Raise your hand if you have been to Walt Disney World?
I won't go so far as to presume everyone has their hand up, but I am sure that most readers of this blog entry have been or at least are familiar with the resort/theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Recently, I visited the parks.
I like Disney, and in fact, as many planners, I love the urban aspects/walkability ideas incorporated into the parks. It is quite amazing to me that if you look at the statistics, you recognize that a high level of suburbanites visit Disney and those people who drive everywhere walk in the parks - further than they might anywhere else. The statistic I love, is on average you walk five miles, a day in a Disney park. This is certainly by design, as you are walking by one large gift shop (might have a different name, but sells the same stuff). The walking also helps you feel not so bad if you have to wait 30 minutes in a line for a ride. And it helps you walk off the inordinate amount of calories you ate at lunch.
I also love that people fly or drive from the suburbs to go to a place with a replica of Main Street from the town in Missouri that Walt was from. This stretch of the Magic Kingdom is impressive and the buildings and the feel of the street is perfect, perfect height, width of sidewalk, perfect people scale etc. It has that old timey sense to it. Perfect in the fact, also, that you couldn't build it in many places unless you are Disney.
For a great education read any of the books which chronicle the political process the Disney company went through to create the parks. They are their own County/City entity and have the same bonding and tax exempt status that a municipality has. The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) is the name of the development entity the Disney Corp created to oversee the land use processes, including the bonding of utilities etc that are necessary to build and expand the four theme parks, numerous resort/hotels and other ventures, such as Celebration, the Disney company owned town.
When you are in Disney you really feel like you are in another world. Or, at least a stand alone City. The corporation literally is the only show within two communities, Lake Buena Vista, and Bay Lake, both of which are controlled by the quasi governmental RCID. According to the 2000 census 16 people reside within 9 households, located within 11 housing units in Lake Buena Vista. Bay Lake has 22 residents within 9 households.
Things do work though, there is a Fire Department, security team, utilities, planners, the whole shebang. If you stay at a resort you can use their bus system to transport between parks and resorts, and you can avoid the traffic in Orlando and the surrounding infrastructure. The buses, and boat system run great, and are comfortable.
So, should it scare me, as a planner, that people can't build the downtown they love in their own town? Not really. I say that because people point to that Main Street as an effective dream. As such, I believe that people will take that dream and bring it to their own community. Sure enough that inspiration will encourage people to get involved and to demand to not have to drive or fly to reach their ideal downtown.