Disney’s America, a Story of Desire and Failure – Part One

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Samland

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Published on September 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm with 8 Comments

There are few Disney projects with greater mystique than Disney’s America, a never built park which nearly became a reality. But why was it never completed and what sort of impact did it have on Disney and its reputation? We’ll find out in this multi-part classic story from our SAMLAND files.

On September 28, 1994, Michael Eisner, the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company (Disney) had been running Disney for almost a decade. The organization had just experienced a high level of growth However, on this crisp, Autumn Wednesday morning Mr. Eisner had to admit that he was giving up on a dream that was very close to his heart. It was a crushing defeat for a man who rarely heard the word “no”. All the more so because it was a project close to his heart. That was the day that the Disney’s America project died.

Michael Eisner felt that Disney could play a part in teaching American history and he was on a mission to create a theme park dedicated to that end. He had found the perfect location for a new kind of theme park and some of his best minds working the problem. Nevertheless, as much as he could command the resources of this vast company, he was not in control of everything and circumstances would forced him to put this dream to the side for many years only for it to reappear in a place that nobody expected.

Just like a classic rollercoaster, Disney has soared high through some good years only to sink to new lows during some bad years. One of Disney’s greatest strengths was its resiliency, as demonstrated by its founders Walt and Roy. Disney was based on the promise that there is always one more creative solution that could fix any problem if you just tried hard enough. This mentality has allowed Disney to survive and thrive since 1923.

Disney’s high points have been many. Please indulge me as we go back . . . WAY back to where it started in 1923, when Walt moved out to Hollywood and formed a new venture with his brother Roy. They founded the Disney Studios after getting a distribution deal for that first Alice cartoon that combined live action within a cartoon world.

The Alice Comedies combined animation and live action

Another milestone came in 1928 when Mickey Mouse would make his debut and turned the entertainment world on its collective head. The 1929 release of the first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance, would further redefine what was possible in animation. All of this activity would lead to the 1937 release of the first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That film would change the face of movies and Disney forever.

The year 1955 would also go down in the record books as a great year for Disney. That was when Walt moved into the place-based entertainment arena and opened Disneyland. The park would become an immediate cultural phenomenon and changed the direction of the Disney ensuring an almost endless supply of money.

In 1964, the East Coast got a bit of Disneyland-style entertainment at the World’s Fair and they loved it. The four Disney pavilions at the Fair were the biggest hits and the technology created for those shows would help to define what we now know as the Disney experience.

Once again, Walt was always looking for the next big thing and started “Project X” or the “Florida Project.” He bought enough raw land to place two Manhattans within its borders and the property in Florida was the perfect canvas to paint as many dreams as Disney could think of. With each success came new opportunities for the company.

Roy Disney at Disney World in 1971

Although Walt never lived to see his vision for a “City of Tomorrow”, the Magic Kingdom and adjacent resorts would open and welcome millions of visitors. The success of the Magic Kingdom was soon followed by Epcot Center in 1982.

New opportunities came about in 1984 when Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over the reins of Disney. For investors, the growth at Disney during the 1980s and 1990s was simply amazing. For the first time since Disneyland opened in 1955, through aggressive negotiations, Disney owned the rights to build hotels in California. Ideas were already starting to float around on how to fully exploit that asset.

This was only the first act. Michael Eisner proclaimed that the 1990s were going to be known as the “Disney Decade.” The company announced an aggressive expansion program. The Disney-MGM Studios theme park opened in 1989. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells enhanced the value of the Florida property by adding thousands of new hotel rooms and a water park.

Along with the opening of Euro Disneyland slated for 1992, other projects in the pipeline would include a fourth gate at Walt Disney World (Disney’s Animal Kingdom); the development of two parks in Southern California (WESTCOT in Anaheim and Port Disney in Long Beach), the 40-acre Disney-MGM Studio Backlot in downtown Burbank, and second gates for Tokyo and Paris. In order to accommodate all of the projects; Imagineering was ramped up to more than 3,000 employees.

Disney would experience one of its greatest highs in 1994 with the release of The Lion King, which was tempered by dramatic upheavals and setbacks in the company. One would expect that with the good times there would come some bad times. However, nobody could have anticipated what was about to.

It began when Michael Eisner tried and failed to buy the NBC television network from the General Electric Company. In that same year, he had to arrange for a Saudi Prince to inject massive sums of money into Euro Disneyland to save it from bankruptcy (its name changed to Disneyland Paris). That was only the tip of the looming iceberg.

A tribute to Frank Wells resides in Disneyland’s Matterhorn

But the real tragedy of 1994 was the loss of Frank Wells in a helicopter crash. Wells was Disney’s President, trusted advisor and Jiminy Cricket to Michael Eisner. Many would argue that this was the real turning point for Disney and the beginning of the end for Eisner.

Things only got worse. Shortly after the accident, the head of the entertainment division, Jeffrey Katzenberg, would overplay his hand and be rebuffed by Eisner in his attempt to take over Frank Wells’ job. Katzenberg left Disney to form DreamWorks SKG with his friends (music mogul David Geffen and director/producer Steven Spielberg).

If that were not enough, a health crisis faced Michael Eisner which would forever change his life. Eisner described that moment in July of 1994 in his book Work in Progress when he “felt unsettled, close to panic.” He added, “Moments later, I experienced intense pain, not just in my arms, but also in my neck and chest. My anxiety was making the pain worse. The next thing I knew, I was being wheeled into the emergency room. All I could think of was ER, the pilot I’d just watched. Suddenly, I was living it.”

Eisner was forced to undergo quadruple-bypass surgery. According to doctors, he would have been dead from a heart attack within two days without the surgery. In one of his most candid moments, Eisner wrote to novelist Larry McMurtry, who also had a bypass, and confronted his mortality. He described his newfound lack of fear about death. It would also change his world-view on how to get things done.

By the time the “Disney Decade” ended, only a few of these plans were built as they were originally envisioned. Many of the projects were far along in the design and development phase before they would be abandoned or significantly modified.

How did the Disney Decade unravel?

It certainly did not start out that way. Throughout the design and construction phase for the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center, the only way Disney knew how to build a theme park was to go all out. At the time of construction, Epcot Center was the largest private sector project ever attempted.

The Imagineers worked with the Oriental Land Company, owners of Tokyo Disneyland, to create a complete theme park modeled after the Magic Kingdom in Florida with no expenses spared. Euro Disneyland was designed from the start to be one of the most beautiful and immersive theme parks ever created.

At Walt Disney World, the little River Country water park was proving to be a hit. So plans were quickly drawn up to create a new, much larger facility called Typhoon Lagoon. The development of Pleasure Island, an adult oriented entertainment zone, was going to capture the crowds at night.

All of a sudden, there was a business need for a half-day experience that would compliment Typhoon Lagoon and Pleasure Island. Also in the mix was Universal Studios who was planning on opening a movie studio and theme park nearby. This combination fueled Eisner’s never-ending desire to beat all of his competitors at their own game and the Disney-MGM Studios theme park was born.

The Disney-MGM Studios opened with only seven attractions. From the beginning, the basic design idea was to start small and increase capacity only when necessary. The little park was quickly overrun with visitors. New attractions and shows were added to keep pace with the crowds and the resort’s needs. Need a thrill ride to compete with the thrill rides at other Orlando parks? How about the addition of two big E-Tickets right next to each other at the end of one street (The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster featuring Aerosmith)?

This formula of incremental growth seemed to be working. The Disney organization was inspired and wanted to learn how to create smaller, less expensive parks, and build capacity as needed. They began looking for more opportunities.

Dick Nunis’ window on Main Street

Dick Nunis was called upon to get the ball rolling. Dick started out in 1955 as one of the first 600 people hired to operate Disneyland. He would spend the next 44-years at Disney and by the time of his retirement he would rise to chairman of Walt Disney Attractions. He saw the writing on the wall and knew that the direction for new parks would be these smaller, more adaptable models.

In 1991, he suggested that Michael Eisner and Frank Wells visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Williamsburg was the capitol of Virginia during colonial times. It was also the cultural and educational center of the largest, most populous state at that time. In 1926, members of the community convinced philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. that restoration of the town could provide endless educational opportunities. Over the period of many years, the city was transformed back to the height of its influence. Members of the community dressed in period costumes and entertained guest simply by allowing them to peek into another time and place.

Dick Nunis felt the Virginia area would be perfect for another educational/entertainment destination. This part of the country was already close to the museums and monuments in Washington D.C. Having a resort nearby would allow visitors to experience these real historic places, return to the comfort and safety of their Disney hotel, and then put those real places into context with a visit to the park. The park would focus on expanding the themes people would witness as they traveled throughout the region.

Come back next time to learn how this trip to Virginia would change everything.

Navigate to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4 or Part 5 of the Disney’s America Story

About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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  • Gregg Condon

    What a great start, can’t wait to see the rest!!!

  • Timekeeper

    Good Hook! :D

    Timekeeper

  • WesternMouse

    RNR Coaster didn’t open until 1998.

  • wdwprince

    Michael Eisner devotes an entire chapter and explains in detail everything there is to know about Disney’s America in his book Work In Progress.

    I recommend picking up his book. It’s a great read.

  • 4Apples4Disney

    Great article! Looking forward to the next one!

  • SueinSac

    I’m still so sad this never came to be. I would have loved Disney’s America and the DVC resort near Washington DC. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  • DisWedWay

    It’s interesting Dick Nunis’s window mentions the River Country Wave Machine. I wonder if it would still operate today? Hope they get that Disney first water park restored before long for us campers at Fort Wilderness.

  • janvincent_1313

    Oh man…a cliff hanger. Now I definitely have to read the next part. Very clever, Sam and an interesting read.