ORLANDO, Fla. — You say you’re thoroughly smitten with all things Disney? You say you’ve been known to joke that you’d practically live at Walt Disney World if you could?
Got millions of dollars to spare?
That’s more or less the cost of admission for owning a home at Golden Oak, an upscale, gated and guarded subdivision that Disney is developing almost in the shadow of its iconic theme parks here — the development is just three miles away from Disney World.
But unlike the popular Disney theme parks, these homes are not approachable for the masses.
At prices ranging from $1.5 million to upwards of $8 million, the developer promises a house and neighborhood with the hallmarks it has carefully cultivated for decades: meticulous attention to detail; extensive personal service; and, if you’re so inclined, a daily dose of Mickey, Minnie and the crew.
Minnie Mouse occupies a chair in a model home at Disney’s upscale Golden Oak development.
Golden Oak’s development team is courting a very well-heeled clientele of Disney diehards that it’s certain are out there, in addition to others who may be lured less by "The Little Mermaid" than by the promise of tight security and a deep trust in the Disney brand.
"That’s the gold standard for quality," said Richie Galaska, an Orlando, Fla., real estate agent who said he has taken clients to see Golden Oak and who himself lives in Celebration, an earlier — and much different — Disney residential development.
He can see Golden Oak’s appeal for highly affluent buyers, he said. "For an individual who’s looking for an ultra-exclusive address, you’d expect a certain amount of security and confidence in the developer," Galaska said.
Although Florida abounds in upscale communities that promote a "lifestyle" of one kind or another, Golden Oak’s planners think the Disney brand is the not-so-secret weapon that sets it apart: Buy here, goes part of the sales pitch, and get years of virtually unlimited access to Disney properties in the surrounding area.
"We’ve never done this for anybody else," explained Stacey Thomson, public relations manager for Golden Oak, who said that buyers in the current sales phase will get three years’ worth of unlimited VIP-access passes to the parks for the homeowner and four guests, in addition to such services as door-to-park van service, access to special events, and numerous other Disney-esque benefits that don’t accrue to the typical visitor.
Walt Disney World is inarguably popular — in 2010 it had 17 million "guests," making it the most-visited theme park on the planet. But among them, are there hardcore fans who’d be interested in "la vida Disney"?
"Millions of people are like that," Thomson said. "We developed Golden Oak because we have this population of guests who have such a high affinity for our brand. They told us they wanted more. They asked, ‘How do I get more access?’ "
This prototypical "affinity" customer may visit Disney properties, including the ones in other countries, several times a year, and they’re partial to Disney cruises, she said.
Golden Oak is the corporation’s first foray into subdivision-type housing since Disney began sales at its Celebration community in 1995. But the new development, with its official insistence on "Tuscan" and Mediterranean styling (set out in a thick book of architectural regulations), is deliberately not another nostalgic, picket-fenced, Celebration village.
"It’s totally different from Celebration," said Thomson. "Celebration was a stand-alone community with its own schools, own churches, etc."
Where Celebration was conceived as a full-fledged town with a large contingent of full-time residents and a share of units at a much lower price point, Golden Oak is a sprawling, 980-acre subdivision that will function more as a gilt-edged resort.
That is, though Golden Oak residents are expected to shell out millions for a home that bears the Disney imprimatur, they’re highly unlikely to actually live there full time.
"Most of our buyers will probably spend a few months a year here," Thomson said. "These will be their second or even third homes."
And homebuyers can’t expect to underwrite their investments here by leasing out their abodes to vacationers — short-term rentals are prohibited, thus reducing the prospect of 20-somethings throwing a spring break kegger next door.
But when the homeowners are in residence, their roomy-to-sprawling houses are intended to be magic kingdoms in their own right.
The various gated neighborhoods within Golden Oak eventually will be filled with 450 highly customized houses that abound in granite countertops, crown moldings, pools, fountains, elaborate stonework and other trappings of wealth.
Concierge service will offer to arrange everything from decorating the house for Christmas to catering dinner to stocking your refrigerator before you fly into Orlando for the week — for a fee, of course.
A 16,000-square-foot clubhouse, to be completed this year, will have a restaurant, pool, fitness center and a demonstration kitchen to host residents-only events, such as Disney restaurant sommeliers conducting wine tastings. Children’s activities will claim a fair amount of space in the building, Thomson said, including an area with a 106-inch television screen.
There will, indeed, be kids at Golden Oak, at least part time, though maybe not the ones the developers anticipated: Disney presumed homebuyers would be in their 60s and dreaming of a Disney magnet for their grandchildren, Thomson said.
"They’ve skewed much younger than that," she said. "We’ve had some buyers in their 40s, but mostly they’re in their 50s. Typically, they’re early retirees who look to bring their children.
"Our buyers see this access to Walt Disney World as a legacy product, something to pass on to their children and then to their grandchildren," she said.
And so far, no mortgages — they’re paying cash, she said.
"We haven’t seen effects from the recession," Thomson said. "The kind of buyer we’re appealing to hasn’t been affected."
A kitchen in a Golden Oak model home. Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.
Disney doesn’t release sales figures for the development, which it began marketing in mid-2010. But its sales literature designates 21 properties in the first phase of 81 lots as "sold," with several other sales pending.
At this point, there aren’t many neighbors. Thomson said five owners have moved in, with half a dozen others scheduled in the next two months. On a recent day, construction activity was ubiquitous and Thomson said sales are running ahead of company projections; Disney anticipates a full build-out to take about a decade.
The true-blue Disney fans have, indeed, materialized, she said, and touches in the homes reflect their affection for the brand. One homeowner who is building a sprawling custom home, for example, is putting in a fireworks-viewing stand to take in the parks’ nightly pyrotechnic shows. Another homeowner embellished her custom-made glass interior doors with likenesses of the Disney characters.
But strong interest also has come from another quarter: Latin Americans who perceive Florida as a haven from economic and political uncertainty. On New Year’s Eve, for example, Thomson hosted a party for a crowd of potential buyers from Brazil in an unsold, 6,800-square-foot spec house (price tag: $3.45 million) at Golden Oak.
Indeed, the development’s first resident, she said, was a Brazilian pop star, whom she declined to name.
"There’s a lot of money coming into Florida from South America and from Europe," said Ron Kurtz, president of the American Affluence Research Center, based in Atlanta, which studies the attitudes of the wealthy. "The Disney name has great value to internationals."
Brazilians, in particular, come to Orlando in groups, said Laura Bennett, who owns an Orlando public relations firm and is an expert in branding. "They have a ton of money and they’re attracted by safety here. You know, in some other parts of the world, (the threat of) kidnapping may be a part of life for wealthy people."
Bennett, who held her wedding a few years ago at Disney’s Epcot Center and admits to being "a bit of a Disney nut," thinks there are plenty of like-minded souls who would pony up significant bucks to satisfy, as Thomson termed it, their "affinity."
"Disney’s selling wholesome living," Bennett said. "And safety. And fun. You can go to the Disney parks at night to eat. There’s something going on every night — there’s music and fireworks. You’d have a life, not just a cool house."
A model home at Golden Oak overlooks a pool and lake. Photo ©2011 Dan Forer.
Kurtz, the affluence expert who lives in Atlanta, is less sure.
"Disney gets a tremendous number of upscale visitors, and I think the brand stands for quality and service and integrity," he said. "But I don’t see access to the parks as a major item for the affluent people who might be looking at a pre-retirement home."
Still, Kurtz said, maybe he’s missing something.
"I spent the night with friends in Orlando recently — retirees who are absolutely well-off, affluent people," he said. "They buy annual passes to the parks for hundreds of dollars a year, and they have Disney knickknacks all over the house. They have Disney wallpaper in their guest bathroom.
"There’s definitely some sort of emotional connection that people have with Disney," he said "But it’s a little bit beyond my understanding."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.