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Thanksgiving Special: Neverworlds – Disney’s America

The Business of America is Business

After a long fallow period, Michael Eisner had kicked Imagineering into gear in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. By 1993, Walt Disney World already had its third gate and a fourth was being secretly designed at WDI. Two different second gates had been designed for California, and a second park was in development for Tokyo as well. Euro Disney had just recently opened, and a second gate for the Paris park had already been designed before financial concerns forced its delay.

Following the initial cost overruns of Euro Disneyland (also Eisner’s fault, but you’ll have to wait for that article), Disney had started looking for ways to build smaller, less expensive parks. In 1991, prior even to Euro Disney’s opening, parks head Dick Nunis talked Eisner and Disney president Frank Wells into visiting Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Nunis, a Disney longtimer, thought that the area would be a ripe opportunity for the company to build a park along historic American themes. Eisner and Wells were interested, but the area turned out to be impractical for development. Eisner tasked Peter Rummell and the Disney Development Company with finding a spot to build, and turned their thoughts to the Imagineering process.

In the fall of 1992, as the DDC looked for an appropriate location for the park, Imagineering assembled the park’s design team. Bob Weis, who had led the design of the Disney-MGM Studios and has recently returned to WDI to lead the extreme makeover of California Adventure, was put in charge of creative development. By the spring of 1993, WDI was at work on the park’s design and Rummell had found an appropriate park site near Haymarket, Virginia.

Park Location

Through a stroke of good luck, 2,300 of the 3,000 acres Disney wanted to buy were owned by a single company. Exxon had bought the land in the go-go 1980s for a residential and retail development only to have the real estate market crash during the elder Bush’s recession. Seeing as it was fairly difficult to find a buyer for such a large parcel, Exxon was fairly excited to unload the property and was glad to give Disney a long-term option on the land. The land was at the intersection of Interstate 66 and Highway 15, and at only twenty miles from downtown Washington, D.C. allowed easy access to a huge tourist population. In fact, at the park’s announcement Weis would trumpet Disney’s America as “an ideal complement to visiting Washington’s museums, monuments and national treasures.”

In the initial meetings with the creative team, Eisner would task them with building a park based on complex themes; the fun as well as the serious moments in American history, with all the concurrent highs and lows thrown in. Eisner wanted to use the tools that Disney had invented to take on the weighty stories of America’s history, and saw this as only reasonable as so many so-called ‘serious’ museums have been trying to do just this in recent years. In the initial press conference in November 1993, Eisner said that “in Disney’s America we will create a totally new concept using the different strengths of our entertainment company – our motion picture and television talent, our park Imagineers, our interactive media and publishing executives as well as our sports enterprise and education executives – to celebrate those unique American qualities that have been our country’s strengths and that have made this nation the beacon of hope to people everywhere. We bring seventy years of entertainment experience – many of them creating the world’s most original parks – to this project.” Peter Rummell claimed that the park would differentiate itself from all others in both subject matter and presentation, and that “Disney’s America will allow guests to celebrate the diversity of the nation, the plurality and conflicts that have defined the American character.”

It didn’t happen. But it could have. So let’s jump in the Tangaroa TARDIS and hop the multiverse to visit the Disney’s America park that opened in 1998 in Haymarket, Virginia. First, a note: these were very preliminary plans. As released, the plans for the park were a rough draft to catch the public’s imagination and were changed many times during development. Many things were altered, and other things were added. But the multiverse is a confusing place and, hey, this is all I got…

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