CELEBRATION, Fla. (AP) — Celebration, Disney’s master-planned, picture-perfect central Florida community, has never reported a homicide in its 14-year existence — until this week.
Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.
The community’s famous friendliness is what brought investigators to Matteo Giovanditto’s body: Neighbors hadn’t seen him for days, so they filed a missing person’s report, then went into his condo a day later and found him.
A few years ago, a resident joked with a reporter that Celebration would feel like a real town when a bike was stolen. Now, it has an unsolved killing on its hands.
With 11,000 residents, Celebration is something of an anomaly in Central Florida. There’s no suburban sprawl — the entire place is reminiscent of a quaint New England village.
It’s the kind of town where people give Christmas gifts to their favorite Starbucks barista, where welcoming wooden rocking chairs sit lakeside on a sidewalk without being stolen, where neighbors tend to get suspicious if they notice you’re not around.
And that’s what happened with Giovanditto, detectives say.
Neighbors hadn’t seen Giovanditto, who owned a bottom-floor condo at a building called The Idlewyld, since the day before Thanksgiving. His black Corvette was also missing. A neighbor was supposed to walk Giovanditto’s dog, Lucy, over the weekend, but he wasn’t responding to her calls.
A missing person’s report was filed Sunday, and the next day neighbors went into his apartment and found his body. Investigators won’t say what type of scene they encountered, or how Giovanditto died.
“This is very rare and unusual for a crime of this magnitude to occur in this community,” said Twis Lizasuain, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.
But it seems Celebration is having bad week. Two standoffs, including one that dragged into Thursday night and resulted in evacuations of several homes, also unsettled residents.
Officials, though, were quick to soothe people who live here: Even with the killer still at large, there was no need to worry; no, not here. Giovanditto’s death was an isolated incident, Lizasuain said.
“We don’t believe the safety of the residents is in jeopardy,” she said.
On Tuesday, detectives poked a Crimestoppers sign offering a reward into the lush grass outside the condo, next to a receptacle for dog waste bags. They found the Corvette at an apartment building in a neighboring Orlando suburb. His relatives were notified of his death.
As word of the homicide blew around town like the leaves from the maple trees that line the sidewalks, people started to worry.
“I’ve always thought of Celebration as a very safe community,” said Heather Hardy, who lives there six months a year and was sitting on a wooden rocker downtown, reading a book.
Few neighbors would talk about Giovanditto, who moved to Florida from Massachusetts. The Orlando Sentinel reported that he had once been a teacher; one neighbor thought he was retired.
The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.
The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.
Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.
Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”
Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.
Disney relinquished control of Celebration several years ago; the town is now maintained like any other in Osceola County. But it still retains theme park-like flourishes: a colorful kiosk sells tickets to a little train that ferries children and adults around town, tourists in Disney sweat shirts roam the streets, taking photos and, on a recent sunny day, Crosby’s “White Christmas” could be heard playing all over downtown.
This bucolic landscape makes it all the more difficult to believe that there actually was a homicide here, just steps from Celebration’s downtown, where people stroll with their tiny dogs and pause to enjoy a small, glittering man-made lake.
Over the years there has been crime in Celebration, but always much less than in neighboring communities.
And the town has not been immune to the effects of the Great Recession. Last year, the Washington Post wrote a story about the town’s dropping real estate values; homes are now available for under $300,000, and condos for $120,000, unheard-of prices just a few years ago.
In the summer, Celebration residents lamented the fact that the Veterans Memorial was marred with painted black graffiti.
On Wednesday, the town’s K-8 school was on lockdown, because a woman going through a divorce told officers that her husband might have been driving around with a gun.
And now this, the first homicide in Celebration, the town that Disney built.