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Is it time for Disney's America?
The calls and e-mails started coming in early this week:

"There are rumors floating around..." "You know, the infrastructure is really all there..." "The country's mood (by the time it could be completed) may be ready for it..." "It's such an easy fix..." "It would cost nothing really..."

So the question everyone was really asking was - "What if you had a sputtering turkey - and had a chance to turn it into a strong eagle?"

Could the Disney Company, with minimal expense and fuss, take the failing and problematic California Adventure park and turn it into Disney's America?

The America Press Kit cover

And wouldn't the timing of this work well - seeing as how the country will be facing a lengthy and very uniting challenge for the foreseeable future?

If the comments we keep hearing from people about Michael Eisner's renewal of purpose following the awful events of September 11th are true - couldn't this be a terrific way for the Disney company to do what it does best, celebrate our country?

At first, I didn't really believe all the murmurs I kept hearing could be possible, until I went back and looked at all the concept art and planning materials for the America park. (There is a link to a very good site provided in the column to the right that will let you research the original concepts).

Low and behold - after reading though it all it became abundantly clear that a good deal of it actually got built in California Adventure. (Imagineering never throws anything away!) It also became clear that two thirds of the park now could probably survive intact, but with a new, much more relevant, (and yes, a more much easier to market) "American" theme. All with minimal fuss and expense to the company.

It starts to make sense when you look at the original press release for Disney's America, an edited version of which is quoted below:

For immediate release, November 11, 1993


PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. -- The Walt Disney Company plans to create a unique and historically detailed environment celebrating the nation's richness of diversity, spirit and innovation -- " Disney's America" -- to be located west of Washington, D. C., it was announced today by Michael D. Eisner, chairman and CEO of the company.

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," Eisner said. " We bring seventy years of entertainment experience -- many of them creating the world's most original parks -- to this project."

Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development Company, said the new park will differentiate itself from all others in both subject matter and presentation. Said Rummell, " 'Disney's America' will allow guests to celebrate the diversity of the nation, the plurality and conflicts that have defined the American character."

Bob Weis, senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, in charge of the project's creative development, said the park is envisioned as " an ideal complement to visiting Washington's museums, monuments and national treasures."

"Beyond the rides and attractions for which Disney is famous," said Weis, "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."

The park will 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. The Disney-inspired American Teacher Awards also will be broadcast from the site.

At "Disney's America" guests may also find themselves piloting a World War II fighter by way of virtual reality or participating in a harrowing Lewis and Clark river expedition inside a Native American Indian Village or in the center of Revolutionary War and Civil War Battle re-enactments. They will even have an opportunity to meet every American president through the magic of Disney's Audio- Animatronics (R) technology.

Take a look at the following in particular:

"Disney's America" will include a number of unique guest experiences:

  • Entering the park, guests will find themselves in a detailed Civil War era village, which is the hub of "Disney's America."
  • From there guests may venture to Presidents' Square, celebrating the birth of democracy and those who fought to preserve it.
  • Native America explores the life of America's first inhabitants and offers an exciting white water river raft expedition.
  • Civil War Fort plunges guests into the most turbulent time in American history, and outside its ramparts the historic battle of the Monitor and Merrimac will once again be fought.
  • We the People introduces the compelling immigrant experience through music, ethnic foods and a powerful multimedia presentation, all inside a building resembling Ellis Island.
  • Enterprise, a factory town, highlights American ingenuity and features a high speed thrill attraction called the "Industrial Revolution."
  • Victory Field lets guests experience what America's soldiers faced in the defense of freedom.

Now look at the concept art for Victory Field...

Concept art  Disney
Concept art Disney

...remind you of Condor Flats?

Promotional art  Disney
Promotional art Disney

And Native America...

Concept art  Disney
Concept art Disney my, isn't that Grizzly River Run?

Now mind you - the rest of California Adventure could be easily converted too, here are what some people have suggested:

Hollywood Backlot would remain the same - representing of course, the country's entertainment industry. The loss of the California theme would allow other movies to be promoted there more seamlessly. Tower of Terror could still fit in.

The Bountiful Valley Farm area would be renamed America's Heartland - and showcase the agricultural states. The upcoming BugTown playground would still fit in, as well as the current Tough to be a Bug attraction.

Pacific Wharf would be either turned into the We the People concept described above in the press release, or re-themed to represent the Atlantic Coast - possibly with the Cape Cod concept that has worked so well at DisneySea...

- and / or -

...Paradise Pier could be torn down (yes, you heard right, torn down) and replaced by an American Waterfront theme to merge in with Cape Cod, or possibly a futuristic Tokyo DisneySea Port Discovery theme - "America's Future" in other words - which would then allow for Tomorrowland in Disneyland proper to become more Jules Vern fantasy oriented.

The Bay Area (near Grizzly River Run) would become President's Square - the Whoopi / Golden Dreams movie giving way to either EPCOT's American Adventure (too expensive probably) or a Magic Kingdom Hall of Presidents (finally giving Lincoln a proper home - and freeing up Disneyland's Opera House for a possible Walt Disney museum / show).

Grizzly River Run area would gain a title like "Golden West" - representing that part of the country - the Redwood Creek playground would now include other national forest landmarks - easy to add in.

Condor Flats would celebrate all of American aviation - from the Wright Brothers, to Lindbergh and beyond. Soarin over California could finally become what people already compare it to - a really up to date America the Beautiful experience - complete with flyovers of Washington D.C., New York and the Grand Canyon.

The entry murals could be transformed into a giant American flag and a vista of the country.

...there are other suggestions I've heard - but this gives you an inkling of what could be done.

How could this be accomplished? Well there is even talk of a schedule it would happen in: it could take up to three years (they would want two if possible), and major overhauls could be done in the off season which would mean only opening the park for the summer months until it would be completed. There is talk it would be a terrific way to celebrate Disneyland's 50th too.

It's not so far fetched closing California Adventure down if you look at it - they way the numbers are going right now (and most likely in the future if current trends hold) closing it in the off season at least during the week may be the cheapest way to go.

The numbers are down again
The numbers are down again

How serious is this? This is all from what I could gather very blue sky stuff - it really is way out there. My guess is that some people now discussing this may not have even run it by the top suits yet.

Are there problems with it? Well, yes. Disney still needs to address how child unfriendly this park is. It would also mean having even more attractions from Orlando here - not giving us the advantage of unique shows. And Disney would still face some of the problems they had in Virginia, with historians and experts really watching their every move.

(We won't even discuss how it could be seen as an embarrassing retrenchment of their original concept, although if properly presented, publicized and packaged as Disney's response to America's current situation, they could say it was their chance to address the needs of the country.)

But the possibilities this retheming would open up are boundless. For example no longer would the parade be locked down to a California theme - and the variety of concepts for new attractions would expand by at least 49 more states. (From Texas to Hawaii, there is just so much more to choose from in coming up with new attractions and entertainment concepts.) It would fix in one fell swoop what is so very wrong at the core of DCA.

What could hold it up? Egos - two rather inflated ones in particular. (Two guesses whom.) But so far no matter what the owners of those egos say needs to be done at DCA, they can't seem to pull in the numbers, so their ability to block this could be much reduced. Money could be a problem too - but look at it this way - they'd be spending on something new that has a shot, not trying to fix an idea that is proving unworkable.

Eisner himself, in his book "Work in Progress" opened up the chapter discussing the America park and wrote about his fondness for it:

There was no project during my first decade at Disney about which I felt more passionate than Disney's America - and none that ran up against fiercer resistance. Building a Disney theme park based on American history seemed like a natural extension of the company's lifelong focus on children and education, a perfect way of marrying our self-interest with a broader public interest.

He also wrote the following where he details his response to criticism of Epcot's American Adventure by a group of historians:

"Entertainment doesn't have to be pablum, and it doesn't have to make you feel good," I said, when my turn came to respond. "Entertainment has to create an emotional response. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, it can make you angry, it can make you sad. I don't disagree with 98 percent of what has been said here, but I do want to point out that Disney's America won't be a 25-minute experience like the American Adventure. The story we're going to try to tell at the park will take eight hours to deliver. It's going to be made up of fifteen or twenty different components. Each one will deal with a different aspect of the American experience. Disney's America has the potential to redefine The Walt Disney Company more than anything we've done. Our goal, when you finish an eight-hour day there, is that you'll have experienced an intelligent, entertaining, challenging view of America."

The story of California is a good one, goodness knows I live here in this state and respect it. But the story that would best relate to the largest group of visitors is one they all have a stake in, the story of America, our country.

Think about it.  The idea isn't all that crazy, if done properly it actually makes sense.  (Especially economically.)  If ever they needed a fix, and this country needed a park dedicated to telling its story, the time is now, and the change we are going through will insure it will remain relevant to a large audience for a very long future.

Maybe, just maybe, the time has come for Disney's America.

Al Lutz can be emailed at:

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Business Week excerpts the chapter from Eisner's book, Work in Progress, dealing with the America project

Michael Eisner's passion, Disney's America is a site that gathers together many of the documents and materials that were made available to the public as the project was being put together, it is well worth a visit.


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