- Walt Disney World created the town of Celebration, Florida in the mid-1990s, and its retro movie theater is the downtown's crown jewel (Disney sold the town to Lexin Capital in 2004).
- At one time, the theater doubled as a church and high-school graduation site while the town was still developing.
- But the theater, leased by AMC, has been closed since 2010, and the community is frustrated.
- Numerous groups from the town have tried to take it over.
It’s a warm November evening in Celebration, Florida, and the town’s charming downtown is mostly quiet outside of a couple busy restaurants and a crowded ice cream shop. The quaint rows of storefronts bring a nostalgic feel of 1940s Anywhere, USA — and everything has a Floridian teal color. Its vibe feels like a carbon copy of Main St. at Walt Disney World, and there’s a good reason for that: The town was created by the iconic amusement park.
If you walk toward the end of downtown Celebration on Front St., you’ll find the town’s movie theater. The marquee shines bright and its Googie-style design gives the warm feeling of the thriving movie houses of yesteryear.
Celebration really is a town frozen in time.
But if you walk closer to the theater, there are troubling signs. For one, the marquee doesn't have any movie titles listed on it, it’s just a shining blank space. And there is zero foot traffic. In fact, the entire inside is dark.
In many ways the theater is like Disney World itself, the closer you get to it, the more you realize it’s all a well-designed facade.
How the theater helped a town come into its own
Before his death, Walt Disney dreamed of building a utopian community that would cater to the young and old while featuring futuristic amenities decades ahead of its time — self-sufficient houses powered by their own power plant, residents putting their trash in large tubes built underneath their houses instead of having to worry about curbside pickup, and public transportation so vast that residents would have no need for cars. He called it an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — or EPCOT.
But this would be one of the few ambitious undertakings Disney could not pull off, mainly because of his death in 1966. No longer around to push the extremely expensive project forward, the dream of a city of tomorrow faded to just a section at Disney World.
Celebration, which is located 17 miles from Disney World, is certainly not Disney’s EPCOT dream reincarnate (some see it more as something ripped from “The Truman Show” or “Pleasantville”), but it has Walt’s fingerprints all over it. This is a town where a communal atmosphere is paramount, and the tranquil white picket fences surrounding almost every property are so engrained in the town’s aura they are literally part of its logo (a pig-tailed girl riding a bike by a picket fence with her dog trailing her).
The town, now with a population of 10,000 people, was the brainchild of Disney Development Company, the Florida-based subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company that is involved in the design and construction of the resorts and shopping areas around Walt Disney World. It was inspired by the New Urbanism craze that was growing in popularity in the early 1990s — land developers mixing a small-town feel with attractive downtowns.
What better way to extend the Disney brand than for the conglomerate to build a town in its image?
The two-screen movie theater in Celebration is one of the crown jewels of the Town Center downtown area. It was built — like the entire downtown — in 1994, as a way to draw in people to buy the condos above the storefronts, or surrounding farmland that would soon be transformed into quaint homes (construction on houses began two years later). Disney World hired some of the finest architects in the world to design the buildings downtown. Famed architect César Pelli was brought on to design the theater. What he came up with is a gorgeous post-modern style with round spires and twin round marquees. It makes you feel like the theater was plucked right from the 1950s.
“I’ll leaf through books on architecture and I’ll see the Celebration theater,” former resident Joe McKinney pointed out to Business Insider.
And as the community grew so did the theater’s responsibilities. In the early years of Celebration, the theater held church services every Sunday morning as the town waited for a place of worship to be built.
“In fact, one church would do its service and you would walk out of the theater and another church would walk in,” resident Floyd McCollum recalled. “The pastors would pass each other.”
The theater was also the site of the town’s first-ever high school graduation for the class of 1996-1997. There were only four graduates, but the theater was packed to witness it.
But in 2004, Disney sold its stake in the town to the private-equity firm Lexin Capital. The theater, operated by theater chain AMC, closed its doors in 2010. However, AMC still owns the lease on the theater to this day. Why has the largest movie theater chain in the world kept a two-screen, 527-seat theater empty for close to a decade?
That's a question residents have been trying to get answered for years.
Major restrictions held back profitability
The movie theater is one of Joe McKinney’s first memories as a 7 year old moving to Celebration from Minnesota in 2000. He recalled how he and his family got into town for the first time late at night, and due to something going wrong with the move, they all went to a late showing at the theater to kill time.
"It was ‘The Tigger Movie,’” McKinney said. “My family fell asleep watching the movie.”
As the years went on, going to the theater became a ritual for McKinney. He attended Sunday service there before the church was built. He remembers running straight to the theater from school to wait six hours in line to see “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.” And it was also where he would hang out with all his friends.
“We did a thing I used to call ‘Celebration Lunch.’ We would go grab a slice of pizza, go get an ice cream cone, and right next door would be the movie theater and we would see a matinee,” he said.
The theater is where Alex Foster would go to catch a movie late at night when he would have trouble sleeping. And countless residents recalled seeing the “Harry Potter” movies there; standing in a line that would snake around the block.
But despite all the fond memories, there’s a troubling fact: the theater was never consistently busy.
“The sellouts were infrequent,” Donald Moysey, who worked at the theater for a year in the late 1990s when he was 16, told Business Insider. “The normal movies, only a couple of people would come out. We would have a lot of showings where no one would show up.”
Outside of the occasional major blockbuster, the theater, called the AMC Celebration 2, was usually empty, he said. Moysey said this was partly due to the infrequent amount of new releases that played there, and the mandate by Disney that the theater could not play any movies that were extremely violent or sexually explicit.
This relates to one of the main myths in Celebration about the theater: Some believe it could only run Disney movies. Others believe the theater could only screen PG-rated or G-rated movies. Moysey said all different kinds of movies were shown there unless they had adult themes, like gore, a lot of bad language, or nudity.
“A Quentin Tarantino movie wasn’t going to show up there,” Moysey said. “If a violent movie or horror movie was the big release that weekend, it wasn’t coming to Celebration. So AMC could not put in the most profitable movie to that theater every week. The theater never turned a profit, it was just a question of how much did we lose that month.”
AMC finally cut bait on the theater in 2010. It took its logos off the building and shut off the marquee lights (after years of public outcry, AMC finally began turning on the marquee lights in the evenings). And though there was a lot of disappointment spouted online about the theater closing, the town didn’t really come out to give it a proper send-off on its final day.
Floyd McCollum and his family were in attendance the last day the theater was open — November 28, 2010. The titles showing were “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1” and the animated movie “Megamind,” starring Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt. McCollum said the only reason he knew that the theater was closing was because he happened to spot a sign in front of the theater saying so.
He went with his wife, son, and neighbor to see “Megamind” and was shocked by what he saw.
“Inside the theater was literally just the four of us,” he said. “Four people to see a movie on the last day ever!”
Things got even stranger.
McCollum said that when they walked in that evening it looked like any other night, with staff checking tickets and making popcorn. But when the movie ended they went to the lobby to find no one there.
“It was completely empty,” he said. “The movie posters were all off the walls and rolled up in the trash — I took the ‘Megamind’ one and my neighbor took the “Harry Potter.” Everything was cleaned out. Nobody was there. I actually checked the door when we left. It was locked once we were out and the door shut. Nobody could come back in. It was really sad."
Why AMC has kept the lease to an empty theater
When AMC began work on a massive 24-screen multiplex at Walt Disney World Resort’s Pleasure Island in 1997 (now renamed Disney Springs), the park had one stipulation: If AMC wanted the 24 screens it also had to take on the existing two-screen theater in Celebration (a source close to the negotiation confirmed to Business Insider the deal's stipulation). Some residents in Celebration believe that, over time, AMC saw their theater as an annoyance and always intended to close it up once the Pleasure Island theater got on its feet.
Moysey got a job at the Pleasure Island AMC years after working at the Celebration theater and said there wasn’t much chatter about the Celebration location.
“It was implied that they didn’t have any association with it,” he said. “They definitely didn’t have any intentions of reopening it.”
According to town officials who wished to speak anonymously and documents obtained by Business Insider, AMC has kept the Celebration theater empty for close to a decade because it’s cheaper to take the loss on the theater than to pay staff and operate it. The chain, which recently renewed its lease on the theater, has also held onto it so no competitors can come in and take over the space, the town officials told Business Insider. This leaves Celebration residents and those in the neighboring areas with the closest option for seeing a movie being the AMC in Disney Springs.
Despite all of this, though, it hasn’t stopped people over the years from devising a business plan that they believe is right for the theater.
McCollum said he’s been involved in three different attempts to take over the theater in the last eight years, the closest being an initiative headed by Alex Foster, who is not a Celebration resident but is very known in the area.
In 2016, Foster’s Jazz Meets Motown, a weekly jam session of area jazz musicians, was a regular attraction at the Bohemian Celebration Hotel. His Monday-night sessions would fill the hotel’s lounge, and at its height the hotel would have to turn away 50 to 60 people, he said. From that, his idea of a center for the arts in Celebration was born.
“I thought we got too big for that space,” Foster said of performing at the hotel. “The plan was to take over the theater: One of the theaters would be for playing jazz and special programming and the other theater would be for small live theater productions and classic movies.”
Foster also found interest from area schools surrounding Celebration to take part in a potential scholarship program as well as a program dedicated to entertaining the senior citizens in the area.
To the shock of many in Celebration, both Lexin and AMC were willing to entertain the offer. Foster just had to come up with some cash. Specifically, he had to get $50,000 up front; $25,000-a-month to rent the space from AMC, which would still be the lease holder; and a $2 million line of credit, according to Foster.
“My problem was the lack of money,” said Foster, who admitted he made the mistake of not putting enough time in trying to get corporate sponsors. “We thought we had community backing, we had these meetings once a month. In desperation I gave a New Year’s Eve fundraiser and that was a disaster. Arms were opened but I was never embraced.”
Foster gave up his dream in 2017. But a new group has come forward since.
The willing takers
Christina and Sean Gerrity are what you call lifers in the performing arts world.
Christina has performed all over the world as a professional dancer, while Sean has done everything from performing full time at Walt Disney World to headlining as a singer onboard Royal Caribbean cruises. They ended up at Celebration six and a half years ago when they got off the road and started a family, but the drive to do something in the arts continued.
They began the Celebration Arts Academy a year ago with a desire to use their talents and experience to mold the next generation of entertainers.
“We started with six students and now we have 105 in one year’s time,” Christina Gerrity told Business Insider. “We want to expand.”
For the last year they’ve been subleasing a 1,000-square-foot space from the Thai restaurant owners in town, and now they have their sights on the theater. At first, Gerrity said their plan was to rent out some space at the theater once Alex Foster started operating there. But soon after he gave up on trying to sublease the theater, the Gerritys decided to take on the task of trying to revive the theater.
“Phase one would be updating the performance space — take out the existing screen, build a backstage, take out a row or two of seats, build a VIP section in the lobby,” Gerrity explained. “The second phase would be building out the education center — have dance rooms, homework area, a tech area where kids learn about working backstage.”
However, like Foster, it’s been a challenge to move forward. Though Gerrity said AMC is very willing to sublease the theater, Lexin Capital also has to okay it, and that’s been the roadblock.
“We formed a non-profit in the last two months in order to build some funds to get in there,” Gerrity said. “But we’ve been told by Lexin we need ‘strong financials,’ up to the millions, just to get in.”
And then there’s the condition of the theater.
Gerrity said she’s been inside the space twice, and the second time she witnessed water pouring down the ceiling of the men’s restroom.
“It was like a lake in there,” she said. “After all these years, and the hurricanes, who knows what’s behind the walls.” (Lexin Capital has been accused in the past of neglecting repairs to the town. In 2016, a civil suit was filed by the condo owners’ association seeking to force Lexin to pay $15 million to $20 million in repairs.)
Gerrity said she doesn’t know how much it would cost to do the repairs needed to the theater because Lexin refuses to have an inspector look at the building, and the Gerritys say they will not spend their own money to get one themselves.
“We have a legally binding lease with AMC Theater on the space, so we are not at liberty to discuss lease specifics with anyone other than the leaseholder,” a spokesman for Lexin told Business Insider via email. “As far as why AMC closed, current condition, etc., those are questions that would need to be answered by the leaseholder (AMC).” (AMC Theaters did not respond to Business Insider's numerous attempts to comment for this story.)
The Gerritys have since postponed a fundraiser they were going to hold at the end of March and are currently trying to figure out their next move.
“We are not sure what direction to go now because we feel like we’re up against a wall,” she said.
But Gerrity has a glimmer of hope. She said she was told by her business partner recently that the leasing agent for AMC divulged that the movie chain does not plan to renew its lease on the theater when it expires in October of 2021 (Business Insider has substantiated this with another source).
“Once that lease is up they’ll change their tune,” Gerrity said with a hopeful tone of Lexin.
However, for the foreseeable future, the theater that was more than just a movie house for the people of Celebration has been relegated to a slowly rotting structure like so many of its brethren across the country.
If this were an old Disney movie made during the time Walt was at the controls, this would be the moment in the story when he would have a little bit of magic appear — either in the form of a Fairy godmother or some pixie dust — to make things right. But it doesn’t look like this story is going to have a happy ending.
“I’ll often go back," Joe McKinney said of Celebration. "Seeing that movie theater with its beautiful architecture in the middle of town and it’s not open. It’s just strange.”