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The Disney's America Story - Part Five - The Final Chapter

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by , 02-02-2011 at 07:59 PM
[Editor's Note] We have spent 4 weeks discovering the history behind the never built Disney's America theme park in Virginia. Michael Eisner was determined to keep his dream alive through a barrage of hurdles, but a brush with death and the struggles of another Disney park a world away would shatter his dream forever . . . or would it? If you are catching this popular series in the middle, please visit Part One, Part Two, Part Three & Part Four before you continue on to today's final chapter in this epic Disney story.




Part Five

Disney decided to fight back against their critics. First, they spent $444,348 on lobbying the Virginia State General Assembly. This was the largest expenditure of its kind in the history of that State. Then they held the premier of the animated film The Lion King at the nearby National Zoo.



Michael Brooks, a professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University added that, “Disney mounted mass mailing and phoning campaigns, and held a rally at the County’s baseball stadium featuring entertainment and free food; attendance was estimated at 6,000.”

In June 1994, the issue became so heated that the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks and Forests called a hearing. Eisner was called to testify and was not happy. His performance did not help things and he admits he “arrived with a chip on my shoulder – never a good idea.” Rep. Michael Andrews, a Texas Democrat, on June 16 introduced a House resolution asking Disney to find a new location.

Disney knew it couldn’t do this project entirely on it’s own and they were going to need to secure a $140 million bond to finance highway improvements and $20 million for a marketing campaign and training program for tourism development to make the project pencil out. There was a need to widen Interstate 66 and the construction of a highway interchange that would allow visitors to enter and exit the property without going on local streets. Even with the controversy, the project was moving along and it looked like this part of the plan was going to be approved.

Leaders in Prince William County really wanted the development and the tax revenues so a task force was appointed to look at all of the issues involved with such a huge project. The 30-member group represented a wide range of community interests. Their challenge was to assume that the project was happening and to help define mitigation measures that would improve the quality of life for the County. Even that assumption came under criticism.

Locally, the project was moving along at Disney’s pace. Nationally, its corporate image was getting slaughtered. Then Disney was rocked by the series of events in 1994 that would make any company pause. Those events included Disney president Franks Wells death in a helicopter accident, Jeffery Katzenberg’s ambitions and exit, CEO Michael Eisner’s heart bypass surgery, and Euro Disney’s continuing financial problems. Would the Company stay the course?



It was only three weeks after Eisner’s heart bypass surgery and he was already at work. One of his first meetings was to discuss the status of the Disney’s America project. The Company was taking a beating and getting a lot of bad press. One item on the agenda was a possible name change to “Disney’s American Celebration.” Eisner claimed, “Several members of our group felt that it was softer and less presumptuous.”

Eisner also took a look at some television commercials that were meant to build support from the local community. Eisner really liked a commercial that featured Abraham Lincoln. But others in the room objected and suggested that this commercial would be a perpetuation of the stereotype of the “Disneyfication” of American history.



Disney did try to make amends with the academic community. They held numerous meetings with leading thinkers to solicit their input. In Work in Progress, Michael Eisner recalls a discussion following a tour of the American Adventure at Epcot. The attraction premiered in 1982. The tour took place in 1994 and the historians were being critical that the attraction had not been updated since that time.



Eisner walked away thinking the group felt that, “Disney couldn’t be trusted to depict American history in ways that were sufficiently complex, subtle and inclusive.” But he was not deterred and continued with the planning. He says, “I was surprised by the intensity of their reaction, but not upset by it.”

There was some good news. The Prince William County board granted Disney the necessary approvals to proceed. This is a huge milestone in any land use project. However, that was easily outweighed by the bad news.

In a meeting with Disney’s Strategic Planning, Eisner learned that due to the weather the park would only be open 8 months a year. He also learned that it would likely operate at a substantial loss. Some of the factors included the additional legal costs and a two-year delay. All of these problems lead to a 40 percent increase in the cost of the project. Most importantly, as Michael Eisner reflects, “We had lost the perception game.”

On September 28, 1994, Eisner canceled the Disney’s America project. As Eisner describes it in a post-mortem, “There was no project during my first decade at Disney about which I felt more passionate than Disney’s America – and none that ran up against fiercer resistance. 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 marrying our self-interest with a broader public interest.” He has claimed in various interviews that this is his biggest disappointment while running the company.

When it came to the public relations battle, Eisner suggested one of the problems was the loss of Erwin Okun, chief of Corporate Communications who died from cancer in 1992 at the age of 58. Okun has a special ability to portray Disney as an honest, good company. As Eisner has said, Okun would “encourage and protect me.” He was able to “package” Eisner. Okun’s replacements tended to look at the press as a hostile enemy and treated them with suspicion. Michael Eisner was frustrated that opposing the project was becoming, “a fashionable cause celebre in the media centers of New York City and Washington D.C.”

Another problem was good information. Peter Rummell said, “There’s usually one guru, particularly in moderate-size counties, and he’s the guy who has built a practice over time, and has all the political connections, and just really knows everybody. We thought we found those guys here and talked to them and talked to them.” He adds, “Maybe we didn’t talk to them enough.”

Uri Avin, a well-placed observer who headed the task force that looked at the local issues in Prince William County, suggested that “Disney certainly should have initiated [a public consensus process] much, much earlier, and they didn’t. [Disney] could roll right in and the opposition would melt away because they were so powerful.”

The National Park Service released Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park. In the book, they came to the conclusion that the most significant factor driving the opposition was simply the location. The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) had a successful track record limiting development and felt that “the region’s traditional character, its peace and seclusion, would be lost to fast-food restaurants and endless traffic snarls” if the Disney project was implemented.

When the PEC began to see it was losing the local battle, they enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation and made the project a national issue. Once the historians represented by Protect Historic America joined them, the war was lost. Disney had no choice but to retreat and try to save face.

There is nothing more difficult to deal with than a frustrated historian. The Park Service’s book suggested that a recent controversy over the presentation of the Enola Gay made the historians especially sensitive. The Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.



On the 50th anniversary of that event, veteran’s groups complained that the presentation was overly apologetic to Japan. The solution was the removal of all text and context from the display and the plane now sits with a brief statement. The historians were troubled by the process and wondered who really owned history.

Finally, it may be the reported $900 million loss at Disneyland Paris that put Disney into financial trouble for the first time since Michael Eisner took over in 1984 that really doomed the project. As Peter Rummell said, “It was just not worth it. We’re a big company, we’ve got a lot of things going on, and at some point the abuse, combined with the time it was going to take, just weren’t worth it.” He added, “I’m convinced in the end we could’ve won but it just takes time, it takes management, it’s a distraction, and frankly in the end it wasn’t worth it. The potential rewards were just not worth either the time or the continued abuse.”

Even with Disney gone from the scene, development did happen in Prince William County only miles from the entrance to the Manassas battlefield. The Dominion Valley Country Club got built. The tax base has been enhanced but so have the costs and impacts from ordinary suburban sprawl and traffic.

Michael Eisner did say that, “I have no intention of giving up on a historical park permanently.”



On February 8, 2001, Disney’s California Adventure, which borrowed many of the concepts that were originally proposed for Disney’s America, opened in the parking lot across from Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California.



To learn more about what happened after Disney left Virginia, I would direct you to an excellent article by a firm that has done a number of studies of the region. The article is entitled "Chasing out the Mouse" and reviews what happened 10 years after the project died.

And that, my friends, is the true life fable of Disney's America park.

What are your thoughts? Should Disney have tried harder to find a location for this historical park? Was California Adventure the logical substitute for the concepts first dreamed for Disney's America? What would have been necessary to make this concept a success?


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.

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Comments

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  1. Homan's Avatar
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    Was Knotts ever part of the plan?
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Homan
    Was Knotts ever part of the plan?
    Briefly. Disney considered the idea of buying Knotts and perhaps giving it an enhanced America theme, but the concept really never had the chance to get off the ground. And altering an existing theme park wasn't really very close to the Virginia project, but rather a Disneyland Resort expansion concept. The Knotts Family killed the idea because they didn't want to sell to Disney, and Disney itself may not have moved forward due to concerns over how to tie Knotts to the Disneyland Resort. So it was really just a concept that was explored for a brief period.
  3. sjdimon's Avatar
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    The Knotts Family killed the idea because they didn't want to sell to Disney, and Disney itself may not have moved forward due to concerns over how to tie Knotts to the Disneyland Resort.
    Oh man! Just think what a company like Disney could have done with Knotts - certainly could not have been any worse (IMO) than what Cedar has done to them <sigh>.
  4. Mouse in the House's Avatar
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    This has been a great series to read. Although a lot of this information has always been available for us to seek out, I love how you've packaged and presented it - again, GREAT READ! With that said, I'd love it if you expanded into the next storyline and walk us through just how the America ideas morphed in the California Adventure theme/rides, and what compromises were made (for sill reasons, obviously). Again, a lot of that information is available to us, but I think you're storytelling would be a very good read.

    On another note, could I also be enlightened on Michael Eisner's legacy? I've seen him vilified on these boards for years and that pretty much is how I've come to see him. Seems to me he was firing on all cylinders and really built the foundation for the modern Disney, but Frank Wells' death was like Michael Jordan losing Scottie Pippen...is that too simplistic a view? Should I plan on reading his book?
  5. Mousecat's Avatar
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    As always, I love the comments. I think Eisner sincerely wanted to find a way to build a theme park that would honor Walt's legacy but would be his own product. It is my feeling that the visit to the Holocaust Museum really hit him emotionally and he wanted to do something of that quality. You can tell from this project, the Disney Institute, and the need to show factories at DCA that he thought that education and entertainment could mix. But I would agree with others that the loss of Frank Wells did have a significant impact. Wells total lack of ego combined with supreme confidence was a stabilizing force for Eisner's creativity.

    Let me think about the Disney's America to DCA article. As a historian, I like to base my articles on facts not speculation. I will be posting some stuff about the genesis of DCA on the Samland site next week in honor of its 10th anniversary.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  6. Wanda Woman's Avatar
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    Eisner learned that due to the weather the park would only be open 8 months a year
    Whaaa?? No one at Disney checked out the typical weather patterns in the area before selecting the site? That's like building a theme park in Seattle and then saying, "Holy cats! Who knew it would rain so often?".

    Excellent series, SamLand. I look forward to your next story, whatever the subject may be.
  7. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I understand the weather limitations were explored when Buzz Price took a look at the area for Walt back in the mid 1960s. The new crew didn't focus that hard on the issue.

    Next up are some one week articles, not a long series. I have something extra special for you in March as well.

    Thanks for reading and tell a friend.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
    Updated 02-03-2011 at 09:56 AM by Dustysage
  8. Pinoke's Avatar
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    I can understand why Michael Eisner was so passionate about this theme park. Much more than Walt Disney, Michael Eisner is an educated scholar from a well-to-do family in Manhattan and this was going to be a scholarly theme park unlike any that Disney had ever done. Rather than celebrate America's spirit, Eisner wanted encounter America's history and wave our flags with pride or shake our fists with anger. Very much like the Williamsburg it was trying to emulate, Disney's America was to be more history-based than it was entertainment-based and that may have been exactly where the trouble began. It doesn't work when there is a CEO wanting to build a history-based theme park when the world is expecting lighthearted, escapist entertainment instead.

    I also think Eisner was very passionate about this project because it was going to be HIS theme park instead of an extension of the park designed by Uncle Walt. From day one, Eisner and his crew were only expanding the offerings at Walt Disney World which existed long before he took over the corner office. The Disney Parks and their place in the world's culture had already been well established and "place to go to consider the ugly parts of American history" was not part of that culture. For that reason, I believe, Michael Eisner wanted to start something totally new — and totally of his creation — apart from the other Disney parks so as to detach itself from the entertainment themes of existing theme parks.

    There was only one problem of course. The company is not The Michael Eisner Company, it's The Walt Disney Company and when the name Disney is associated with ANYTHING it must follow the themes that are the bedrock of the company: fantasy, hope and magic. There was no way Michael Eisner was going to get his history-based park. It could not have the word "Disney" and still be what he wanted it to be. The public sensed this right away and I'm surprised Eisner had to be shown this in such a public forum.

    It certainly does make one wonder how successful or unsuccessful Walt Disney would have been in getting this park built.

    Sam, thanks for a great series. Brings back a lot of memories.
  9. JiminyCricketFan's Avatar
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    I say again that Walt's original mission for Disneyland was to teach about what made America great. In a sense, Disneyland IS Walt Disney's America. One thing that came very clear in this episode was the money and profit angle that seemed to drive the decision to close the project. If this was a dream, then dreams don't die because of money issues. One finds a way. Just as Walt's dream for a full length animated cartoon was called a folly. He found a way to finance it .

    Thanks so much for the stories. I DO think that the concept of a park devoted to American history is a good one. But it has to have fun and magic too to make it appealing to kids. After all, it is families that really drive theme park attendance.
  10. DisWedWay's Avatar
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    When I went to Disneyland as a kid I found the SS Columbia so interesting whith all the ships living quarters, nautical tools layed out and labeled, and cooking kitchen. I later found out Walt really had a hand in this with Emil Currie. Loved your coverage on this park. Frank Wells was the real OZ behind the curtain afterall.
  11. Disneykin Kid's Avatar
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    After touring the American Adventure in Epcot, the historians complained that the show hadn't been updated - if that's the only criticism the historians could come up with, I don't think they had a valid reason for opposing Disney, just my reaction to reading that part.

    Some of the ideas for Disney's America ended up in DCA, like the working factories of the Tortilla Factory and the Bread Bakery. That's fine if they are only a very small part of the attraction lineup, but the original DCA had so few quality attractions, and counting the tortilla and bread factories as attractions contributed to making DCA look so cheap, like they were trying to put one over us.

    Euro Disney's big losses contributed to D's America's demise, but that was Eisners fault too, wasn't it? Not for the quality of the theme park, but for over building the hotels. The French did not want Euro Disney, Eisner kind of thumbed his nose at them too, by building it anyway.

    I always thought that they put so much money in Euro Disney, where the people did not appreciate it, and they failed to put the money in DCA, where people WOULD appreciate it. It sounds like Eisner got gun shy after Euro's losses and was afraid to go whole hog in DCA. But I think like the cheapness of DCA was the last straw in the camel's back that turned the fans against Eisner.

    Disney should remember that the theme parks are probably the most important interface the company has with the fans. A great time at the theme parks makes for loyal, even fanatical, fans. The changes at DCA are certainly the right direction, I just hope they keep going in the right direction. Now if only they could come up with something to equal Spiderman and Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure...it's discouraging to hear people say that the two best attractions in Orlando are at Universal.
    Updated 02-03-2011 at 02:22 PM by Disneykin Kid
  12. Doopey1's Avatar
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    The article you linked to about what happened after is very interesting. As a resident of the area, I have to say I'd far prefer to have Disney's America and the semi-planned growth that would have come with it over the hodge podge of sprawl we have now. Either way, the argument about preserving the land can be thrown out the window.
  13. wonderpeep's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mouse in the House
    ...could I also be enlightened on Michael Eisner's legacy? I've seen him vilified on these boards for years and that pretty much is how I've come to see him. Seems to me he was firing on all cylinders and really built the foundation for the modern Disney, but Frank Wells' death was like Michael Jordan losing Scottie Pippen...is that too simplistic a view? Should I plan on reading his book?
    I HIGHLY recommend the DVD "WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY" ...Great film, and great insight into an important period in Disney animation (which Eisner was a key part of).

    I agree that Eisner gets raked over the coals on this and other sites. While he did have his faults, he is also one of the key figures responsible for Disney as we know it today. Under Eisner, the company and parks did flourish. It may have been a bumpy ride at times, but so in Indiana Jones (which, by the way, would never have been at Disneyland if not for Eisner.)
  14. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I am really enjoying the discussion and reaction to the article. I really struggle with whether this park would have worked and lean toward the "no, not really" side. But there was an opportunity to do something very different and I am glad that Eisner got his creative people working through the problems. They did have the right creative team.

    So what do you think? Would the park have been a success? Or would it have been value engineered into oblivion like DCA?

    Thanks for reading.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  15. Firehouse Five's Avatar
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    This is a great series of Articles, thank you. I think that this park would have been a great way to introduce kids to American history and get them interested in learning more about it so they would have wanted to visit other historical sites instead of being dragged to them.
    A lot of the kids that I've encountered just aren't that interested in history. Their attitude is "what does this have to do with me" and I think that this park could have had the potential to help with that.
  16. Mousecat's Avatar
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    davidgra - quibble understood and accepted.

    Sam
    www.samlandblogspot.com
  17. PoopedPirate's Avatar
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    Excellent series.

    So...what happened to the land intended for the resort? What does it look like now? It'd be hilarious if what was going to be Disney's America is now a WalMart or something like that.....

    I really wish this park would have been built. Even though Mr. Eisner was a "unique" personality, he was right about the idea and concept. It's a park that Disney could do and nobody else could. And it would be a highlight/compliment to anybody's American history vacation. Disney has always had a patriotic streak in it's culture and brand, especially in the theme parks. Even today, every time I walk onto Main Street, USA, I think to myself, "God bless America."

    But Eisner wasn't exactly truthful when he said he wasn't giving up on the concept and it would eventually be built. DCA could have been a "Disney's America." There's plenty of land in Orlando for a "Disney's America" and you'd think if the company had done the homework right, they'd know that people would visit it, even if it were a few hundred miles further south.
  18. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I think one of the key elements of having the park in that location was to take advantage of the critical mass of visitors predisposed to spending time with our heritage. Plus, the park would be smaller than most of the others, no doubt influenced by the Studios park. I believe Disney saw this as the start and end of the day for many guests as they visited other historic sites. The goal for the park was to provide a broad context for the other visits.

    Others have commented on how the area has developed since the project failed.

    Thanks for reading.


    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  19. PoopedPirate's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mousecat
    I think one of the key elements of having the park in that location was to take advantage of the critical mass of visitors predisposed to spending time with our heritage.
    Sam - you're right. But it's probably not worth having it closed four months of the year. I will tell you that if the park existed, I would have visited it by now, even though I live on the other side of the continent. Of course, just by the fact that I'm reading this series, I'm probably outside the "target demographic."

    Which brings us to the property Disney purchased at National Harbor, most likely for a DVC resort along the lines of Aulani. Although the project is on indefinite hold, it once again points to the need for Disney to tap into that target audience - those on vacation centered around our heritage. I guess we can hope that resort gets built, and that it has rich American heritage storytelling in it (although the whole project does look like a giant mall). But I do believe that a theme park centered on American Heritage (not just "history") is a great idea and Disney could do it better than anyone.
  20. Mousecat's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by wonderpeep
    I HIGHLY recommend the DVD "WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY" ...Great film, and great insight into an important period in Disney animation (which Eisner was a key part of).

    I agree that Eisner gets raked over the coals on this and other sites. While he did have his faults, he is also one of the key figures responsible for Disney as we know it today. Under Eisner, the company and parks did flourish. It may have been a bumpy ride at times, but so in Indiana Jones (which, by the way, would never have been at Disneyland if not for Eisner.)
    I just watched WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY and I fully understand why you made your recommendation. As important as the theme parks are to us, they are but a small part of a huge corporation. Thanks.

    Sam
    SamLand's Disney Adventures
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