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Living the Life of Disney

Do you love Walt Disney so much that you’d pay millions to live next door to Walt Disney World? If the answer is yes, then Disney has some Florida real estate to sell you

Sixty-nine-year-old Sam Bergami is president and CEO of Connecticut-based Alinabal Holdings, which he describes as the world’s largest commercial manufacturer of spherical rod end bearings, usually known as rod ends. Rod ends are used in animatronics like the rides at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Disney has bought them from Alinabal for decades. Not surprisingly, for many years Bergami and his wife Lois have vacationed at Disney World. Sam loves everything about the Orlando theme parks: the cleanliness, the safety, the characters and rides, the high standards of professionalism and courtesy for which Disney’s “cast members” are known. “You can always be guaranteed that you’re going to have a great experience” at Disney, Bergami says. “Being a fanatic about the culture that we have at my company, it’s a perfect fit for me. I feel completely at home.”

As Bergami ’s family grew, his relationship with Disney deepened. “My family was introduced to Disney at a very young age,” Bergami says. “I have seven grandchildren ranging from age 7 to 18, and the 7-year-old has been down here probably 30 times. We all love each other, we’re all family, but Disney is the common ground that we meet on.

In 2010, Bergami read a newspaper article about a new Disney venture, a luxury housing development called Golden Oak. Just a couple miles from the Orlando theme parks, Golden Oak, named after Walt’s California ranch , sounded like a dream come true for Bergami. Golden Oak homeowners would enjoy a permanent connection to Disney; they would, after all, beliving at a Disney World resort. And a purchase at Golden Oak would come with, among other perks, free passes and shuttle service to the parks.

Bergami reached out to the Disney officials quoted in the paper, and some months later became one of Golden Oak’s first home buyers. He built a Spanish-style house following architectural guidelines mandated by Disney and using a Disney-approved homebuilder. In the house he added small, sometimes subtle pieces of Disney iconography, including a carving of Cinderella’s castle in a bedroom door and a recessed ceiling light in the iconic shape of mouse ears. “We wanted to make it warm and inviting, which is hard to do for a 6,600-square-foot house,” Bergami says. The home was finished late last year, and Bergami is delighted at how Disney has met his expectations; he registered his Porsche 911 with the Florida license plate, “goldoak.”

Golden Oak isn’t the Walt Disney Co.’s first attempt at community building. In the 1990s the company developed Celebration, a middle-class town of about 7,500 people on some 4,900 acres five miles south of Walt Disney World; Disney over saw the design of the homes, commissioned the schools and chose the businesses. For interested buyers, the Disney brand was crucial: As one resident told the New York Times in 2004, “I moved here because I loved Disney.” That year, with Celebration up and running, Disney put the town center up for sale, part of a planned process of extrication. Now the town is stable and, despite some carping from skeptics who find its corporate origin a little creepy, a successful and autonomous community

Celebration surprised many observers who didn’t know Disney’s history, but it reflected much of founder Walt Disney’s philosophy. “Celebration was in some ways a continuity with Walt Disney’s own thinking,” says biographer Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. First through animation, then through architecture, Disney wanted passionately to transform the visions of his imagination into physical reality. His original plan for Epcot—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—called for 20,000 full-time residents living in a kind of utopian settlement, but the company abandoned the concept after Disney’s death in 1966. “If Walt had lived [ longer], I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of his efforts would have been put into urban planning,” Gabler says. “How to make the world into Disneyland—that’s really what the last phase of his life was about.”

Golden Oak isn’t the Walt Disney Co.’s first attempt at community building.

Golden Oak doesn’t look very much like Disney World, even if it’s only about four miles away from Orlando’s Magic Kingdom. It’s a gated community on 980 acres originally bought by Walt in the 1960s for about $200 an acre. A main road passes by largely flat, carefully manicured former scrubland, with large expanses of manicured grass and abundant man-made ponds and not a hint of litter

The flawless, pristine homes seem to have sprung up overnight on gently curving side streets. Scattered throughout the property are reminders of the big picture: Disney characters such as the sculptures of Bambi, Thumper and Flower looking, according to the development’s website, “as if they’ve just emerged from the forest to discover Golden Oak.”

Over the next six to eight years, Disney plans to sell 450 homes on lots ranging in size from one-quarter to three-quarters of an acre. The houses will come in one of seven different architectural styles sanctioned by Disney that “celebrate the timelessness of Old Florida architecture,” according to the Golden Oak website. They will range in price from $1.7 million to about $8 million, depending on their size, style and amenities. Each house, carefully perched on a custom lot, is intended to be part of a “village” that is contained within one of five different “neighborhoods.” Owners can not sublet or rent their homes for less than six months at a time. And to discourage flipping, if an owner sells a house within two years of purchasing it, Disney retains half the profits.

Though the company won’t say how much it’s spending on Golden Oak, its investment—in money, time and reputation—is clearly significant and wasn’t made lightly. The idea for the development emerged “ from a series of thoughts and discussions” in 2006 and 2007 about filling holes in the guest experience, says Page Pierce, vice president of Disney Resort Real Estate Development. “We kept hearing from our guests that they would love to have a place to live [in Orlando] and it would be incredible if they could live at Disney,” Pierce says.

Disney was also interested in developing custom services for affluent guests—diehard Disney-lovers wishing to incorporate Disney characters into, say, a wedding proposal or a bar mitzvah. Though Disney has typically been thought of as providing a bourgeois experience, some young people who have grown up on Disney are now wealthy—and retain their almost childlike attachment to the Disney mythology. Plus, affluent visitors from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America are spending far more than the typical middle -class American tourist. A luxury home community could help address all those opportunities. “Potentially we could create the finest luxury resort in central Florida right here on Disney property,” Pierce says.

Not everybody within the company liked the idea. Land bought by Walt is not casually sold, and a luxury community would, literally and figuratively, break new ground for Disney. And Pierce admits that after the crisis of 2008 hit and real estate prices in the Orlando area plunged 50 percent and more, he had nervous moments. But he knew that the recession would eventually pass, while Disney wasn’t going anywhere. And in a way, the financia l crisis made buying into Disney even more attract ive. While many Florida builders went belly up or found themselves too saddled with debt to finish homes they had al ready presold, a developer with deep pockets and a reputation for high standards could be a stable port in an economic storm. Disney, which would maintain permanent control of the homeowners’ association , had an interest in making Golden Oak work.

“I do think my house is going to be a good financial investment,” says Ohio businessman Elliot Alison, another early buyer. “I was very leery of buying into the Florida real estate market, but I talked to a couple of [Golden Oak’s] businesspeople and realized that this was a chance to get a piece of Disney.”

To spread some of the risk, Disney added another atypical element to Golden Oak: Four Seasons is building a 444-room hotel , one of its largest properties, within the community. The move represents a major shift for Disney; Four Seasons is more upscale than Disney’s own flagship Grand Floridian hotel.

“My house is going to be a good financial investment,” says Elliot Alison.

“We’ve always thought of Orlando and the Disney market as a very high-potential market ,” says Craig Reid, president, hotel operations, Americas Four Seasons. “And our research told us that we’d be able to bring a lot of value to the home site, strengthen the service dynamic and add an overlay halo.”

The hotel will open next summer, and both parties involved expect the relationship to be mutually beneficial: Golden Oak residents can use Four Seasons’ spa, restaurants and golf course, while Four Seasons visitors will have to drive down Golden Oak’s main road and may start to think how nice it would be to own a home in such a pleasant place.

Disney also conducted exhaustive market research to project the demand for luxury homes affiliated with the Magic Kingdom. What the corporation found gave it confidence. “We heard again and again that there were concerns with the economy about purchasing real estate, but [potential buyers] always came back to say, ‘If this product is for my family, then it’s something that I could move forward with,’” says Pierce.

From Disney’s extensive research, a picture of the prototype Golden Oak buyer emerged. He would likely be a man in his 50s, first-generation wealth, conservative (in terms of personal tastes, if not politics) and extremely family-centric; he would want to be “a hero” to his family. Like the husband on TV commercials who treats his wife to a Lexus on Christmas morning, the Golden Oak buyer would see a home purchase next door to Disney World as a gift to his family, a surprise that would make the whole family leap into his arms with joy. He would be American or perhaps, in a few cases, Brazilian. (Disney World has a huge fan base in Brazil, which has abundant direct flights to Orlando.) And he would be fundamentally comfortable with conformity. “Our buyers like the fact that ‘Oh, Disney takes care of me,’” Pierce says. Thanks to several professional athletes who have bought homes, the current Golden Oak demographic is a little younger than Disney projected, but otherwise company projections have proved right on the mark; Disney describes Golden Oak buyers as unpretentious, approachable, experiential, traditional, appreciative and grounded. And as of mid-summer, almost all of them were all-cash buyers.

In June 2012 Disney invited a group of journalists to tour Golden Oak. ( Worth received a similar invitation earlier this year.) One of them was Steve Russo, a staff writer at Disney fan site MousePlanet. Russo liked Golden Oak very much, but the high prices—and the company he found himself in—surprised him. “I was one of maybe two writers who came from Disney fan sites, and the rest were all luxury travel writers,” he says. “I was talking about going on Space Mountain one more time, and they were talk ing about being in Versailles last week.”

Russo isn’t the only fan to worry that the Disney he loves is leaving him for deeper pockets. Some of the Disney faithful consider Golden Oak an unwelcome departure from Disney values, just one more way the country as a whole is leaving the middle class behind and orienting itself toward the rich. Golden Oak “ just sits the wrong way with me,” someone named Kristen commented in a Golden Oak thread on the blog Disney Parks. A writer named Janice added, “ What happened to Walt’s idea of a magical place for families to go?” But a third commenter, Turner, responded, “This gives young Disney fans something to strive toward…You have to admit, living there would be a dream come true for almost all of us.” And historian Neal Gabler says Walt probably wouldn’t have had a problem with Golden Oak; Disney’s reality-shaping visions encompassed all economic strata.

Golden Oak is still in its early days: As of a few weeks ago, only about a dozen homeowners had moved in. But Pierce says that “dozens and dozens” of houses are now being built, and last spring Golden Oak opened home sales in a new “neighborhood,” Marceline, named after the Missouri town where Walt Disney grew up. Disney purists may have mixed feelings, but Golden Oak is quickly taking its place in the Magic Kingdom.

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