Last week, we launched ourselves back into Disney history to find the spark which ignited the Disney’s America project . . . and Part One of our roller coaster story began. This week, we find ourselves barreling toward a brand new theme park. Will all go as planned, or will the project be thrown for a loop?
The timing for Nunis’s suggestion for Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to visit Williamsburg was perfect. As Eisner recalls in his book, Work in Progress, “I had American history on my mind anyway. The next executive retreat we planned was to be devoted to the subject of democracy. The idea for an animated film based on the story of Pocahontas had been suggested at one of our recent Gong Shows, and I was in the midst of reading several books about John Smith and Pocahontas.” Eisner knew that “Drawing on our natural strengths as storyteller, we could use these skills to be substantive without being dull, to bring historical events alive and to make the story of America more vivid and three-dimensional.”Eisner was very excited about an American history themed park near the monuments of Washington D.C. He saw what they were doing at Colonial Williamsburg but thought Disney could do it better and make lots of money. All he needed was to find the perfect location for the resort and get started building his dream.Eisner and Wells started to look at various locations surrounding Washington D.C. Even Walt Disney explored this area as early as August 1964 for an East Coast theme park. The Virginia tidewater area where Colonial Williamsburg was located was thought to be too far away from the Washington D.C. tourism base. The Company looked at sites in nearby Maryland but determined that Virginia was more pro-business and would create fewer barriers. Other areas in Washington D.C. region were already experiencing rapid growth and the cost of land was going to be a big factor. They even looked at sites along the Route 66 corridor.After an exhaustive search, the project team was getting frustrated that they would not be able to find an appropriate location. That is when Peter Rummell stepped in with the perfect solution. Rummell started with Disney in 1985 and rose to head Disney Design and Development. He had brought a lot of resort development experience to Disney with projects in Hilton Head, South Carolina and other parts of the Southeast. His team was in charge of infrastructure development for all Disney properties. After his efforts with Disneyland Paris, he was a rising star in Eisner’s eyes.

In 1993, Rummell found 2,300-acres in suburban Prince William County that was owned by the Exxon Corporation. During the hot real estate market of the 1980s, Exxon bought a lot of land and wanted to build a large mixed-use development with homes and office buildings. They went through a lot of trouble to obtain the necessary land use entitlements, which is a very costly and time-consuming process.

By the time Exxon was ready to start building, the 1991 recession dampened the market and the project failed to gain much traction. The energy company was looking for a way out and this allowed Peter Rummell to secretly secure a long-term option on the property. Exxon had no idea who was interested in the property. Now all Rummell needed was to keep the project secret and find an additional 700 acres and for the Disney project to move forward.The project site was about 35 miles from the heart of Washington D.C. and was adjacent to Interstate 66 and Highway 15. Within a half hour drive from the Disney property were 64 sites listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. There were 22 Civil War battlefields nearby, 13 officially designated historic towns, and 17 historic districts.George Washington’s Mount Vernon was only an hour’s drive. The entrance to the Manassas Civil War battlefield (aka as Bull Run) was only 3.5 miles from the Disney’s property. Toss in the museums and monuments within Washington D.C. and you had more than 19 million visitors coming to the region and the critical mass for a successful theme park resort.Disney was off to a good start. The land was already zoned for development. Prince William County officials were decidedly pro-business and they were looking to expand and diversify the tax base. The resort would bring an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 new jobs. Projections suggested that the project would bring the County up to $10 million in new tax revenues annually and up to $1.18 billion of revenues for the State over the next thirty years. The resort was slated to open in 1998 and Disney expected up to 6 million visitors a year.

Prince William County had seen some tough times. During the 1980s, the population grew by 50 percent but business development did not keep pace. A development called the William Center was stopped and the land was sold to the federal government. In 1990, the County adopted a plan to lure 14,000 new jobs and $1 billion in nonresidential growth by 1997. They were very aggressive and advertised nationwide. The community even raised money through infrastructure bonds to support this initiative. Officials even courted Lego for a US theme park, which peaked Disney’s interest.

Disney has a long history of creating themed environments based on America’s past.

When Walt was working on a road show project that consisted of animated miniatures set in familiar American environments, he considered calling it either Disney’s America or Disneylandia. That project would morph into Disneyland.Disneyland has its fair share of nostalgia with Frontierland, New Orleans Square, and Main Street all influenced by America’s rich heritage. By 1957, Walt had proposed adding an area just off of Main Street USA to be called Liberty Street. That project would be realized in 1971 at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.
Disney’s America was going to be set on 3,000-acres in the rural rolling Virginia countryside. The project was going to be far more than just another theme park. In addition to the park, visitors would find a water park, 1,340 hotel rooms, a twenty-seven-hole public golf course, 300 campsites, and 1.3 million square feet of retail space including a new convention center, and 630,000 square feet of office/business space.
Disney also wanted to sell part of the land to a developer to build 2,300 to 2,500 homes. The company planned to set aside land for schools and a library. The budget for the theme park alone was slated to be between $625 million to $650 million.The resort would take up 1,200 of the 3,000-acres with the balance (40%) going toward a greenbelt surrounding the project. This greenbelt would act as a buffer. As stated in one of the early press releases, Disney claimed that, “Disney’s America will be an example of our company’s commitment to creating communities that are unique in their design and execution and harmonious with their natural setting. It will incorporate numerous innovative ideas to protect and enhance the environmentally sensitive features of this beautiful site.” The press released suggested that “forest and wildlife corridors will be protected by several hundred acres of open space. Greenbelt and conversation buffers will ensure that we not only harmonize with the environment, but with our neighbors as well.”

The initial design phase for the park started in January 1994. At a brainstorming session, Michael 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.” He suggested, “We ought to have elements that are fun and frivolous and carefree alongside ones that are serious and challenging and sobering.” Eisner said, “We need the same sort of dramatic highs and lows that you find in any great film. If we’re truly going to celebrate America, we need to capture the country in all its complexity.”For Michael Eisner, Disney’s America was not just another project but something like a mission. As he stated in his book Work in Progress, “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.” In promotional materials released in 1994, The Company proclaimed that Disney’s America’s goal was “Celebrating America’s diversity, spirit and innovation.” Visitors will be able to “Recall the past, live the present, and dream the future.” The vision of a park based on American history was in place. Ideas were bouncing around at The Walt Disney Company and Imagineering.As the project team did its due diligence, they learned that there had been conflicts with development near Manassas and a general slow-growth attitude from many local advocates. In order to gain the advantage, Disney hired a number of local consultants and lawyers. The team outlined the many challenges and analyzed the local competition.Peter Rummell noted, “There was a shopping center that had caused a huge fight a few years earlier in the same general vicinity. It had been a fairly infamous fight in the DC real estate area.” He added, “We did all the research on it. We thought we understood that fight pretty well.”

Rummell recognized that there were a number of differences between the Disney proposal and the shopping center project. Disney’s park boundary was approximately four miles from the Manassas battlefield. Because, it was already zoned for residential use and the entitlements were already in place, everybody’s expectation was the property Disney had optioned was going to be developed at some point. Nobody was trying to preserve the land and no land conservancy was trying to purchase the property.

Disney knew that a lot of wealthy and powerful people lived west of the project in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties but the project was located in Prince William County and that county was slow to develop and needed the tax revenues. Disney thought that they would be more than welcome by local officials once they had acquired all of the property they needed.

The location had a number of other benefits. As a regional sized park, it would not compete for visitors with either Disneyland or Walt Disney World. With more than 19 million tourists visiting the area according to the National Park Service, the location near Haymarket Virginia looked perfect.

Rummell was confident and said, “We hired some local lawyers and did what we thought was a pretty good analysis of the potential competition. We were very methodical…very careful about the product we put together.” Michael Eisner added, “I thought we were doing good. I expected to be taken around on people’s shoulders.”

Then the local paper got word of the secret project. The problem was that the local paper happened to be the internationally famous and influential Washington Post and its publisher, Katherine Graham, just happened to live west of the project area in what is known as the Virginia hunt country. As Mark Twain observed, “Don’t pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.”

The headline in The Washington Post was SMOGGY, CLOGGY TRANSPORTATION MESS. Unfortunately, for Disney, this is how local county officials also learned about the project. Up until now, Disney did a great job of keeping the project a secret from everybody. The article featured pictures of the site with the caption “A Cinderella Story – Or a Bad Dream?” Another headline would read EEEEK! A MOUSE! STEP ON IT!

As one could imagine, this surprise did not sit well with local officials. Doug James, former director of planning for Prince William County said, “The next day when we went to work, there was all the buzz. From the beginning, we were curious as to why we were the last to know. The [Disney] response was, they had to acquire the lands very secretively in order to keep the price down.”

Once the word about the secret project was leaked in October 1993, Disney was forced to reveal more of its plans. A press release was sent out on November 11, 1993 that outlined what the company was trying to accomplish with this project. The project’s goal was “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 DC.”

Doug James described that first meeting between his staff and the Disney team. He said, “The Disney folks basically told us they wanted to have all their permits in hand, because they wanted to begin construction in six months.” In the end, the project would require as many as 11 separate related applications including changes to the zoning code, amending the comprehensive plan, and seeking variances in the building code and use permits. The project timeline called for all of the necessary entitlements to be completed by 1994, construction to begin by 1995, and the park opening in 1998.

Once the project became official, many public leaders in Prince William County voiced their support. Kathleen Seefeldt, chairman of the board of county supervisors said, “ economic development, is the number one goal” for the county. She added the Disney project should “exceed all reasonable expectations for economic development” in the near future.

Next week, we will take a closer look at the Disney’s America project details.

Navigate to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4 or Part 5 of the Story

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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.