When a Disney-built town doesn’t live up to fantasy, people take notice as they did with Celebration, Fla., where a 2010 killing and a later suicide shined a media spotlight on the picture-perfect controlled community.
One of those people was Akron native Philip K. Swift, a New York-based filmmaker and educator, who let the townsfolk do the talking about the crimes in his documentary about “The Bubble,” the nickname for the town near Disney World in Orlando.
Swift’s film — The Bubble: A Documentary Film About Celebration, Florida — will have its Akron premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at Musica in downtown Akron. There will also be a live performance by local musician Gabe Schray who wrote and recorded the music for the film.
In 2010, a Celebration resident was killed in the town’s first murder. That was followed closely by another resident killing himself after a standoff with police. The deaths rocked the quiet community and brought a national scrutiny that also eventually revealed a heavily rumored underground swinger’s scene.
“This was the perfect storm of murder, sex and Disney and it was just intriguing to me,” Swift said. Swift, with help from his wife and producer Katie Robbins and director of photography Joe Spit, gives an information-filled history of the town through file footage and the words of many of the town’s residents. His film finds that Celebration is a town filled with real people living in a slightly surreal place colorfully described by one of the town’s younger residents as the “diamond in the rough of the armpit of Osceola County.”
The town, which is now owned and operated by a private real-estate investment company, is in the heart of Florida’s Osceola County. Disney sold it in the late 1990s.
Swift, a Firestone High School graduate, takes a realistic look at the town that Disney built in 1996 — and then quickly divested itself from — and the people who still live there.
Swift’s mom is a Disney obsessive and his family made annual trips to Disney World for the first 20 years of his 33 years. He became fascinated with Celebration’s conceptual origins and current reality after the family visited the then-under-construction town in 1994.
Swift said he discovered that the initial Disney-files who moved to the town were “ slowly transitioned into just people that wanted this perfect idea of what an American hometown was supposed to be.”
That “perfect idea” that residents sought includes a thick, heavy book of rules and regulations that don’t allow them to physically alter their homes in any way without written clearance from the homeowners association and oddities such as being fined for small infractions such as not having mailboxes freshly painted the correct color.
Swift allows many of the town’s colorful current and former residents to tell the town’s story. They all seem aware that “the Bubble” may seem odd to outsiders but they explain that it, like most towns, is a place where good and bad things happen.
“I went in with the idea of just listening to these people tell their stories, I wasn’t looking to necessarily create a subjective piece about how terrible the place was or anything,” Swift said, adding that there have been past magazine articles and documentaries that painted Celebration in an unflattering light. “After the third or fourth interview I realized that the story of Celebration is so unique and weird by itself and it had never been told by the residents themselves.
“The metaphor for the Bubble became not only are they trapped in this pristine little wonderful world but when you’re outside looking into a bubble everything is magnified and that’s how they felt living there,” he said.
Though the hourlong film is an interesting, inside look at an unusual hyper-real environment, ultimately it’s the residents who make it a town.
“It really is just like any other place; it’s really bizarre but it was built by Disney — this super-manufactured town with music coming out of the bushes and fake snow (called “snoap” because it’s made from soap) in the winter,” Swift said.
“But at the end of the day these people are just trying to live their lives in this bubble with the entire world waiting for them to fail or butcher a guy with an ax.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.