top of page

Disney's Dream of the Perfect School:

The Celebration Schools Case Study

In the early 1990s, the Disney Development Company (DDC) established the Celebration Company to spearhead its development of Disney's first prototype community as originally dreamed by Walt Disney with his creation of EPCOT (The Experimental Prototype Community of Tommorow). The town of Celebration was the result and lays within approximately 4,900 acres (20 km2) of land in the southern portion of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Total investment for the project is estimated at $2.5 billion.


The design of this "ideal" town took over 8 years to create and several years constructing. The master plan was developed by Cooper, Robertson & Partners and Robert A. M. Stern, and the extensive landscape, parks, trails and pathways were designed by the San Francisco firm EDAW (now AECOM). 

Celebration is planned in an early 20th-century architectural style and is not zoned for high-density residences. Celebration was named the "New Community of the Year" in 2001 by the Urban Land Institute.


Disney CEO Michael Eisner took an especially keen interest in the development of the new town in the early days, encouraging the executives at Disney Development Company to "make history" and develop a town worthy of the Disney brand and legacy that extended to Walt Disney's vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). DDC executives collaborated extensively with leaders in education, health and technology in addition to planners and architects to create the vision and operating policies for the town.


The town was designed and centered around the (K-12) Celebration School which was to be the prototype school of the future. It was conceived to be an international model site for educators and teacher preparation. 

Celebration School Design Highlights:

  • Students would not be grouped by grade, but by level of mastery of material. 

  • Students would be housed in neighborhoods.

  • There would be multiple teachers in each class instead of one. 

  • Teachers would be called "learning leaders"

  • Instruction would be tailored to individuals.

  • Instruction would be inter-disciplinary.

  • Instruction would be project based and not bound by time or class periods.

  • New media and technology would replace textbooks and there would be no homework.

  • Instruction would consist of "personal learning plans " that would solve a single problem or examine a single, complex topic.

  • Testing would not be standardized, and there would not be traditional grading.

  • Alternate assessments would be the norm.

  • Students would track progress and work through electronic portfolios.

  • The school would be founded on a set of "core values" that all students would strive.

  • Students would be treated as "stakeholders" and would be co-designers of instructional process with true "student voice".

  • Communication with parents would be through multiple platforms including email, web pages, phone calls, etc.

In a quest to be the most innovative school district in the world, Disney tasked a design team comprising representatives from seven elite institutions of higher learning including UCF, Stetson, Auburn, John Hopkins, and Harvard.


Their task was to take the "best practices" of teaching and to create a new personalized school environment. Elements of their new school were already being used successfully in education but never had all these been undertaken in one school.



A LOOK AT CELEBRATION from the front lines 

quotes from visitors to Celebration

"Every concievable interaction and learning activity seemed to be going on at the same time. 

"It's like a three ring circus."

"If you were expecting the familiar - a teacher in front of rows of desks - it was easy to conclude you had entered education's equivalent of the Twilight Zone"

Student work ranged "from seminar groups in high energy discussion to individuals on couches, to working on computers in the hearth, talking through a chat room to students in Scottsburg, Indiana about a joint website the two schools were buildign to explore alternative scenarios in world history." 

"There was a constant movement of bodies."

One group of students "working in the wet area on the 'Lake Project' aimed at stocking the town's lake with catfish."

Students would be "practicing Spanish in the conference room, others gathering around work-study tables, sketching a presentation board for their immigration project, others surfing the web on a project on castles."  

"If you knew what everyone was doing, and if you were familiar with the day's curricular schedule, then all this made sense. If not, the place looked like a free for all." 

"Teachers at this school are like the plate spinners of the Ed Sullivan show, frenetically keeping things going on several fronts."

"Teaching is 'tailored' to individual students and their strengths."

"Through e-mail, voice mail, Web home pages, live TV broadcasting, phone hot lines, newsletters, articles, and other print sources, parents were bombarded with information about assignments, methods, and assessment rubrics." 

The Dream Starts to Dissolve

"The planners of the school, from the developers to the education experts, now acknowledge that the experiment they undertook so enthusiastically and so optimistically was too ambitious. While all those "best principles" that underlie the theory of education at Celebration are sound and work well in school districts all around the country, no single school district had ever tried to use all the principles simultaneously."

                              - Michael Lassell (Celebration - Story of a Town)

Parent Complaints and Concerns:

  • If there were no tests and no grades, how could they tell what their kids were learning?

  • How would their interdisciplinary, multi-media projects be evaluated when it came time to apply for college?

  • Why aren't you teaching the basics?

  • How is a student going to know your 'basic history' and your 'basic geography'?

  • Who's teaching my child to diagram a sentence?

  • Isn't there a better way of evaluating their work?

  • How do I know if my child is a 'B or C' student?

  • How do kids learn in the "chaotic" classes?

  • How are they challenged with no grades or competition for grades?

  • How are students prepared for the rigors of testing that will determine their careers?

  • How are our students going to get into college without grades?

  • How can my student be expected to be motivated enough to help design their own instruction?

The Aftermath: School Changes

  • A traditional grading  and grading scale was re-instated.

  • Rigorous test prep would be introduced.

  • Classes would again be aligned by grade level peers.

  • An Honors track would be created.

  • Textbooks were bought and required.

  • Discipline was seriously upgraded.

  • A traditional school environment was          re-created.

  • Sofas were replaced with traditional furniture. 

  • 55 minute blocks replaced anytime, anywhere learning. 

  • The 'schedule and not the learner' was driving the school day.

  • Student Rachel Binns, "We got to learn the how and the why, no we just sit and take notes. We're not so interested."

  • Principal Dot Davis lamented to Andrew Ross that the compromise  "to get students on track with their transcripts" turned out to be "a more extreme swing than we wanted."

bottom of page