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Thanksgiving Special: Neverworlds – Disney’s America


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“Beyond the rides and attractions for which Disney is famous, the park will be a venue for people of all ages, especially the young, to debate and discuss the future of our nation and to learn more about its past by living it.”
- Bob Weis, November 11, 1993

As with many projects before the fated year of 1994, Eisner tasked the Disney’s America creative team with something more than designing a theme park. Much like EPCOT Center, Disney heralded the America park as an extension of Walt Disney’s desire to educate as well as inspire and entertain. Many of the concepts for incorporating special events into the park’s operations hearken back to the ideas of outreach trumpeted for EPCOT Center in 1982. These ideas include various political affairs gatherings, broadcasts, and edutainment events.

The original press release for Disney’s America claimed that the park would “have facilities to host and televise political debates, public forums and gatherings of writers, educators, journalists, students and historians to discuss issues of the past, present and future.” Plans called for the ability to broadcast TV specials and public affairs programming, as well as floating the possibility of establishing a working broadcast newsroom or newspaper bureau on site “so that future generations may learn more about the key roles of media in society and the importance and significance of freedom of the press (whether or not this would have involved informing the media themselves of these facts isn’t mentioned).”

This is the type of heady stuff that always seemed to be announced for these projects, only to go ignored and fall by the wayside. Still, Eisner seemed committed and claimed that the park would additionally broadcast the Disney-created American Teacher Awards. And lest things get a little too dry and academic, the park would be fully equipped to “stage detailed re-enactments of significant Civil War and Revolutionary War battles.”

So wha happah?

“While only in the conceptual phase, DISNEY’S AMERICA will be different from anything built previously by The Walt Disney Company.

As well as offering rides and attractions for which we are famous, DISNEY’S AMERICA will be a venue for people of all ages – especially American youth – to debate the future of their nation and lean about the past by living its history. This Park will serve as the ideal complement to our nation’s leading historical museums, monuments and landmarks in Washington, D.C. Just as important, the Park will also be a celebration of the diversity of America, the plurality of this Nation and the conflicts that have defined us as a people.”

- Disney Promotional Material, 1994

So after wrapping up our exciting day at Disney’s America, one can’t help but notice that this park doesn’t actually exist. As the man says, why for? Well, pick a reason. Disney’s America seemed star-crossed from its inception, yet Eisner’s capitulation in September of 1994 continues to seem unnecessary in retrospect.

Eisner himself listed a litany of errors in Disney’s handling of the park roll-out and public relations campaign. First was the name itself – “Disney’s America” seemed to some to imply a claimed ownership of American history that only inflamed the ire of stick-in-the-mud academics who desire that ownership for themselves. By August of 1994 the company was considering a name change to “Disney’s American Celebration” as a “softer” and “less presumptuous” alternative.

Secondly, the need for secrecy to secure the land for the park prevented the company from reaching out to political allies and starting a lobbying effort in earnest before the story leaked. They never quite managed to get ahead of the story after it slipped away from them, and their enemies already had an in-place network of contacts and influence that always left Disney’s lobbying attempts a step behind.

This brings us to the main reason we can’t visit Disney’s America today – money and power. When you try to build a theme park in Katharine Graham’s backyard, near the palatial country estates of American royalty such as the Mellons, the DuPonts, and the Harrimans, you can’t expect for the smackdown to not come eventually. That’s the real story of Disney’s America, and perhaps the most American aspect of its development – the ability of the rich and powerful to distort truth and the media into convincing the less well-off to act in direct opposition to their best interests.

As soon as Disney announced plans for the park, the horse show crowd got a severe case of the vapors and mobilized a phalanx of lawyers, P.R. folk, historians, and activists-for-hire to put the brakes to the development. Residents were convinced that their unspoiled countryside would be wiped out and their towns overrun by traffic and burger joints – they would be victims of uncontrolled sprawl. Then again, they might have actually been able to zone against uncontrolled sprawl but where’s room for nuance when the Hun is knocking on the gates?

A cadre of elite historians came out to attack Disney, seemingly offended at the mere idea of history being presented in a way intended to appeal to the filthy proletariat. Without hearing Disney’s plans (and what plans Disney had were very preliminary), they seemed to take a stand against the park in any format. It was an abomination and an insult to actual history, some of which was featured at Manassas Battleground about five miles away. The historians were joined by beltway media and politicians, most of whom were closely tied to the key opponents of the park and who helped form public opinion about the park.

The effect of this campaign cannot be underestimated, even fourteen years later. A cursory Google search for the purpose of this article revealed a number of discussion threads about the park, most of which were nearly or completely factually inaccurate and many of which involved the same distorted memes that the Washington elite spread to combat the park. According to many of these ‘facts’, Disney’s America would not only intrude onto several sacrosanct Civil War battlefields, but wind up “bulldozing” Manassas as well as Bull Run!

The truth is that the park intruded on no protected lands, and after the huge battle to prevent the sprawl of the theme park the land is currently – a housing development, full of McMansions. I-66 never got the widening that Disney would have secured, causing endless traffic delays. Instead of those roads being crowded with cars driving into Haymarket to spend money locally, they’re full of cars passing through to Washington, D.C. to work there and then return to their identical rows of home on the former site of Disney’s America. Prince William County never got the 3,000 jobs the park would initially create, nor the residual business benefits the park would create in the area. The State of Virginia wound up missing out on $1 Billion in tax revenues over the first thirty years of park operation, while sleepy Prince William County missed out on $500 million over the same period. Prince William County still has sprawl, it still has traffic – it just doesn’t have Disney. For a certain social set, that’s how they wanted it; many regular folks, however, who opposed the park at the time now see it as a missed opportunity.

While many historians had mobilized in opposition to the park, others joined forces with Disney and came on to consult and advise the WDI creative team. Though these academics thought that Disney was far from perfect – Eisner reported specific objections to EPCOT’s American Adventure – eventually they were won over that Disney at least had noble intentions and were willing to listen to criticism. Eisner explained to them that at the America park they would have a whole day to tell very complex and nuanced stories that just couldn’t be done in a single 25-minute attraction like American Adventure. By reaching out in various ways, Disney was able to assemble a team of academics, historians, and intelligentsia that were willing to consult for them and offer advice and criticism. The opposition was not so kind; Eisner would write:

None of this seemed to dampen the resolve of our opponents. Most important, several historians began raising the specter that our park threatened historical sites in the surrounding area, notably Manassas. The leader of these efforts was Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In February, the New York Times came out editorially in opposition to Disney’s America, arguing the same case that Moe was making. “Haymarket is not 42nd Street or Florida’s piney woods,” the Times wrote. “Putting a theme park there degrades a scenic and historic resource for a project that can be built elsewhere. As for parents who want to give their children history, let them – like generations before them – make the trip to Prince William County. Let them sit still at Manassas and listen for the presence of the dead.”

In May, a group calling itself Protect Historic America was launched. Led by Moe, it included a prestigious group of historians, writers, and well-known public figures. On May 11, funded in part by supporters of the Piedmont Environmental Council, they held a press conference that featured several of their most prominent members. David McCullough, the best-selling author of Truman and host for Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Civil War, described Disney’s America as “a commercial blitzkrieg by the Panzer division of developers.” He went on to liken the proposed building of our historical park to the Nazi takeover of Western Europe.

“We have so little that’s authentic and real,” McCullough said. “It’s irrational, illogical, and enormously detrimental to attempt to create synthetic history by destroying real history.” Moe warned that if Disney did manage to get the park built, the surrounding countryside would be “overrun, cheapened, and trivialized.” The retired Yale historian C. Vann Woodward suggested that “it [is] pretty much taken for granted that Disney [will] misinterpret the past.” And Roger Wilkins, a journalist and history professor, described our proposed park as nothing less than “a national calamity.”

Perhaps the most telling story about the opposition to Disney’s America came at the end of Disney’s attempt to build the park. When Eisner decided to pull out of Virginia, he asked Disney Channel president and park consultant John Cooke to use his Washington contacts to reach out to the park’s critics and ask them if they would support the park if it were built in a different location, and possibly agree to consult on a future iteration of the park concept. Cooke did so, and according to Eisner received encouraging responses when he asked Dick Moe, David McCullough, and James McPherson if they would consider announcing their support for Disney’s right to build the park in another location. Turns out the park wasn’t quite the abomination they let on, as long as it was built somewhere else.

Despite this adversity, the park was still within Disney’s reach to build. The New York and Washington cocktail party circuit that had started the more-than-whispering campaign against Disney’s America did not represent the majority of Virginians. Public support was vastly in favor of the park, and the park’s management team continued to obtain the necessary permits and government concessions with the ready assistance of the Virginia state government and Governor.

Eisner’s initiative was instead knocked out by a deadly 1-2-3-4 punch during the dark year of 1994 and by September he was no longer willing to fight. In April 1994, Disney president Frank Wells died in a shocking helicopter accident. Wells was the yang to Eisner’s ying, and without his steadying behind-the-scenes influence the rest of Eisner’s tenure would slowly spiral out of control. Eisner’s inability to select a successor for Wells after his death continued to plague Eisner for years afterwards; his decision to assume most of Wells’ duties himself and skip over studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg led to a nuclear-level conflict and Eisner’s move to push Katzenberg out of the company in August 1994. This would result in acrimonious litigation and Katzenberg joining with Steven Spielberg and Dave Geffen to form Dreamworks. None of this, or the continual financial hemorrhaging of Euro Disney, could have possibly had anything to do with the fact that Eisner was forced to have difficult heart bypass surgery that July. By September, Eisner was no longer able or willing to fight for the America park.

Continuing difficulties included the fact that park opponents were challenging every environmental or government approval that the park received from the state of Virginia. The constant litigation was not only pushing back the park’s anticipated opening date, but draining funds for the constant flow of lawyers and lobbyists. Costs of the park itself had increased by 40 percent as the design was refined and plussed. In the other column, earning projections had been reduced as Disney realized that the length of the operating season they had predicted was too ambitious and would have to be scaled back, and due to softening theme park attendance the ticket price points would probably have to be reduced. The increased costs and decreased earnings predictions pointed to one thing – operating losses, which were a terrifying prospect in the wake of Euro Disney’s woes.

While the public remained behind the park and the approvals process continued unabated, Eisner was no longer up to fighting the good fight. On September 15, 1994, the decision was made to raise the white flag on Disney’s America. While Eisner hoped to build the park elsewhere, the remainder of his reign would be a slow spiral into mediocrity and the plans for Disney’s America remain on a shelf at WDI. With Bob Weis returned to the company, though, and having the ear of new creative honcho John Lasseter… well, who knows?

Well, that’s it for our little tour of Disney’s America. Please keep all hands and arms inside the website until it comes to a full and complete stop, and please enjoy the rest of your day here at Progress City, U.S.A.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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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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