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Thanksgiving Special: Neverworlds – Disney’s America

“Every day, a diverse and unlikely society, made up of every culture and race on earth, is working together to build a great nation. We have a single vision – a new order based on the promise of democracy.

Our resources for building this nation are a rich mixture of land, family and beliefs – which we apply with our own fiety brand of spirit, humor and innovation.

As the nation has grown and changed, we are constantly reminded of how impossibly far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go.

DISNEY’S AMERICA celebrates these qualities which have always been the source of our strength and the beacon of
hope to people everywhere.”

- Disney Promotional Material, 1994

As we in the States gather around the table today to gorge ourselves on unreasonable amounts of lethargy-inducing slather, I thought it would be good to take a moment and reflect on what we have to be thankful for. Then I ran out of those, and started thinking about things I’m not thankful for. Namely, the year 1994 and Michael Eisner’s complete creative and personal meltdown that began the disastrous eleven-year stretch that wrapped up his career at the Disney company. If not for the year 1994 and a number of factors both controllable and not, I would be able to spend my turkey day a few hours away in rural Virginia enjoying Disney’s tribute to American history, Disney’s America.

Disney

Recall the Past, Live the Present, Dream the Future
- Disney Promotional Material, 1994

Just over fourteen years ago, on November 11th, 1993, Michael Eisner and other Disney officals gathered in Haymarket, Virginia to announce the Disney’s America project. The announcement was rushed, as Disney had been forced by press leaks to move the press conference up and thus try and get ahead of the story. Secrecy had allowed Disney to either purchase or option 3,000 acres of property in the area, but made them unable to quickly respond to area critics who were both well-connected and very well funded. Nearly a year later, in September of 1994, Disney would announce that they were no longer seeking to build the park in Prince William County. While the story of Eisner’s ‘year of hell’ and the political and business machinations that helped torpedo the park are significant, what’s really important here is the park we missed out on. So let’s take a look at the process that brought us the park, and specifically what we’re missing on this Turkey Day.

The History of History

The roots of Disney’s America were deep indeed. From the time of Disneyland’s opening, Walt Disney intended to create an area to educate the youth of 1950′s America about their colonial roots and the processes that created the nation. Since then, Americana has continued to be one of Disney’s best-executed themes and one that Imagineering could most effectively extend to an entire park.

Liberty StreetDuring the period from roughly 1957-59, Disney himself intended to create an area directly off of Main Street in Disneyland called “Liberty Street”. This cul-de-sac would recreate colonial America, with various shops and exhibits themed to crafts and trades unique to the period. These would not be mere merchandise locations, but actual silversmiths, printers, and blacksmiths demonstrating their skills for visitors. The street would end in Liberty Square, a colonial plaza centering around a recreation of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall (here called “Liberty Hall”).

Liberty Hall would house two major show attractions in the Hall of the Declaration of Independence and the Hall of Presidents of the United States. Both of these shows would rely on the still nascent Audio-Animatronics technology, which had yet to even be named. Early tests had been done, but the technology was far from ready and these attractions were more likely intended to rely on sculpted, life-sized figures with a far more limited range of motion than we have come to expect.

The first of these attractions would depict three tableaux based on famous paintings, and provide the story of the Declaration of Independence through narration, music, and lighting. The second, entitled One Nation Under God, would closely resemble Walt Disney World’s eventual Hall of Presidents, except that its focus would be on George Washington instead of Abraham Lincoln.

Eventually, financial and technological concerns along with Walt’s usual creative A.D.D. would lead to the scuttling of the Liberty Street concept. Disneyland’s expansion budget would go to the 1959 Tomorrowland rehabilitation, and the Imagineers would start to focus on the development of a single Lincoln animatronic. With the help of Robert Moses, Walt was eventually able to secure development money for the figure and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Liberty Square Pre-opening Rendering

Seven years later, freed from the roadblocks that Disney faced in 1964, the Hall of Presidents premiered with Walt Disney World’s 1971 opening. The technology and budget were now available to mass-produce animatronic figures (36 presidents at the time), and to present a show much more similar to the original Once Nation Under God concept. In fact, some elements of the script and attraction recordings dated to the aborted development of the earlier show in the 1960′s.

Liberty Square postcard image

The Hall of Presidents was presented in a land unique to Walt Disney World; Liberty Square is a small but highly themed land designed along the lines of Walt’s own Liberty Street. Intended as an alternative to Disneyland’s ornate New Orleans Square (Imagineers thought that Walt Disney World would be too close to the actual New Orleans for this area to be effective), the land reflects the same colonial sensibilities that would much later be used in 1982′s American Adventure at EPCOT Center and on an even grander scale in Disney’s America.

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