- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

CELEBRATION, Fla. | Celebration, Disney’s master-planned, picture-perfect Central Florida community, 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 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 and neighbors tend to get suspicious if they notice you’re not around.

That’s what happened with Mr. Giovanditto, detectives say.

Neighbors hadn’t seen Mr. Giovanditto, who owned a bottom-floor condo at a building called the Idlewyld, since the day before Thanksgiving. His black Corvette was missing, too. A neighbor was supposed to walk Mr. Giovanditto’s dog, Lucy, over the weekend, but he wasn’t responding to her calls.

A missing-person report was filed Sunday, and the next day, neighbors went into Mr. Giovanditto’s apartment and found his body. Investigators won’t say what type of scene they encountered or how Mr. 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.

On Tuesday, detectives poked a Crime Stoppers 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. Mr. Giovanditto’s relatives were notified of his death.

As word of the homicide blew around town like 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.

Officials were quick to soothe people who live here: Even with the killer still at large, there was no need to worry; no, not here. Mr. Giovanditto’s death was an isolated incident, Ms. Lizasuain said.

“We don’t believe the safety of the residents is in jeopardy,” she said.

Still, the killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive 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 [Interstate 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,” Mr. 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 neighborly interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rule book. 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, and the town is now maintained like any other in Osceola County. However, 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 sweatshirts 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 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.

There has been crime in Celebration over the years, but always much less than in neighboring communities.

And the town has not been immune to the effects of the Great Recession. Homes are now available for less than $300,000 and condos for $120,000, unheard-of prices just a few years ago.

In the summer, Celebration residents lamented that the veterans memorial had been marred with painted black graffiti. On Wednesday, the town’s kindergarten-through-eighth-grade 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.

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