Disney's America - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

At the press conference in Virginia on November 11, 1993, Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner announced that the company intended to build a historically themed park nearby that would be called Disney's America.

Disney's America would have been a 3,000-acre park in Virginia.

That same day, the Walt Disney Company released the following announcement:


"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.

"The park will be located on a 3,000-acre site the company has purchased or optioned in Prince William County.

"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.

"Disney's America which includes the park and recreation area on 1,200 acres will create nearly 3,000 jobs, making The Walt Disney Company the largest private employer in Prince William County. Direct and indirect economic activity generated by the project will result in $1.5 billion in new tax revenues for the Commonwealth of Virginia and Prince William County over the next 30 years. Of that, approximately $1 billion will go to the state and $500 million to the county, Disney officials estimate.

"The Walt Disney Company will work with state and county officials over the next several months to put together a package of public improvements that will make the project possible. They also will consult with local residents and businesses throughout the planning of the project.

"While long-term plans are not final, The Walt Disney Company proposes to build a golf course, residences, hotels and mixed use development of the remaining land, much of which was slated to become the Waverly Farms housing development. The projected facilities, like the park, would be surrounded by greenbelts and open spaces for the benefit of the environment and neighbors.

"Disney's America could open as early as 1998 if agreements are reached with state and county governments. The Prince William site is currently the only one under consideration."

The press conference given to reporters, local and state politicians and community residents in general included all of the information in the press release along with detailed descriptions and concept art of the nine "lands" or "territories" and was well received.

However, there were some insensitive comments that fueled critics including Weis saying, "This is not a Pollyanna view of America. We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the Underground Railroad."

Bob Weis' comment that "We want to make you a Civil War soldier" at this Civil War fort, fueled critics.

Eisner stated that Weis had inexperience in talking to the media and that "I wish that Bob had phrased his answer more felicitously, but the point seemed to me a reasonable one. We had no intention of trying to replicate the experience of slavery for anyone. But we were committed to bringing history alive by telling emotionally compelling stories in dramatic ways. Somehow, we never successfully communicated that distinction. The more we tried, the more we stepped on our own toes."

Even the name of the park was criticized as Disney trying to take ownership of America. A year later, Disney changed the name of the park to Disney's American Celebration.

Weis was enthusiastic but keenly aware of the challenges of the proposed park stating:

"This is not in any way a Disneyland or Walt Disney World. It is a small-scale regional park which would be a fundamental part of what a family's experience of seeing Washington is going to be about.

"It's somewhat of an extension of what we started to do with Disney-MGM Studios and what others began with EPCOT Center, to combine education and entertainment in a new way, to try to strike a balance between a very cognitive issues-oriented park and something that's still repeatable, fun, and interesting.

"It will be a challenge because we have lots of historical ground to cover, to research and to figure out how to sort through the huge historical library of what America is about and find icons we can recreate.

"There is no way that a theme park, no matter how sophisticated it is, can truly represent a cross section of it, and we need the involvement of lots of outside people to do that. A big challenge will be to get them to come and embrace the project and feel like they have the input to be a part of it."

Five days after the press conference, more than a dozen of the wealthy landowners of the rambling Virginia estates to the west of the Disney's America property had met to organize their opposition. They did not want their quiet, secluded hideaways to be disturbed by Disney and the assumed urban sprawl of increased traffic, cheap hotels, strip malls and more.

Local environmental groups started to form their own protests about the environmental impact even though Disney had already committed to leaving up to forty percent of the total land undeveloped as a greenbelt/buffer and to follow its program of wildlife and land conservation that it was actively doing in Florida.

Some Americans historians were vocal in their concerns of Disney's "Disneyfication" of American history as evidenced at its other theme parks. It was claimed that Disney would offer a whitewashed, sterile version of American history and only from the perspective of white male privilege. Disney would try to pass out fantasy as history. Even famed documentary producer Ken Burns came out publicly against Disney.

Despite what protestors claimed, the park did not intrude on protected lands like historic battlefields, Donald Duck was not going to lecture on slavery, Disney would not be selling "little souvenir slave ships in the gift shops" and Manassas was not going to be "bulldozed".

All this early criticism seemed very premature. As was made clear at the press conference, the park and what it would contain was still evolving and not set in stone. In fact Eisner and WDI welcomed critical input from respected authorities and made changes.

In fact, like many Disney theme park proposals, within the first year many of the things first shown in concept art like the Industrial Revolution roller coaster, the slavery experience and more had been completely eliminated.

Ironically, polls showed the majority of the citizens of Virginia were highly supportive of the idea of a Disney theme park in their state that would bring improved infrastructure like unclogging Interstate 66 (surveys showed changes for Disney's America would generate 60 percent less rush hour traffic in the year 2000 than a 2,800-home residential project previous approved for the park's site), millions of dollars pumped into the local economy and thousands of new jobs.

Governor Allen proposed $163.2 million in State of Virginia spending to improve roads at the proposed Disney site, defray relocation costs, and promote tourism in the area. In addition, Prince William County had requested $50 million in loans from Virginia to improve water and sewer lines. The project was granted subsidies by the Virginia state government in March 1994.

On Saturday January 15, 1994, Eisner convened an all-day meeting that assembled at the Imagineering campus in Glendale where he told them, "The most difficult job won't be to tell important stories about our history or to deliver an enjoyable experience for our guests, but to achieve both these goals without having either one dilute the other."

To show its commitment, Disney had several historical advisors on staff as well as James Billington of the Library of Congress; the Reverend Leo O'Donovan, the president of Georgetown University; Sylvia Williams, director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian; and Rex Scouten, the chief curator at the White House. They visited the American Adventure at Epcot and Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom and gave their critiques that they stated Eisner welcomed.

Disney had paid $100,000 to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Battle Sites before these attacks even began, and, like at Walt Disney World, made extensive plans to conserve the surrounding property.

On May 11, a group called Protect Historic America launched and included Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian David McCullough and Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who all felt Disney's America would be an appalling commercialization and vulgarization. The rumor was that the organization was entirely funded by the wealthy landowners who objected to the project.

Eisner took a trip of historical sites in Washington, D.C. to see how Disney's America would fit with the existing landmarks, libraries and historical museums. He visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which impressed Eisner with its immersion and its emotionality stating that the museum used "the same tools that we intended to draw on for Disney's America."

The Walt Disney Company mailed flyers to Virginia residents to garner support. In it, Mark Pacala, the general manager of Disney's America wrote, "First and foremost – thank you for your support over the past several months. Since announcing our plans last November, we've spoken with over 10,000 citizens of Northern Virginia. Disney's America is committed to working with public officials, citizens, and independent experts to address such issues as traffic and the nature of future development. It is also essential that those of us at Disney's America continue to listen to your views and concerns as we move ahead with the project."

An office was set up in Gainesville for Virginians to see a model of the park and official artwork and to share any input.

On June 22, 1994, a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. was held in regards to the validity of the proposed development of Disney's America. It was successfully argued that Congress had no business intervening in a state project and the majority of both Republican and Democrat Senators agreed. The same day, a Prince William County judge dismissed a lawsuit that had been brought by Disney's America opponents on the grounds that the proposed park violated local zoning ordinances.

A week later, the Protect Historic America group took out a full-page ad in the New York Times newspaper characterizing Eisner as "The Man Who Would Destroy American History."

Negative attacks continued in newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post about historical reverence, jeopardy to the environment and Disney's need for legislative concessions. The opposition was stronger and more vocal than Disney had expected.

It didn't make any difference that these arguments all lacked substance and could be easily be proven completely false. They still weakened public support and caused the entire project to be mired in litigation and suspicion. The proposed park had become a rallying point to oppose Disney and everything negative it had ever done.

In June 1994, Eisner said, "Disney's America not only will not replace historic sites but rather will add to their luster by enthusing our guests about events that occurred there and the people who took part in them. We are confident our project will actually encourage more people to visit historic areas. And we believe our presentation of the American heritage can make a significant national contribution to the important cause of historic preservation. We believe that every person, particularly the children, who can touch history and sense the emotions of a time or event, will be impelled to learn more. This is the vision and purpose of Disney's America."

However, in 1994, several things happened that took the fight out of Eisner.

In April 1994, Disney President Frank Wells tragically died in a helicopter accident in Nevada's Ruby Mountains. A supporter of the project and someone who could win over the press and public as well as rein-in Eisner, his loss was substantial especially to Eisner personally.

EuroDisney announced a loss of over $900 million. In mid-July Eisner underwent emergency quadruple bypass surgery perhaps instigated by his ongoing battle with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who would soon leave the company to start DreamWorks.

On August 5, exactly three weeks after his surgery, Eisner attended a meeting about Disney's America in Burbank. The name was changed to Disney's American Celebration in hopes of forestalling a series of protests that the various organizations had planned for mid-September.

At the end of August, Eisner was given a Feasibility Study. The opening date had changed to 1999 and the creative positioning had changed as well from "Regional Park with history theme" to "National History Park with extremely high expectations for historical accuracy and sensitivity."

In the description outline for Disney's American Celebration, the lands have been re-named and new/different attractions detailed.

  • Democracy: the entrance area featuring attractions such as America: A User's Guide, the American Free Speech Forum and the American Hall of Fame.
  • Family or Generations: featuring a multi-media show called American Families following four generations of a family from 1929–1999.
  • The Land: based on the Epcot attraction.
  • Creativity and Fun: similar to the original concept for State Fair, featuring a full-scale recreation of Ebbets Field and Coney Island-themed attractions.
  • Work: featuring factory tours of iconic American companies such as Apple, Ben & Jerry's and Crayola.
  • Service & Sacrifice: similar to the original concept for Victory Field, featuring the attraction Soldier's Story taking guests through memorable moments in American wars and other interactive areas where guests could attempt military training.
  • American People: telling the Immigration Story on a ride and film featuring the Muppets as well as the Dream of Freedom movie discussing the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.
  • Streets of America: a dining district featuring "streets" themed for cuisine from different cities, including: Chicago (deep dish pizza), Los Angeles (Latino), New Orleans (Cajun), New York City (Jewish deli food), St. Louis (barbequed ribs), and San Francisco (Chinese).
  • Disney's America Live: the entertainment venue featuring outdoor stages and the State Farm Arena where guests could attempt hog calling and calf roping.

There's also a mention of including the Honey, I Shrunk the Audience attraction.

The report states that because of the area's winter climate, there would be a projected eight week closure from "Jan. 2 to March 1," with another "47 weekdays in late November, early December and early March". However, it did state the park would be open in late December "to capture vacation market Christmas/New Years' weeks".

It was noted that during this time of closure they'd lose "national and half of regional tourists during winter close" and that it would be a "challenge to retain base cast members," with a break-even attendance on base day being roughly 2,200 guests. There was also the possibility of making some of the hotel rooms Disney Vacation Club.

In early September, 10,000 local supporters came out for a county fair that Disney held in Prince William County "to rally the troops and counter the critics."

Virginia Secretary of Commerce Robert Skunda won the approval of the Prince William County Planning Commission and the regional Transportation Planning Board, clearing two substantial hurdles to the project's development.

It was not enough. Eisner had already decided Disney could not overcome the negative publicity and that rising construction costs and decreased revenue during the winter made the project a bad investment.

Eisner said, "We were at the wrong place, at the wrong time. And the people we were fighting had the ink. They came after us every day in the newspapers. Had Frank been alive and had I been healthy and more, we would have plowed through."

On September 17, 1994, 3,000 people, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, filled the streets of Washington, D.C. to protest Disney's America. Some of the protestors posed for photos outside of the White House.

On September 28, 1994, the Walt Disney Company officially announced it was abandoning the project. It relinquished its options it had purchased to over 2,000 acres in December 1994 and put up for sale an additional 600 acres in March 1995.

Less than a week after the park cancellation was announced, officials from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland initiated bids to bring the park to their areas.

Briefly, the Walt Disney Company considered buying Knott's Berry Farm and transforming it into a version of Disney's America. The Knott's family was accepting bids for the property. Obviously, already having an exact replica of Independence Hall built was appealing and it would be incorporated into the entrance to the park. Part of the park would be refashioned to resemble Walt Disney World's Liberty Square and include the Hall of Presidents.

Another section of the proposed park would have included the "Native American" territories as it would have paid tribute to America's native people where the Mystery Lodge, Indian Trail, and Bigfoot Rapids are currently located.

Of course, Bigfoot Rapids would become the The Lewis & Clark River Expedition. The Roaring '20s section would have become the Enterprise territory and Reflection Lake would have been changed to Freedom Bay with a recreation of the Ellis Island Immigration Center.

The Calico Ghost Town would have remained pretty much unchanged. The project was abandoned for several reasons including not having an efficient and reliable way of transporting guests back and forth to Disneyland. As Imagineer Tony Baxter said, the idea of extending the monorail was discussed but was dismissed as too expensive.

The Knott family was fearful of these changes that would have replaced what their parents had originally built. Instead, the accepted an offer from Cedar Fair who bought the venue in 1997 and ended up removing more original features than Disney had proposed.

However, some claim that Disney's America did finally get built…in a way…with the opening of Disney California Adventure Park in February 2001.

It contained many elements reminiscent of the plans for Disney's America. Condor Flats was a variation of Victory Field. Grizzly River Run resembled the Lewis and Clark river raft attraction. State Fair seems to have inspired Paradise Pier. Family Farm became a more boring Bountiful Valley Farm.

Even the idea of having a hotel that was directly connected to the park was revived with Disney's Grand Californian Resort and Spa.