Disney New Year’s adventure.