Sam Bergamiof Milford, Conn., visited Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla., more than 300 times since 1976. Now, he lives there.
Walt Disney Co.’s gated community known as Golden Oak—named after the company’s California ranch—is the only place in the world where you can own a home within Disney-resort boundaries. Some 980 acres are being carved up for as many as 450 homes on the Lake Buena Vista site, a few within eyesight of the famous Cinderella Castle fireworks.
Homeownership in the development starts at $1.7 million, and homes have sold for more than $7 million. Extras include property taxes and annual fees as high as $12,000 to cover perks, which include park passes, door-to-park transportation, extended hours for visiting attractions such as the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and a 17,000-square-foot clubhouse with a restaurant and concierge. Residents also will have access to some of the amenities, including the spa and dining rooms at the $370 million, 444-room Four Seasons resort expected to open in Golden Oak next summer.
Most customers are self-described Disneyphiles, and they come from around the globe. Brazilians, who can fly direct to Orlando from São Paulo, have been big buyers. While many are purchasing vacation homes, a handful are permanent residents.
Mr. Bergami was an early buyer in Golden Oak. His $3.4 million Spanish-style home, purchased in January 2012, includes framed blueprints of the park’s castle. “I’ve traveled everywhere, pretty much all over Europe,” says the 69-year-old, who is chief executive of an industrial-supplies maker. “I always gravitate to Disney World. It’s the place where I’m most comfortable.”
Homeowners also have the option of adding “hidden Mickeys”—as the features are known—in everything from kitchen backsplashes to stair railings. Builder Chad Cahill included an estimated 75 hidden mouse ears in a showcase home finished earlier this year. Some are tough to spot, so when the furnished $2.7 million home sells, the new owner will receive a map of the locations.
Only seven handpicked custom builders are allowed to construct homes in Golden Oak. Builders and residents face numerous restrictions on everything from design to landscaping. Front doors have to be solid wood. Shutters must actually operate. Gutters have to be rounded and either copper or another high-end material—no rectangular gutters.
“You don’t get to cut corners,” says Rick Watson, president of the J. Richard Watson Construction Co., which has built three homes at Golden Oak and has another three under construction.
When Gina and Paul Rice, of Warrenton, Va., decided to build their Tuscan-style, 9,000-square-foot home, they didn’t set out to include Mickey in the design. But they ended up with 13 hidden Mickeys in the interior and exterior of the five-bedroom house. Mickey’s head and ears appear as an inset on the exterior, on the living-room fireplace, and in the shape of the outdoor pool. “It’s almost like a scavenger hunt,” Ms. Rice says.
The couple also built a fireworks tower, a covered porch on the second floor that includes seating to view the famous show. The tower floor contains mosaic tiles shaped like Mickey’s head with fireworks inside. “If there’s a single image that you think of with Disney, it’s those fireworks,” says Mr. Rice, a 60-year-old retired computer technologist. “It’s just a very cool way to remind yourself you’re rolling in the belly of all this stuff.”
The idea of a high-end community on Lake Buena Vista, Fla., land that once held a golf course seemed a sure bet when it was first conceived in 2007, but then the residential and financial markets crashed. Orlando, which saw rampant building in the boom, saw prices plunge 55% from the October 2006 peak, hitting bottom in early 2011, says CoreLogic, a real-estate data and analytics firm.
Instead of dropping the plans or selling the site, Disney sat tight until recovery, says Page Pierce, vice president of Disney Resort Real Estate Development. Since Golden Oak opened for sale more than 2½ years ago, close to 100 of up to 450 lots have been sold. Next year, Disney will sell more of the part of the development called the Marceline, named after the Missouri town where the late Mr. Disney grew up.
The company has made a residential play before. In the 1990s, it developed Celebration, a planned 5,000-acre community with more than 4,000 homes in northwest Osceola County, Fla., with everything from schools to a hospital. Plunging prices during the housing bust resulted in foreclosures. Today, the community is almost fully sold and is run by residents, and Disney’s only involvement is selling its vacant commercial land there, the company said.
With Golden Oak, Disney decided against creating another town in favor of an exclusive resort community that would appeal to families with its focus on the theme park itself. They also saw demand for bigger homes on the relatively small parcel. The company has four seats on the seven-seat community board—a version of the traditional homeowners’ association—ensuring it has a long-term say in operations.
“When you live in there, you live and die by the [homeowner association] rules,” says Ronna Levy, an agent with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Market America Group who recently toured the community for the first time. She adds that the building restrictions in the development could turn off some potential buyers: “I don’t think some people want to be governed” that way.
Still, for some, the Disney cachet is worth it. “The Disney brand goes a long way. You’re paying for location, you’re paying for the amenities,” says Michael Crawford, an agent with Keller Williams at the Lakes in Celebration, Fla. “There’s a lot of added value.”
When Jill Talley heard Disney was building a community, she was instantly sold. She and her husband, Jack, an executive at a rental-car company, bought a four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot vacation home last year for an amount Ms. Talley declined to disclose. But it wasn’t big enough for them. They are building a 5,800-square-foot home nearby with plans to sell the current one next year, says Ms. Talley, who lives in Oklahoma City.
“We just decided we wanted to be able to have our [three] kids visit at the same time,” she says. “If we have grandkids, them too.”