Disney's America - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Perhaps the most controversial theme park that the Walt Disney Company ever tried to build was the historically-themed Disney's America in 1993 near Haymarket, Virginia.

CEO Michael Eisner said in November 1993, "In 'Disney's America' we will create a totally new concept using the different strengths of our entertainment company 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."

In January 1990, recently installed Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner brazenly announced "The Disney Decade" that would have been an elaborate ten year agenda to expand the theme parks, resort hotels and more including creating perhaps a Disney airline, a chain of Disney day care centers, a cruise ship line and more.

However, by the summer of 1991, cost overruns and other challenges at Euro Disney (later Disneyland Paris) drained money from the company and forced it to re-evaluate its announced elaborate expansion plans.

In the summer of 1991, Disney board member and president of Outdoor Recreation Division that included the theme parks Dick Nunis suggested that Eisner and Disney President Frank Wells visit with him the historical Colonial Williamsburg location in Virginia that had been a favorite location of Walt Disney and his family.

The idea was to build something nearby or even perhaps take over the operation of Colonial Williamsburg. It was an extremely popular tourist destination even if it was at little out of the way and only opened seasonally.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney told newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper, "There's an American theme behind the whole park". In fact, Walt's dedication speech stated, "Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America."

No one knew it was Disney that was making the massive purchases for land in Virginia.

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, there was an entire land named Liberty Square that debuted based on Walt's plans for the proposed but never built Liberty Street at Disneyland.

In 1982, when Epcot opened, in the World Showcase area was the American Adventure pavilion that told the history of America in a twenty-five minute multi-media show that some historians criticized for simplifying the story.

So the idea for Disney to build a modest theme park devoted to America, especially when the plans for the more extravagant Port Disney Sea in Long Beach, as well as Westcot in Anaheim theme parks collapsed, that was within driving distance of Washington, D.C. and its tourist attractions that attracted over 19 million visitors a year who would be interested in American history, greatly appealed to both Eisner and Wells.

They sent Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development (DDD), to scout for such a location for a small theme park and he found an ideal one 30 miles from Washington, D.C.

Just like for Walt Disney World, the company began in secret buying and taking options on huge plots of land. No one knew it was Disney that was making the massive purchases. The location was just outside of the town of Haymarket, Virginia, in Prince William County.

Rummell secured 2,300 acres formerly owned by Exxon. Exxon had planned that the land would be used for a mixed-use development project and had gotten the area rezoned for that development. Exxon abandoned the project during the real estate bust of the early 1990s so was delighted to sell an option on the huge plot rather than dividing it into smaller portions and selling it piecemeal over a longer period of time.

Rummell and his team continued buying large and small sections of land through the fall of 1992 when they had obtained close to 3,000 acres.

In January 1993, Eisner talked with Bob Weis, who had successfully overseen the Disney MGM Studios project in Florida, and a small handful of Imagineers. Eisner said, "Whatever we ultimately do, it should be built around a small number of emotionally stirring, heart-wrenching stories based on important themes in American history." During that meeting potential ideas for particular lands were discussed.

In February 1993, the project was only known to a dozen Imagineers who worked on it under the code name "Project V" for "Venezuela" to confuse anyone who even heard the name into thinking that Disney was planning a venture in South America. The work was hidden in a restricted access building in Glendale's Grand Central business complex and was known as "the safe house".

The core WDI team was Bob Weis (overall in charge of Creative Development), Karen DeDea (Concept Development Office), Chick Russell (Show Producing), Nancy Martin (Architecture), Tim and Steve Kirk (Concept Design), George Gerba (Concept Design), Steve Miller (Design Administration), Barb Dietzel (Interiors), Eric Jacobson (Concept Design), Rick Rothschild (Concept Design) and John Sorenson (Land Use Planning).

The Imagineers were given roles "collecting information" and "little tasks" but no two assignments were alike so they were all kept in the dark and were never quite clear what the others were doing or how their assignments connected with each other. Most of the Imagineers assumed they were working on new pavilions for the existing Disney theme parks.

One Imagineer was asked to gather material on the Civil War, including books, printed materials, period newspapers, films and more. Another was tasked with researching baseball and went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

More Imagineers were brought into the project but still kept in the dark. In April 1993, Weis gathered them all together and told them about Disney's America, but gave them the stern warning: "What I'm about to tell you, you can't tell others or the project will be in jeopardy."

The team made frequent trips to Washington, D.C., for research and to quietly court leaders of several influential groups to advise on the new project, including the Washington Indian Leadership Forum, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Smithsonian Institute.

Imagineers removed all Disney insignia from luggage, baggage tags and clothing. Use of company credit cards or even mentioning the Disney name, especially in public venues, was prohibited. When they visited as a group, they tried to go incognito as the "Vision Group" just some ophthalmologists who were having a meeting.

Anonymously like any other tourists, they scheduled a public tour of the White House and were horrified when a security guard called out for "The Disney group this way." Even the Washington Post newspaper got suspicious and printed those findings on its front page. Fortunately, all the necessary land was fully secured by early spring.

In August, Eisner and his wife personally toured the site. In his memoirs, Work in Progress, Eisner wrote that during his first decade in charge of Disney, he was most passionate about Disney's America. He personally helped direct, review and approve all the plans and the site selection. During his trip, he walked the property and was excited to find personal items that had belonged to previous residents of Waverly Plantation. However, word was starting to leak out that it was Disney that had bought all the land.

"Our focus on secrecy in land acquisition had prevented us from even briefing, much less lobbying, the leading politicians in the state about our plans as they evolved," Eisner wrote in his book. "The consequence was that we lost the opportunity to develop crucial allies and nurture goodwill. The secrecy also precluded seeking out prominent historians, whose ideas and criticisms would have helped us shape our plans, alerted us to potential controversy, and given the project more legitimacy from the start."

In early November, Eisner called the newly elected Virginia governor George F. Allen to explain his plans and get his support for the project. He was surprised to find that Allen was actually in Walt Disney World at the time. Allen fully endorsed the project as did outgoing governor Douglas Wilder and both agreed to show up for the public announcement.

On November 8, the Wall Street Journal ran a vague story about Disney building a new theme park in Virginia. On November 10, the Washington Post ran a story with more concrete details but the tone was extremely negative, citing the closeness of the project to the site of two major Civil War battles as well as the threat of clogged roads and increased pollution.

Disney had missed the opportunity to control the narrative. The formal press conference was held November 11, 1993, at Manassas, near the site of the proposed park. It was the site of the Battle of Manassas or known to others as the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War. Weis and Eisner outlined the park's nine "lands" that were called "territories" while showing elaborate concept art.

The park was expected to cost $650 million and that was actually fairly inexpensive considering the cost of other Disney theme parks. It was planned to open around 1998.

In its initial year, Disney's America would have created at least 19,000 new jobs and generated at least $50 million in annual tax revenue so the Walt Disney Company required the state do road and infrastructure improvements before they exercised their land options.

Rummell shared that plans called for resort hotels (with 1,340 guest rooms total), an RV park (with 300 campsites), a 27-hole golf course, nearly 2 million square feet for retail and commercial development, as well as tentative plans to sell a portion of the land to a developer to build over 2,000 residential units, and donating land for schools and a library.

The nine territories were:

Crossroads USA (1800 – 1850): According to the brochure, it would be like Main Street U.S.A. with shopping and dining and be the gateway to the other territories: "A spirited portrait of mid-19th century commerce. An 1840 train trestle bride marks the entrance to this territory and supports two antique steam trains that visitors may board for a trip around the park's nine territories."

Crossroads USA would be like Main Street U.S.A.

This Disney theme park would include a hotel inside the park. "Visitors to Crossroads USA may live the American dream of the Civil War era – literally – by lodging amid the hustle and bustle in a themed 19th-century inn, with additional suites spread throughout the town." Those suites were probably another long time attempt by the Walt Disney Company to have lodging options on the floors above shops and restaurants.

Weis said, "In some ways the park is a timeline and we go backward and forward in time from Crossroads. Since the park is located in the rolling hills of Virginia, which in many ways is connected with the Civil War, we have started with a Civil War-era town."

Presidents Square (1750 – 1800): "From the struggle of the colonists and the War of Independence to the formation of the United States and its government, Presidents' Square celebrates the birth of democracy and the patriots who fought to preserve it."

This area of the park would be home to the Hall of Presidents attraction housed in Independence Hall replica as well as an outdoor amphitheater located on the waterfront for live performances and demonstrations. It would be similar to Walt's vision of Liberty Street as well as WDW's Liberty Square.

Weis said, "The Hall of Presidents will be redone and probably move to this location from Walt Disney World. It will play a central role about our government and the intellectual underpinnings of how our country is organized."

Native America (1600 – 1810): "Native America explores the life of America's first inhabitants, their accord with the environment and the timeless works of art they created long before European colonization. Guests may visit an Indian village representing such Eastern tribes as the Powhatans or join in a harrowing Lewis and Clark raft expedition through pounding rapids and churning whirlpools."

The Lewis and Clark river raft expedition was probably inspired by the one Imagineer Marc Davis designed for the never built St. Louis Riverfront Square. If the animated feature Pocahontas (1995) that was in production had become as huge a hit as Eisner expected, then there would have been an overlay of that film in the Native American section.

Weis said, "In Native America, we'll focus on the landscape and the native population that existed here and we'll build a Native American village in accurate detail reflecting the tribes that were known in this part of the country. There will be interactive experiences, exhibits and arts and crafts, as well as a thrill ride that wraps around the area based on the Lewis and Clark expedition."

Civil War Fort (1850 – 1870): "Emblematic of our nation's greatest crisis, the Civil War Fort allows guests to experience the reality of a soldier's daily life. Inside, the wizardry of Disney's CircleVision-360 technology will transport visitors into the center of Civil War combat; outside, they may encounter an authentic reenactment of a period battle or gather along Freedom Bay for a thrilling nighttime spectacular based on the historic confrontation between the Monitor and the Merrimac."

Also known as the Battle of the Ironclads, the ship battle took place for two days in March 1862 that was an attempt by the Confederacy with the Merrimac to break the Union blockade held in part by the Monitor. The Confederate ship finally retreated but navies around the world halted production of wooden hull ships to go into iron construction and it signaled a new era in naval warfare.

We the People (1870 – 1930): "Framed by a building resembling Ellis Island, We the People recognizes the courage and triumph of our immigrant heritage – from the earliest native settlers to the latest political refugees. A powerful multimedia attraction, We the People explores and explains how the conflicts among these varied cultures continue to help shape this nation."

Weis said, "The theme here is about the diverse people of this country and conflicts that have occurred during different periods of our history. You'll see much about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the other wars we fought and how individual efforts of Americans of all races and creeds helped define the rights they now have. There will also be an area devoted to different ethnic groups, a major food experience and a major live show on diverse music."

As the ideas for the park started to get further developed, the Imagineers suggested lightening the mood by having an attraction where the Muppets would explain the immigrant experience in a warm and comical way. The company was in the midst of contentious negotiations to obtain the Muppets but Eisner was certain it would get resolved in Disney's favor.

Enterprise (1870 – 1930): "The factory town of Enterprise plays host to inventions and innovations spawned by the ingenuity and can-do spirit that catapulted America to the forefront of industry. Within Enterprise, those daring enough can climb aboard the Industrial Revolution, a high-speed adventure through a turn-of-the-century mill culminating in a narrow escape from its fiery vat of molten steel."

Weis said, "This area will explore innovation and technology and the sense of individuals coming here, having a great idea, creating a business and becoming successful. This will be anchored by a major roller coaster attraction traveling through a 19th century landscape with heavy industry and blast furnaces, called Industrial Revolution.

"On either side of the coaster will be exhibits of famous American technology that have defined our industry historically, and also new developments that will define industries in the future."

In his book, Eisner had second thoughts about the roller coaster attraction fearing it might "trivialize and even demean the attempt to portray the steel mill realistically."

Victory Field (1930 – 1945): "The flight of the Wright brothers opened a new chapter in American history, bringing with it a thrilling exploits and military advancements. With the assistance of modern technology, guests at Victory Field may parachute from a plane or operate tanks and weapons in combat, and experience firsthand what America's soldiers have faced in defense of freedom."

Added Victory Field was an ode to the advancements in flight.

Weis said, "This area will be the period of the World Wars. This is an airport area and there'll be a series of hangars containing attractions based on America's military might and the efforts this country has made to defend freedom here and aboard.

"Through virtual reality technology, you'll get to fly a jet or do basic training as well as hear about soldiers and their role in defending freedom. We hope the airport will serve as an exhibit area of planes from different periods, as well as a place where we'll have major flying exhibitions."

Early in the development were plans for the world's first dueling inverted roller coasters to be called Dogfighter and would have had guests in German and American bi-plane vehicles that would have featured several near misses.

State Fair (1930 – 1945): "State Fair celebrates small town America at play with a nostalgic recreation of such popular rides as a 60-foot Ferris Wheel and a classic wooden rollercoaster, as well as a tribute to the country's favorite pastime, baseball. Amid a backdrop of rolling corn fields, fans may have a hot dog and take a seat in an authentic, old-fashioned ballpark and watch America's legendary greats gather for an exhibition all-star competition."

Weis said, "It is going to convey the sense that even during the Depression of the 1930s, Americans knew how to entertain themselves. It will have folk art exhibits and a live show on baseball. It will also contain some of the classic wooden thrill rides of a by-gone era."

Eisner had had huge success doing a temporary State Fair overlay at Disneyland from 1986 to 1988. It generated increased attendance and merchandise sales during the "off season" and was hugely popular with guests with a temporary Ferris Wheel being a big hit.

Family Farm (1930 – 1945): "Offering a cornucopia of pastoral delights and insight into their production, Family Farm pays homage to the working farm – the heart of early American families. Visitors see how crops are harvested, learn how to make home-made ice cream or milk a cow, and even participate in a nearby country wedding, barn dance and buffet."

Weis said, "We'll re-create an authentic farm and you'll have an opportunity to see various types of farm industries, big and small, related to food production and get a real sense of America's role in the world's food production, in addition to some hands-on experience like milking cows and learning what homemade ice cream tastes like."

This concept sounds very similar to Walt's idea to build Walt's Boyhood Farm in Marceline, Missouri where people could get first-hand farm experience.

Of course, all of these descriptions were intentionally vague and were just ideas to springboard more concrete concepts and to generate anticipation and garner local support for the idea.

Next week: Controversies arise, Disney almost buys Knott's Berry Farm to make it into Disney's America and elements end up in Disney's California Adventure.



  1. By Dr. G

    Fascinating article and great read. Thank you. Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.