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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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9 comments to Thanksgiving Special: Neverworlds – Disney’s America

  • This project might not be so dead after all and could even wind up being in Virginia, just in a different location.

    http://virginiavirtucon.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/revive-disneys-america-in-virginia/

  • Dan

    It’s a shame the park went down the way it did, especially considering the sprawl now threatening the sacred lands of Manassas.

    Still, maybe Disney did dodge a bullet, considering the unpredictable climate in the area. There’s a reason Walt didn’t want to build WDW outside of New York and Philadelphia, even if the 50 million people within 3 hours of both cities would visit the park. The weather is unpredictable and can be quite harsh, and may have cut into the operating hours of the park. I would love to see an American Disney park in snow, and this park would be perfect to pull it off, but considering the ice storms to the south and the blizzard-type storms that occur to the north, maybe Disney was better off not building this park in Virginia.

  • I agree that it’s a shame things worked out this way – as you say, the entire area is going to be consumed by development and it’s ironic that the area would arguably have been much better preserved had Disney taken control of the land.

    Being from North Carolina, I know what you mean about the unpredictable climate. Of course other parks in the area are seasonal, but I’d have to go back through my research to see if Disney ever said what their plans were on this front. I’m with you one one thing for sure – I’d love to see a Disney park in the snow. Heck, the idea of a Disney-themed park on the rolling hills of the Piedmont in autumn gives me chills…

  • [...] vary somewhat, but still follow fairly similar themes. We’ve already touched upon the story of Disney’s America, as well as the process that led WESTCOT to be downsized and eventually [...]

  • [...] the immediate thing that most Disney fans will think of upon hearing this news is the aborted Disney’s America project of years ago; this project obviously has no relation to that park design, and will consist [...]

  • Ted

    I have in my attic one of the (I believe) very few zoning applications, all four thick binders, Disney supplied to the state of Virginia for their Disney’s America project. As you can imagine, it’s stuffed full of artist renderings, maps, studies, descriptions, etc. Somebody has just offered to buy it from me and I have no earthly idea how valuable this might be. Do you have any insights into this?

    Thank you for your help and best to you,

    Ted

  • Hi there,

    Unfortunately I have *no* idea how much something like that would be worth; because of its scarcity it’s one of those “priceless” things that are hard to assign value to. I’m sure it would bring a hefty price on eBay, though, so it’s definitely worth quite a bit. Sorry I can’t help more – I wish I could pick one up for myself!

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