The Disney's America Story - Part Three
by, 01-19-2011 at 08:29 PM
Everything seemed to be going Disney’s way as they tried to create a theme park based on American history near Haymarket, Virginia. To help explain how this project would be different then anything that Disney had done before, a press release explained “In Disney’s America we will create a totally new concept using the different strengths of our entertainment company – our motion picture and television talent, our park Imagineers, our interactive media and publishing executives as well as our sports enterprise and education executives – 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.” Eisner added, “We bring seventy years of entertainment experience – many of them creating the world’s most original parks – to this project.”
The management team for the project would include Peter Rummell, President of Disney’s Design and Development Company. He would later go on to head Imagineering. When he left Disney in 1996, he became the Chairman and CEO of The St. Joe Company, which is a land development organization with more than 1.2 million acres in its portfolio. Rummell said that the new park would differentiate itself from all others in both subject matter and presentation. “Disney’s America will allow guests to celebrate the diversity of the nation, the plurality and conflicts that have defined the American character.”
The creative lead for the project was Bob Weis, senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering. Bob made a name for himself as the creative lead for the successful Disney-MGM Studios. In 1994, he left Imagineering to start his own firm called Design Island. In 2007, he would return to Imagineering to lead the redesign of Disney California Adventure and the Disney project in Shanghai. Bob suggested that Disney’s America would be “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.”
A press release provided additional details such as “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.”
Michael Eisner said, “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…We need to keep working to create a daylong experience for our guests that makes our guests laugh and cry, feel proud of their country’s strengths and angry about its shortcomings.”
In order to build support for the project, Disney released a promotional brochure early in 1994 that describe the preliminary plans for Disney’s America. The full color brochure was widely distributed to politicians, the press, and other policymakers.
A marketing brochure stated that, “Every day, a diverse and unlikely society, made up of every culture and race on earth, is working together to build a great nation. We have a single vision – a new order based on the promise of democracy. Our resources for building this nation are a rich mixture of land, family, and beliefs – which we apply with our own brand of spirit, humor, and innovation. As the nation has grown and changed, we are constantly reminded of how impossibly far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go.” It promises that, “Disney’s America celebrates these qualities which have always been the source of our strength and the beacon of hope to people everywhere.”
The park would contain nine “Territories” instead of lands. Each Territory would represent a different aspect of the American experience and would be limited in theme to a particular period. Eisner’s direction was that each area was responsible to entertain, educate, and leave an emotional impression on the guest. Imagineering’s design philosophy focuses on story and the architecture and major attractions support that story.
The nine Territories would be arranged around a large body of water called Freedom Bay, which would work like the lagoon at Epcot’s World Showcase and provide beautiful vistas plus allow guests to find spots for the major nighttime closing show. By the time you circled the bay you would have experienced the entire American Adventure starting in 1600 and ending at 1945.
You enter the park at Crossroads USA. From there, a counter-clockwise journey would take you back to colonial American and President’s Square (1750–1800) before entering Native America (1600-1810). Cross a bridge and skirt the parade ground and you enter the Civil War Fort (1850-1870). Just behind the fort is the Family Farm (1930-1945) with the State Fair (1930-1945) nearby. Behind the Fair is Victory Field (1930-1945), which is powered by the city of Enterprise (1870-1930). We end our trip exploring the immigrant experience at We The People (1870-1930).
Crossroads USA was described in promotional materials as “A spirited portrait of mid-19th century commerce, Crossroads USA is the hub of Disney’s America, launching guests on an unforgettable journey through the vivid tapestry of American history.” The architectural language has been described a village set during the Civil War.
One of Michael Eisner’s pet ideas at the time was the integration of a hotel into a theme park. The WESTCOT project proposed for the parking lot at Disneyland in the early 1990s looked at this concept. At Disney’s America you would find “lodging amid the hustle and bustle of a themed 19th-century inn.” The hotel would be themed like a Civil War era lodge with “additional suites spread throughout town.” If this ideas seems unusual at first, remember that Colonial Williamsburg successfully offers 26 period accommodations scattered throughout the village.
Crossroads USA would contain the usual guest services, shops, and restaurants found in the other parks. A featured attraction would be the pair of 1840 steam locomotives that would connect visitors to the various Territories and to the front of the park.
President’s Square would be one territory that would seem immediately familiar to Disney theme park visitors.
The promotional materials said, “From the struggle of the colonists and the War of Independence to the formation of the United States and its government, President’s Square celebrates the birth of democracy and the patriots who fought to preserve it.”
Based on Colonial period architecture (1750 to 1800), this would have been the next generation of Liberty Square found at the Magic Kingdom. The most notable structure would be a reproduction of Independence Hall with an updated version of The Hall of Presidents show.
Adjacent to President’s Square is Native America. Representing the period from 1600 to 1810, marketing materials explained that the territory “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.”
During the park’s development phase, Disney was diving head first into production of the animated film Pocahontas and that film would influence the look for this territory. Native American cultures from the East Coast would be the basis of the design language for the architecture and landscaping. The area would include a Powhatan village featuring authentic works of art.
The main attraction in Native America would be the Lewis and Clark Raft Expedition. This attraction would feature “pounding rapids and churning whirlpools.” Early in the design process, the Imagineers were going to try to combine thrills with a lesson about Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was a concept that heavily influenced American policy in the 1800s and called for expansion to the west as a driving force with policies that lead to the Homestead Act, westward colonization, and territorial acquisition as the outcome.
This combination would turn out to be problematic. The Imagineers were concerned about burdening a serious thrill ride experience with a lesson in such a complex subject. Due to this concern, the Imagineers dropped the Manifest Destiny early on and the attraction became a more conventional raft ride through a highly themed environment. This issue would come up again in another territory.
You leave the Native America territory and make your way across a bridge and skirt a parade ground on the way to the Civil War Fort. The fort represents the important years between 1850 and 1870. The marketing materials state that this area is “Emblematic of our nation’s greatest crisis, the Civil War Fort allows guests to experience the reality of a soldier’s daily life.”
The Civil War Fort would feature a Circlevision 360 movie of scenes from a Civil War battlefield. To make the experience even more real, Civil War reenactors would do battle daily on the specially prepared field. You can even participate in the same way real Americans did at the time. While you sit in the grandstands, you can have a sandwich and watch the soldiers slaughter one another on a warm Virginia day just like they did a mere 3.5 miles away in Manassas (of course, the audience at that time didn’t have grandstands - they just stayed with their wagons).
The nighttime spectacular would be a restaging of the historic battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac in Freedom Bay.
Disney also proposed to tackle the difficult issue of slavery at the theme park. In an effort to make an emotional connection they planned to include “painful, disturbing and agonizing” exhibits, which would include a recreation of a piece of the underground railroad where visitors would “escape” to freedom. Rummell suggested that it would be “entertaining in the sense that it would leave you with something that you could mull over.” Imagineering Senior Vice President Bob Weis said they would show the Civil War “with all its racial conflict,” attractions would “make you a Civil War soldier…[and] make you feel what it was like to be a slave.” This would be done with virtual reality technology.
A short walk from the Civil War Fort is the Family Farm. Here you would be offered “a cornucopia of pastoral delights and insight into their production, Family Farm pay homage to the working farm – the heart of early American families” according to the marketing brochure.
The farm would be themed to the Depression era (1930 to 1945) without the poverty or dustbowl effect. It would be designed so that guests could “even participate in a nearby country wedding, a barn dance, and a buffet.” Other hands-on experiences would include an opportunity to make real ice cream and milk a cow!
After all of the excitement from working on the Family Farm, there could be no better treat then a visit to the State Fair. The State Fair is set in the same time frame as the Family Farm. The 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 roller coaster, as well as a tribute to the country’s favorite pastime, baseball.”
Baseball? “Amid a backdrop of rolling cornfields, fans may have a hot dog and take a seat in an authentic, old-fashioned ball park and watch America’s legendary greats gather for an exhibition all-star competition.” It was not made clear whether these players would be real or audio-animatronics. Behind the State Fair is Victory Field.
We are off to another war and Victory Field would have allowed guests to experience what the American soldier faces as they defend this nation. Victory Field and The Civil War Fort work together to tell this story and it shows how the park’s designers were aiming for a strong emotional punch. This territory would have become a tribute to our veterans and active military.
Among the hangers would be various examples of World War II aircraft. As the promotional materials said, “The flight of the Wright brothers opened a new chapter in American history, bringing with it thrilling exploits and military advancements.” They add, “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.” This virtual reality technology would give visitors a chance to fly in and parachute from a World-War II era plane.
The original site plan showed train tracks creating a perimeter berm just like the one at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. It is notable that Victory Field is outside that berm while the Hotel is inside. That visual statement reinforces the desire to have the hotel in the park.
Next-door to Victory Field is the town of Enterprise. The brochure says, “The factory town of Enterprise plays host to inventions and the innovations spawned by the ingenuity and can-do spirit that catapulted America to the forefront of industry.” The territory is themed to the height of the American industrial explosion between 1870 and 1930.
One of the earliest concepts for Disney’s America “E” ticket thrill attraction would have been the Industrial Revolution. This rollercoaster would have been a high-speed thrill ride running through a working turn-of-the-century steel mill. The ride would have highlighted American ingenuity and the climax would have been an escape from a glowing vat of molten steel.
However, the Industrial Revolution became a concern early on in the development process just like the Lewis and Clark Raft Expedition. By the time the attraction was presented to Eisner, he was having second thoughts. In Work In Progress, he said his team “began to understand, could trivialize and even demean the attempt to portray the steel mill realistically.” He added, “If we tried to mix theme park excitement directly with history, we weren’t going to do either one justice.” This concern was also part of the reason for the changes to the raft ride in the Native America.
Adjacent to Enterprise is We The People. This area was aimed right for your heart. Concentrating on the period between 1870 and 1930, you would witness the changes brought about during American wave of immigration. The immigrant story was one that Michael Eisner was very excited about.
Guests would enter a reproduction of Ellis Island. The major attraction would be a state-of-the-art multimedia presentation that tells the compelling story of the immigrant experience and the conflicts between different cultures. The promotional materials promised, “We The People recognizes the courage and triumph of our immigrant heritage – from the earliest native settlers to the latest political refugees.”
The original show concept started out very serious but Eisner wanted the show to be more accessible to children. His suggestion was to use the Muppets who could bring humor to such a complex subject. In addition to the Muppets, the building would contain an ethnic foods market and food court.
Eisner did feel that Disney could play a part in getting children to be interested in their own country’s history. He said, “The sad truth is that the level of knowledge about American history among young people is nothing short of appalling.” He saw how the Holocaust Memorial Museum could use technology to connect the viewer to the emotion of the experience in a deep and meaningful way. Eisner knew Disney had the tools to do the same thing.
There would be no iconic centerpiece such as the castles in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, Spaceship Earth at Epcot, or Mickey’s Sorcerer Hat at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The park’s layout is more like the World Showcase and organized around a large body of water.
But just like the storyline in many thrilling Disney E-Ticket attractions, something was about to go horribly wrong with Disney's America project. The adventure continues next week.
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. For the past couple of years he has been the publisher of Samland’s Disney Adventure, a blog dedicated to the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks. Sam is also 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.