[Editor’s Note] Last week, we took a look at the details and concept art for Disney’s America theme park in Virginia. That was how the park would have looked, and it was a long and winding road to get to that point in the story. In Part Four of our tale, Michael Eisner meets a very wealthy roadblock that could very well derail his dream park. If you are catching this popular series in the middle, please visit Part One, Part Two & Part Three before you continue on to today’s twist in the story.
A very popular storyline for recent Disney theme park attractions goes something like this. You are about to embark on a fun adventure and everything is wonderful until something goes terribly wrong. As we shall see, that storyline could have been applied to the Disney’s America project as well.
In 1993, Michael Eisner put in charge of the project what he described as an “aggressive young” executive named Mark Pacala to oversee the park’s development but it was already too late. As we saw earlier, once the secret project became public the problems would begin to mount as the company shifted into a defensive mode.
Once word of the park was leaked, Disney leaped into action to gather political support. It started at the Statehouse by gaining support for the project with the outgoing Governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and the incoming Governor George Allen (R). The all-important Virginia Commission on Population Growth and Development was also on board with the project. Disney was starting to believe it could buy its way of this mess by promising huge tax revenues, thousands of jobs, and the support of major political leaders.
Disney began conversations with the National Park Service to gain their support and to see how they might mitigate any concerns with the nearby Manassas Civil War battlefield. One compromise was a building height limit of 140 feet, which would prevent any structures to be visible from the battlefield. To reduce highway congestion, a plan was being developed for up to 20 percent of guests and 10 percent of cast members to use public transportation. In the end, many at the National Park Service felt that Disney’s focus on history would help increase awareness of historic preservation interests.
The lobbying effort was beginning to pay off. By 1994, they had already locked up the Governor’s office, the State legislature, and were making major headway with local officials. Every thing was going as planned. Or so Disney thought.
What Disney didn’t count on was that the opposition was not going to come from those who lived closest to the project but some very wealthy, very well connected people west of the Disney’s America site in Loudoun and Fauquier counties. This area is what is referred to as the Virginia Hunt Club set and is the home to some very powerful people with familiar names. They included the DuPonts, the Marriotts, the Mellons, and the before mentioned publisher of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham. Toss in such media personalities as actor Robert Duvall and the political power couple, Mary Matalin and James Carville. Disney was finding itself in a public perception mess.
In retrospect, Michael Eisner said, “For more than two decades, we would soon discover, these families has also generously funded the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a local rural preservation group. There had been no collection of people in America better equipped to lobby a cause, whether with Congress or government agencies or through the media.” The PEC had purchased more than 77,000-acres of permanent open space easements to limit development. Eisner added, “They had the financial resources to do battle, the expertise, and the political connections. Many of them did this sort of work for a living in Washington, and with Disney’s America, they had a highly personal stake in the outcome.”
The Piedmont Environmental Council was formed in 1972 by many of these same players who started to object to the project with the goal to protect the rural nature of nine counties in Northern Virginia. The PEC became the go-to organization for those who opposed the Disney project. They swung into action and started to campaign against the project. They held news conferences, private sessions with policymakers, created anti-Disney radio ads, and generated numerous studies that would show how this project would destroy the character of the community.
The efforts of the PEC inspired other slow growth organizations including Protect Prince William County, The American Farmland Trust, Citizens Against Gridlock, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Even the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club came out against the project.
The only group Disney could muster up was the Welcome Disney Committee made up of real estate agents, lawyers, and local chamber of commerce members. Disney tried to portray their supporters as a much larger coalition but the damage was already being done.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the PEC to oppose the project. With the National Trust in opposition, Disney’s America became a national issue. The president of the organization, Richard Moe, said, “Nobody in the preservation movement saw this immediately as a preservation issue. That plot of ground at Haymarket had no historic structures, nor had anything historic occurred there. So why is this a historic preservation issue?’ Moe suggested, “for parents who want to give their children history, let them – like generations before them – make the trip to Prince William County. Let them sit still at Manassas and listen for the presence of the dead.”
Historian David McCullough said, “Dick saw the real need was to save neighborhoods and communities, to save whole towns, and he transformed the preservation cause in America as much as any one person possibly could.”
David McCullough is an example of another thorn in Disney’s side – noted historians who feared that Disney would trivialize American history and the sacred historic grounds surrounding their property. They were not happy that Disney would embark on such a journey. This was completely unexpected at Disney.
Thirty prominent historians including David McCullough, Ken Burns, Shelby Foote, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. formed a group called Protect Historic America in May 1994. They took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling Eisner “The man who would destroy American history.”
Yale University Professor Emeritus C. Vann Woodward, dean of American historians and co-chair of Protect Historic America stated why the group was opposed to the location. He said, “This part of northern Virginia has soaked up more of the blood, sweat, and tears of American history than any other area of the country.” He adds, “ It has bred more of the founding fathers, inspired more soaring hopes and ideals, and witnessed more triumphs and failures, victories, and lost causes than any other place in the country.” He added that Disney’s America would be “an appalling commercialization and vulgarization of the scene of our most tragic history.” David McCullough added, “We have so little that’s authentic and real. It’s irrational, illogical, and enormously detrimental to attempt to create synthetic history by destroying real history.”
Architecture critic Benjamin Forgey said, “There was a whole lot of argument about the exploitation of American history for entertainment purposes. There were some very prominent historians who viewed it as a distortion or even a desecration.”
Because of the secrecy due to the property acquisition process, Disney was unable to engage the prominent historians early on and make them part of the development process. Eisner knew this was a lost opportunity. He thought the historians “could have helped us shape our plans, alerted us to areas of potential controversy, and given the project more legitimacy from the start.”
The project quickly moved from being just a local concern to becoming a regional and national issue. As Benjamin Forgey, the architecture critic for The Washington Post put is, “There were more than 20 or so jurisdictions that were involved in this in the metropolitan area; and because of the Disney name, it became a national issue.” He adds, “It was region wide, all the time, on television and in the press.”
Issues were beginning to mount but Eisner was confident that his American history themed park would come to reality in Haymarket, Virginia. Eisner shrugged off the critics by saying that “Entertainment doesn’t have to be pabulum, and it doesn’t have to make you feel good.” He added, “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.”
Reacting to criticism about EPCOT Center’s American Adventure Eisner said, “Disney’s America won’t be a 25-minute experience like the American Adventure. The story we’re going to tell at the park will take eight hours to deliver. It’s going to be made up of fifteen or twenty different components.” Eisner added, “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.” He finished with, “Our goal, when you finish an eight-hour day there, is that you’ll have experienced an intelligent, entertaining, challenging view of America.”
However, even Eisner had to admit the historians might have a point. As he said in Work in Progress, “Our first important misstep was the decision to call the park “Disney’s America.” “Disney” and “America” just seemed to slide off the tongue together easily and naturally. Frank [Wells] and I both liked associating Disney with America and America with Disney. But the name would prove to be a disaster. Eisner added, “Disney’s America” implied ownership of the country’s history, which only antagonized our critics. That was unfortunate because we were never interested in a park that merely reflected a Disneyesque view of American history.”
Join us next week as we wrap up our series on Disney’s America.